It’s impossible to ignore all of the discouraging stories in the news these days, but there are also stories of great hope, including in the various fields of science. Here are a few recent ones:
In October 2017 a couple of teenage Cystic Fibrosis patients in the UK who’d been given double lung transplants developed bacterial infections that didn’t respond to any of the drugs available.
A University of Pittsburgh microbiologist named Graham Hatfull had been gathering the world’s largest collection of bacteriophages—viruses that prey solely on bacteria—more than 15,000 of them, so a colleague at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital called him up. Although Hatfull’s team couldn’t save one of the patients, they were able to identify four phages that would attack the other patient’s infection once they were “activated” via some genetic modification. That patient is slowly recovering. The drawback is that this method is ultra-specific—it involves tailoring a cure for each individual patient. As bacteria and viruses become more drug-resistant, this development offers hope, though it needs to be greatly improved in efficiency to be practical on any larger scale. And there are an estimated nonillion phages that haven’t yet been discovered and catalogued (a US nonillion is a 1 followed by 30 zeroes). Other top-level medical science facilities are now exploring this territory.
With climate change threatening to make some dry areas of the planet even drier, and with industry and agriculture’s voracious appetite for water, the need to reclaim industrial waste water and even produce drinkable water from the oceans will become increasingly urgent. Now some researchers from Columbia University have developed a process called Temperature Swing Solvent Extraction which involves mixing amine solvents with heavily-salted water at room temperature. The solvent-and-water is lighter than the salts and can be extracted, and then higher temperatures separate the solvent from the pure water. Experiments show that up to 98.4% of the salt can be removed, which is comparable to reverse osmosis. But this new process requires relatively little energy and produces very high water recoverability compared to current desalination methods. If it can be scaled up, it could be a real lifesaver in the world of the future.
Researchers who call themselves agroecologists are promoting more natural ways of growing crops. This approach not only nourishes soil, which makes it more productive and its crops more nutritious, but by helping the microorganisms in the soil to flourish, it also helps to absorb carbon dioxide and water vapour from the air at a much greater rate than scientists thought possible. CO2 and water vapour are two of the most prevalent greenhouse gases driving global climate change. Plants soak up carbon and share it with the microbes in soil, which helps the soil retain water. Scientists warn that, although reducing the amount of CO2 we produce is absolutely necessary, it’s no longer enough to ward off serious climate effects. So we need to find ways to remove excess carbon and water from the atmosphere, and the methods of agroecology could be very effective in doing this. Plus it reduces dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides while making food more nutritious. Sounds like a big win in my book.
In a similar story, though on a much smaller scale, astronauts on the International Space Station will be testing an algae bioreactor—a contraption that will use the CO2 the crew exhales to grow algae which can be used as food. On one level, this could be a great help for long space voyages and colonies on other planets, but it has often been proposed that large algae farms here on Earth, perhaps on the oceans, could be an abundant source of food while, again, removing a lot of unwanted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
All of these stories offer much-needed hope in trying times. Science fiction has been coming up with ideas similar to these, and many more, for decades, as authors imagine the exploration and exploitation of outer space. Science is constantly proving that radical ideas can be turned into reality, and I would argue that science fiction provides the fertile imaginative “soil” from which harvests of new scientific developments spring.
Examples like these also reinforce my belief that hopeful and optimistic SF is still not only defensible, but perfectly sensible. We can’t ignore the potential hazards of human technology and growth, but we also have a duty to promote science as a force for good.
It truly is, when we make it so.