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The stuff of dreams

February 12, 2012

WHILE business and political leaders at this year’s World Economic Forum at Davos chatted gloomily, the star of the show was a man called Jonathan Rothberg, the inventor of the Ion Proton.

Many are already referring to Rothberg’s invention, the world’s first desktop semiconductor-based gene sequencer, as revolutionary; it has brought the hitherto laborious task of gene-sequencing into the era of the semiconductor microchip.

What it does is read the human genome — the complete DNA code that is unique to each individual — in two hours and for less than $1,000. As the inventor pointed out to reporters at Davos, before the Ion Proton was developed getting the genome of any individual involved machines that cost more than half a million dollars and weeks of waiting.

The Ion Proton, according to Rothberg, “is designed to do discovery: find new genes that are involved in cancer, find new genes that are involved in autism, find new genes that are involved in diabetes. But it’s also designed to be used in clinical practice to make sure that you give the person the right medicine or the right medicine to the right person. And to help diagnose newborn children with ailments”.

These may sound like tall claims but by all accounts, the Ion Proton will be able to help patients know within hours whether or not they have a gene-related disease, or help doctors know almost instantly what sort of problem they are dealing with. Alternatively, as excited reports point out, police investigators will be able to develop a suspected offender’s DNA profile as quickly as in the world of fiction.

The ‘wow’ factor in the Ion Proton is not that it does what was previously impossible, but that it does it much, much faster, more cheaply and efficiently. The task of gene sequencing otherwise involves researchers studying DNA strands under what are effectively very powerful microscopes. With the Ion Proton, DNA samples can be dropped onto a one-inch microchip, slotted in, and two hours later, you’ll have the full six-billion-letter code of life.

Last year, this would have sounded like science fiction, specifically the ‘tricorder’ device used by Star Trek’s Dr McCoy to diagnose everything from internal injuries to aliens’ identities. But that too is perhaps not far away.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, a $10m prize was offered to anyone who could develop the tricorder for real. The Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize challenges researchers to build a small (maximum weight of 2.2kg), portable, wireless tool capable of capturing “key health metrics and diagnosing a set of 15 diseases”.

The hope is that the huge prize money may inspire an engineer to “make 23rd-century science fiction (the original Star Trek from the ’60s was set in the 23rd century) a 21st-century medical reality”. X Prize Foundation’s chairman Peter Diamandis joked at the launch of the award that “I’m probably the first guy who’s here in Las Vegas who would be happy to lose $10m”.

The challenge here, again, is size and efficiency. Medical devices that detect chemical signs of illnesses and assist in making diagnoses already exist, but most of them are large, expensive and few produce instant readings. Bringing a roomful of devices together into something within the prescribed 2.2kg weight limit will, medical engineers speculate, be a daunting challenge. If done, though, it would revolutionise medical science.

A fair amount of modern science is, in fact, based on the fiction of earlier decades. One could argue that the writers and dreamers think up a concept that seems, in their age, ludicrous, but they light the path for later inventors; imagining the impossible is the first step of invention.

Or, one could argue that some writers have a sort of prescience about the way the world will have to go. It wasn’t George Orwell who thought up the idea of the Internet, but he did create in Nineteen Eighty Four a screen in every home that could, at a touch, equally provide information and conduct surveillance.

The World Wide Web as we know it today is there in an identifiably fleshed-out form in the works of Arthur C. Clarke, most specifically a short story called ‘Dial F for Frankenstein’ that was published in 1962, in which all the telephones in the world were connected to each other.

This was one of the major inspirations that led British scientist Tim Berners-Lee to invent the World Wide Web in 1990. This remarkable author also proposed the idea of the geostationary communications satellite in 1945 in Wireless World magazine. In a 2005 interview with Forbes magazine, Clarke said that “I imagined it would be achieved within a few decades. In reality, it took only two.”

Another of Clarke’s ideas that is being worked upon by modern-day scientists and theorists is the space elevator from the 1978 novel Fountains of Paradise.

The ‘orbital tower’ — a giant structure rising from the ground and linking up with a geostationary satellite — was in the book used to raise payloads to orbits without the use of rockets. Clarke imagined a microscopically thin but very strong ‘hyperfilament’ that would one day make the space elevator possible.

Recent developments in carbon nanotube technology have brought the idea closer to realisation. In 1999, a space infrastructure conference held in the Marshall Space Flight Centre led Nasa’s David Smitherman to compile plans for such an elevator in the publication Space Elevators: An Advanced Earth-Space Infrastructure for the New Millennium.

The idea continues to be worked on by writers and inventors, and some competitions and partnerships have been announced to spur on the process of invention. Last year, Google was revealed as working on plans for a space elevator at its secret Google X Lab facility.

Sweet dreams are made of this, then. While the world focuses increasingly on technical education, it must also keep in mind that in addition to the scientists we need our dreamers and creators of ideas to carry us forward. We need people who can imagine the impossible, and for this reason among many others university funding cuts for the ‘softer’ disciplines are a big mistake.

The writer is a member of staff.