Oh gosh! I don’t think we did. Now I’m sad about it. We interviewed a guy for the book named Jordan Miller. Jordan’s big deal is 3D printing organs, and part of that was developing a machine that 3D prints sugar. Sugar’s a great substance to allow you to interior print veins, and then be able to overlay on that. If you have an organ without vascular structure, it’s like a city without roads.
But I wish we had tried some 3D printed food.
One of the problems is that we got a sense about 3D printed food that it almost always tastes terrible. There’s a tradeoff where if you make a cookie, and if you ship them, they have to be shelf-stable, which is why a bakery cookie tastes better. And with 3D printing, it has to be made of material that can be extruded as glop, it can’t have anything that would clog the extruder like chocolate chips, and nothing that separates in that extruder, so once you’ve adjusted to all these constraints that have nothing to do with the taste, by the time you’re done the cookie doesn’t taste right.
So we’re probably lucky we didn’t taste anything! We were intrigued by 3D printed frosting, the 3D printing “frostruder” frosting extruder attachment. But we’ll probably get around to it at some point.
Augmented Reality is here (not SOONISH, but actually here) and I was fascinated to learn thanks to the book was Morton Heilig’s 1962 “Sensorama” was the first-ever AR - it made me think of Smell-O-Rama from 3 years earlier in 1959!
The book shares an overview of how AR works: how AR is doing, and that “A few scientists and engineers are working on audio, smell, and touch technologies.” Did you get to test out any AR technologies while working on the book firsthand like Magic Leap?
I got to fiddle with some systems after the book was out, but our general deal was we tried to just read dorky stuff versus going out in the field so much.
And also with AR or VR, doing it is a very good description of how it feels, and then describing it doesn’t work very well. A lot of our friends have taken their kids to play Pokemon Go! But we’re mostly noses in books, I’m afraid.
Thank you for sharing with us, Zach, your learnings about the “Nasal Cycle.” How would you summarize this for unsuspecting readers who haven’t had the chance to check out the book yet?
Sure! So I honestly can’t remember how we got into it. When you’re researching AR, a lot of it is about to trick human senses. And somehow we got into research about smell in general. You have an idea of how your senses work, but it’s oftentimes different, which is how optical illusions work.
There have been a lot of people doing research on how smell works: your body takes in air, extracts chemicals from it to analyze, and to facilitate that, you have mucus that’s constantly elevator-ing around your body. There’s all this research we bumped into - and I won’t make any claims as to how true or not it is, or whether it will hold up in the future - BUT there were all these experiments where, like any good psychology experiment, you offer undergraduates course credit to get them to do stuff.
And so these experiments are showing that there’s a “dominant nostril” at any given point. I you’ve ever had a bad cold, you’re lucky to have one nostril you can breathe through. And so that’s your nasal cycle.
And so in these experiments, these undergraduates were compelled to breathe through their non-dominant nostril while doing tests, and apparently there’s a negative impact from that. What in the world that means for anything, I don’t know, but just knowing that the level of abuse was heaped on psych students for course credit was kind of gratifying.
In the “Synthetic Biology” section, it blew my mind to learn (thanks to SOONISH) that Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, and collard greens are all descended from the SAME SPECIES. They’re all Brassica oleracea! How did you react when you found that out?
Brassica! I forget why I knew it for some reasons, but I didn’t know the extent of it. I told Kelly, I don’t think she believed me. But what’s funny is, for the mega-dorks in your audience, there’s an etymology in these words - colus, which is the latin word for cabbage. And a lot of these species still have that in their name. Bro-COL-li, COL-iflower, even the “Cole” in “coleslaw.” So if that helps convince the skeptical.
What is a single use monocle?
OH my gosh! It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever worked on. It started as a joke, obviously, that you have a condom wrapper but you open it up and it’s a monocle for your emergency monocle needs. I get an update from our store that we’ve sold a few today. Hivemill.com or SingleUseMonocles.com.
We actually sell a decent amount to bachelor or bachelorette parties as the dorkiest gifts you can get! The lens is just a piece of acrylic plastic, but it’s nicer than a $2 costume monocle. We say “single use” but it’s actually re-usable. We did it as a joke, and the sweetest plum is that my wife thought it was a dumb idea but then we made a nice profit. That was a good day for me.
You learn so much throughout the book: “it’s about 10 cents or less per letter” to write custom strings of DNA. Of course, “the human genome has about three billion letters.” On page 221, we learn that we don’t have to stick with 20 kinds of amino acids anymore - with new DNA, we can make 172. Was there anything that you learned along the way that blew your mind?
Oh, almost everything! I’m a nerdy person. My wife is a research scientist, and she studies brain-manipulating parasites (she would say she studies “parasites that manipulate host behavior), which we don’t get into in the book - very tangentially, some of her knowledge was useful in our biology chapter, and by being who we are we have a great connection network to help us find out about obscure things.
But none of this stuff is stuff we have expertise in. So part of why this was so much work was so we could become as expert as possible, or talk to someone who is, so we don’t say anything too wrong.
For me, the most mind-blowing thing as far as creep factor was the brain-interface stuff. We cannot do this yet, but there’s no reason to suppose you couldn’t make a machine that enhances memory, possibly intelligence (that’s a tougher question I think), but the stuff like detecting lapse in focus is entirely possible. If you’re at your job, and you’re supposed to be focusing on work but you’re on Facebook or you’re thinking about your mother in law coming by - you’re lapsing - your boss could detect that using this technology and say “You’re not utterly focused.”
Which sounds like a pure unbridled nightmare. There’s a not-entirely-negative version of that, which would be for a jet pilot or a surgeon, where you might recognize the the person buying your services has a right to insist you’re focused. BUT - here’s the mind-blowing creepy part - in a world where this is a thing, there’s an incentive to be that employee who’s totally cool with their boss monitoring their brain. So imagine you’re a boss, you don’t even have to imagine this is an evil boss, but someone who’s just trying to do their best job or make money, and that boss is presented with 2 employees - employee A who refuses to have their focus monitored by an external apparatus, and employee B accepts. And now you have an arms race, especially as the technology develops. You could argue that this is already happening. Something like 20% of elite academic researches are already admitting to using brain-enhancing drugs so they could work 16 hours a day or more. It’s already an arms race - who gets tenure, the person who works 16 hours a day or not? So you’re talking about a world where you can’t opt out without serious consequences. And that, to me, is creepy.
We didn’t get to find out what Neural Dust was, though. Any chance of that being in the next book?
So a guy named Kennedy invented these. The idea is you have a tiny piece of glass, you connect wires to it, and next to the wires are nutrients for neurons, and you implant this in someone’s head. And why would you do this, you ask? So instead of sticking a probe into someone’s brain, the neurons grow over and into it. So in theory it’s a better way to get data on a small number of neurons.
Obviously it’s quite invasive - there’s a story in the book about the guy who invented it getting it implanted in his own head, because he couldn’t get funding or research patients. The general case with a lot of this brain stuff is that the brain is not a computer - a computer doesn’t have a physical immune system that doesn’t like having stuff stuck in it, which worsens the signal and also causes brains to inflame.
But it’s a wonderful story. This guy can’t get subjects, or funding, so he goes to Belize, and they put in these neurotropic implants he designed. How he found a surgeon to convince is incredible to me, and I guess he got interesting data, and like most neural implants, the data faded over time. He did lose his ability to read for a little while, but the weirdest part of his story was he needed it removed and he was able to get insurance to cover it?!?! So insurance won’t cover birth control, but it will cover the cost of having an illegal brain implant removed.
How much do you love surprising people with “phosphenes” jokes?
If you can believe that, the more time I have, the nerdier I get! My brother and I Marty were teenagers, and we bumped into this word, “phosphenes” - when you pressure your eyes and you trigger your optic nerve. Be careful with the pressure! So my brother and I used to do this thing where you’d run up behind someone, softly but insistently press on their eyeballs, and yell “PHOSPHENES!” I did that to my wife for a while, but it didn’t go over as well. I didn’t trust she would have a proportionate level of response.
Do you or Kelly read a lot of science fiction books, or see a lot of science fiction movies? Why or why not?
Not as much as I’d think people would guess. I’ll tel you why: speaking for Kelly, we do read some pop science, she’s just not as into the sci-fi scene, as a thing. She enjoys Black Mirror, that sort of thing. I do like some classic science fiction, but I’m an English major. I like reading old poetry, and literary things. So if I can get some good literary science fiction, old Frederik Pohl or Stanislav Lem or the Strugatsky Brothers. Fundamentally at my deepest level I’m a profound snob, so I’m not into high fantasy type stuff. I’m not a sci-fi geek. I do enjoy it, I liked Star Wars as a kid, but I’m not an encyclopedia of science fiction.
Page 332 was another exclaiming “WTF” moment out loud for me with this idea of mirror versions of organisms. Are you working with the Marvel Universe team yet? Also, caraway or spearmint?
I should say George Church (who’s absolutely smarter than me) thinks it’s plausible and good. We don’t even get much into detail, but a lot of molecules in your body exhibit chirality - like a corkscrew, one turns one way, another turns another way. A lot of molecules in your body have this chirality. So in principle, you could create organisms that operate on other chirality. So there’s actually an idea, maybe back in the 1980s, there was the idea of a sweeter that your body couldn’t use because it operated on the opposite chirality.
A more potentially interesting idea is presumably a lot of diseases wouldn’t be able to affect you if you were the “mirror” version. But for the amount of work it would take to make a mirror human, we might be able to cure these diseases! And Dr. Church pointed out if you have a mirror human and a non-mirror human, presumably they wouldn’t be able to reproduce. So you’d get this weird thing where you’ve created a divergent species that looks like you. And if they’re better than us with not getting diseases, they might not like us! So maybe we exist in a world where the mirror people take over.
But plausibly, suppose you wanted to do research with smallpox - you don’t want to make any mistakes as no one’s immune to it anymore. But if you were able to make mirror smallpox in a lab, you could do these tests and it would immediately die out in the wild. But mostly it was something we read about that George Church (who embodies mad scientist in every wonderful sense of the word) wrote about extensively in his book REGENESIS.
Oh wow! Gosh. This book has a lot of stuff that would meet this category. But one thing we’ve been telling people that’s just amazing - my wife did the research on this, we talked about crazy late 1950’s projects, but there was one called Argus. To keep it to a factoid, we detonated a bunch of nuclear bombs in space, and accidentally knocked out the first British satellite! It feels like a British comedy to me, they finally got their satellite up, and we shot it out of space. So when I think of a rarely told fact, I think of that.
What’s coming up next for you and Kelly?
We’re working on something together, but it’s going to take a few years. I do have a book coming out with a co-author, it’s a graphic novel, nonfiction, arguing that the US should have an open-border immigration policy. So that’s the next thing for me. Kelly is, I mentioned we’re moving to a farm, with a big metal structure that Kelly is converting to an ecology lab. So while we’re researching our next project, she’s researching parasitic wasps, which she finds fascinating and not gross.
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