Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938


Quandary column

Contraception by WiFi

By Michael Cook

How secure is an implantable chip that enables birth control to be switched on and off with a mobile phone?

Two years ago, Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates was visiting the Langer Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the biggest biomedical engineering lab in the world. Bob Langer is a world leader in drug delivery systems for treating cancer, diabetes and other disorders. Bill Gates, through his philanthropic foundation, is a world leader in delivering high-quality birth control to the developing world.

What If Computers Have Feelings, Too?

By Michael Cook

If software becomes intelligent, what are the ethics of creating, modifying and deleting it from our hard drives?

Most bioethical discourse deals with tangible situations like surrogate mothers, stem cells, abortion, assisted suicide or palliative care. After all, the “bio” in bioethics comes from the Greek word bios, meaning corporeal life. Historically the field has dealt with the ethical dilemmas of dealing with blood and guts.

The Bioethics of the Search for MH370

By Michael Cook

The search for the missing Malaysian aircraft raises an ethical dilemma over the bias we place on “identifiable” lives over “statistical” lives.

After so many false leads and dashed hopes, Professor Glenn Cohen of Harvard University’s Law School has questioned whether the search for the lost Malaysian Airlines flight 370 was worthwhile.

Cohen was being deliberately provocative, but since the cost of the search will probably run into hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s a utilitarian question worth pondering. After a bit of number-crunching he estimates that US$100 million (a conservative estimate of the cost) could save 52,192 life years if the same amount were spent on vaccinating children.

Scan My Embryo’s Barcode

By Michael Cook

IVF “mix-ups” could be avoided by barcoding embryos, but at what point is a new life reduced to a manufactured product?

As a child in a small American town I used to visit a tobacco shop to buy my sweets. It was hot one summer’s day, and the quiet man behind the counter with a thick Polish accent had rolled up his sleeves. I remember seeing a number tattooed on his inner forearm. Tattoos weren’t fashion statements then, and the only ones I had seen were the anchors on the bulging forearms of Popeye.

A six-digit number was an odd choice for a tattoo, but I didn’t ask him about it. I was more interested in my sweets.

Brain Death Doubters

By Michael Cook

Recent cases show that doctors still do not agree about when death actually happens.

They don’t call them scare quotes for nothing. But the curlicues bracketing the term “brain death” indicate more than a fear of becoming a living corpse or of being a burden on a grieving family; they also underscore the uncertainty hovering over a medical consensus that “brain death” is death, period – no scare quotes. And because of some highly publicised cases in the United States it is turning into one of the liveliest debates in bioethics.

A Modern Vomitorium

By Michael Cook

A portable stomach pump has been developed so that morbidly obese people can continue to gorge themselves and still lose weight.

Some morsels of ancient history are unforgettable. One of these is the vomitorium, a well-known feature of Roman banquets that has become an emblem of the decadence of life under the emperors.

But I was wrong. The “well-known” vomitorium never existed. There was gluttony, of course – gobs of it – and it is described in emetic detail by some of the classical authors. But there were no rooms where satiated guests could disgorge their flamingo tongues and return for a serving of peacock brains (a menu mentioned in the Life of Vitellius by Suetonius).

Anti-Love Potions

By Michael Cook

What are the potential uses and consequences of a pill that could make people fall out of love?

The British novelist and playwright Somerset Maugham has never faded away. His 1925 novel The Painted Veil was made into a film only a couple of years ago for the third time.

What I liked when I first read his stories was the geometric precision of his plots and his Edwardian gift for epigrams. “She plunged into a sea of platitudes, and with the powerful breast stroke of a channel swimmer made her confident way towards the white cliffs of the obvious.” If only I could write like that!

But he had the misfortune of immense popularity, and the critics have not been kind to him.

Third World Bioethics

By Michael Cook

Poverty overcomes informed consent in India, where nearly 2900 people died in India during clinical trials of drugs between 2005 and 2012.

Bioethics has its own flavour in a tidy, law-abiding, wealthy country like Australia. Here we assume that, once approved, regulations and laws will be obeyed – and by and large, they are. Corruption, in other words, is uncommon. Not unknown, mind you, but Australia ranks seventh out of 194 in the Transparency International corruption index. Not too bad.

This defines the focus of our bioethics. Here doctors are trained to respect patients’ autonomy.

The Secret of Morality

By Michael Cook

Does thinking about science improve morality?

This column has always been about specific ethical issues. This month we switch to metadiscourse – grand theories of life, the universe and everything.

Let’s begin with a sweeping generalisation: the great challenge of civilisation is to turn selfish, passionate, greedy, lustful savages into law-abiding citizens. The best minds have pondered how to achieve this, beginning with Aristotle and Plato.

The Dark Background to Immortal Cells

By Michael Cook

The origins of human cell lines used in some of the world’s greatest medical discoveries have been called into question.

There is something quite mysterious about our attachment to our bodies. Even small tissue samples have an almost sacred value – not to the scientists who use them, perhaps, but to the people whose genes they carry.

Nothing illustrates this better than the intensely moving 2010 best-seller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.