Nov 032015
George Church & I in the bucket of Tisbury 651

George & I in the bucket of Tisbury 651

(About the picture: I’m a volunteer firefighter in Tisbury, MA, assigned to an aerial platform truck. When George visited Martha’s Vineyard to give a talk at the local library I got permission to take him up in the bucket. He wore my lieutenant’s safety gear.)

In March of 2015, George Church (whose accomplishments in biology (and visions of the future) are too numerous and significant to for me to recap here, so just go read about ’em here or here or here) & I sat down to talk for about an hour an a half on topics ranging from the Stuxnet cyberwarfare weapon to civilization (and its foes) to surgery on Mars. I edited the discussion into four segments of 17 or 18 minutes each, conveniently gathered here for your edification, amusement, and enlightenment. As a special bonus, at the end of this blog I’ve included the new Foreword to my novels that George was generous enough to write, just in time for the SynbioBeta Conference taking place in San Francisco this week, where I’l be hawking my wares, as is my wont.


Part two:

Part three:

And the thrilling conclusion:

Your promised bonus! George Church’s foreword to the novels of John Sundman:

As a child, like many children, I wanted to be a fireman, construction worker or paperback-writer when I grew up. John Sundman is all that and much more. He lived for four years with subsistence farmers in Senegal and wrote world-class technical manuals for Sun Microsystems. He modestly claims to have done the latter without understanding the underlying ware (a refreshing alternative to manuals lacking knowledge of any human language). Like Clemens, Rowling, Clark Kent, and other greats, Sundman uses pseudonyms (changing his middle names) to protect his secret identity.   He is a master of machines —computing, biological and political —and his books include details that will convince an expert, and yet enchant a distant outsider with a compelling page-turner plot. Not just plot and mechanisms, but unforgettable personalities that haunt us long after the pages stop.

John’s “Mind Over Matter” trilogy began with his first novel, Acts of the Apostles, in 1999, (significantly reworked as Biodigital in 2014). His second was Cheap Complex Devices and his third, The Pains. These books get the reader amazingly quickly into a jarringly jamais vu/deja vu world — especially for aficionados of Orwell’s 1984 and Christian doctrine. While refreshing style changes occur among them, you can find a consistent “meta” component that adds to the puzzles in each one. We must now suffer the pain of waiting for his next books Creation Science and Meekman Rising.

Long before synthetic biologists were quoting the bongo physicist, Sundman’s 1999 novel Acts of the Apostles was about “The Feynman Nine” a programmable nanoscopic machine described as “a device for finding a DNA sequence and converting it into another sequence.” Sounds a lot like the CRISPR craze of genome editing. As Joe Davis, a ‘hybrid’ artist at Harvard and MIT, might remind us, the best conceptual art (including novels) prods us to visualize vital issues that are lurking at, or far beneath, the surface of our science and cutting edge engineering. My lab specializes in the subset of topics pejoratively classified as sci-fi/impossible, which, sometimes, turn out to be relatively easy. For this we need a constant stream of challenges and inspirations. A very rich source of such challenges lies at the interface between “bio” and “digital” – the realm of synthetic genomics, virus-resistant recoded organisms and Obama’s BRAIN initiative. It is precisely this biodigital interface that lies at the heart John Sundman’s novels. Read them and you may find yourself challenged as well.

George Church

Harvard & MIT, 2015

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