Daily Archives: August 7, 2012

Animal rights activists protest Curiosity driven research

The last couple of days was nothing but jubilation at NASA/JPL after the landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars.  President Obama congratulated scientists on the occasion by stating:

The successful landing of Curiosity — the most sophisticated roving laboratory ever to land on another planet — marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future.”

However, the atmosphere changed dramatically this morning. As JPL scientists came to work, they were perplexed to be greeted by a group of noisy animal rights protestors at the entrance to the Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena, California.

Michael Bunkie, from Stop Alien Exploitation Now, told a group of reporters gathered at the scene that:

 These experiments have been done before and nothing came out of them. How many times do we have to land on Mars to just look at rocks?  I mean, all of them look the same! We already have space junk on Mars.  Why do we need more? This is clearly duplicative research done at the taxpayer expense and it must stop.”

Mr. Bunkie said he will FOIA every employee at NASA to obtain more information on what he called “an outrageous waste of resources.”

Dr. Maximus Ego, a retired physician and long-time scientific advisor to Bunkie, added:

“There is really nothing we can learn on Mars that will help humans.  Chaos theory and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle guarantee that even if life originated first on Mars, nothing we learn about its evolutionary history will be applicable to us.  I have published a 300-page long proof of this obvious statement (available from Amazon for $12).  After all, they are Martians and we are humans. Isn’t this obvious to NASA and its so-called scientists?”

When asked about the potential benefits of the research claimed by the space agency Dr. Ego added:

Gimme a break! This is clearly curiosity-driven research.  Nothing else, nothing more. They even named the rover ‘Curiosity’!  It is unacceptable for them to keep misleading the public by saying the questions at hand have any significance for advancing well-being on Earth. This type of research is worse than the discovery of the Higgs Boson!”

As JPL scientists quickly walked past, Dr. Ego ran after them screaming “I challenge you to a debate! Come on, I challenge you to a debate!  Do you know what a hypothesis is? Do you?!” 

Meanwhile, Rick Bungled, of the Alliance for Microbial Ethics, stood by silently holding a sign that read “How like us are they?”  When asked about its meaning Mr. Bungled explained:

How can we be invading Mars when we know there is a chance there might be life there? We must give these hypothetical organisms the benefit of the doubt, and assume they are sentient and conscious life forms just like us. For humans to gratuitously invade other planets is nothing more than a sign of our decadence. We have already destroyed Earth and now we are going to destroy the rest of the Universe. Humans are nothing but evil monsters (except me, of course). The Universe would be a better place if we all killed ourselves (I mean, if you killed yourselves).”

Nearby, Dr. Andrew Smoothtalk, from the Humane Planetary Society, said his organization held a much more moderate position.

“Of course we support science.  But we are now in the 21st century and have developed advanced computers, such as IBM’s Watson which can defeat you at Jeopardy. Clearly, we have the technology to simulate the origin of the solar system. We could send a virtual rover to a simulated Mars and explore simulated life in this simulated planet. We could even give scientists 100 bonus points for a good landing!  Given these new methods, which these NASA scientists are completely unaware of, we think time has come for NASA to switch these type of space exploration with more cost-effective methods than studying the real thing”  Waving out a piece of paper he pulled form his pocket he exclaimed “Here, I have with me a pledge that NASA can sign which already counts with the support of about 800 Raelians.”

NASA/JPL reacted to the criticism by circulating an email to the press this morning stating that they have serious and important work to do and are not planning on wasting precious time in responding to the activist’s allegations.

A masked activist, after being told of the NASA statement, said the activist will continue their relentless work to make space exploration stop “by all means necessary” — and walked away with a Molotov cocktail under his arm.  “To educate the neighbors” — he clarified.  Mr. Bungled, standing next to him, sighed deeply and explained that “the continued refusal by scientists to engage with activists can only lead to violent actions by the underground. Don’t tell us we didn’t warn you.”

Disclaimer: Although this may look like a real story you might have read over the past year or two,  it is in fact satire. Any resemblance to actual living persons is…err…purely coincidental and not to be taken (too) seriously.

Speaking of Research

Understanding Cyborg Jellyfish

While I was on vacation I missed a fascinating story about how scientists at Harvard University and Caltech have created an artificial jellyfish – termed a medusoid – using rat heart cells on a silicone matrix in order to demonstrate that it is possible to reverse-engineer a muscular pump, as described in this informative report on CBC News.

This isn’t the first time scientists have created artificial tissue that can mimic the rythmic pumping of the heart, we noted in 2011 that Professor Harald Ott and Dr. Doris Taylor at the University of Minnesota engineered a a rat heart that was able to sustain its own contractions and respond to physiological stimuli, but the strategy used to develop the synthetic jellyfish may help to accelerate the development of the artificial heart to the point where it can  be evaluated by transplantation into live animals. The synthetic jellyfish may also prove very useful in screening for the effects of drugs or other chemicals on the heart prior to live animal studies, as it can more accurately reflect heart physiology than current in vitro models, while at the same time being a lot simpler (and hence easier and cheaper to produce and maintain) than a complete artificial heart.

In an article entitles “March of the cyborgs” on the Understanding Animal Research News blog, Martin Turner puts this latest development into the context of other recent advances in regenerative medicine and notes that:

Whole organs pose greater challenges, but by combining living matter with other materials using techniques gained from projects such as the cyborg jellyfish, scientists might be able to bypass many of the obstacles posed by a purely biological system.

The cyborg jellyfish might seem fanciful and frivolous, but it’s small, incremental advances that lead to great innovations. With that in mind, the jellyfish’s creators are attempting their next, more complex creature. But we might have to wait another four years to find out what it will be.

It’s an excellent point, while the field of regenerative medicine is progressing very rapidly – progress which is needless to say dependent to a large extent on animal research – there is a danger that expectations may run too far ahead of what is technically possible.  We are beginning to see tissue engineering enter the clinic, but it will be years, if not decades, before it becomes a standard part of medicine. Investing in science is all about the long haul; if we wish to reap the rewards 10 or 20 years from now, we must be willing to support the basic and applied research that is being done in labs today.

Paul Browne