Monday, June 27, 2011

You can't make this stuff up ...

I never expected to encounter a sentence like: "Genetically Engineered Cell Shoots Out First-Ever Biological Laser." 

Do cellular lasers sound trivial? They're not. Consider:
Aside from implying the future possibility of a self-healing laser that requires no battery, this breakthrough could allow doctors and scientists to view the inner workings of individual cells without a microscope. 
I instantly thought of an application not mentioned in the article: laser-based communications among medical nanobots. Visible light spans the wavelengths from about 380 to 780 nanometers -- while cells (and cell-sized machines, once we have them) are of the scale several thousand nanometers. Had cell-based lasers been thought possible a few years ago, I might well have used them for the nanobots in Small Miracles. (Instead I used chemical signaling -- just as natural cells do.)

The next topic is scary, but the headline is ironic: "LightSquared Network Faces Interference of Its Own Making."

LightSquared is a company in the process of deploying a national-scale Internet service reliant on satcom. Their business plan calls for reselling bandwidth to retailers (e.g., Best Buy) and telecom carriers (e.g., Sprint Nextel). The problem: the LightSquared network as proposed will interfere with GPS receivers! The FCC sent LightSquared back to the drawing board. In a matter of days, LightSquared announced plans to change the frequencies they will use. Big money is at stake -- in both telecom and GPS industries -- so this mess will be interesting to watch. (I like my GPS receiver. I hope no one messes it up.)

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has decided that cell phones "may" cause cancer. To which the Wall Street Journal opines: "The U.N. promotes a needless cancer scare." Consider:
Some facts might help here. While cell phone use has surged since the 1980s, both the incidence and mortality rate for brain and other central nervous system cancers in the U.S. have fallen slightly. About 22,000 Americans were diagnosed with brain tumors in 2010, in a country of 270 million mobile phone users.
AFAIK, the wavelengths used by cellphones are of the wrong wavelength to directly damage cells. (The mechanism presumed by those who see a cancer/cellphone link is heating. Is anyone on the phone long enough to heat their brain with their cell phone?)

To end on a cheerier note (and moving away from cells of all kinds), consider this list of  "10 Sci-Fi Predictions That Came True." These are significant predictions that Verne, Twain, Wells, and other quite-a-while-ago writers got essentially right.


Erik said...

Well those laser cells are pretty cool. I guess they shoot the lasers out in all directions, so they could be used for communication. I bet there are a million applications, and am wondering if these things would cause damage if deployed inside a living organism.

Edward M. Lerner said...

My guess is as long as the laser is biochemically powered (i.e., very limited in its output), it won't produce enough light energy to harm nearby cells.

- Ed