We Might Be the Comeback Kids of the Universe: Chris Mason on His Plan for the Next 500 Years

Chris Mason is back on the program for our end-of-year special. He’s Professor of Genomics, Physiology, and Biophysics at Weill Cornell School of Medicine and the author of such an outstanding book that we had to have him on the program a second time this year. Called The Next 500 Years: Engineering Life to Reach New Worlds, the book delivers on its title.

Chris was deeply influenced by a book of Isaac Asimov he received at the age of 15 from his parents, writing that this book “never left his head.” Join us as he shares the haunting idea he received from Asimov, his ethical and philosophical positions, as well as the outline of his plan for the next 500 years—and a lot of other scientific tidbits. Any takers for chloroskin? The book serves as a summary of Chris’s years in the field of genomics—a basic biology textbook—as well as a passionate plea to take our common future—what for some of us seems a very distant future but for Chris can seem to be moments away—more seriously.

Happy Winter Solstice, fellow Earthlings!

This Is So Today: SENS Foundation Kicks Off New Conference on Aging

I like going to first time conferences.  Like a newborn animal struggling to stand up,  they wobble as they learn who they are.  This opens up unique opportunities.

Last week the SENS Foundation put on the first ever Rejuvenation Biotechnology conference in Santa Clara.  (“Rejuvenation” might be misleading.  This is a conference on aging, not on spa treatments.)  The SENS Foundation operates on the  “belief that a world free of age-related disease is possible,”  and the conference is a way to build a community around that belief.  

Traveling in Time One Minute Per Minute: David Orban

This interview originally aired January 8, 2013.


David Orban, CEO of Dotsub Bio and Contact Info

Listen (2:35) What is Dotsub?

Listen (9:30) Why should we think about the future?

Listen (3:08) Do we have more control of the future in this age of science and technology?

Listen (6:07) Why is it so hard to agree on the future?

Listen (6:55) We are part of a biological experiment run amok that we are now running

Listen (5:31) Will scientists be the new world rulers?

Why should we think about the future, I ask David Orban, the CEO of Dotsub in today's interview. David is an "unabashed" futurist. At Dotsub, a video sharing site with translation services, David is taking part in what he calls the move to a "network society." I'm not asking David why we should have goals or plan say an interview on Tuesday of next week, or a doctor visit in three weeks. I'm talking about far into the future. How much control do we have over the future? Actually, what is the future? David has thought and talked a lot about these questions and shares his observations on future trends, particularly those of biotech. "We're part of a biological experiment run amok," he says in the interview. "And now we are running it."

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'Transhumanism 101' with Natasha Vita-More

This interview originally aired on 1/3/13.


Natasha Vita-More, New Media Design Theorist and University Lecturer Bio and Contact Info

Listen (1:03) What is transhumanism?

Listen (8:26) A love/distant relationship with sci-fi writers

Listen (5:21) Platform diverse bodies of the future

Listen (5:36) What is the criticism of transhumanism?

As part of our series, Creating the Future, we talk with a transhumanist. Transhumanism is a philosophy and a movement that seeks to be proactive in the elevation of mankind through technology.

Today's guest, Natasha Vita-More, was involved in the movement as it took off, and in fact wrote the Transhumanist Manifesto. She is now the chairman of the board for Humanity+, a non-profit advocating the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities. Today's show is somewhat of a beginners course on transhumanism--what it is, where it's going, and what are the criticisms. In addition, Ms. Vita-More discusses the "love/distant" relationship between the movement and science fiction writers.

The role sci-fi writers play in creating the future by inspiring science itself is a theme we're pursuing in this series.

Podcast brought to you by: Assay Depot - the world's largest cloud-based marketplace for research services. With Assay Depot, you can easily find the perfect research service provider and manage your project from anywhere in the world.

Science and the "Great Delusion" with David Brin, Sci-Fi Author


David Brin, Sci-Fi Author Bio and Contact Info

Chapters: (Advance the marker)

0:47 Who's doing the heavy lifting of creating the future?

8:13 Imagination the great tragedy and boon of human nature

11:24 Science one of the four great pillars that freed us from the "Great Delusion"

15:35 When did you go from astronomer to writer?

24:23 Where are we going in the life sciences?

27:13 A contrarian on immortality

33:00 Renunciationism, stopping the forward rush of science

37:46 "The American Revolution stuns me."

40:55 BONUS: The author reads from Existence

Sci-fi author, David Brin, is the final guest in our series, Creating the Future. He says that everyone, that civilization is creating the future. However, he concedes that if you were to compare civilization to a human brain, that "a few of us are the pre-frontal lobes . . . who poke sticks in the sand, in the trail ahead of us that we're charging into so that we can find the quicksand pits . . . before we step right into them."

Brin is one of those sci-fi authors who was actually a scientist, an astronomer first. Why and when did he begin writing? And how does his inner scientist feel about it? David talks of the "Great Delusion" that man fell and falls into on account of his imagination. And it was Science, one of the four pillars of the Enlightenment, that freed us from the delusion. We have trained the imagination and are no longer subjects to the oligarchs of the past. Brin is an actor as well as writer and scientist. You're bound to be captivated by his command of science, history, politics, and by his entertaining wit.

Living in a Sci-Fi World with Author Kim Stanley Robinson

Note: This show was originally posted on January 20, 2013.


Kim Stanley Robinson, Sci-Fi Author Bio and Contact Info

Chapters: (Advance the marker)

0:47 How do you choose date and time?

5:14 We live in a science fiction world

9:25 Who's creating the future, the scientists and engineers, or the sci-fi writers?

11:22 The philosophical battle between science and capitalism

16:07 How does one go about creating the future on paper?

25:10 Is science becoming too much like a religion?

29:24 Fiction is the steady instrument, science is what evolves

33:00 Audience Question: On which planet or astroid or community from your novels would you most want to live?

35:55 KSR reads from 2312

Interviewing scientists and those who are in the field has led me to the question, are scientists and engineers the new world leaders? Are they setting our direction more than any other group? Are they creating the future? And these questions have led often to the answer, “We got it from the sci-fi writers.”

You’ll no doubt understand my pleasure, therefore, in interviewing the award winning sci-fi author of the Mars Trilogy, Stan Robinson. The Mars Trilogy is Robinson’s most popular work, a series of novels about the settling and terraforming of Mars over nearly two centuries. And it is this series which has been most oft cited by our guests as the source of their crazy ideas about settling Mars.


I’ve been reading the first of the novels, Red Mars. The opening shows off Robinson’s more poetic, lyrical side.

"Mars was empty before we came. That’s not to say that nothing had ever happened. The planet had accreted, melted, roiled and cooled, leaving a surface scarred by enormous geological features: craters, canyons, volcanoes. But all of the happened in mineral unconsciousness, and unobserved. There were no witnesses--except for us, looking from the planet next door, and that only in the last moment of its long history. We are all the consciousness that Mars has ever had." (Red Mars)

Red Mars tells of the initial colonization of Mars and delves deeply into the relationships and politics of the first 100 settlers. It provides Robinson another platform (he wrote a similar series about the future of California) to pit science (the expedition to virgin territory, a planet untouched as yet by man, is made up almost entirely of scientists) against capitalism (the earth is taken over by transnational corporations as resources become scarce and war breaks out).

For Stan, science and capitalism--born around the same time, he says-- are engaged in an epic battle for man’s future. Science is the greatest hope for mankind, he quips matter of factly in today's show. For Stan, capitalism is the greatest threat to this hope. It’s a provocative idea. One I must admit that plays out before me each day as I make my way through the news.

Stan has an inspiring notion of science. And midway through the interview, as I listen to him, I begin to sense his definition and wonder to myself how I would define science. Try it. It’s not easy. Feeling it his duty as a writer to probe the difficult questions, Stan is comfortable talking on the philosophical plane. He acknowledges and expands upon the “loop” between scientist and science fiction writer in creating the future. He’s willing, if not anxious, to theorize about politics in his utopian fashion. “Science is egalitarian. . . and it’s always for human good. . . . In capital[ism], there is no sense of sufficiency, or adequacy, or of what’s it all about. It’s just, more is better. And more is not always better," he says.

(There is fertile ground for a series on the subject of science vs. capitalism where we could have Stan back to the program to argue his point with a venture capitalist who might argue that there is an important symbiosis here between the two forces.)

This series is named Creating the Future, so I push Stan to tell us about the actual writing process. How does one go about creating the future on paper? Is it the futurist writers who do the heavy lifting for the rest of us? Extrapolation is the main tool at work, but what gives Stan his confidence to go out so far and say, "hey, this is how it’s going to be?"

I haven’t read or met many sci-fi writers with whom to compare Robinson, but he, and his writing, strike me as very grounded. He doesn’t write about technology which is not feasible now. He admits that he is evolving in the direction of going further and further out there. His latest novel 2312 is set in that year, a time when interplanetary travel between Mercury and Neptune takes just 16 days. This is the furthest he’s gone.


KSR at his writing table in Davis, CA

Stan lives in a quiet community in Davis, CA surrounded by the fields of industrial agriculture. He was eager to show us his writing station located outside his front door, where he writes, rain or shine, warm or cold. It was unusually cold last week, yet he persists, writing in a ski coat and gloves. His home and place in what he calls a “village” community with common garden space bears no resemblance to any place in his novels. Except perhaps the odd rock collection he keeps on his writing table.


KSR and Host, Theral Timpson in the garden

As he proudly points out which winter greens he attends to in the garden each morning, he tries to explain to me that a 16 day trip from Mercury to Neptune would only require that we go at 1 g. Standing between a patch of lettuce and some healthy looking carrots, watching children play in the distance, I’m entirely convinced that such a trip is possible.

“I’m as 'here' as anybody,” he says in the interview. “This science fiction thing is a way of thinking about now and a way of understanding now more fully. . . It’s a very boring and stable life, which for a novelist is a great thing.”

Be sure to get to the end of the interview, where Stan reads from the opening chapter of 2312.


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Message from a Patient: Whole Genome Sequencing Not Clinical Yet

Podcast brought to you by: See your company name here. - Promote your organization by aligning it with today's latest trends.

Guests: Jay Lake, Sci-Fi Author Bio and Contact Info

Joseph Edward Lake, US Ambassador Bio and Contact Info

Listen (6:05) The term patient implies waiting - and waiting kills

Listen (3:34) The medical bureaucracy very challenging for a patient

Listen (7:30) Health is a privilege

Listen (10:46) Whole genome sequencing not clinical yet

Listen (2:13) Who is creating the future?

Today we begin a series, The Age of the Engaged Patient. Jay Lake is a sci-fi writer and compulsive blogger. He is also a patient. He joins us for today's program with his father, Joe, to talk about his struggle with colon and lung cancer. As is often the case with patient stories, patient can imply a team working together for the health of one individual.

Jake is very open about his cancer and his life as a patient. He blogs often about his daily medical experiences and has built up a large following in addition to his sci-fi fan base. "If I can use my storytelling skills to explain cancer, then I've beaten the disease," he exclaims in the interview. What do Jay and his dad think about the term patient? And what message does he have for our audience of life science researchers? Jay recounts his adventure with whole genome sequencing and is honest about how "painful and difficult" this aspect of his treatment has been.

Disrupting Synthetic Biology: Kevin Munnelly, Gen9

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Kevin Munnelly, CEO, Gen9 Bio and contact Info

Chapters: (Advance the marker)

0:39 A disruptive change to synthetic biology

6:56 Why hasn't gene synthesis progressed along with sequencing?

10:14 Looking at the market: applications for synthetic biology

15:29 Educating the market the biggest challenge

19:01 PR efforts going into biosecurity

25:07 Personal path to Gen9

As part of our series on synthetic biology, we talk with Kevin Munnelly, CEO of Gen9, a new gene synthesis company founded by George Church of Harvard, Joseph Jacobson of MIT, and Drew Endy of Stanford. According to Munnelly, Gen9 is not just another gene synthesis company, but one which will dramatically disrupt the space. The theory is that just as the declining cost of sequencing has enabled new applications for genomics, so too will a drastically reduced price for synthetic genes. Kevin believes we are just at the beginning of a synthetic biology revolution and it's new technology such as his that will enable it. What are these new applications and why hasn't gene synthesis kept pace with sequencing we ask Kevin in today's show.