In 2016, Marc Zimmer, the Jean C. Temple ’65 Professor of Chemistry at Connecticut College, gave a talk about creepy modern concepts in science fiction based on real-world science: Creating fearless soldiers through Optogenetics; custom-designing your own baby through the gene-editing tool CRISPR; creating mega-infectious diseases; and purposefully wiping out a species through GFP (green fluorescent protein).
The catch? It’s not necessarily science fiction. The potential is HERE.
Such topics — along with the possibilities for the greater good and the collisions thereof — are all discussed in Zimmer’s fascinating new book “The State of Science.” It was a project born of Zimmer’s own concerns and curiosities about where advances in science might lead us.
“I think I wanted ‘The State of Science’ to be a report on science,” Zimmer says, “showing that science has the potential to do mega cool things, but that all breakthroughs have risks associated with them. Risks we need to address.”
“The State of Science,” just out from Prometheus Press, is a book for the layperson as opposed to targeting academics. Zimmer, whose previous books for general audiences include “Glowing Genes,” “Illuminating Diseases” and three volumes for young adults, celebrates “The State of Science” with a talk Monday at Waterford Public Library.
“You know, a research paper can be read by 5-10 people if you’re lucky,” Zimmer says. “Writing for a general audience is much more satisfying.” He laughs. “I’m not sure how many will read it, but I went with this approach because I want it to be read, and I think these are important subjects we should all be thinking about.”
But he certainly had concerns about the state of the world through the prism of science, with climate change at the top of his worries, and the book — a fascinating read easily digestible for the layperson — can be sobering and disconcerting with undeniably exciting dashes of optimism and possibilities.
“I think writing the book has scared me a little, and COVID has confirmed my fears,” Zimmer says. “There are no adults in the room, and our toys — e.g. (the gene-editing technology) CRISPR and AI — are getting more potent while our playroom is becoming increasingly dangerous through pandemics and climate change. Will some global authority, non-governmental organization (NGO) or grassroots movement, stand up and be the adults in the room? I think (nations like) New Zealand (are) showing the way, but can we follow?”
“The State of Science” is organized in simple and logically sequenced sections: Science; Doing Science; Old Science; New Science; Bad Science; and Future Science. Seemingly incomprehensible subjects like CRISPR, Optogenetics, biohacking, deep learning, science/fake science and LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) are explained in careful and readable fashion in not just theoretical but also real-world contexts.
Zimmer, who grew up in South Africa and still retains the accent, speaks in a soft, thoughtful tone. In two recent phone interviews, he talked about “The State of Science.” Here are excerpts, edited for space and clarity.
On the developing repercussions of climate change and our collective reactions:
I’m not very optimistic, to tell you the truth. Climate change is something I think everyone should always be thinking about. It would be really nice if people understood how much things like wildfires and hurricanes are due to climate change.
In some ways, I think what we’ve had to do with COVID-19 is a tiny dry run for what we’re facing with climate change. Everyone has to change the way we live, and significantly. Science can’t fix this like it did with a manufactured artificial heart. It can be approached through sustainable science and sustainable living. It will require huge changes, and maybe that happens through attrition. So many people have already been significantly affected world-wide — and think about COVID in this context. Animals, probably bats in this instance, are being forced to look for food outside their natural habitats and where there are more people.
On science denial and the politicalization of science:
Science HAS become more politicized, (particularly) with Republicans and climate change and COVID. I tried to keep President Trump to the beginning and end of the book, but so much science denial comes from Trump. But it’s true it’s not just Republicans, and a lot comes from other sources — the anti-GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and anti-vaxxers. There are also sections in the book about the tobacco lobby, the wellness industry — a lot of which is hocus pocus — and Big Pharma.
I think as a scientist I’ve seen it happening. It’s like (the metaphor of) the frog in a pot of slow boiling water that doesn’t realize it’s getting hotter. We’ve seen a lot of this coming — and suddenly it’s here. And, look, we also don’t know how to deal with the fact that science is growing faster and faster than we can keep up with it. Only 200 years ago, there were people in the world who understood ALL of science. Now, the people in charge understand least of all. You hear, “Oh, Al Gore is crazy” or “CRISPR can wipe out an entire species.”
On the idea that genetic modification can be abused:
That’s the big BUT here. With progress comes risk, and this is a perfect example. There’s been a lot of progress, but there are a lot of dangers. We’re showing very little responsibility. My main fear here is that medicine will simply be about improving oneself, with a big divide between rich and poor. In five or 10 years, the richer folks will want CRISPR for their kids and their kids’ kids. With one little change — one gene — you can provide better eyesight or whatever. And it’s a situation that could very easily be manipulated by the wealthy and powerful.
On his claim that we live in the “post-truth era” and what he suggests could be done to re-establish the idea of “facts”:
The short and crazy solution would be AI. You could use the strength of AI. The computer should be able to search through and find patterns that establish truth. At some point, the computer would say such and such scores a 9.5 (out of 10) or 5 on a truth app. We’re not far away from being able to do that — within 5 or 10 years easily, I think.
On Big Science and Big Pharma and the risks of exploitation:
That’s what makes this whole thing scary. So many of the people working on a COVID vaccine, for example, have links to pharmaceuticals. Recently when an (Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine) trial was paused after a volunteer subject had an unexplained negative reaction, the company’s stock dropped 10 percent the next day. They’re all promising more than they can deliver so they can get their stock prices up, and that seems more important than what they can deliver.
Zimmer’s thoughts on a COVID vaccine:
Look, the fastest vaccine ever developed before COVID took two years, and we’re trying to do it in under a year. How much safety and efficacy do you want before your vaccinated? It’s not a simple equation, and I don’t think anyone knows the answer because there are so many things about COVID that we just don’t know. And a normal vaccine in the past would be needed by a few million people. With COVID, it’s the whole world. Billions of people need this vaccination.
Also, most vaccines are designed for the average person. COVID is worse for people over 60; well, most vaccines don’t work well for the elderly, so we’d need a large percentage of younger people vaccinated so there are less people to spread the disease. So you end up in a way targeting the very population for whom it’s hard to make a vaccine.
An interesting thought from Zimmer:
Everyone always thinks of science as being definitive and knowing all the answers. But it’s often NOT definitive. You have to try different things. But now we’re in a world where someone might come along, someone powerful, and state with certain arrogance that we have the answer and everything’s fine. And maybe it isn’t.
An intersting thought from Zimmer II:
Do we have to know everything? Do we always have to run faster or be continually improving? Isn’t there some charm or magic in the unknown?