New career path

I can’t believe I didn’t write here for so long. Welp, can’t help what’s done already, I’ll try to document all the cool stuff that’s happening right now at&around myself, iGEM and Genspace a bit more. I’m officially a team member of the NYC-iGEM team and there are plenty of real biology being done at Genspace now that we’re public and all. I just have so much to write about.

But first, let me give you a news, this is the one that got me writing on this blog again after months of vacation:

Virgin Galactic is hiring astronauts! Not just any astronaut, but a private astronaut presumably for their SpaceShipOne based launch program at Mojave spaceport.

You need all the qualifications usually associated with being hired as a pilot for any Aerospace corp, with preference given to those with real experience in spaceflight. I guess all those out of work astronauts from the space shuttle program can still get their flight on 🙂

I kept asking myself why I didn’t go to a flight school instead of bothering with all this physics baloney. I think my friend who does aeronautical engineering thinks the same way too. I was more or less blaming my own shortsightedness before I hit upon a memory from decade ago.

I wanted to go to space, become an astronaut. That meant I had to enroll in the airforce, go through the officer’s training, and get really, really lucky. Now luck part I never really had a problem with. Don’t worry about things you can’t control, as they say. But enrolling and spending my life in the military just to get to space? Man that just put me way off. It’s probably the same story with my engineer friend. And I’m not even sure what women go through when they want to become an astronaut. I’m thinking it’s something a lot more different from what males have to go through, whether we want to admit it or not.

I’m not really crazy about the idea of libertarian capitalism, but I can’t help but to welcome this development of private space industries. I think years of treating space as if it was a special military domain really killed lots of initiatives that could have happened, and just shelved decades worth of scientific progress under the guise of national security (for all nations with capacity for spaceflight, really).

Wings of Genspace

With the Genspace business and other stuff I’m working on picking up steam, it’s getting increasingly difficult to come up with decent enough blog posts these days. I’m still not sure whether this is a good thing or not. I love being busy pursuing my dreams, but writing is about the only thing that’s keeping me sharp, so that worries me a little. Maybe I’m slowly slipping into some state of waking coma…. Either way, I’m doing some really interesting things, so I might as well have a record of some of them here.

Genspace is in full swing, and Ellen’s busy running her biotech crashcourse, with other group-wide projects planned out already. Who would have thought we’d actually have a functioning biotech lab in NYC two years ago? Kudos to the people who stood by us all this time. Just having a lab is not enough though, we’ll be introducing some pretty awesome projects soon, just stay tuned!

I have so many things I want to write about now that I’m finally sitting in front of a computer and logged into my blogging account… But good things need time to mature, like hot pot. So I think I’ll just write about that one thing I’m supposed to talk about in this post 🙂

So we (me and Oliver) are planning to launch a high altitude microbial sampler into the stratosphere and do metagenomic analysis of whatever the samples we can gather from there. Right now I’m thinking of about 25~30km altitude, which should be around temperature range of -50 ~ -20 degrees C, which is really cold but not quite as cold as the furthest reaches of antarctica. Just to give you a scale of how high we’re going, latest version of Boeing 747 has top service ceiling of about 13km altitude. Our device will be flying at or above the double that altitude. Here’s an interesting picture of the Earth taken around 20 km.

Now simply launching a weather balloon into the stratosphere with some minor circuits, GPS and a digital camera would be simple. In fact, if it’s all I wanted I can just walk out there and launch my own balloon-sat right now. Yet, what’s the point in doing what everybody else is already doing, am I right? Now that we have a working biology lab we need to do something to bring my love of space together with my love of biology. Which means microbiome sequencing using samples taken from the above.

You see, there’s practically no real research data on the microbiome of the high altitudes. Considering the resilience of life (if you throw bunch of fruits out into the space from ISS, they’ll survive -kind of) and interlinked atmospheric conditions of the planet as a whole, we personally find it impossible to think that the realm of high altitude is totally devoid of life. There are papers out there tracing back to the era of the cold war suggesting that the maximum height of the planetary biosphere might in fact reach far beyond conventional height, with some evidences suggesting spore presence at mesosphere (~80km).

In order to have at least modestly reliable results from our experiment however, we need to design a device that can remain sterile to and from the stratosphere that will function despite heavy shaking, blistering cold, and falling. So far we’ve been making good headway into design and building of the device (Oliver is practically a McGuyver, with PhD in molecular biology) but it’s been a whole lot tougher than simply throwing together balloons, parachute and a camera that most of these projects tend to do. I’ve accumulated some interesting resources and research results during the course of the project, and will be uploading it to the net soon so that other people can follow in our footsteps and do their own high altitude sampling as well. Maybe it would be possible to grow this into an international program of sorts, considering the nature of the kind of organisms that might be found in the stratospheric range (if we find anything at all).

Recently we launched a simple tethered balloon sat to take pictures of Brooklyn from above. The contraption really had nothing to do with the sampler we’ll be launching, but it still gave us a good feel for what the real launch in the future might feel like.

The balloons were attached to a simple digital camera, a 1.99 semi disposable that took really horrible pictures. I’ll try to find a good one or two and post it later.

We launched the balloon on top of the Genspace building. The weather condition was really great, not too much wind at all. The sunlight was beautiful as well.

I’m one of those kids who used to stay up late at night thinking about the space, the high sky where the deep blue voids split over a thin red line of the sun rising, or setting somewhere over the distant part of the planet. Really, to this day the images still have the power to stir my heart, and make me feel like a human being. This is a meager start but who knows, maybe somebody’s already working on a synthetic biology satellite design that might one day take to the skies 😉

How to change the world.

This is a bit of rant post on something I thought of after watching bunch of old hacker-themed movies from the Hollywood. It continues to amaze me how I can participate in all sorts of crazy things even with the summer studies and jobs I need to keep up with. I guess that’s the benefit of living in place like NYC.

I’ve been watching some old hacker movies lately.  And I just can’t believe what kind of cool things those movie hackers were able to pull off with their now decades-old computers and laptops. Computers with interfaces and hardware that exudes that retro feel even across the projector screen. I know a lot of people with brand-spanking-new computers with state of the art hardwares and what they usually do, or can do with those machines aren’t as cool as the stuff on the movies being pulled off with vastly inferior hardware and network access. Of course, like everything in life it would be insane to compare the real with the imagined, and Hollywood movies have a bad tendency to exaggerate and blow things out of proportion (I’m just waiting for that next dumb movie with synthetic biology as a culprit, though it might not happen since Hollywood’s been barking about indecency of genetic engineering technology for decades now). Even with that in mind, I can’t help but feel that the modern computerized society is just way too different from the ones imagined by artists and technologists of the old.

Ever heard of younger Steve Jobs talking in one of his interviews? He might have been a rather nasty person but he certainly believed that ubiquitous personal computing will change the world for the better. Not one of those gradual, natural changes either. He actually believed that it’s going to accelerate the humanity itself, very much like how Kurzweil is preaching about the end of modernity with the upcoming singularity. Well, personal computing is nothing new these days. It’s actually quite stale until about a few months ago when people finally found out glut-ridden software with no apparent advantage in functionality were bad things, both in terms of user experience and economics. Ever since then they’ve been coming out with some interesting experiments like the atom chipset for netbooks (as well as netbooks themselves), and Nvidia Ion system for all sorts of stuff I can’t even begin to describe. And even with the deluge of personal computing in the world we have yet to see the kind of dramatic and intense changes we were promised so long ago. Yeah sure, the world’s slowly getting better, or changing at least. It’s all there when you take some time off and run the real numbers. It’s getting a little bit better as time goes on, and things are definitely changing like some slow-moving river. But this isn’t the future we were promised so long ago. This isn’t the future people actually wanted to create.

We have engines of information running in every household and many cellphones right now.  Engines of information meaning all sorts of machinery that can be used to create and process information content. Not just client-side consumption device where the user folks money over to some company to get little pieces of pixels or whatever, but real engines of information that’s capable of creating as well as consuming using all of the hardware capabilities. It’s like this is the Victorian Era, and everyone had steam engine built into everything they can think of. And nothing happened. No steam cars, no steam blimps, no nothing. The world’s rolling at the same pace as before and most people still think in the same narrow minded niches of their own. What’s going on here? Never had such a huge number of ‘engines’ responsible for creating an era in history been available to so many people at once. And that’s not all. Truly ubiquitous computing made available by advances in information technology is almost here, and it is very likely that it will soon spread to the poorer parts of the world and remoter parts of the globe traditionally cut off from conventional infrastructures.

But yet again, no change. No dice. Again, what’s happening here, and what’s wrong with this picture? Why aren’t we changing the world using computers at vastly accelerated rate like how we changed the world with rapid industrialization (not necessarily for the better, of course)? That’s right. Even compared to the industrialization of the old times with its relatively limited availability and utility of the steam engines we are falling behind on the pace of the change of the world. No matter what angle you take there is something wrong in our world. Something isn’t quite working right.

So I began to think during the hacker movie screening and by the time the movie finished I was faced with one possible answer to the question of how we’ll change the world using engines of information. How to take back the future from spambots, ‘social gurus’, and unlimited porn.

The answer is science. The only way to utilize the engines of information to change the world in its tangible form is science. We need to find a way to bring sciences to the masses. We need to make them do it, participate in it, and maybe even learn it, as outlandish as the notion might sound to some people out there. We need to remodel the whole thing from the ground-up, change what people automatically think of when they hear the term ‘science’. We also need the tools for the engines of information. We need some software based tools so that people can do science everywhere there is a computer, and do it better everywhere there is a computer and an internet connection. And we need to make it so that all of those applications/services can run on a netbook spec’d computer. That’s right. Unless you’re doing serious 3D modeling or serious number-crunching you should be able to do scientific stuff on a netbook. Operating systems and applications that need 2GB of ram to display a cool visual effect of scrolling text based documents are the blight of the world. One day we will look back at those practices and gasp in horror at how far they held the world back from the future.

As for actual scientific applications, that’s where I have problems. I know there are already a plethora of services and applications out there catering to openness and science integrated with the web. Openwetware and other synthetic biology related computer applications and services come to mind. Synthetic biology is a discipline fundamentally tied to usage of computer, accessibility to outside repositories and communities, and large amateur community for beta testing their biological programming languages. It makes sense that it’s one of the foremost fields of sciences that are open to the public and offers number of very compelling design packages for working with real biological systems. But we can do more. We can set up international computing support for amateur rocketry and satellite management, using low-cost platforms like the CubeSat. I saw a launching of a privately funded rocket into the Earth’s orbit through a webcam embedded into the rocket itself. I actually saw the space from the point of view of the rocket sitting in my bedroom with my laptop as it left the coils of the Earth and floated into the space with its payload. And this is nothing new. All of this is perfectly trivial, and is of such technical ease that it can be done by a private company instead of national governments. And most of the basic the peripheral management for such operations can be done on a netbook given sufficient degree of software engineering and reliable network connection. There are other scientific applications that I can rattle on and on without pause, and there are plenty of people out there much better versed in sciences who can probably come up with even cooler ideas… So why isn’t this happening? Why aren’t we doing this? Why are we forcing people to live in an imaginary jail cell where the next big thing consists of scantily clad men/women showing off their multi-million dollar homes with no aesthetic value or ingenuity whatsoever? Am I the only one who thinks the outlook of the world increasingly resembles some massive crime against humanity? It’s a crime to lock up a child in a basement and force him/her to watch crap on T.V., but when we do that to all of humanity suddenly it’s to be expected?

We have possibilities and opportunities just lying around for the next ambitious hacker-otaku to come along and take. But they will simply remain as possibilities unless people get to work with it. We need softwares and people who write softwares. We need academics willing to delve into the mysterious labyrinths of the sciences and regurgitate it in user-friendly format for the masses to consume, with enough nutrient in it that interested people can actually do something with it.

This should be a wake-up call to the tinkerers and hackers everywhere. Stop fighting over which programming language is better than others. Stop with the lethargic sarcasm and smell the coffee. Learn real science and hack it to pieces like any other system out there.

Get to work.

Change the world.

Le Corbusier, The City of To-Morrow And Its Planning

It’s 12:15 AM and I’m dead tired from writing proposals all day. So here’s a quote from Le Corbusier’s ‘The City of To-Morrow And Its Planning’ that I found especially profound.

We prefer Bach to Wagner, and the spirit which inspired the Parthenon to that which created the cathedral… This modern sentiment is a spirit of geometry, a spirit of construction and synthesis. Exactitude and order are its essential condition… Our trend is towards higher and more impartial gratifications, by reason of the mathematical spirit which inspires us; we can create in a detached and pure manner. Such are the epochs which we call classical.

Safe to say, after Hans Bellmer and Jasper Johns I’m beginning to find the wild world of urban planning and architecture to be strangely attractive. A lot of that stuff is like mathematical physics of the most abstract kind. I guess it can’t be helped. They all strive toward some manipulation of space. One with vectors, the other with human life.

Lately, no matter where my eyes turn toward to I see artscience in birthpain.

Your name to the moon!

A little note on something I just came across.

The wonderful folks at NASA (despite what the people say, I still believe in the dream!) have decided to send bunch of names to the moon on their new Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter project. All you have to do is visit the site and click on the link titled ‘Send Your Name to the Moon.’ After which you’ll be prompted to enter your name. They also have this neat certificate of participation available on their website, which you can print and/or download as a pdf file for showing off to family and friends.

Since manned flight to the moon (at least for me) won’t be happening any time soon, we might as well whet our appetite with this little demo of the moon world experience. Tell this to your friends and families. It doesn’t hurt to have your name sent up to the moon. And we don’t want to disappoint the nice people who thought to do this, do we?

As for me, I have to go get some green tea ice cream while humming along the fly me to the moon.