Theme introduction written for Spring 2012 issue of I, Science magazine.
“What I cannot create, I do not understand.”
– Richard Feynman
We live in a man-made world. There is a good chance that everything within your sight right now has been manufactured, except – though perhaps only for now – the people. Machines for every purpose, buildings filled with clutter, paved and plastic surfaces, commodities of all kinds, dogs, clothes, and haircuts. Artefacts, every one. Away from industrialised cities, agriculture has been carving out its landscape for millennia. We have covered the Earth and filled the skies with human constructs, remaking the world to suit our myriad needs. Changes we have made to the Earth can be seen from space, and telescopes show us what we left behind on the moon.
We have manipulated atoms to write the initials of corporations and synthesised an artificial genome. Here too, Craig Venter’s team left their mark, etching their names into the fabric of life. They announced they had encoded in their genome those famous words of Feynman quoted above – found on his blackboard after his death in 1988 – and a line from James Joyce: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” When told they had misquoted Feynman’s words and used Joyce’s without permission Venter, master craftsman, simply promised to resynthesise a corrected version. To err is human, but so is to triumph.
Of course, nothing would be possible without tools. The making of tools – whether stone axes or computers – is the precursor to making everything else. Our development as a species has gone hand in hand with making and without tools, without artefacts, would we even be human? But with great power comes great responsibility, as the old adage goes. Though popularised as Uncle Ben’s advice to Stan Lee’s young Spiderman, the sentiment goes back at least to Voltaire, the Enlightenment, and the birth of modern science. Today, with the capabilities to remake not only our world but ourselves, are we mature enough to show restraint if – or when – it is needed?
“Practising responsibly requires some humility,” says Dr Megan Palmer, Deputy Director of Practices at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Centre (SynBERC) – one of many institutions promoting responsible research along science’s new fronts. For Palmer, responsibility “involves recognizing that we are always operating under limited and imperfect information, and striving to identify and address areas of uncertainty in both the benefits and risks of technologies.” Perhaps we should then add to Feynman’s words: “What I can create, it is my duty to understand.”
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