As a fan of Star Trek, I was always impressed with the replicator. Truth be told, it was a solution to a big problem that can really hamper a science-fiction story. How do you feed people who are on missions lasting more than year? Instead of relying on massive on-board agriculture systems, Star Trek just skipped a step and converted power to matter, taking advantage of the most famous formula in history; Energy is convertible to mass times the square of the speed of light. So you can theoretically convert matter to energy and vice versa, so long as you technology to manipulate the quantum level.
Growing up, somewhere along the line, I began to assume that we were capable of similar feats on the chemical level. We can manufacture chemical structures in the laboratory, so why are we still harvesting food from those ancient sources dating all the way back to pre-history?
If you think about it, we’ve only changed the methods by which we do the same things to produce food. Sure, we use machines and automated systems. We even use selected breeding and genetic manipulation for better yield, but it’s still photosynthesis in plants, which we then either harvest or feed to animals that we butcher. Isn’t this passe by now? Shouldn’t we be able to just mix up the chemicals and shake the barrel and have meat?
Such is the mind of a fourth-grader who likes science-fiction. Obviously, there are huge problems with this. You can’t generate the structures of meat with chemical reaction… Why is that? Well, because meat is atomically manufactured by nano-machines which seem designed far beyond the best capacity human science has ever achieved. Far beyond. Plants too.
The cellular world is truly astounding. The average cell is more complex than the entire socioeconomic situation covering our entire planet. And interestingly enough, with all that complexity, there’s remarkable cohesion among parts that are controlled only by chemistry and the electromagnetic force. Using our planet as an example is probably not helpful since so much of the world is focused on rivalry, rather than unity. Yet, there really is not a good analogue to assist a description of the cell, because there is nothing like it that we have ever seen, anywhere. So the world, in all its flaws, will have to do, because it is a complexity-scale that people can understand.
Studies into nano-science have made headway in understanding some of this amazing complexity, though we have lifetimes to go before we understand a considerable portion of the cellular world. The possibilities are terrifying and inspiring at the same time. A great deal of the thought about the nano-world is really unique, because it’s so different from anything humanity has dealt with so far.
Michael Crichton’s Prey, as with his other science-thrillers, mixes the theoretical edge of current research with the possibilities that may follow. This is one of Crichton’s few books written from first-person perspective, and it’s easily one of his best. Prey introduced me to reading about nano-technology on science websites, and also added the concepts of distributed intelligence which ties into so many other things (consider reading James Surowieki’s Wisdom of Crowds)! Some of the scientific community disputes the accuracy of Crichton’s depiction of the nano-technology world in the book, but hey, it’s sci-fi. He at least gives you some perspective on one important fact: the best ways to manufacture things on the nano-level existed long before humanity knew anything about science.
The best we can do to replicate natural things is to utilize the ways natural things produce them. Thus, it only makes sense that we still have fields and fields of agriculture. We find ourselves struggling to conceive the complexity of the nano-world, much less improve upon it’s profound efficiency.
Don’t think I’m going to jump into a god-of-the-gaps argument here. I’m not saying that there is design because we can’t reverse engineer what we see. I’m saying, based on what we do understand about these nano-machines, they really do have indicators of design. It would be like accusing someone of using god-of-the-gaps because he said that a Buick looks designed, even though he doesn’t fully understand the transmission and the engine block.
Decent clip from Ben Stein’s documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. They are not saying ‘Oh my, it’s so complex, it must be God.’ Rather, they are saying, ‘We can see how complex it is, and therefore we can be reasonably certain that random chance is simply incapable of accounting for this.’
Psalm 139:13 says, “For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb.” (NASB) It is astounding to discover something like DNA thousands of years after that was written, and it’s the reason that Stephen C. Meyer refers to the genetic code as God’s Signature in the Cell.
Contrary to popular myth, science has not at all expunged the need for philosophy or theism. In fact, in the past 100 years, scientific discoveries have begun to challenge the atheistic assumptions that so many people make, forcing them to address (or ignore) serious problems in their philosophy (also read Norman Geisler and Frank Turek’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist.)
I forget who said it, and also the exact phrasing of the quote, but it went something like this: Science is clawing its way up a mountain of understanding only to arrive at the top and find the philosophers had been there all along. Peter Atkins likes to state that science has made philosophy useless, and that philosophy has been trapped in the conclusions of two centuries past. If that’s the case, it’s only because science has been so far behind and philosophy so far advanced, which would make sense, given the interesting historical differences and interactions of science and philosophy.
No matter. I really enjoy the foods we have and the medicines and so forth. I no longer have any illusions that somehow man can do better work than the machines of the cell (and cellular biologists would tend to agree here). At best, we may learn to harness them for our own purposes, which is as much a concern as it is a fascinating possibility. We must be cautious and reverent about what we do with our knowledge. But we’re safe in being amazed by it.