Friday, 20 November 2009

Set Phasers to None!

C.elegans, a worm you need never fear again - by Zeynep F Altun at Wikimedia Commons - under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 Licence Researchers at Simon Fraser University in Canada have been playing with the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans - a sort of Albert the Experimental Rat of the invertebrate world - and, according to the universal Press spin, developed a Star Trek-like phaser in the process, which stuns the hapless worms until they are artificially revived. This is almost as cool as finally getting my personal jetpack!

Well, yeah... almost.

Okay, it is not exactly like a phaser.

Okay, it only works on worms, and nobody is sure how it works, either.

Ookay, the 'stun ray' is actually just exposure to ultraviolet light. And the revival technique is exposure to ordinary light.

Ooohhhh... and it kills them quite a lot of the time, too. More like a sort of long-distance cosh, then?

Ooops... and it doesn't actually work at all unless you've already fed the worms with dithienylethene photoswitches. And it wouldn't work then, if the beasties weren't transparent to begin with.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. It can do one thing that a phaser can't - it can turn its victims blue.

Consider our situation logically, Captain. We have the means to safely stun the aliens. Provided it is acceptable to kill many of them in the process. And that they are completely transparent. And that we are able to surreptitiously poison their food first. And that they only attack at night. And that blue is your favourite colour. Under these conditions, this 'phaser' of which you speak could indeed prove a valuable weapon!

I admit to being somewhat... fazed. This otherwise perfectly respectable bit of research is 'reminiscent of a Star Trek phaser' in much the same way that Lady Gaga is reminiscent of Doris Day. There are certain resemblances, but few of them especially persuasive or amusing.

If this sort of near-random bubble-blowing is what scientists have to do to get funded these days, what can we expect next? A stimulant pill for bullfrogs that renders them unpleasantly photosensitive in the middle of the visible spectrum will, presumably, 'grant powers reminiscent of DC superhero Green Lantern'. As for the lazy obedience of huge swathes of the media in faithfully transmitting this daft bit of prepackaged press-release whimsy as if the angle were all their own - I mock them mercilessly, I flay them verbally with a deadly wit and panache reminiscent of Cyrano de Bergerac his very self! Yes I do! Yes it is! Come on then, you journos! I'll even send you a press release to say so, if you like!

Or, better: I will give you the point to the Phaser story.

Lead researcher Neil Branda doesn't want to brag too much about the potential of his discovery:

"I'm not convinced there's a legitimate use of turning organisms on and off in terms of paralysis, but until somebody tells me otherwise, I'm not going to say that there isn't an application," Professor Branda told BBC News.
He goes on to speak hopefully of future control applications for photodynamic therapies, which are used in treating certain forms of cancer.

Professor Branda is an innocent abroad, and does not see the legitimate use which is staring him in the face.

Civil disorders are deadly things, and police reactions to them can be just as lethal. Here are the seeds of a way for the government to guarantee public tranquility without harming anybody.

Cut down the death rate from switch-off, or at least procure statistics to show that it is actually better for you than five portions of fresh fruit. Refine the technique so that it can affect humans, and penetrate clothing as well as opaque flesh - likely via the infrared or microwave spectra. Fiddle around with the on/off trigger frequencies, so that ordinary conditions don't flick the switches either way.

Now mass-medicate the general population with photoswitches in their drinking water and their daily bread. At the first sign of trouble, a whole area can be flooded with the switch-off radiation. The security services can then calmly and at their leisure remove the paralysed plebeians to be revived individually, in safe havens where they will be given an opportunity for recovery, counselling, and the payment of a small tow-away fee before release. The ringleaders and other rascals can instead be revived in situ through the bars of their new cells.

There will be no need to rough up even the most obstreperous of villains, nor to be roughed up by them. We could even give our honoured public guardians special Free From Rations, and thereby immunity from stunning in their turn. Everyone's a winner, baby!

The R&D will be tough, but what a prize lies at the end of it!

Yes, we may yet live to see a Utopia every bit as shiny as Captain Kirk's benevolent Federation.

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