Over the past few centuries , the giant strides that we have taken in the realm of science and technology have been phenomenal- we have managed to split the atoms, slice up the genome to decode DNA sequencing, actually managed to put a man on the moon and so on. To satiate mankind’s unquenching thirst for knowledge, science is increasingly blurring the lines between fiction and reality.
Such mind boggling achievements notwithstanding, there remain mysteries of life and nature aplenty,that continue to baffle and elude us. From the inner workings of our bodies , to the intrinsic mechanics of the universe – the article ponders on the great scientific challenges that mankind faces this century.
Cure For Cancer
With nearly two million Americans being diagnosed with different forms of cancer every year and nearly one third of them eventually succumbing to it – the cure for cancer remains the Holy Grail in the field of medical science. Despite numerous attempts cancer remains as deadly and potent as it was fifty years ago. Every other day we hear about some miraculous cure, ranging from gene therapies to drugs that have the wondrous ability to shrink tumors or even a vaccine, all to stem the scourge of cancer. Yet the death toll keeps rising every year , raising a serious question mark on the efficacy of all these “groundbreaking” therapies.
Even though some significant advancements have been made in this field in the last decade or so and the incidences of cancer have contracted to a certain extent – an actual cure for cancer remains an enigma to the medical fraternity. As we all know cancer is not a single disease, but an entire gamut of diseases assembled under a single umbrella. And there lies the crux of the predicament. Searching for a cure to cancer is akin to searching for a cure to say infection – there are so many different and mutated forms that are present.
While an entire spectrum of pathogens can act as carcinogenic agents , most scientists feel that the viruses stand out as the most virulent of all known carcinogens. This is primarily because viruses have greatly evolved over time to target cells which are responsible for cell division, hijack them and then precipitate random mutations that causes the host cells to proliferate out of control.
In this light , one new avenue of targeting cancer that is increasingly being adopted , is to pinpoint its cause of origin and the exact mechanism and then subsequently develop therapies to contain it before onset.The HPV vaccines Gradasil as well as Cervarix , produced to stem cervical cancer, are steps in that direction.
Even though measures like proper diet , improvement in sanitation and hyegiene as well as absitenence from tobacco and alcohol can negate the effect of this disease to a certain extent – the medical fraternity is nearly unanimous in their opinion that “The best hope for safely curing and preventing cancers arises from the identification and targeting of their infectious causes,"
The Quest To Live Forever
Common sense and pragmatism dictate everything that has a beginning must come to an inevitable end. It is one of the most irrefutable laws of nature , that no one can possibly elude. You cannot possibly escape the icy grip of death. Yet mankind continues to subscribe to the hubris notion of infinite life, stemming from various mythological sources. Consequently the quest for the fabled Fountain Of Youth has created great hype throughout history and numerous quixotic and ultimately futile expeditions. Ditto has been the case for the search of the mythical elixir or the magical potion that could extend one’s life to near infinity.
Yet despite these giant stumbling blocks, anti ageing enthusiasts continue to do serious research, undeterred in the realm of life extension. One such scientist a Cambridge University geneticist Aubrey de Grey has famously stated, “The first person to live to be 1,000 years old is certainly alive today -whether they realize it or not, barring accidents and suicide, most people now 40 years or younger can expect to live for centuries.”
Grey ‘s statements may come across to be way too optimistic, but a growing number of scientists, doctors, geneticist and nanotech experts are of the opinion that because of the rapid advancement of science and technology , a definitive solution to the anti ageing problem can be found sooner rather than later. They are working on the life extension properties of a host of compounds that inhibits the formation of anti ageing proteins in cell or other substances that results in cell decay and death.
However , most experts are billing the field of nanotechnology , as the ultimate panacea to all our ageing problems. A future where technology halts our aging process, with tiny robots zipping through our body, repairing tissues and organs may actually come to pass. So ultimately the Fountain Of Youth against all conventional logic may prove to be technological , instead of being chemical or biological.
Are We Alone
The quest for extraterrestrial life outside our galaxy is the "raison d'e etre" of NASA’s existence , a quest which so far has proved to be tedious and fraught with disappointing results. In spite of the glaring lack of any credible proof, scientists and astronomers all over the world remain unshakeable in their faith that there is life beyond our galaxy. Because in an infinite universe which is expanding everyday and made up of 100 billion galaxies, it is inconceivable that life in an evolved state will remain confined to a solitary planet of a tiny solar system. So statistically speaking, the existence of aliens appears quite rational, however despite numerous scientific attempts and space explorations, we have not been able to trace the existence of higher form of life anywhere else.
However last year only, researchers discovered that there are three times as many stars in the universe than previously reckoned . More stars automatically mean more planets and which mean greater chances of life.
One such star among the bewildering array of solar systems that researchers discovered last year,which keep on hogging the headlines is Glies 581. It has its own solar system, comprising of six exoplanets , having telltale signs of habitable zones that can act as a suitable abode of life in the future. Moreover , with Kepler satellite’s search mission is expected to be wrapped by late 2012, more positive news is expected on this front before the year’s old.
However a leading group of eminent scientists and astronomers , most notably Stephen Hawking , have expressed their apprehensions about coming in contact with alien life forms . Hawkins in one of his interviews said that extraterrestrial life could either be present in the rudimentary form like bacteria or microbes or as an entirely different highly evolved species, contact with whom can potentially spell disaster or the entire human race.
We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet," Hawking said.
"I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach."
"If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the American Indians."