Messing Around With Genes

Since 2015, Congress has included language in its funding bills to prevent the Food and Drug Administration from approving any application to create in vitro fertilization children from embryos that have been genetically modified.  Because the prohibitory language has been included in funding bills that have expiration dates, it needs to be renewed every year.  The House of Representatives just passed legislation that includes the renewal language, as part of an effort to fund certain governmental activities like food stamps and drug approvals.

Khan1The issue of genetic modification of embryos has some special urgency these days, with the recent news that Chinese scientists have announced the birth of the first genetically modified children — twin girls whose genes allegedly have been altered to supposedly make them specially resistant to HIV.  The Chinese scientists used a protein to edit the genes on a “CRISPR” — a stretch of DNA.  Some people question the validity of the Chinese claim about these so-called “CRISPR babies,” but there is no doubt that genetic manipulation of human beings is moving from the realm of science fiction to the reality of science fact.

The bar to such activities created by Congress ensures that efforts to genetically modify humans are not going to be happening in America — at least for now.  Is that a good thing?  The FDA Commissioner has said:  “Certain uses of science should be judged intolerable, and cause scientists to be cast out. The use of CRISPR to edit human embryos or germ line cells should fall into that bucket. Anything less puts the science and the entire scientific enterprise at risk.”  Others argue that Congress has taken a “meat axe” approach when it should be crafting a more nuanced policy that recognizes that some genetic manipulation could be beneficial.

It’s hard to know what’s right.  Scientists have been involved in the reproductive process for years, and their work, through processes like in vitro fertilization, has allowed people who are struggling to conceive to realize their dream of having children.  But I think the notion of scientists tinkering with genes to create “better” human beings crosses a line in several ways.  First, I’m not entirely confident that scientists know what they are doing and that there won’t be unintended, negative consequences from the removal of the genes the scientists snip out.  Anyone who has read about the history of science knows that scientists have been wrong before, and its reasonable to think they might be wrong again — only this time, their errors wouldn’t just be about the impact of certain foods or the properties of atoms, but would directly affect specific human beings.  Second, where do you draw the line in genetic manipulation?  Modifying DNA sequences to try to avoid diseases or debilitating health conditions is one thing, but what if scientists want to edit genes to create humans who are smarter, or more athletic, or taller?  Do we really want to permit the creation of “designer people” — like Khan Noonien Singh, that memorable Star Trek character who was genetically modified to be a kind of superhuman?  And finally, as this article points out, the whole issue brings up uncomfortable memories of the eugenics arguments of the early 20th century, where certain ethnic groups and traits were considered superior and others inferior.  If “improved” humans are created, where does that leave the rest of us?

In my view, this is an area where a sweeping rule makes sense — at least initially.  I think we need a lot more evidence, and a lot more thinking, before we should allow scientists to go messing around with human genetic material.

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The Significance Of Sound

Doug Grindstaff died late last month, at age 87.  It’s a loss for anyone who has enjoyed the Star Trek universe.

Who’s Doug Grindstaff, you say?  He’s the guy who came up with all of those nifty sound effects on the original Star Trek — the beeps and bloops and whooshes that made the show a feast for the ears.  The sssshhh sound when the doors from the turbolift to the bridge opened.  The blurbling bleeps that were emitted when a communicator was opened.  The puffing air that we heard when Dr. McCoy injected someone with some advanced medicine.  And the kind of crackling, whirring humming that the transporter made when Scotty beamed the away team down to the surface of a new planet, where one of the anonymous red-shirted security guys was bound to meet his maker.

We forget about how important sound can be to TV shows and movies.  But take a look at this snip from the beginning of the epic Star Trek “City on the Edge of Forever” episode — and then think about what it would have been like without all of those classic, memorable, and entirely fitting sound effects.  It’s hard to imagine Star Trek without those sounds.  We can thank Doug Grindstaff’s special form of genius and creativity for that.

Writer On The Edge Of Forever

Harlan Ellison has died.  An Ohio native, a graduate of the Ohio State University, and a prolific writer who had a long and productive career, he will always be remembered — by me at least — as the genius who came up with the idea, and wrote most of the screenplay, for one of my all-time favorite Star Trek episodes:  City on the Edge of Forever.

city-edge-foreverCity is generally considered one the finest episodes from the original Star Trek series.  It told the story of Edith Keeler, a gentle, peace-loving woman who lived during the Great Depression, helped the unfortunate, and dreamed big dreams.  When Dr. McCoy is inadvertently injected with a drug that induces a psychotic episode and finds a time portal, he goes back in time and interacts with Edith in a way that somehow changes history, prevents the formation of the Federation, and leaves the Enterprise leadership stranded on the planet with the time portal.  Kirk and Spock use the portal to try to fix the damage and also go back to the Depression era, where Spock attempts to build a primitive computer from vacuum tubes — or, as he puts it, “stone knives and bearskins” — to learn what happened and Kirk falls madly in love with Edith.  When Spock determines that McCoy somehow saved Edith from death, and thereby created a universe in which her pacifist leadership delayed America’s entry into World War II and gave Nazi Germany time to win the race to build atomic weapons and capture the world, Kirk has to make the excruciating decision to allow the woman he loves to die.

When he does so, and he and Spock and McCoy return to the planet with the time portal, a heartbroken Kirk says “Let’s get the hell out of here” to end the episode — which legend says was the first time a curse word of any kind was broadcast on American network television, and the censors let it go because it punctuated the episode perfectly.

It turns out that the City episode was a point of great contention between Ellison and Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek who thought producing the episode as Ellison wrote it would just be too expensive.  Ellison wasn’t happy with the changes that were made and asked that a pseudonym be listed as the script writer, but Roddenberry kept Ellison’s name on the episode — which then won Ellison a Hugo Award.  Ellison was still fighting, and writing, about the episode years later.

RIP, Harlan Ellison, and thank you for an impressive body of work that just happens to include an all-time classic idea.

Rating The Captains

Kish and I have been spending the last few months working through the Star Trek TV shows.  We began with Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine, after Richard recommended it as an interesting and thought-provoking show.  Kish, who just does not like science fiction and never got into the original Star Trek, gritted her teeth and agreed to watch a few shows.

To her surprise, and my surprise, too, Kish liked the characters and some of the plot lines on Deep Space Nine, so we watched every episode.  Then, after we finished that series, we turned to Star Trek:  The Next Generation, and now we’re on to Voyager.

star-trek-captains_610I think one of the things that we’ve found interesting about the different Star Trek shows is the different styles of the captains.  Deep Space Nine‘s Benjamin Sisko, stationed out on the frontier, was brave, tough and aggressive, with a sense of humor and a ready smile and a very strong mystical side.  In many ways, Sisko is the most outwardly human of the captains.  The Next Generation‘s Jean-Luc Picard, entrusted with the command of the Federation’s powerful flagship vessel, was formal, reserved, and by-the-book, an intellectual who was far more comfortable mediating a difficult dispute between warring alien races than dealing with the personal problems of his crew.  (Thank God Counselor Deanna Troi was on board to deal with those troublesome personal issues!)  And Voyager’s Kathryn Janeway, trying to unite a patched-together crew and get them home after being thrust 75,000 light years away by a powerful alien, is careful and decisive but with a decided warmth and obvious interest in the individuals who make up her crew.  Sisko, Picard, and Janeway all can deliver a reprimand, but she’s the captain who is most likely to take a moment to offer a compliment.

Which captain is best?  Kish started out advocating for Janeway, then switched to Picard, and now is thinking maybe it’s Sisko.  Each of them has their own style and their own strengths and weaknesses, and each of them engendered great loyalty among members of their crews for different reasons.  I think your choice might depend upon the specific circumstances.  If you had to select a captain to make a decision that would decide the fate of the universe, I’d definitely pick the careful, thoughtful Picard.  If you needed a captain to try to beat the odds and come up with an imaginative solution, I’d go with Sisko.  And if you had to pick a captain to be your boss and colleague, day after day, I think I’d opt for Janeway.

How do these three stack up against Captain James T. Kirk, the swashbuckling adventurer who invented the captain’s role on the original series?  Well, he’ll always be my favorite because he was the captain of my youth, but the episode-by-episode nature of the original shows and the movies never allowed his character to be developed with the same care and consistency as the others.  One thing’s for sure — if you were one of those anonymous red-shirted security guys who got killed every episode on the original series, you’d prefer anybody but Captain Kirk.

When You Know Your Doctor Is A Hopeless Nerd

Look, I love the original Star Trek TV series as much as any ardent Trekker.  I loved Kirk, and Spock, and Bones, and Scotty’s thick Scottish accent, and Uhura and the cool little gadget she wore that stuck out of her ear, and Sulu and Chekhov.  I even liked some of the bad guys, like Kang and the Romulan woman with the bad complexion that Spock seduced in one of the later, forgettable episodes.

3-27-14-1But even I would never try to invent a tricorder like the one used on the original series.  Of course, as any dedicated fan of the show knows, the tricorder was a device that allowed the crew of the Starship Enterprise to gather enormous amounts of information simply by vaguely waving the tricorder in the general direction of an object or person.  In the classic episode City on the Edge of Forever, where Kirk must kill his beloved Edith Keeler, Spock apparently used a tricorder to record millennia of human history being displayed by the time portal that allowed Bones to go back in time and change human history so the Nazis won World War II.  (Trust me — this synopsis, while totally accurate, doesn’t do the episode justice.  It really is a great episode.)

But I digress.  Three ER doctors from Philadelphia, who seized upon the fact that Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy used the tricorder in diagnosing the medical condition of his patients, have invented their own version of the tricorder.  Their device monitors vital signs, goes through a series of questions that assist in the diagnosis, and ultimately helps the doctor to come up with a determination of what’s wrong with the patient.

So, these doctors are total Star Trek nerds — a conclusion confirmed by the fact that, as the article linked above shows, they had their picture taken in replicas of the uniforms worn by crew members in the original series.  So what?  It looks like they’ve been inspired by the show to create a useful diagnostic tool, which is a good thing.  No word, however, on whether this tricorder also makes that really cool whirring sound that fans of the show remember so well.

Next up — the transporter!

Redshirts

If you’re a sci fi buff looking for a book recommendation for the new year, I suggest John Scalzi’s Redshirts, which was published in 2012 but which I’ve just discovered.  It’s fast-paced, well written, laugh-out-loud funny — and I’m not somebody who use “LOL” very often — and it addresses an important issue.

redshirtIt’s an issue that any fan of Star Trek, the original series, recognized long ago :  namely, the appalling mortality rate among the member of the away team that were sent down to the surface of the planet with Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy.  Those poor anonymous red-shirted bastards — because typically, they wore red shirts identifying them as members of the Security department — were lucky to be given a name or have even one line before they were blown up, devoured by beasts, ravaged by rapidly accelerated old age, cut down by phaser fire, reduced to a cube and then crushed into dust, or otherwise knocked off in painful, embarrassing, and inexplicable fashion before the first commercial break.

Even worse, as the episode went on, you learned that the red-shirted deaths were the result of some colossal misunderstanding or bad decision by Captain Kirk, and the misunderstanding would be resolved, and at the end of the episode Kirk would make some funny comment as the Enterprise left orbit.  And, even as you chuckled at Kirk’s witticism, it became all-too-clear that nobody gave a a second thought to the red-shirted guy who met his maker on Planet Albatron 4.  You couldn’t help but wonder if you thought about it:  how do these red-shirt guys even get insurance?  How much is the United Federation of Planets paying in widows’ and orphans’ benefits, anyway?

This issue has been explored before — Galaxy Quest does a pretty good job with it, through the ruminations of Sam Rockwell’s character Guy Fleegman — but Redshirts takes it to a different level by imagining how the rest of the crew in a similar circumstance in a different TV universe might react to the constant rain of death that was befalling randomly selected “away team” members.  It’s hysterical, and the clever ways in which the desperate crew members try to deal with the issue tell you a lot about Scalzi’s creativity.  He’s a good writer, too.

It’s always fun to find a new author and work your way through his catalog.  I’ve been enjoying Scalzi’s truly excellent Old Man’s War series, too, but Redshirts was a special comedic treat.

To Boldly Charge Where No Man Has Charged Before

The good news:  a new Star Trek series will premiere on CBS in January 2017!  The bad news:  after the first episode, you’ll only be able to watch it on CBS’ video on demand channel, which has a $5.99 a month subscription fee.

I love the Star Trek franchise, so the idea of a new series — with new characters and plot lines — is very welcome, indeed.  But the idea of charging people to watch the series, rather than putting it on a free broadcast network, seems antithetical to the whole Star Trek egalitarian/United Federation of Planets/”we’re all in this together”/the future is about a united human race following the better angels of its nature message.  I don’t remember any Star Trek, The Original Series episodes — other than those featuring Harcourt Fenton Mudd, and maybe The Trouble With Tribbles — where material items or money seemed to play any part.  The fact that they’re charging for new episodes therefore seems kind of chintzy of me.

Will I watch the new series?  I’ll watch the first episode, for sure.  And if it looks good, maybe I’ll watch more and pay the $5.99 a month.  But I didn’t really watch much of Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine or Star Trek:  Voyager or Enterprise, because they didn’t really grab me.  If the writers can come up with new characters of the quality of Spock or Jean-Luc Picard or Data or, of course, James Tiberius Kirk, I’ll tune in.  If not, I think I’ll probably save that $72.00 a year and use it to watch the next Star Trek movie.