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12/21/1999

Nostradamus I'm Not, Hopefully

Quick! Sell your GM and Ford short! I''ve just read an article in
the New York Times Magazine section of December 5. The
author, Vincent Scully asks the question, what familiar structures
will be left standing in the year 3000, one millenium from now?
He concludes that, while the patterns of our highway system will
still be visible, the automobile will be extinct. He gave no reason
for this conclusion, saying it was just common sense! Perhaps he
foresees the ultimate conflict between SUV owners and the
downtrodden owners of ordinary cars like my little Jetta. I can
envision fisticuffs in shopping malls all over the country erupting
into armed conflict over the right to flaunt one''s power through
SUV ownership versus the right of the little guy to clear vision in
backing out of a parking space. The conflict will end as e-
commerce finally emerges from its current growing pains and,
without malls, the need for autos disappears. Delivery of goods
ordered on the Net will be accomplished by a vast underground
pneumatic tube system of the type found in today''s department
stores. The implications for long term investors in the auto and
retail industries are obvious.

You may think all this is much ado about nothing and you''re right.
At this point, I had painstakingly segued into a long discourse on
recent developments in the physics of "nothing", a topic we''ve
mentioned in earlier columns. However, somewhere along the
line I hit a @#%&* key or combination of keys that obliterated
every #@*&* thing I had written! Of course, I had only saved
the above paragraph and the first sentence of this one. I was so
upset that I just couldn''t face rethinking such a complicated
subject as "nothing". So I decided instead to pursue the millennial
theme further, hopefully in a more realistic manner.

The performance of prophets has not been that great in the past.
For example, Nostradamus is one who has received much
publicity and notoriety. It seems, however, that none of his
predictions ever came true and, furthermore, he did not predict
the end of the world in the year 2000. (Maybe we should be
worried!) Even eminent scientists have been completely wrong.
In the late 1800s many physicists believed that all the natural laws
had been discovered, that the universe was understood and that
nothing remained for the future but to fill in the details. Just
recently, media time and space was devoted to a fellow who
today argues that the basic work has been done in science and
that the future just involves a sort of tidying up and filling in the
details. Yes, Yogi, here we are all over again.

Why do I think (a) that fellow is wrong and (b) that our
predictions will be much more accurate than those of our
predecessors? I believe today''s key to accurate prophecy is that
we may not know the answers, but, in contrast to the late 1800s,
we know the right questions. In physics, for example, what is
dark matter? Is the universe really expanding at an accelerating
rate? If it is, why? Do those teensy strings in string theory truly
exist? Finding the answer to any of these questions is far from
just tidying up! Actually, I would be very surprised if the answers
to all these questions are not found in the 21st century. These
answers, combined with the powerful new techniques in
astronomy, should lead to major advances in our understanding of
the origins and future of our universe. We may even know a
feasible answer to the question, what came before the Big Bang?
And perhaps even to the question, is it probable that there are
other universes? More down to earth, can nuclear fusion ever be
harnessed in a practical way to provide our energy needs?

Chemistry will play a tremendous role in the 21st century. You
may not remember when the slogan of a large corporation was
"Better things for better living through chemistry". Sadly,
especially to a chemist like myself, this slogan was dropped
because of the onus on "chemicals" that developed in the public
perception. This was engendered by such incidents as the effect
of DDT on the bird population and pollution of our air and water
with toxins typified by the Love Canal affair. Ads began to
appear saying in essence "Drink our bottled water, contains no
chemicals". Water, H2O, is not a chemical?

I''ve been perusing the December 6th issue of Chemical and
Engineering News, which contains a "Millenium Special Report.
Chemistry in the Service of Humanity". It includes lengthy
forward-looking articles on various aspects of chemistry as well
as a plethora of "Millennial Musings". These musings are
thoughts on the future by a wide variety of individuals ranging
from CEOs of large corporations and entrepreneurs to Nobel
Laureates and professors. One common theme is that the public
in the 21st century needs to be educated sufficiently to form
enlightened judgments on scientific matters.

I would say that the medical arena represents one case where the
public is being educated today. You have to be blind and deaf not
to know that the chemistry of your blood, notably its LDL and
HDL content, is at least somewhat indicative of your tendency for
a heart problem. You won''t know the formulas for either of those
compounds or of the antioxidants in broccoli or the nicotine in
cigarettes. But you do know of their good or bad effects on your
health. Some of the "muses" predict that in the 21st century the
populace will indeed be better informed about chemistry and
science in general than they are today. This is a prediction I hope
comes true but I''m skeptical. My experience has been that far too
many people haven''t the least interest in science. Am I wrong?
You wouldn''t be reading this column if you weren''t an exception
to my rule.

Well, as usual, I digress. The past has seen the Stone Age, the
Bronze Age, the Iron Age and we''re now arguably at the peak of
the Silicon Age. The 21st century will probably be known as the
Molecular, or perhaps the Organic Age, with the first stirrings
now in evidence of the monumental developments to come.
Along with the decoding of the genes in the Human Genome
Project, comes the realization that storing information in DNA, or
in much simpler molecules, is vastly more efficient than using
silicon chips. Feasibility studies have shown that certain
molecules can be switched from one state to another, the basis for
digital storage and access to information. These are very early
times for even thinking about a practical "molecular" computer
but the ball is rolling. One should, however, never underestimate
the cleverness of the silicon community, which for half a century
has fended off predictions that other materials would be needed to
continue the quest for smaller and faster integrated circuits. Yet
they keep coming up with new ways to keep silicon as the driver
of our electronic world. I predict the Silicon Age will last at least
another quarter of a century.

The 1990s comprised the "decade of the brain", so proclaimed by
President George Bush. Certainly the ultimate in the storage and
processing of information, the brain has been probed more
intensely this past decade than ever before. The pathways
associated with various senses and emotions have been mapped.
Major progress has been made in revealing the mechanisms and
chemical reactions involved in the transmittal and storage of
information on the individual neuron level. As these studies
continue, there will certainly be radical new methods and designer
drugs to treat diseases such as Alzheimer''s and Parkinson''s, as
well as depression and schizophrenia. The knowledge gained
from the brain cannot help but feed back into the field of
information processing and storage to hasten the day when the
Silicon Age does become the Molecular Age.

The field of sensors is one that is going to be of major importance
in the 21st century. One of the most important applications of
sensors today is be to guard our safety. Every time we board a
plane, we and our luggage pass through X-ray and/or other types
of sensing devices. (Does it ever make you nervous that, in some
airports, you walk through the metal detector with a pocketful of
change without setting off the alarm, while in others every coin
and key must be surrendered?) Now, we are increasingly
concerned with the threat of terrorism involving not only bombs,
but also biological agents. The more insidious toxins could be
released into the target population with no obvious symptoms
until the resulting disease is established and spreading. Sensors
for known biological toxins are being developed and, hopefully,
can be employed early enough and be accurate enough to prevent
a major catastrophe.

There are many kinds of sensors being developed. Remember
NO? If you read my very first column on Viagra and nitric oxide,
NO, you recall that this simplest of molecules is of profound
importance in various vital bodily functions. Well, it seems that
the amount of NO in the body is pretty stable in an individual but
rises early on during an infection. However, the level of NO
varies from person to person so there has to be a calibration for
each individual. Work is ongoing using a luminescent material in
a sensor to calibrate and monitor the level of NO. Such a sensor
might be useful, not only medically, but also to detect initial
stages of infection by certain biological agents.

An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association of
November 17 reports on tests of a sensing device for measuring
glucose noninvasively. The instrument being tested is called a
GlucoseWatch automatic glucose biographer. It essentially sucks
the glucose out through the skin without the need for the painful
needle sticks endured by those diabetics who must monitor their
glucose several times a day. The biographer passes a small
current through the skin using two electrodes, one positive and
the other the negative. Charged sodium and chloride ions (from
salt beneath the skin) move to the different electrodes and the
glucose is dragged along. The openings in the skin are
sufficiently large to allow the glucose molecules to travel out to
the surface. An enzyme contained in the sensor reacts with the
glucose to give something called gluconic acid plus hydrogen
peroxide, the stuff you get at the drugstore. The sensor
incorporates an electrode containing platinum, a good catalyst
that spurs the peroxide to decompose to give oxygen, hydrogen
and a couple electrons, which constitute a current. By measuring
the current, i.e., counting the electrons, the amount of peroxide
and hence the amount of glucose is calculated. The device
contains an alarm, which sounds if an inappropriate level of
glucose is present. I was interested to see a financial disclosure
statement in the JAMA article, which had over 20 authors, most
from Cygnus Inc., the company that makes the device. The two
non-Cygnus employees had been paid consultants for and
received research grants from Cygnus. It''s good to see such
information as part of the record for papers that have potentially
such obvious commercial significance.

Well, I haven''t even begun to scratch the surface of what might be
expected in the future but hey, I''ve got to do my Christmas
shopping sometime. I''ll no doubt return to this subject after
surviving Y2K. For next week''s column, I''ll try again for
"nothing".

Allen F. Bortrum



AddThis Feed Button

 

-12/21/1999-      
Web Epoch NJ Web Design  |  (c) Copyright 2016 StocksandNews.com, LLC.

Dr. Bortrum

12/21/1999

Nostradamus I'm Not, Hopefully

Quick! Sell your GM and Ford short! I''ve just read an article in
the New York Times Magazine section of December 5. The
author, Vincent Scully asks the question, what familiar structures
will be left standing in the year 3000, one millenium from now?
He concludes that, while the patterns of our highway system will
still be visible, the automobile will be extinct. He gave no reason
for this conclusion, saying it was just common sense! Perhaps he
foresees the ultimate conflict between SUV owners and the
downtrodden owners of ordinary cars like my little Jetta. I can
envision fisticuffs in shopping malls all over the country erupting
into armed conflict over the right to flaunt one''s power through
SUV ownership versus the right of the little guy to clear vision in
backing out of a parking space. The conflict will end as e-
commerce finally emerges from its current growing pains and,
without malls, the need for autos disappears. Delivery of goods
ordered on the Net will be accomplished by a vast underground
pneumatic tube system of the type found in today''s department
stores. The implications for long term investors in the auto and
retail industries are obvious.

You may think all this is much ado about nothing and you''re right.
At this point, I had painstakingly segued into a long discourse on
recent developments in the physics of "nothing", a topic we''ve
mentioned in earlier columns. However, somewhere along the
line I hit a @#%&* key or combination of keys that obliterated
every #@*&* thing I had written! Of course, I had only saved
the above paragraph and the first sentence of this one. I was so
upset that I just couldn''t face rethinking such a complicated
subject as "nothing". So I decided instead to pursue the millennial
theme further, hopefully in a more realistic manner.

The performance of prophets has not been that great in the past.
For example, Nostradamus is one who has received much
publicity and notoriety. It seems, however, that none of his
predictions ever came true and, furthermore, he did not predict
the end of the world in the year 2000. (Maybe we should be
worried!) Even eminent scientists have been completely wrong.
In the late 1800s many physicists believed that all the natural laws
had been discovered, that the universe was understood and that
nothing remained for the future but to fill in the details. Just
recently, media time and space was devoted to a fellow who
today argues that the basic work has been done in science and
that the future just involves a sort of tidying up and filling in the
details. Yes, Yogi, here we are all over again.

Why do I think (a) that fellow is wrong and (b) that our
predictions will be much more accurate than those of our
predecessors? I believe today''s key to accurate prophecy is that
we may not know the answers, but, in contrast to the late 1800s,
we know the right questions. In physics, for example, what is
dark matter? Is the universe really expanding at an accelerating
rate? If it is, why? Do those teensy strings in string theory truly
exist? Finding the answer to any of these questions is far from
just tidying up! Actually, I would be very surprised if the answers
to all these questions are not found in the 21st century. These
answers, combined with the powerful new techniques in
astronomy, should lead to major advances in our understanding of
the origins and future of our universe. We may even know a
feasible answer to the question, what came before the Big Bang?
And perhaps even to the question, is it probable that there are
other universes? More down to earth, can nuclear fusion ever be
harnessed in a practical way to provide our energy needs?

Chemistry will play a tremendous role in the 21st century. You
may not remember when the slogan of a large corporation was
"Better things for better living through chemistry". Sadly,
especially to a chemist like myself, this slogan was dropped
because of the onus on "chemicals" that developed in the public
perception. This was engendered by such incidents as the effect
of DDT on the bird population and pollution of our air and water
with toxins typified by the Love Canal affair. Ads began to
appear saying in essence "Drink our bottled water, contains no
chemicals". Water, H2O, is not a chemical?

I''ve been perusing the December 6th issue of Chemical and
Engineering News, which contains a "Millenium Special Report.
Chemistry in the Service of Humanity". It includes lengthy
forward-looking articles on various aspects of chemistry as well
as a plethora of "Millennial Musings". These musings are
thoughts on the future by a wide variety of individuals ranging
from CEOs of large corporations and entrepreneurs to Nobel
Laureates and professors. One common theme is that the public
in the 21st century needs to be educated sufficiently to form
enlightened judgments on scientific matters.

I would say that the medical arena represents one case where the
public is being educated today. You have to be blind and deaf not
to know that the chemistry of your blood, notably its LDL and
HDL content, is at least somewhat indicative of your tendency for
a heart problem. You won''t know the formulas for either of those
compounds or of the antioxidants in broccoli or the nicotine in
cigarettes. But you do know of their good or bad effects on your
health. Some of the "muses" predict that in the 21st century the
populace will indeed be better informed about chemistry and
science in general than they are today. This is a prediction I hope
comes true but I''m skeptical. My experience has been that far too
many people haven''t the least interest in science. Am I wrong?
You wouldn''t be reading this column if you weren''t an exception
to my rule.

Well, as usual, I digress. The past has seen the Stone Age, the
Bronze Age, the Iron Age and we''re now arguably at the peak of
the Silicon Age. The 21st century will probably be known as the
Molecular, or perhaps the Organic Age, with the first stirrings
now in evidence of the monumental developments to come.
Along with the decoding of the genes in the Human Genome
Project, comes the realization that storing information in DNA, or
in much simpler molecules, is vastly more efficient than using
silicon chips. Feasibility studies have shown that certain
molecules can be switched from one state to another, the basis for
digital storage and access to information. These are very early
times for even thinking about a practical "molecular" computer
but the ball is rolling. One should, however, never underestimate
the cleverness of the silicon community, which for half a century
has fended off predictions that other materials would be needed to
continue the quest for smaller and faster integrated circuits. Yet
they keep coming up with new ways to keep silicon as the driver
of our electronic world. I predict the Silicon Age will last at least
another quarter of a century.

The 1990s comprised the "decade of the brain", so proclaimed by
President George Bush. Certainly the ultimate in the storage and
processing of information, the brain has been probed more
intensely this past decade than ever before. The pathways
associated with various senses and emotions have been mapped.
Major progress has been made in revealing the mechanisms and
chemical reactions involved in the transmittal and storage of
information on the individual neuron level. As these studies
continue, there will certainly be radical new methods and designer
drugs to treat diseases such as Alzheimer''s and Parkinson''s, as
well as depression and schizophrenia. The knowledge gained
from the brain cannot help but feed back into the field of
information processing and storage to hasten the day when the
Silicon Age does become the Molecular Age.

The field of sensors is one that is going to be of major importance
in the 21st century. One of the most important applications of
sensors today is be to guard our safety. Every time we board a
plane, we and our luggage pass through X-ray and/or other types
of sensing devices. (Does it ever make you nervous that, in some
airports, you walk through the metal detector with a pocketful of
change without setting off the alarm, while in others every coin
and key must be surrendered?) Now, we are increasingly
concerned with the threat of terrorism involving not only bombs,
but also biological agents. The more insidious toxins could be
released into the target population with no obvious symptoms
until the resulting disease is established and spreading. Sensors
for known biological toxins are being developed and, hopefully,
can be employed early enough and be accurate enough to prevent
a major catastrophe.

There are many kinds of sensors being developed. Remember
NO? If you read my very first column on Viagra and nitric oxide,
NO, you recall that this simplest of molecules is of profound
importance in various vital bodily functions. Well, it seems that
the amount of NO in the body is pretty stable in an individual but
rises early on during an infection. However, the level of NO
varies from person to person so there has to be a calibration for
each individual. Work is ongoing using a luminescent material in
a sensor to calibrate and monitor the level of NO. Such a sensor
might be useful, not only medically, but also to detect initial
stages of infection by certain biological agents.

An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association of
November 17 reports on tests of a sensing device for measuring
glucose noninvasively. The instrument being tested is called a
GlucoseWatch automatic glucose biographer. It essentially sucks
the glucose out through the skin without the need for the painful
needle sticks endured by those diabetics who must monitor their
glucose several times a day. The biographer passes a small
current through the skin using two electrodes, one positive and
the other the negative. Charged sodium and chloride ions (from
salt beneath the skin) move to the different electrodes and the
glucose is dragged along. The openings in the skin are
sufficiently large to allow the glucose molecules to travel out to
the surface. An enzyme contained in the sensor reacts with the
glucose to give something called gluconic acid plus hydrogen
peroxide, the stuff you get at the drugstore. The sensor
incorporates an electrode containing platinum, a good catalyst
that spurs the peroxide to decompose to give oxygen, hydrogen
and a couple electrons, which constitute a current. By measuring
the current, i.e., counting the electrons, the amount of peroxide
and hence the amount of glucose is calculated. The device
contains an alarm, which sounds if an inappropriate level of
glucose is present. I was interested to see a financial disclosure
statement in the JAMA article, which had over 20 authors, most
from Cygnus Inc., the company that makes the device. The two
non-Cygnus employees had been paid consultants for and
received research grants from Cygnus. It''s good to see such
information as part of the record for papers that have potentially
such obvious commercial significance.

Well, I haven''t even begun to scratch the surface of what might be
expected in the future but hey, I''ve got to do my Christmas
shopping sometime. I''ll no doubt return to this subject after
surviving Y2K. For next week''s column, I''ll try again for
"nothing".

Allen F. Bortrum