Philip Ball

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Some questions of the future may be answered already because the difference between now and then is often one of degree, not kind. 

We’re told we’ll have radical abundance tomorrow, but we already pretty much have it and distribute it poorly. Will things really be different when we have even more?

Similarly, some wonder if biotech and genetic modification will be too outré for us to accept beyond mere medical treatment. Will human enhancement be more than we can bear? Not likely. Cosmetic surgery is currently the dress rehearsal. 

The only thing holding back a surge in selective “perfection” procedures isn’t legislation but rather the inscrutable nature of genes. When (and if) we gain enough understanding for the process to be worked out, a gold rush will be on, and complications will ensue.

Two excerpts follow.

From Li Yuan’s sad WSJ article about China’s online stars:

Deng Qian has had more than a dozen cosmetic surgeries, to slim her arms, enlarge her breasts and change almost every part of her face.

“Everything above my belly button is fake,” she says.

Above the neck, Ms. Deng’s aim was an “online-star face”—big eyes, long nose, high forehead and sharp chin, a look pursued by young women seeking online celebrity and the big income that can follow.

“Chinese society values a pretty face above anything else,” says the 24-year-old former business major. “If you’re not pretty, nobody will care about you, and nobody will follow you online.”

On live-streaming sites and on Weibo, China’s Twitter , Ms. Deng sings, discusses her life and gives makeup demos. In the ranks of Chinese online celebrities, she’s lower-tier—her Weibo followers number roughly 23,600—and desperate to climb higher. She went on China’s top dating show and top job-seeking show and starred in a documentary about plastic surgery.

In her world, plastic surgery is a necessity, an online-star face an investment in a better future.•

From Philip Ball’s Guardian piece on “designer babies”: 

[Bioethicist Henry] Greely suspects, even if it is used at first only to avoid serious genetic diseases, we need to start thinking hard about the options we might be faced with. “Choices will be made,” he says, “and if informed people do not participate in making those choices, ignorant people will make them.”

Green thinks that technological advances could make “design” increasingly versatile. In the next 40-50 years, he says, “we’ll start seeing the use of gene editing and reproductive technologies for enhancement: blond hair and blue eyes, improved athletic abilities, enhanced reading skills or numeracy, and so on.”

He’s less optimistic about the consequences, saying that we will then see social tensions “as the well-to-do exploit technologies that make them even better off”, increasing the relatively worsened health status of the world’s poor. As Greely points out, a perfectly feasible 10-20% improvement in health via PGD, added to the comparable advantage that wealth already brings, could lead to a widening of the health gap between rich and poor, both within a society and between nations.

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The opening of “Godless Small Things,” Philip Ball’s excellent new Aeon essay about what the discovery of the microscopic world meant for theology:

“When the Dutch cloth merchant Antonie van Leeuwenhoek looked at a drop of pond water through his home-made microscope in the 1670s, he didn’t just see tiny ‘animals’ swimming in there. He saw a new world: too small for the eye to register yet teeming with invisible life. The implications were theological as much as they were scientific.

Invisibility comes in many forms, but smallness is the most concrete. Light ignores very tiny things rather as ocean waves ignore sand grains. During the 17th century, when the microscope was invented, the discovery of such objects posed a profound problem: if we humans were God’s ultimate purpose, why would he create anything that we couldn’t see?

The microworld was puzzling, but also wondrous and frightening. There was nothing especially new about the idea of invisible worlds and creatures — belief in immaterial spirits, angels and demons was still widespread. But their purpose was well understood: they were engaged in the Manichean struggle for our souls. If that left one uneasy in a universe where there was more than meets the eye, at least the moral agenda was clear.”

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“They could create a laser from silk.” (Image by Gerd A.T. Müller.)

From a report about progress in creating biodegradable (even edible) electronics from silk, by Philip Ball at the BBC:

“Electronic waste from obsolete phones, cameras, computers and other mobile devices is one of the scourges of this information age. The circuitry and packaging is not only non-biodegradable but is laced with toxic substances such as heavy metals. Imagine, then, a computer that can be disposed of by simply letting soil bacteria eat it – or even, should the fancy take you, by eating it yourself.

Biodegradable information technology is now closer to appearing on the menu following the announcement by Fiorenzo Omenetto of Tufts University in Massachusetts, United States, and co-workers that they could create a laser from silk.”

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