N3DLC 1.1: New Scientist Live – The Science Behind the Movies

Here at n3rdabl3 we were given a unique opportunity to cover this year’s New Scientist Live in London’s Excel centre. Let loose upon a whole host of talks, demos and discussions we dove straight in with Dr. Michael Brooks, Rick Edwards, and Max Sanderson for a talk about The Science Behind the Movies.

The discussion began with a cult classic; Gattaca. Gattaca is about genetic predeterminism where a person’s genetic code is analysed at birth and determines their lifespan, skills, career and just about every aspect of their life including their future relationships. It’s one of the first movies to explore such an idea and brought the topic of “designer babies” to the forefront of most people’s minds.

Especially with Sony’s one-page advert for “Babies made to order”. A preposterous notion but as a piece of advertising it’s practically unrivaled. Generating over 50,000 calls enquiring about the ad is no mean feat, explaining to the public that it was simply a movie advertisement garnered quite a bit of heat from the scientific community.

Originally geneticists were outraged, they claimed the movie did them and their work a disservice. It’s easy to understand why as at the time “genetic determinism” was a theory not much discussed and definitely not within public forums. Gattaca shined a rather unflattering light on the topic and obviously made geneticists look like the bad guys. The movie goes on to follow Ethan Hawke’s character and his attempts to fool the system, going against the much believed theory of the time. Because of its contradictory stance the movie was little appreciated by scientists but it served a great purpose; it got people talking about genetics and gene-editing. It set a precedent.

“Of course, we still don’t fully understand what all of our DNA does and so manipulating it in-order to create a “designer” baby is a risky, tricky and unethical business.”

In 2011, a full 14 years after Gattaca‘s release, the movie was heralded as one of the best. Why? Because our understanding of genetics, somewhat kickstarted by this movie, had developed to a point where we could understand one very key thing about our DNA; We can be genetically PRE-DISPOSED to certain traits but our environmental factors and influences while growing up can heavily affect how we develop. Just because your genes show you are more at risk of developing certain heart conditions doesn’t mean that you will. How you live and behave has a huge impact on which parts of your DNA are active and inactive at given times. For example: People’s hair gets lighter in the summer due to the increased exposure to sunlight, more melanin is produced than in winter. Your DNA is directly influenced by an external environmental factor, something that wasn’t fully understood when Gattaca was first released.

Of course, we still don’t fully understand what all of our DNA does and so manipulating it in-order to create a “designer” baby is a risky, tricky and unethical business. Genetic profiling to create a visual representation of how someone may look as they age is virtually impossible due to external environmental factors that may influence how their body ages and adapts to change.

Not only does profiling have its limits but so does genetic engineering, manipulation and editing. Jennifer Doudna, the creator of the ‘infamous’ (but incredibly brilliant) CRISPR gene editing tool, has oft been quoted for a nightmare she suffers from where Adolf Hitler approaches her and asks her about CRISPR. CRISPR, although a powerful new tool in genetic engineering, is by no means perfect but the recurring nightmare raises a very interesting ethical question surrounding genetic manipulation and its potential abuse in the future if allowed to develop unregulated.

This led quite nicely into another ethical debate surrounding genetics, you guessed it, Jurassic Park. Brooks, Sanderson and Edwards began talking about the plausibility of resurrecting long extinct dinosaurs and having them once again roam the earth. Now there are a number of reasons why dinosaurs wouldn’t be able to survive on earth even if this was technically possible to such an extreme extent, but they (and we) focus solely on the genetic extent here.

New Scientist itself published an article that referred to Jurassic Park as “imaginative writing in the guise of possibility”. Although genetically cloning something is technically possible it raises a whole host of ethical questions, such as Jurassic Park did with its release. Dr. Ian Malcom, played by Jeff Goldblum, has one of the most quoted lines of all time with “Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.“. This is a common flaw with scientific discovery and development, we more often than not don’t stop to consider the possible consequences of our actions. We strive to further our understanding of life, the world and the universe by pushing at its boundaries and stretching what we can do within them.

Jurassic Park and movies like it (i.e. Gattaca and probably not the other Jurassic Park movies, they were just bad, okay?) sparked some interesting discussions and to this day it inspires young scientists to go into the field of Paleontology. We may never be able to physically revive the dinosaurs, and let’s be honest, why would we want to? Sure they’re cool in theory but we don’t even know what they REALLY looked like, we can only guess at such things. They were apex predators and if revived they would almost undoubtedly destroy human civilisation even for all of our technology, a 10-tonne T-Rex isn’t going to be slowed much by a regular rifle.

The earth’s current atmospheric is perfect for sustaining life as we know it right now, however back when dinosaurs roamed the earth there was far more oxygen in the atmosphere. This allowed larger creatures to develop, leading to the overly large reptiles being able to dominate the landscape. When whatever extinction level event wiped them out, wiped them out, it had a dramatic effect on the chemical composition of the atmosphere, making lifeforms of that size unsustainable. The dinosaurs didn’t just choke, they suffocated. So no, we can’t bring them back to their former glory. Not only would they be unable to survive but currently we do not possess the technology to extract/recreate enough of their DNA to do it. Sorry kids.

The only reason the attempts to revive the Wooly Mammoth are gathering so much steam is because of the number of viable DNA samples we have available make it a possibility. Whether or not they’re able to survive in current climatic conditions remains to be seen but it is plausible and it is possible that within the next decade we could have wooly mammoths walking the earth once more. We have attempted it in the past with Pyrenean Ibex with little success. The question is should we?

“Everyone remembers studying food chains at school, they don’t deal well with sudden and extreme changes, causing huge domino effects in the global environment.”

Arguments in favour of reviving extinct species are drastically limited and rather narrow-minded. Protecting species is a noble cause don’t get me wrong but preserving something that has previously died out in order to study them is impossible, again to quote Dr. Malcom (who is quoting someone else) “To study something is to change it”. Not to mention the inherent risks in such an endeavour. Everyone remembers studying food chains at school, they don’t deal well with sudden and extreme changes, causing huge domino effects in the global environment. Introducing a new species suddenly into an ecosystem can radically change it and have drastic unpredictable effects on not just that system but those around it as well.

There’s also a slight risk of potentially reviving previously extinct parasites or the return of extinct pathogens and diseases that could be fatal to those that come into contact with them. Admittedly the chances of such a thing occurring is incredibly slim, we would need to have access to a DNA sample for such a bacterium or virus in order to revive it. Reviving an animal won’t just spontaneously create the extinct pathogens, they would have to develop over millenia once more from currently existing bacteria or viruses that mutate over generations. Again this in itself is highly unlikely as there would be different environmental pressures influencing their development so they may not even develop the same way.

The final topic for discussion was oddly topical given recent developments within the field and news of late; AI. AI becoming sentient has been an issue in most people’s minds since the 80s thanks to movies like Terminator and War Games. Sentient AI seem to universally be evil and as such modern media has become increasingly concerned with Artificial Intelligence advancements. Whether or not AI would be able to become sufficiently advanced to take over the world remains to be seen, technologically our AI are quite basic and very far from being able to achieve global domination. However it is possible.

There are many theories as to how AI will develop and just how much control humanity is willing to give our future robot overlords is quite concerning. Our daily lives are gradually becoming more and more automated. Computers remember our passwords for us so we don’t have to, computers wake us up in the morning because we’re terrible at doing it ourselves. Google now has the ability to take possible appointments from your emails and place them in a calendar, automatically creating a reminder to warn you about upcoming things like flights and similar things.

Thinking about it is genuinely quite scary when you realise just how much control computers have over our daily lives and they’re only getting more advanced and more aware. FitBit and other health tracking apps, devices and software are able to tell us if we’re getting enough exercise among other things. We generate so much data about ourselves and most of it we don’t even realise. Applying AI to our search engines can often reveal things we didn’t even know about ourselves.

We may be a long way away from killer robots controlled by an evil AI overlord, but the sheer volume of data we’re putting out into the world that’s being used without our knowledge is staggering and certainly doesn’t make it hard to visualise an intimidating future.

So far our AI technology is pretty basic when compared to the great sci-fi movies and novels. We’re lightyears away from having a civilisation controlled by hyper-intelligent AI like in Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible.

They closed up the discussion with a few quick questions and answers, Time Travel is theoretically possible but we would only be able to travel as far back as the first time machine is invented (which we don’t have), the Xenomorphs from the Alien series are unlikely to exist as extra-terrestrial life probably developed in similar environments to ours and are therefore more likely to be humanoids than acid-blooded super killers.

Hollywood has been talking about some of the bigger issues for years prior to them becoming widely discussed by the scientific community. Brooks, Edwards and Sanderson all hold firm the belief that if scientists need to listen a little more to the movies to start tackling the issues they haven’t even begun to think about just yet. Gattaca, Jurassic Park and Terminator were conceptually way ahead of their time and they were talking about topics others hadn’t even begun to discuss.