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by Ken Ingham

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Looking Back from 2050

His vision cleared faster than you might expect, given that it was the first time he had opened his eyes in almost five decades. But he didn’t recognize the surroundings or any of the people that came and went from the room. At first he didn’t know where or who he was or how he got there. Gradually his old self materialized in his consciousness the way details around the edge of a pond reveal themselves as the morning fog dissipates.

Dr. “Mo” Mosimquot was 41 years old when upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer he payed to have his entire body immersed in liquid nitrogen. In exchange for the bulk of his annuities and other accumulated assets, the CryoLife Assurance Company had contracted to keep him in at -77 degrees centigrade for up to 50 years or until a cure could be found, which ever came first. The gamble paid off. Mo’s body had been slowly thawed several weeks ago and his prostatic hyperplasia reversed while he was still unconscious. Now he glanced anxiously at his empty wrist.

“What year is this?” Mo asked one of the technicians. “Twentyfifty” she replied. He quickly calculated that he would have been almost 90 years old had he lived. She poured him a large glass of Aquapristine® and began removing the various tubes and wires from his body. Soon he was sitting up and eating breakfast. Next he was on his feet and looking for a bathroom. He was pleasantly surprised at the strength of his urination; that wasn’t how he remembered it. He felt good and was anxious to get home.

But there was no home. And besides, the M.D.s. and PhDs had no intention of turning him loose before conducting a battery of tests. But within a week Mo was on his way. His old house in Rockville had been demolished to make room for an outer beltway that was completed shortly after his “death” and now dedicated to bicycles and other non-motorized forms of transportation. Locating a place to live was not a problem. Housing had become plentiful after the wave of epidemics caused during the ‘20s by ARBIs, antibiotic resistant bacterial infections, transmitted primarily through industrial meat. This was a Malthusian blessing undisguised since the human population had grown as predicted (1) to over ten billion and was running out of places to dispose of its outdated computers. Mo was assigned a spacious apartment near Synaptic Junction, where multiple modes of public transportation intersected with the outer bikeway at the base of the old “Technology Corridor”. He was appointed “senior” professional postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Silviculture at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Environmentalism in nearby Gaithersburg. JOHOPIE, as it was called, was the first and foremost institution of its kind in the world, established at the behest of a rich and famous software executive who quietly liquidated at the peak of the post-Y2K rebound. Note that JOHOPIE was not an institute of environmental science or of environmental health but of environmentalism per se . . . . so named in acquiescence to the spreading collective conviction that the very survival of the human race, let alone the achievement of its potential, would depend on mankind’s ability to understand and embrace the laws of ecology.

Even before the turn of the millennium, the number of papers in Science and Nature that dealt with environmental or ecological issues was accelerating exponentially. This continued under the Gore administration (2006-2014) as funding for environmental science increased with such momentum that it ultimately eclipsed that for the Pentagon, leading to the emergence of an environmental industrial complex that overshadowed the military and medical ones. Gore’s old initiative to make real-time satellite pictures of planet earth continuously accessible through the internet had transformed humanity’s perception of itself in a way not equaled since the time of Galileo. The turning blue and green marble was visible everywhere, on the big screen in sports bars, along side the time and temperature on bank marquees, and, the biggest and best of all, on the grand arch over the entrance to JOHOPIE through which Mo and his new colleagues rode their bikes or walked everyday - there was no place to park at JOHOPIE. At the sight of this ubiquitous logo people would involuntarily genuflect and project out of body for a moment in reverence to Gaia and the Big BiOme.

In his new position, Mo was pleased to learn that the status of professional postdocs had much improved over what he remembered from his first life. Once denigrated, these attendees- to-detail had worked their way toward the top of the pecking order; they made good money and stayed secure by keeping up with skills that those promoted to higher positions soon forgot or never learned and by paying their union dues. Through a labor movement back in the teens they had acquired rights to TIA retirement programs and other benefits and were now pretty much free to move wherever they wished, the best ones gravitating to the choicest facilities (where lab and office windows actually opened). Graduate students routinely aspired to become “ProDocs” where they could anticipate having the best of all worlds. As a result there was a shortage of applicants for so- called independent “P.I.” positions, defined in terms of the privilege of initiating whole new areas of research, writing grants and getting the approval of the various human, animal, plant and cell culture protection committees. Most of these positions were now filled by women whose superior ability to juggle multiple activities had finally been acknowledged.

As with any new position, the first order of business was to get up to speed on all the relevant information. In Mo’s case, the task was confounded by the sheer volume of knowledge that had accumulated during his, uh, er, hibernation. The good news was that a lot had been learned about learning itself and the methods of storing, retrieving, organizing and consolidating information had advanced tremendously. Virtual cybercombs of multidimensional hyper-linked text and graphics, were available on the walls of every workstation if not through lightweight extra corporeal devices. One could download any desired body of information and wear it on your hip. With the help of neurometabolic enhancers and precise electromagnetic stimulation, fundamental principles could be adsorbed at night while asleep. Advances in neurobiology had made it possible for a dedicated thinker to use up to 50% of her brain and intensive research was continuously pushing back that frontier. This allowed a much greater retention thereby facilitating efforts at integration.

Things had changed in the lab as well. Recombinant proteins were as readily available as sodium chloride. While it was certainly possible to make your own, to do so was anachronistic, except as a training exercise for students, the way freshman were once required to master the chainomatic balance before gaining access to digital toploaders so they would appreciate the underlying principles. Wild type proteins were guaranteed delivery in 2 weeks, mutants in a month if they folded. The catalogue of available vectors had grown so thick that it was impractical to distribute hard copies, exceeding several gigabytes of information. Kits galore. Getting supplies was as easy as aßg. Of course one didn’t need as many supplies as before because the cost of disposables had become prohibitive shortly after the global production of petroleum had peaked on schedule (2). Dr. Mosimquot’s colleagues reused all labware and shook their heads in disbelief to hear him tell about the volumes of glass, plastic and packaging material that in his formative years were trundled out of the hospitals and research labs every night en route to a landfill.

Doing experiments was easier but thinking of good ones that hadn’t already been done was still the most difficult part of science. Take for example Mo’s supervisor in the Department of Silviculture. She was principle investigator on the Ailanthus altissima Genome Project, one of several hundred still being conducted around the world as part of the Environmental Genomics Facility. Also called “Tree of Heaven”, Ailanthus is an aggressive invader of disturbed soil of the kind generated by driving heavy machinery through a forest, cutting trees and building roads. In addition to its rapid growth and prodigious volume of seeds, Ailanthus seedlings are distinctly distasteful to deer, giving them much advantage over most slow-growing hardwoods. Mo was one of three prodocs working on separate specific aims:

1) identify ailanthus genes responsible for repelling deer and clone them into domestic azaleas and other urban bushes; 2) develop ecologically sound methods of neutralizing ailanthus’ aggressive behavior; 3) find a use for its pulp that would turn it’s aggression to advantage.

Funding from EPA had just been renewed for a second five-year term based on substantial progress during the first. All of the genes had been identified including numerous unusual ones whose testing for deer repulsion was taking some time. Others had amino acid sequences that deviated in unexpected ways from various consensuses and had attracted the attention of the protein folders, who continued to make incremental progress on their “problem”. Potential competitors were being tested and ailanthus-specific insect predators were being developed. Finally, the wood pulp had shown potential as a fiber for the production of loin cloths which had replaced blue jeans as the most popular casual attire.

Dr. Mosimquot, with his broad perspective and huge appetite for “literature”, noticed a trend toward diminished preoccupation of the scientific establishment with microcosms and macrocosms. An increasing number of the articles in Science on Line now dealt with the realm of the present dimension, a phrase invented to designate those phenomena that could be experienced directly without the need of instruments. It is the place where we live, at the interface of micro and macro where everything is multiplied by ten to the zeroeth power and no prefixes are required to convey the scale. Here are the things that we touch and feel, no doubt in our minds that they are real. Socioecology, that rising and uplifting branch of science that had been so neglected during the previous millennium, dealt with values, sustainability, the ways in which people relate to each other and to the larger organism of which they were part. After an extended era of knowing more of mice than of men, there had developed a vociferous demand by citizens who, under the influence of compulsory continuing education, insisted that we develop a better understanding of our own social behavior and elucidate nonviolent mechanisms for resolving conflicts with the expressed goal of eliminating war, "not just war between each other but war against our fellow critters, the kingdoms of plants and animals for whom we’d become the sitters" (3).

It seemed to Mo that humanity had reached a stage in its evolution when utopia was no longer an impractical goal. Achieving it was simply a matter of agreeing on its definition and launching another initiative. The prospect so stirred Mo that he began to fantasize about seeking a higher position, beyond the comfortable level of ProDoc.

1. Cohen, Joel (1995) How many people can the earth support? Norton &Co.
2. Kerr, Richard A. (1998) The Next Oil Crisis Looms Large - and Perhaps Close, Science 281, 1128-113
3. Excerpted from Ecoepic, part III: Dawning of the Eighth Day - go there