Along with writing 2001: A Space Odyssey, proposing the geosynchronous satellite and a questionable pedophilia charge, Arthur C. Clarke once famously observed that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Clarke undoubtedly had in mind a visitor from the mid 19th century or earlier, but things move faster now. For example, the other day I remarked to an undergraduate student on her third reading through Ender’s Game that the book was more than just a cool read; as far as I can tell Card predicted the internet and the town square zeitgeist of blogging almost verbatim before anybody else. She gave me a quizzical look. After a minute I realized that she had no tangible sense that people wrote books before email and instant chat. I suppose I would have a similar reaction to a book predicting the telephone.
Point being that Ray Kurtzweil and Moore of Moore’s law had it right. While I’m only a tangential expert in one topic and not any sort of expert in the other, stem cells and metamaterials jump out as two techs with the same kind of game-changing potential as radio and the internet. Growing back limbs or damaged organs, bringing back motor control to paraplegics, cloaking devices, “perfect” microscopes that can (theoretically) magnify down to infinity all seem like silly science-fiction stuff. All but the microscope show up as plot devices in the Harry Potter books. Yet these applications have all passed the proof-of-principle stage.
Of course a proof-of-principle is not the same as an invisible plane. Take that astounding report that scientists could make embryonic-like stem cells out of ordinary adult skin cells. If that isn’t magic, right? There was some debate about the usefulness of the technique, which I deferred since the technical details were not available to me yet.
Well, the paper came out in the print magazine just before Christmas and the skeptics were right. The technique knocks in four genes using a lentivirus vector using (as far as I can tell) artificial promoters, and one of the genes (c-myc) is a doozy of a cancer gene. That won’t help with FDA approval.
The stem cell news isn’t even a little bad, unless you expect difficult problems to solve themselves in one step. In fact other news in the same vein is just awesome. In a good example of the unexpected new angles that stem cell treatment will take, doctors working in a mouse model have developed an entirely new way to treat sickle cell anemia.