Problem-solving insights enable new technologies

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Sandy Schaffer

Fire was one of our ancient ancestors’ first forays into technology. Controlled burns enabled early hominids to ward off cold, cook and better preserve game. New evidence places fire-making in Europe as early as 800,000 years ago, much earlier than previously thought and closer to scientists’ best estimate for hominids’ first use of fire, about 1 million years ago in Africa.

It’s unclear how early Homo species came to master fire, but it was perhaps an attempt at problem solving — capturing a natural phenomenon and harnessing it for use. That tradition has persisted in human cultures. It thrives today among scientists, especially those engaged in problem solving related to society’s most pressing issues.

Take drug addiction, a vexing problem that has grown in urgency in the last decade as more and more people have become dependent on opioids — not only street drugs like heroin but also prescription pain meds like OxyContin and fentanyl. Opioids can be extremely difficult to give up because of their strong addictive pull. So scientists are trying to develop vaccines that would block the effects of heroin and other drugs of abuse, as Susan Gaidos reports. Eliciting a strong immune response, researchers theorize, could stop the drug from reaching the brain, preventing the high that fuels addiction. Success with such biotechnology, now being tested only in lab animals, would offer hope to many battling to stay off drugs.

Another modern scourge is terrorism, and anthropologists like Scott Atran have been exploring the psychological and cultural factors that drive some individuals to extreme acts of violence. There is no technology to prevent people from committing such acts — at least not yet. Basic explorations must always precede any practical use of new knowledge: Hominids could not use fire until they understood its nature and limits — which things burn, which do not; water and sand douse flame, oil and fat fuel it. Mapping terrorism’s contours is just a beginning on a long journey toward developing tactics for undercutting its power.

So it is with many other reports in this issue about basic explorations that may well precede the birth of new technologies. A few favorites:

  • A report on insights into how the microbial denizens of the gut influence weight gain and obesity. Scientists have now revealed a molecule made by microbes that sends a signal to the brain, influencing fat storage and appetite.

  • An intriguing study of mice with genetic mutations similar to those found in some people with autism. The findings suggest a role in the disorder for nerve cells involved with touch, as well as a new way to think about autism that may one day identify a target for novel therapies and interventions.

  • News of a second detection of gravitational waves from LIGO. It’s less dramatic and showy than the first black hole merger detection, announced in February. But it is nonetheless a further sign that a new era, one in which astronomers probe the heavens by watching for violent if subtle wakes in the fabric of spacetime, is upon us. 

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