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Liv Sala

Greg Maryniak and the “magic number”

By ecology, sdg 7

Gregg Maryniak, Singularity University’s energy expert, tells us about the “magic number”,  which the United Nations index uses to put the health of the people in relation to the quantity of energy produced by society. The challenge of the future is to provide that amount of energy without destroying the planet. Maryniak depicts possible scenarios of energy storage and how competitions are driving the search for effective solutions to ensure a brighter future.

Cristina: Gregg, how are we going to solve the energy issue globally, do you think?

Gregg Maryniak: Well, the biggest issue with energy is getting enough of it so that people can live well, and there’s a magic number, a magic amount of electricity that, when people have that much electricity, they are prosperous as a society. The challenge is getting that much energy without destroying the earth’s biosphere. For the whole world, the average is about 93% of our usable civilization energy comes from burning stuff. China doubled its electric power capacity between 2005 and 2010. No matter what happens in Europe and the United States, if India and China continue on the path that they’re in— we’re not talking about leveling off; we’re talking about how long will it be until they double the world’s carbon output, and it’s on the order of a dozen years. So I think the most interesting thing in the energy space today is the issue of energy storage. How can we store energy so that when it’s raining energy from the sky, we collect it and save it so we have it at night, so we have it when the wind isn’t blowing. Most people, when they think of energy storage, they think about batteries, but batteries are very expensive. The tiny battery that you have in your toys at home or your little flashlight costs almost a thousand times more for the electricity from that than what you get from the main current in your wall. We need something in between, and there are some interesting possible technologies. Some involve chemistry—electrochemistry, so they look kind of like batteries to most people, but they’re radically different from the batteries that we carry in our devices. We’ve become pretty good at storing heat energy, so we’re starting to see, in places that have a lot of sunshine— like Italy, like Spain— solar plants that collect the thermal energy from the sun—the heat energy. There are new techniques for compressing air when energy is cheap, say in the middle of the night, and then using that compressed air to expand out through turbines during the day. Most people, when they think about energy, they think about how do you— how do you generate the energy, or more properly, convert it, but the hidden part—weak point in the system is the storage. Technology prizes are extremely powerful ways to drive big changes. If smart teams from around the world can demonstrate their technologies to do that, people will be watching, and they will adopt it. And those people would include the current industry and governments that have to make policies. So it’s very possible that it will lead to change, but the thing with these prizes is, you don’t know until you try. So we’ll try.

Peace is the way – Interview with Deepak Chopra

By features

Deepak Chopra is injecting peace into the world through his 21 day guided meditations. How effective are they? A new cycle has just started in Italy, where I live.

I went to the source and asked Mr. Chopra, the mastermind of many tools that are spreading consciousness, to explain how neuroscience is proving the health benefits of meditation.

As you delve deeper into how our brain and body work, how do you measure the value/positive effects of meditation?

We evaluate the benefits in the mind and the body in terms of the growth of our wellbeing. For example, we can now see the metabolic markers and hormones associated with the decrease in inflammation in the body through meditation. We can also measure the increase of the enzyme telomerase which preserves the length of telomeres sustaining healthy cell life throughout our bodies.

What are the golden rules to harness the benefits of meditation?

The basis to gaining the full benefits of meditation is to not force or push the mind, by concentrating on thoughts or resisting thoughts. Meditation is an opportunity for the mind to be present and aware of its own nature. For a successful meditation experience we only need to follow the practice with complete ease.

How did your critical mass grow over the years with the meditations you offer?

The participation in the 21 day meditation experience has grown quickly in the last few years. To date, over 4 million people around the globe have participated in the meditations, learning about it online, through social media, or word of mouth.

Which are the areas of the world that respond the most? That you have most participation from?

Presently the areas of the world most responsive to the 21 day meditation challenge are North America, but there is growing participation in all the English-speaking populations of the world, Western Europe, India, Australia, and New Zealand.

Interview with Severn Suzuki

By ecology, features, sdg 13, sdg 15

If you were to address the world leaders today, your speech in 1992 would seem like it was written yesterday. How does that make you feel?

It is quite shocking to see that speech and realize that the issues we face today are not new. Indeed, there is only the line about our human family ‘five billion people strong’ that dates it. I constantly wonder why we haven’t been able to turn the tide. At the time I was twelve years old, and I believed that if we could just get the political leaders to listen, they would use their power to change the course of our world!  Of course I was idealistic.  I believed that if they were reminded of their own children, they would make better decisions.

How do you keep a positive attitude?

If you open your mind and heart to the problems that our global ecosystems face, as well as our fellow humans on the other side of the globe, it is easy to get depressed.  I have realized that it is extremely important not to let this happen. Equally as important as fighting against injustice and the damage we are doing to future generations, is living the vision – trying to support, uphold, promote and celebrate the society that we aspire to.  If we believe in a beautiful world, we must try and live that world in any ways that we can. Finding the joy is the true challenge.  And that quest is inspiring and invigorating.  It means taking time to grow, prepare and enjoy good food, it means building community in a multitude of ways.  What is good for one’s quality of life is good for the environment. I am inspired by the strength of others.  At my desk, I have a quote from the Dalai Lama, Never Give Up.  I am reminded of the great challenges and injustices and violence the Tibetan people have faced, and have to appreciate all that I have, and all I can do.  We are as powerful as we believe we are.

Where do you see tangible change happening?

Tangible change happens at the local level.  This is where we can act and see results.  The global is made up of the local. We need our governments (municipal to federal) to support the change that we can see in the backyards of our local communities.  They can do this by setting standards for energy, facilitating better transit, and giving incentives for positive environmental actions.  It is not fair that it is so difficult to do the right thing; at the moment our society is set up so that the easiest, cheapest means of executing our lives are also terribly destructive to the earth and to other peoples.

Of the many projects you’ve been and are involved in, which is the one that is helping you reach your goals most efficiently?

Excellent question.  All of the projects and campaigns have taught me so much.  I have met incredible, inspiring people, and am always learning.  It has been a privilege to work with the Sloth Club in Japan.  They are a beautiful group of visionaries who’s mission is to “slow down Japan.”  They believe deeply in the values of the Slow Food movement that started in Italy, but they bring the elements of ‘slow’ to the rest of our lives. They believe that we are moving too fast, and in doing so we are destroying the Earth, and ourselves.   When I have gone to Japan the speaking tours they have arranged for me have been incredible; they are amazing mobilizers and so efficient at getting out the message. Currently I am working with a group of peers across Canada on the ‘We Canada’ campaign to get our country’s leaders to show some real leadership at the Rio 2012 Earth Summit next year.  They are full of inspiration and energy, and are impressing me so much with their networking know how and social media savvy.  We have incredible tools for communicating and networking at our disposal, we just have to realize the power we have.

Clearly change is bottom up – and the social unrest in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, are a proof of how the world is desperately seeking change. The great challenge, for those countries, for all of us, is to seek out and elect leaders capable of setting a new course. There is a lot of hope, but do you think there are people who will be able to take the helm and steer humanity in the right direction?

Youth are over 50% of the globe’s population.  Think about that.  There is huge potential for revolution in that fact alone. But youth aren’t getting political in our country – while youth elected Barack Obama in the US, they aren’t getting out to vote since then, or in Canada.  We have to get youth to realize their power at the voting booths. In the 19 years since the Earth summit in 1992, I have been an activist, television host, writer, and gotten an education.  But the most powerful thing that I have done remains the speech I gave when I was 12.  Why?  I think it has to do with what the world did and still desperately needs: we need youth to speak truth to power.  Youth, those with everything to loose, have a powerful message of conscience to deliver to those living as if the future doesn’t matter.  We need them to stand up and challenge our leaders on intergenerational injustice. Climate Change is a huge sentence for today’s youth that was created by past and current generations.  In our history, humans acted with the future in mind, so that our species would survive.  We have thrown that essential survival technique away, at the cost of our children.

You’re a speaker, a writer, you’re on the web on on the radio, on tv – according to your experience, which is the most effective media to promote change?

It’s very hard to gauge when you’re having an effect on society’s consciousness.  It is a strange, amorphous work, to try and ‘change the way that people think and act’.  I think of the media as tools to speak to people, and there is so much media out there today.  But I think what is really life-changing is for people to go and have an experience.  If people get out there and witness a problem, or go visit a beautiful natural space that is under threat, then they are more likely to be moved to act.  We all have to get outside more.  If we know nature, we will fight for it.

An ecologically-sound lifestyle is simple; the solutions, which translate into a sequel of low-impact choices, are foreign to so many people, and that puts us advocates in the position of having to repeat the obvious, deliver a sexy message, find ways to get people out of their patterns. How do you face this challenge? Who are your role models?

On magazine covers and books we hear of ‘easy ways to be green.’  But the transition towards ecologically sound lifestyle is not yet made easy for individuals, even when it makes sense for health, for community, and for quality of life.  To get our society to start promoting and fostering ecological living is not simple, or easy.  That is a major challenge for communicators – to get our society to start facilitating transitions for people.  That means we need our governments to set environmental standards (like for pollution, or energy or water use) and give incentives to people to do the right thing.  Thomas Friedman is a role model.  His recent book ‘Hot, Flat and Crowded’ is amazing for challenging and inspiring information on our current challenge.

There is a touching message on your facebook fan page by an Italian 12 year old who says that she thought the environmental issues she hears about today were recent, then she saw your video….now you’re a mother too. So am I – all things considered, do you have faith that our offspring will inherit a planet worth living in?

I am a mother of a 1 year old child.  I have to believe my son will inherit a world worth living in.  I learned from my mother – we can get angry, we can get sad, but we can never give up hope.  The world is a beautiful place, and it is because of that beauty that we must fight against its destruction.  I think we must draw upon our emotional power, as children, as mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, as grandmothers and grandfathers, and realize our connection to the global challenges we face.  And then, we must stand up for justice.

Do you interpret Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Indonesia, the tsunami that hit Japan, along with other “natural disasters” as a wake up call from nature?

When Hurricane Katrina hit the US, I thought, “Ah, now the west must wake up to Climate Change.”  One would think that even the slim possibility that we might have contributed to such a calamity would have given pause to any American.  However, the ‘wake up call’ did not deeply change their Climate policy.  It makes me wonder what it takes to ‘wake up’ society.  Many people speak of ‘climate justice’, or ‘environmental racism’, alluding to the fact that it is the poor of our society who bear the worst of the social impacts of environmental degradation. Is our society that blatantly injust?  Thinking about this gives me the chills and threatens my faith that people innately seek justice for all. The wreckage the tsunamis caused serve as reminders to us all of the raw power of the natural world; deserving respect.

As a biologist, and ethno-biologist, which is the most concerning data that you have to support the urgent need for global action?

Being on the land and ocean with native elders, it was sobering to learn that their childhood food sources were contaminated today.  In several areas we have visited the food specimens were not fit to eat, due to contamination.  That was something I didn’t expect in my research, and makes me very sad.  I think that there is so much important information in traditional knowledge.  In most cases ecosystems didn’t have baseline data taken before development, and so scientists don’t even know what ecosystems were like in their natural state.  Elders’ memories offer insight to a natural baseline.

How do you and your family feel about nuclear energy?

I have always thought of nuclear energy as a deal with the devil.

How do you calculate your ecological footprint?

There are several websites where you can do this online; an important exercise when trying to figure out what you can do in your life to live more ecologically!

Where do you live?

I live on the archipelago of Haida Gwaii – ‘Islands of the People’.  It’s off the north west coast of Canada.

You’re about to come to Europe – what for?

I’m going to visit my sister!  She is studying in England.  And we are taking the opportunity to introduce my son to my English relatives.

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on language revitalization of the Haida language.  Only a handful of elders speak it now.  It is the language of my husband, and now, my son, and we want to see it survive.  This is what I am focusing on with elders in my home of Haida Gwaii. I am also working on a campaign to promote awareness and real action by our Canadian government at Rio 2012 .  The Canadian government is currently leaving a terribly environmental legacy – I am ashamed.  It is called “We Canada”  – I am a spokesperson for the Canadian network ‘Girls in Action’ to promote positive opportunities and self esteem for young women; and am a Director of the board of the David Suzuki Foundation. And, my most important work: I am raising a strong, healthy little boy!

The X Prize

By sdg 9, technology

Are you curious to understand why big competitions can accelerate change, harnessing intelligence, creativity and resourcefulness?

If you have a good idea to teach illiterate children to read and write in 18 months, join the competition. Peter Diamandis, co-founder of X Prize and of Singularity University, talks about a winning strategy to face humanity’s grand challenges and takes us to a time when nothing will be impossible.

CRISTINA: Peter Diamandis is a celebrity in relation of the future, the future that is already present. Everything that he makes tends to connect these two concepts, expecially through the X prize, an organization that assigns big prizes to anyone who can solve the big challenges of mankind. He is also cofounder of the Singularity University… and he is here with us.

C: What of the grand challenges do you think will be solved by the Xprize?

DIAMANDIS: Every year I get together and talk about what are the world’s biggest problems. What are the problems that have not been solved that should be solved? and we try to attack those. You know, should we create a thousand dollar home to get rid of homelessness. Should we create a… We just launched a global learning Xprize to be able to create a piece of software that can operate on any cellphone and take a child who is illiterate to basic reading, writing, and numeracy 18 months. Now I believe we’re living in an extraordinary time were there is no problem we cannot solve. Energy is a critical one, clearly. We’re working on a battery Xprize to increase the amount of energy you can store in batteries by threefold. That would transform automobiles, aviation. So, energy then gives us clean drinking water, which gives us health, so that’s one of them.

C: What do you tell your children the future will look like?

D: We’re gonna live into a world where people are connected in a way we can’t even understand now. Intimately connected through technology. A world where people are living longer and healthier lives. So I’m excited about creating this world I call it a world of abundance. That was my last book.

C: We make food for 12 billion people, though we’re just over half. Many things abound already but they just don’t get to the right places.

D: Sure, so one of the questions is, can you produce food where it’s used. So today, when I go and have a meal here is San Francisco, my wine may come from Italy, my salmon from Chile. My average meal is traveling almost 2,000 miles to get to my dinner plate. Can you instead use technology to literally farm everything you need in downtown, in a skyscraper, in which the environment. It’s things are growing 24/7, and the PH of the water, the nutrients of the water, everything is controlled perfectly where the food is not moving thousands of miles, it’s moving a few miles. So that’s one thing. The other is the use of genetics to grow new types of food that are more nutritious. There’s a company here out of Singular University called Modern Meadow that looks at growing meats and leathers using stem cells versus taking a whole cow and killing it into pieces. Now you just grow the meat in the lab and making that meat even taste better and be more nutritious. People say that’s crazy. But, you know, what we think of as crazy today, will be accepted by all in the future.

C: You often talk about the importance of mindset. Do you think there will be a technology that can zap Peter Diamandis’s mindset and help all the fearful, doubtful people overcome their obstacles?

D: I think mindset is going to come from more and more examples of people making their dreams come true and feeling enabled for knowing the capability. And so I think in this hyper-connected world, you know, my goal is most of the news media is feeding us negative news constantly. Every murder around the planet, and it just gives us this negative mindset. And my view is there is other mechanisms to learn what’s going on in the world and the tremendous progress we’re making. And I want kids to not only be excited about movie stars and sports stars but the innovators who are creating huge wealth, huge capability for humanity.

Nano-robotics and the eternal life of organs

By sdg 3, sdg 9, technology

Doctor Ralph Merkle introduces us to a family of medical nano-bots capable of operating inside our bodies and repairing damages at the cellular level. A matter of decades, he says, and he plans to be around for it. During our conversation we noticed he was wearing a bracelet. And we asked him about it…..Sit down before you watch this.


MERKLE: What we are talking about is a medical technology that can intervene at the level where the damage has occured and repair that damage. One of the examples of a medical nanorobot would be a respirocite. This would simply be a device, it would be maybe a micron in size, that’s very very small, and it would be injected along with billions and billions of others into your circulatory system and it would carry oxygen. Like your ordinary red blood cells it’s an artificial red blood cell. And an artificial white blood cell would be in the circulatory system and when it identified a pathogen, a bacteria that shouldn’t be there, it could sweep it in and crunch it up, digest it and spit out the remains, and the remains would be in this case, harmless small molecules that would not irritate the body. It could do this very much faster than ordinary white blood cells, So it could deal with infections more rapidly, and more effectively. There are things like cancer, where the question is how do you identify cancer cells? One of the things that the medical nanorobots provide is an on-board computer, then you can use very complex decision-making to say that’s a cancer cell. We’re some decades, how many decades depends on how much focused effort we put into developing the core technology required to manufacture respirocites. What we would need to build would be a nano factory, in other words, we need to build the manufacturing facilities to build respirocites.

CRISTINA: Now what about what we consider the end of life is it truly the end of life?

M: Years ago, people said, ‘you’ve stopped breathing, you must be dead’. Then we said, ‘oh, your heart stopped, you must be dead’. ‘Oh, your brainwave stopped, you must be dead’. This is all, not really quite accurate. When we start looking at medical nanorobots, when we look at this new technology we start to say, you know, we could really repair tissue even when that tissue is not functioning. As a consequence, our definition of what is living and what is non-living changes over time. We could even revive people who have been cryopreserved using today’s technology. There are at least two organizations in the U.S., I happen to be a member of one, which is Alcor. If in fact I should suffer a heart attack or if I should be found in unhealthy condition why, Alcor would be promptly notified and I would be cryopreserved. Then I would awaken in a future where there would be very advanced technology and hopefully there would be an opportunity to find out what has happened to all of this science and all of this technology which I hope is going to be developed.

The Tech Award, a revolution of simple ideas

By technology

Tech Award proves how simple ideas can have a strong impact. San José, California is considered the most technological city in the world, and the Tech Museum has an important role in accelerating innovation. In 2001 the museum created the Tech Award, getting brilliant minds to compete, supporting the selected ones by funding them and assisting the execution and implementation of their projects.

CRISTINA: How long has the Tech Award been around and how is it structured?

TRAN: The Tech Awards is a signature program of the Tech Museum of Innovation since its inception in 2001. We have honored 267 laureates. The five categories of the Tech Awards are environment, the Intel Environment Award, the Microsoft Education Award, the Katherine M. Swanson Young Innovator Award, the Nokia Health Award, and finally the Flextronics Economic Development Award. As part of the Tech Awards, every year we also honor the global humanitarian. This person is someone of an international stature. This year we are honoring Ted Turner, well known for his one billion dollar donation to the United Nations for the founding of the United Nations Foundation, as well as also for his work in environmentalism and philanthropy, and then of course his founding of CNN.

C: What does the award actually consist in?

T: The Tech Award Laureates are given cash prizes. Each category has two laureates. One recipient will receive $75,000, the other $25,000. And we do keep in touch with them to kind of see their progress over the years, the impact that they’ve had, and how they’ve made strides in the problem that they initially set out to change. This is an example of one of the Tech Awards Laureates. This is FogQuest and their innovation actually harvests fresh water from fog, and so a very important innovation because over a billion people all over the world don’t have access to clean water.

C: And is it in use now?

T: Since FogQuest has been honored certainly like all of our laureates they’ve been able to expand their impacts to different areas of the world. One of our Microsoft Educational Award Laureates is Khan Academy a 2009 laureate. Over billions of children, as you see 70 million children do not go to school worldwide and Khan Academy has enabled access to free online educational materials. A Nokia Health Laureate is our 2012 Embrace. And of course their solution impacts—50 million babies are born pre-term each year— and their innovation allows for infant warmers designed to address the needs of newborns suffering from hypothermia. So certainly life-saving from a very early age. One of our Economic Development Laureates is Kiva, and as you can see, 2.5 billion people don’t have access to bank accounts. Kiva allows micro lending, micro financing anywhere in the world, so you or I can make a small donation and potentially help millions of people or different businesses small or large. Here we have another example of laureate innovation, The Super Money Maker Pump and what it allows is in many parts of the world people have to carry water long distances. This makes it so that essentially by having a stair-stepping motion, you can connect it to something as simple as hose and create an irrigation system, which actually works for gymnastic too!

The Long Now Foundation

By technology

ALEXANDER: This space is called the interval, and it’s our cafe and bar and event space and a museum and a library, so it’s many things. Our menu is a time-based menu, so it’s kind of the idea of showing alcohol through civilization’s history. And it turns out the history of alcohol is about as old as civilization. It’s arguable as to where – which one started which. We try and trace that history with a beer recipe that is 3000 years old. One of the beers that weserve is called Midas Touch, and it was – the recipe was created by a bio – molecular archaeologist who scrapped the – the urns inside of King Midas’ tomb when it was excavatedand figured out what was in those urns and gave that to a brewery, and they generated a beer based on that recipe list. So the books behind me are a collection of books called the Manualfor Civilization. They’re the 3000 books that you would most want to sustain or restartcivilization.

CRISTINA: Alexander, what is the seed of this project?

A: Well, the Long Now Foundation started back in 1996 as a reaction to a speeding up of the world, so the hope is to get people to think longer term. The first project that we started was a 10,000-year all-mechanical clockbuilt at a monument scale, and some these objects here are prototypes along the waytowards building that clock. But the idea is that was an icon to long-term thinking. Most of theways it tells time is with natural cycles, so everything from the sun, the moon phase, the nightversus daytime, and the human eye visible planets like this device, and several otherways going all the way out to the slowest cycle it keeps track of is the procession of theequinoxes, which is 26,000 years. The full-size monument scale version of the clock isbeing built in west Texas. We wanted a very high desert site that was away from cities so thatit doesn’t get caught up in things that cities do like wars. It’s also a very good preservationenvironment. It’s very dry, and we wanted something that was underground but way up in a mountain so that water would drain out of it and wouldn’t get caught up in it. Ryan one of our board members as well as computer scientist Danny Hillis devised analgorithm to ring a series of 10 bells each day in a different sequence for 10,000 years, soover 3-1/2 million combinations of bell ringing.

C: And how do you count time – the years in the Long Now Foundation?

A: We add an extra zero to the beginning of the date, so nowit would 02014. Kind of remind people that we’re working in a 10,000 – year time frame. Well,one of the things we look at when we’re building the clock is  you know  what aesthetic will people enjoy a hundred years, a thousand years, ten thousand years from now? And so oneof the ways to look at that is what aesthetic do we enjoy from 10,000 years ago? And wehave artifacts. We have the cave painting of Lascaux that are 17,000 years old, and we haveplaces in Italy that are 3,000 years old,  you can start to get a sense ofwhat a possible eternal aesthetic and human relation to an object is, and we try andembody that in the things that we design going forward. Other parts of it were inspired by interesting places around the world. One of them actually was the Da Vinci designed well at Orvieto, Italy with the trends spiral staircases. The whole clock experience is actually a longvertical shaft with a spiral staircase through it.

C: And tell me about the fascinating project that is ongoing here at the Long Now Foundation about language preservation.

A: The Rosetta Project was started back in 1998, and it was a way to get people aware that not onlylanguages are disappearing from the earth, but also the way we preserve things isincreasingly digital, and that doesn’t last for a very long time. So we made a disk that has thousands of languages represented on it, and they’re micro-etched, so you read them with a microscope not with digital technology. And one of those disks is on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission that’s just now arriving at a comet. The name of the Long Now Foundation came about from a concept by one of our founding board members, Brian Eno,who when he moved from London to New York, he realized that when people said now in New York, they really meant about 5 minutes. And in Europe and London, they really mean the time the larger time that we are in. So he called that the long now and the New York version the short now. And we extended this idea of the long now to mean the 10,000 years that we’re in.

Science Hack Day

By sdg 9, technology

«To hack», means to illegally infiltrate an informatic system, but the term is also used by those who want to subvert a system with good actions, and this is the case of Science Hack Day. The gathering, which welcomes anyone open to team up and play with science, is a consecutive 24 hour laboratory. Events like this are conquering the world. So far there have been 25, with 5 in the San Francisco area. We did not camp out but we did spend a full long day talking to many “hackers”, watching their projects evolve and feeling the energy of collective quirkiness grow, under the creative spell of  Ariel Waldman, who created and animated this science hack day. In  2013 she was nominated  “Champion of Change in citizen science” by the White House. Waldman is  a member of the National Academy of Science council for studies on the future of space flights and member of the external council at NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts.

Our goal for this Science Hack Day was to develop a way that people could do DNA sequencing at home. I’ve been running this machine as a print service for the whole weekend Hack-a-thon and we just print whatever anybody wants. We’re working on Mind Sumo, a battle of the wits, two laser beams posed against each other and the person who is more Zen, whoever can meditate the best will win. Making a dinosaur, a robotic dinosaur, dance based on crowd movements using lasers. If everyone dances together, the dinosaur’s happy, and it dances. If everyone dances in a different way, then the dinosaur is sad.

CRISTINA: So Ariel, what is the goal of the Science Hack Day?

W: It is essentially to just get excited and make things with science. It’s really an event about getting all different types of people together from all different types of backgrounds to really see what you can prototype within 24 consecutive hours. So it’s not necessarily about having a formal background in science, but it’s about just feeling that science is something that you can play with whenever you want.

C: What are your favorite ones?

W: Someone created a device that was to detect when he needed to shave that was this USB microscope. And they held it up to his face and they figured out when they needed to shave. Really silly, but a particle physicist saw the hack and thought it was really genius and wrote an entire proposal for how to detect cosmic rays in a cloud chamber using the original hack somebody had used to detect if they needed to shave or not. And so that’s the other cool thing about Science Hack days. It’s not only about people without science backgrounds contributing to science, but it’s also about getting scientists to play with new ideas and new forms and letting them explore and play with things as well. Science Hack Days started in 2010. It started because I put together a panel at South by Southwest about open science. And we were talking on this panel about how we were very frustrated that there’s a lot of open science stuff already out there but nobody was really doing anything with it. And so sitting in the audience was my friend, Jeremy Keith who lives in England, and he decided that it would be great to do a Science Hack Day to sort of get people to play with open science stuff. I think why it came about when it did is because I think there was a large movement to make science open. And everyone was like, “Yes, we need to make science open.”

C: How much has science fiction inspired you?

W: To me science fiction is always just sort of a low level backdrop to everything. So when you’re thinking about why is this interesting or cool, why space exploration is interesting or cool, inherently you’re influenced by some amount of science fiction because science fiction is so great at communicating what if. What if we did this really cool thing? Or what if we took science that existed today and just pushed it a little bit farther?

The People’s Choice Award goes to Dinosaurs and lasers!

C: Is there one that you think will actually break into the world and become a practical tool that can reach many people?

W: Oh, I saw tons of hacks that could be actual tools. Everything from medical tests to a field guide that people could use. So many of them seem to actually have real applications, which was just great.

Glowing Plant: our plants will replace street lights

By sdg 9, technology

The luminescent plants of Avatar could become a reality. This gripping and eerie story is a glimpse into the quick evolution of synthetic biology.

EVANS: We take some genes that we’ve sourced from marine bacteria called Vibrio fischeri. We rejiggered those genes using some clever software that we downloaded from the Internet. And then we synthesized, i.e. we print the design that we made on the computer. We put that into a plant, and when we grow up the plant it glows in the dark.

CRISTINA: So what has happened in this lab?

EVANS: This is the lab where we are engineering some new DNA that we’ve designed on a computer and printed and put into a plant that makes the plant glow in the dark, real natural lighting without any electricity. In the wild Vibrio fischeri has a symbiotic relationship with squids and some other organisms. It helps the squid conceal itself by having a light pocket underneath it that stops the squids shadow from scaring prey when it’s hunting under a fool moon.

C: How did you fund the project?

E: Yeah, that’s probably the most interesting, novel thing we did at the beginning of the project anyway. You know, we realized the potential of growing plants as a consumer product and so we turned to Kickstarter. And Kickstarter is a crowdfunding platform in the United States that you put up a cool, financing project; and if people believe in your dream and your vision then they support it. We raised just under a half million dollars, $484,000.

C: What kind of plant are you using?

E: We’re working on Arabidopsis. It’s quite well organized, you know. So it became a model organism for scientists to study. As a result, there’s more data accumulated on the genetic structure, the metabolic pathways, in Arabidopsis than for any other plant.

C: Does it harm the plant?

E: I kind of think of the example as like if someone gave you lead boots, and asked you to walk around all day. Does it harm it? No, but it definitely will have some fitness impact on the plant.

C: What would it do to its reproductive life cycle?

E: Nothing; no, the plant is healthy and fertile and passes the genes on to its offspring.

C: Oh, so it will have glowing babies?

E: It will have glowing babies, yeah.

C: What are your goals? What do you expect this plant to do?

E: First and perhaps biggest goal is to really educate and inspire the public about the amazing things that are happening with synthetic biology. It is us. It’s our food. It’s the source of all the energy that we use around the world, our medicines; everything is dependent on this code of A, T, C, and G that we call DNA. But people don’t understand it. People are afraid of it. There’s enormous backlash against genetically-modified foods, and we don’t think that’s right. We don’t think it’s right that large corporations have dominated this market space for a long time. The other goal we’d like is to get these plants bright enough to be usable for useful lighting where the goal may be one day of being able to replace electric street lights with natural glowing trees in the street. When we’ve got plants that are that bright, there are potentially other ecological questions that will come in, but we’ll cross those bridges as and when we get to them.

C: When you say big companies monopolize, you mean they actually own the patent. How do you operate?

E: We’re taking a more open approach. And we’re doing that for a few reasons, one I think fundamentally life is life. And I’m not convinced that you can own life. But second, we really see this as a way to accelerate progress in the field. When things are locked down in patented silos, all of the interesting things that can happen on the edge of that creativity get blocked. And, you know, in wave after wave of technological innovation we see that when the technology becomes open and available for people to mod on and create changes to and improvements too, then the benefit of the crowd really takes over. And we see an exponentially different acceleration in the whole field.

C: Are there any concerns about when those seeds will be in the wild?

E: We participated in a number of panels of the leading ecologists, and no one has really identified any clear risks that we can see that will come from that plant. And again, you’ve got to remember this is a non-food plant, we’re inserting a gene that imposes a high metabolic cost on the plant and provides no selectable advantage and we believe is non-toxic. So really this is as low risk as you can get. Now, will there be unknown unknowns that we don’t know? Perhaps, but there always are with the introduction of anything new.

IBM Watson and rare diseases

By sdg 3, technology

When we hear about AI we often feel concerned. We imagine technological unemployment or robots taking over the world. We rarely think of the huge leap forward in terms of health. There’s one system in particular that is revolutionizing the way we deal with rare diseases and it’s called Watson. We visited the world leading IBM research center in Zurich and met Vice President for Europe and Director of IBM Research – Zurich Alessandro Curioni to learn about Watson’s new frontiers. Rhön-Klinikum is pioneering the system in Germany and is ready to partner with other institutions around the world. Your closest hospital could be the next one!

CRISTINA: We’re in Zurich in one of the most successful research centres in the world, and it’s directed by an Italian. A place full of history home to four scientists awarded two Nobel prizes two years in a row. Currently 400 researchers of 45 different nationalities work here. Today we’ll tell you about Watson, an AI able to solve an infinity of problems. In particular, we’ll explore how it can help identify rare diseases.

ALESSANDRO CURIONI: There are more than 7000 rare diseases affecting around 30 million people in Europe. The main issue is that knowledge is fairly limited because doctors rarely come across these diseases. Watson helps doctors to get to a diagnosis much faster. It extracts knowledge from scientific literature, patients and medical handbooks, it integrates it and then presents it to doctors very accurately. It doesn’t substitute doctors but helps them do their job better.

CRISTINA: Watson elaborates and cross-checks all the data we see in this chart. Patient data seems to be the smallest portion.

ALESSANDRO CURIONI: Actually every single patient gets to the diagnosis having accumulated a pile of material that weights more than 5 kg. So obtaining a diagnosis as quickly as possible, avoiding consultations with hundreds of doctors, is paramount.

CRISTINA: Can we see how it works?

ALESSANDRO CURIONI: Here we have a graphic that integrates all this data.

CRISTINA: We have asthma, wheezing, cough, emphysema, pulmonary hypertension, fever and respiratory insufficiency.

ALESSANDRO CURIONI: The system researches among the huge amount of data and offers a number of possible diagnosis with an associated probability. In this case: Allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis, Chronic obstruction pulmonary diseases, Fabry disease. The doctor can take this outcome to give a final diagnosis and begin the cure without further ado.

CRISTINA: Thank you and thanks to Watson for elaborating all this data which a brain alone couldn’t do, while also shortening the time between diagnosis and cure of rare diseases.