Hacking Life with Andrew Hessel

Andrew Hessel visited the University of Alberta to give a talk about synthetic biology, entitled “Hacking Life”. I live tweeted the references he put up on slides using the hashtag #hackinglife, and I’ve complied the list and some of my notes. I don’t presume to summarize his whole talk, but most of the relevant links are here.

Hessel’s works for AutoDesk with the title of Distinguished Researcher, and one of the first things he discussed was an AutoDesk initiative known as the Bio/Nano/Programmable Matter group. The group’s aim is to identify the implications that nanotech and programmable matter have on industries that use AutoDesk tools.

Hessel was also one of the co-chairs of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology for Singularity University, what he refers to as the first start-up university. SingularityU is one of the few institutions that teaches concepts of accelerating technological growth as one of their core concepts.

To tie the idea of synthetic biology into everyday life, Andrew mentioned the use of 3D printers in emerging co-operative “hacker-spaces”, and one such 3D printer he featured was the MakerBot. While the MakerBot doesn’t yet print using the cells that Hessel described, there are a a number of groups, like BioCurious who presume to do just that.

Some of the artwork that Hessel used in his presentation comes from Dr. Goodsell’s book, The Machinery of Life, and from his website.

Hessel’s own career was changed when he left his PhD to go and work on synthetic hormones, like the red blood cell growth stimulating protein, Erythropoeitin.

Many of the companies that Hessel mentioned in his talk were biotech firms, both large and small, that are making leaps and bounds in lowering the cost of generating custom gene and protein sequences. The world’s largest gene sequencing shop, BGI Genomics was compared to smaller startups like DNA20 and Cambrian Genomics.

Hessel’s main push was that there are enormous opportunities for small biotech firms to grow and thrive on new technology, especially in applications like personalized medicine. To that end, he used examples like Craig Venter’s synthetic bacterium, Eckhard Wimmer‘s synthetic poliovirus to show how companies like GingkoBioWorks and SyntheticYeast are creating markets for synthetic biological applications.

In his concluding remarks, Hessel shows us some concrete examples of how new biotechnology is changing our lives: modified HIV-viruses being used to treat leukemia and the possibility that these new technologies could be abused in the form of personalized bio-weapons. One of his intiatives resulted in the iGEM Synthetic Biology competition, which now has High School, Collegiate and Entrepreneurship divisions.

He left the audience with a solid lesson, “You are the most empowered generation of individuals. Don’t squander it.”

Star Walk 6.0 Review

I’ve been using Star Walk 6.0 from Vito Technology Inc. since its release on August 29th (and earlier versions since their release), and I’d like to share some thoughts on it. As far as stargazing apps go, this is my go-to app for my teaching assistant position at the University of Alberta’s Observatory. As of this writing, Star Walk is available on the app store as two separate apps for the iPhone ($2.99) and iPad ($4.99).

Star Walk loading screen

Upon launching the app you’ll be greeted by the title screen above, and after a short loading period you’ll be taken to the current view of the sky. As with all stargazing apps, you’ll want to allow the app to know your location so it can display the most accurate representation of the sky over your location.

One of my favourite features of Star Walk is the dynamic object labelling. In the image above, the three brightest stars, Vega, Altair and Deneb (who form the summer triangle) are all give yellow labels, as opposed to the white labels given to the constellations in the view. As you zoom into a view like this, the labels of the brightest stars appear, and zooming out causes them to disappear, reducing clutter on the screen.

If you’re interested in more information on a particular object, you can select the object by tapping on it, bringing up a menu that gives you several options. The ‘Did you know?’ option gives general facts on the type of object, ‘General Information’ brings up facts related to the particular object that you’ve selected, ‘Figures’ gives specific information like the location of that object in the night sky, it’s visual magnitude and more. Finally, there’s a Wikipedia button, for a more in depth look at the object.

Star Walk Information Menu

If you raise your iPhone or iPad above your head, Star Walk will switch into an augmented reality mode that displays the region of the sky behind your device. This is incredibly useful for amateur astronomers who are interested in identifying an unknown object, or finding the stars for a particular constellation. From this mode you can even select  the camera icon in the upper right corner to turn on your devices camera – which then overlays your current view with the stars and constellations from that part in the sky. This feature works a lot more smoothly than some of the other stargazing apps that I’ve tried (reviews to come), but the odd time I have to re-calibrate my compass by waving the device in a figure of eight.

Finally, Star Walk includes a feature called Sky Live which is accessible from the menu icon in the lower right hand corner of the app. Sky Live gives you a quick view of what’s up in our solar system by listing the rise and set times of naked-eye visible objects like the Sun, Moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

There’s a lot more to Star Walk than I could include in this review, but come back periodically because I’ll be doing incremental updates whenever a new feature is added!

Update 6.0.1

Star Walk was updated to include support for the iPhone 5’s bigger screen and added improvements in iOS 6. Here’s a screenshot from the new version – notice how roomy the app feels now!