By Dika Ojiakor
We live in unprecedented times. Most people rarely think about it, but with the advent of the third millennium, Homo sapiens has created an impressive new world for itself. We are at a unique juncture in the history of our species where, for the first time in history, more people die from old age than from infectious diseases. Not only has science helped us in conquering the planet, it has allowed us to do so for thousands of years. We’ve built skyscrapers and eradicated smallpox, split the atom and put people on the moon—and yet, it seems we’ve moved beyond the glory of our conquests, and have now begun training our sights on much higher objectives.
Understandably, there is still a bit of uncertainty about what the future of science holds in store for humanity. While many are confident that overcoming cancer and old age can only be accomplished by taking bold steps in science, others take the negative view that our leap into the unknown can only lead to disaster.
Yet, despite concerns from those in the latter category, scientific research doesn’t seem to be approaching any sort of diminuendo. In fact, it seems to be doing quite the opposite. Take for instance Calico, a new Google offshoot, whose modest goal as stated on their website is to ‘solve death’ by slowing the aging process. On the surface, this might seem like an outlandish or even naïve ambition, but given recent advancements in cyborg engineering and the development of new genome manipulation techniques, attaining human immortality seems increasingly doable.
In truth, it’s impossible to know exactly what the future of science will look like. Researchers have a tendency to exaggerate their results, causing unnecessary excitement over what may be scientific dead-ends. However, based on a few projects conducted by researchers both here at Western and around the globe, one can say with some certainty that science can transform our world. And it is this possibility that makes it mind-bogglingly exciting.
One promising area of ongoing scientific research is in the editing of the human genome. Present day gene-editing tools such as CRISPR (pronounced crisper) are seen by a number of scientists as a viable means of treating a wide range of diseases. One study, conducted by a team of Western researchers, shows that by adding an engineered enzyme, CRISPR can be made more efficient at targeting specific genes. This new finding may provide a way for scientists to destroy essential proteins that are only present in cancer cells, causing them to die or lose their cancerous properties.
On the flipside, however, many scientists are concerned that tools like CRISPR may leave the door open to catastrophe. The prospect of rewriting faulty genes raises concerns of a dystopian future where individuals with the fittest traits are made into an elite population. Others worry that scientists may be “playing God” by interfering with the natural course of human evolution. Often, however, these arguments pale in comparison to the many medical benefits that genetic manipulation might bring.
Another area of ongoing research is in space exploration. If you’ve been keeping up with the news, or have witnessed the current trend in Hollywood science fiction movies, you should already be aware that the world is obsessed with Mars. Since NASA’s first close-up picture of Mars in 1965, scientists and engineers have developed better strategies for exploring the red planet. However, our most crucial step in understanding what may be the only other habitable planet in our solar system is yet to come. No human being has stepped foot on Mars, but many believe this is about to change. Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, declared in 2016 that his goal was to make humans a multi-planetary species by 2035.
However, some scientists have expressed concern about Musk’s plan to colonize the red planet. Many believe that although going to Mars may be a realistic goal, the timescale recommended by SpaceX may not be practical. Others hold the opinion that whatever resources we have should be geared towards combating things like climate change, and not towards colonizing a potentially uninhabitable planet. Despite such concerns, it is unquestionable that innovations in aerospace engineering and space exploration could make humans an interplanetary species well within many of our lifetimes.
Science is about looking our ignorance in the face, accepting that it exists, and looking for ways to get rid of it. It is about acknowledging the things that we don’t know, and searching unapologetically for solutions. Be it in the curing of diseases, or in the exploration of nearby stars and planets, we musn’t shy away from leaping into the unknown, even if only to satisfy our childish curiosities. Audacious projects such as SpaceX’s mission to Mars and the use of gene editing to treat diseases should be embraced as the probing, rebellious adventures that they are. Their mission is to explore the limits of our understanding, and as with all young ideas, it is important to give them room to develop.
SOURCE: The New York Times.