Bill Nye the Science Guy?

Bill Nye the Science Guy took a clear position today on the abortion debate and was cheered by the pro-choice movement. In a four minute video, he made his case for a woman’s right to abortion that was quickly celebrated with headlines such as Newsweek’s “Bill Nye Brings Down Hammer of Science on Abortion Opponents” or Huffington Post’s “Bill Nye Debunks Anti-Abortion Logic With Science”. The headlines imply that the pro-life logic is scientifically unsound and that the issue of abortion is resolved. The video starts out describing the scientific nature of life’s beginnings but quickly takes a decidedly unscientific and condescending tone toward those who oppose abortion. Below is the transcript of his video and a commentary.

“Many, many, many, many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans. Eggs get fertilized, and by that I mean sperm get accepted by ova a lot. But that’s not all you need. You have to attach to the uterine wall, the inside of a womb, a woman’s womb.”

Bill Nye begins with a loaded statement about what a human is and is not. He stealthily equates “becoming human” with something more than just an embryo. He quickly lends credibility to his statement by iterating some of the necessary biological steps for a successful pregnancy that the average person might not be familiar with, because he is a “science guy”. These opening sentences are the only bit of “science” in Bill Nye’s entire video and enough to feed an entire debate on the issue of life and when it begins. Bill Nye falls short of stating when exactly he believes “a human” begins. Indeed there is much science to be discussed about when life begins arriving at a “scientific consensus” is not as easy as it may seem. Both sides make legitimate arguments about what we should consider to be a human life but Bill Nye does not make any pronounce himself on any of it. He continues with a socratic assumption with the intention of debunking it.

“But if you’re going to hold that as a standard, that is to say if you’re going to say when an egg is fertilized it’s therefore has the same rights as an individual, then whom are you going to sue? Whom are you going to imprison? Every woman who’s had a fertilized egg pass through her? Every guy who’s sperm has fertilized an egg and then it didn’t become a human? Have all these people failed you?”

These questions are part of Bill Nye’s reductio ad absurdum argument which falsely assumes that opponents of abortion want – necessarily – to punish with lawsuits and imprisonment someone – anyone – when an abortion is committed. This unfairly paints a picture of abortion opponents as hateful people who are in the abortion debate simply to judge others and would find fault or guilt in a woman who had a miscarriage. Many pro-lifers (myself included) are genuinely seeking truth and have a very compassionate view of justice. I could not imagine condemning a woman to prison even if she knowingly and willfully aborted a child, much less someone who never had any idea that an egg was ever fertilized. But back to Bill Nye’s case. There are just as many or more questions to be asked of abortion advocates. If you’re going to hold that a fertilized egg has no rights, when did each of us acquire our rights? Was it when we became attached to the uterine wall inside of the womb? What about the hundreds of other steps required for a successful pregnancy? Are they not as necessary? What about a pregnant woman who smokes or takes drugs? Is she not failing her child? The bottom line is that we all – Bill Nye included – make judgment calls based on what we believe to be truth and if Bill Nye wants to shed light on the scientific truth about when life begins, he should do just that. Unfortunately Bill Nye forgoes any pursuit of truth and uses the rest of the video to insult and try and humiliate anyone who believes that purposely destroying an embryo is even morally troubling.

“It’s just a reflection of a deep scientific lack of understanding and you literally or apparently literally don’t know what you’re talking about. And so when it comes to women’s rights with respect to their reproduction, I think you should leave it to women. This is really — you cannot help but notice. I’m not the first guy to observe this: You have a lot of men of European descent passing these extraordinary laws based on ignorance. Sorry you guys. I know it was written or your interpretation of a book written 5,000 years ago, 50 centuries ago, makes you think that when a man and a woman have sexual intercourse they always have a baby. That’s wrong and so to pass laws based on that belief is inconsistent with nature.”

It’s hard not to get offended at Bill Nye’s generalization that abortion opponents believe all sexual encounters lead to a pregnancy. Nye has abandoned all civility and let his deepest prejudices surface. So many abortion opponents are women, so many abortion opponents have no religious convictions, so many abortion opponents have principles with no roots in male European laws (whatever that means). This is a reflection of a deep lack of understanding of who he thinks his enemy is. Men also play a role in reproduction. Ignoring this scientific fact deprives fathers of their rights as well. Why don’t we leave decisions about reproduction to informed adults? Nye continues with the condescending tone of a teacher dealing with schoolchildren:

“I mean it’s hard not to get frustrated with this everybody. And I know nobody likes abortion, okay. But you can’t tell somebody what to do. I mean she has rights over this, especially if she doesn’t like the guy that got her pregnant. She doesn’t want anything to do with your genes; get over it, especially if she were raped and all this. So it’s very frustrating on the outside, on the other side.”

The fact is we all tell people what to do all the time, and with good reason. We have laws that protect the innocent and Bill Nye fails to really explain why we should not extend those rights to the unborn. He simply takes it as a settled premise that women have the right to destroy another life so long it is within her metabolic control. In this respect Bill Nye expresses a common attitude within the scientific community, one that separates life from its inherent dignity and treats an embryo as a parasite and sex as simple evolutionary activity similar in every respect to the division of an amoeba or the insemination of cattle. This cold attitude has become confused with a kind of scientific authority that has charmed abortion proponents. I would like to as Bill Nye why is it that “nobody likes abortion”? From a purely “scientific” perspective it should not even matter whether abortion is pleasant or not. Bill Nye left science almost completely out of the equation in this video and then further attempts to distract and dismiss with the conclusion of his video.

“We have so many more important things to be dealing with. We have so many more problems to squander resources on this argument based on bad science, on just lack of understanding.
It’s very frustrating. You wouldn’t know how big a human egg was if it weren’t for microscopes, if it weren’t for scientists, medical researchers looking diligently. You wouldn’t know the process. You wouldn’t have that shot, the famous shot or shots where the sperm are bumping up against the egg. You wouldn’t have that without science. So then to claim that you know the next step when you obviously don’t is trouble. Let me do that again. Let me just pull back. At some point we have to respect the facts.

Abortion is not important to Bill Nye but it is to a lot of people. You simply cannot dismiss other people’s opinions as unimportant because they contradict your beliefs or you believe they are uninformed. You may be very wrong about how informed others are. Nye’s attempt to assign to abortion proponents dominion over all scientific discoveries related to embryology is almost childish. To claim people do not have a right to an opinion about this matter because they didn’t make the scientific discoveries is absurd. Moreover, there are plenty of pro-life scientists that are good scientists. The video clearly shows an retake of his statements and was left in the final edit of the video. Clearly even Bill Nye realized he went overboard. His correction is to say that we have to “respect the facts”. What facts is Bill Nye referring to? That there is scientific consensus as to when life begins? There isn’t even any consensus as to whether there is any consensus at all! Let us not forget that it is this same appeal to a “lack of scientific consensus” that gives climate change deniers freedom to pollute the environment. If anything, we should err on the side of life.

“Recommending or insisting on abstinence has been completely ineffective. Just being objective here. Closing abortion clinics. Closing, not giving women access to birth control has not been an effective way to lead to healthier societies. I mean I think we all know that. And I understand that you have deeply held beliefs and it really is ultimately out of respect for people, in this case your perception of unborn people. I understand that. But I really encourage you to look at the facts. And I know people are now critical of the expression fact-based but what’s wrong with that? So I just really encourage you to not tell women what to do and not pursue these laws that really are in nobody’s best interest. Just really be objective about this. We have other problems to solve everybody. Come on. Come on. Let’s work together.”

What exactly has “insisting on abstinence” been ineffective against? Unintended pregnancies? Why should that even matter if you are in favor of on-demand abortions? Besides, women have had access to birth control and abortion for several decades and I think it’s a mistake to think that we live in a healthy society. We live in a society that commits 1 million abortions a year, and as Bill Nye himself declared, “nobody likes abortion”. Nye’s final words are just plain ridiculous attempting to take a conciliatory tone of a tolerant referee that has just ruled the game in favor of science and against ignorance. This video was clearly made off-the-cuff and shows little forethought so I don’t want to hold Bill Nye to everything he said. Instead, I would like to see an in-depth Bill Nye The Science Guy episode on human reproduction and early development and see how many people will be convinced that human life isn’t truly magnificent. Even Bill Nye can’t ruin that one.

FAB LAB A Fabricated Revolution?

According to Neil Gershenfeld, ‘Fab Labs’ are to Personal Fabricators what Mainframes are to Personal Computers. If you’ve never heard of Neil Gershenfeld or Fab Labs you are not alone. The Professor and his concept are only famous within a specific circle of interest. That circle widened a little bit to include me a few months ago when Neil Gershenfeld, who is the director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, came to proselytize a small group of students to his vision of the future. You may however have heard of personal fabricators, even if only in Star Trek. These PFs, as I will refer to them, would be compact machines capable of producing anything, including other machines. Just as Mainframes were “expensive machines with limited markets, used by skilled operators working in specialized rooms to perform repetitive industrial tasks” so are fabricators in their current format (Gershenfeld 3). It follows then that these will evolve into devices with analogous accessibility as personal computers today. Is this probable and even possible? The benefits of pursuing the popularization of PFs are plentiful but I would argue that they are diametrically different to Neil’s master plan.
To understand how Fab Labs came about, it is worthwhile to examine the evangelizing spiel Gershenfeld himself preaches on a frequent basis. A quick search on the Internet for Neil Gershenfeld will return many video records of Neil delivering his vision, ipsis verbis, to many different groups in many different settings, often repeating the same witty drolleries with surprising enthusiasm. The idea for a laboratory where anyone could walk in only with an idea and walk out with a functional solution in their hands has its roots, in this case, in Neil’s early frustration of being too smart for ‘shop class’. Working with your hands has been traditionally relegated to the blue collar. This separation undoubtedly stifles invention and creativity. Neil eventually righted this wrong when he became a professor at MIT with sufficient respect and authority to create a class appropriately called “How To Make (almost) Anything”. The purpose of the class was to introduce students to machines that make things, i.e. laser and plasma cutters, milling machines, and injection molders. The results of the first semester were products intended to meet the wants of their creators, exclusively. This experience lead to thought that ordinary people who did not have access to the multi-million dollar machine shops at MIT, might produce some truly revolutionary creations if they too had access to these machines. And so Fab Lab was born, a small scale workshop with tools usually associated with mass production available to ordinary people for fabrication of proto-personal devices. This description is more of a deduction than an official definition of the project. At a question and answer session with Neil a student asked what type of guidance and instruction are fab lab ‘users’ receive. Neil’s response was an immediate ‘the users themselves’, frustrating anyone trying to get a clear picture of the day-to-day operation of a fab lab. This answer exemplifies the fanatical zeal Gershenfeld has for the success of Fab Lab as a tool for ‘personal discovery’ and his efforts to distance his project from the notion of a machine shop. It is obvious someone is providing guidance. It would be illegal to allow children, for example, to operate dangerous machinery without any kind of instruction. Neil was correct in that Fab Lab is a valuable channel for personal realization. The results of Fab Labs as a creative instrument are indeed remarkable and emblematic of it’s efforts to enable ordinary people to turn their ideas into tangible things.
Fab Labs have been set up in several locations around the world and have produced amazing inventions. There are currently Fab Labs in Norway, Costa Rica, India, Ghana, South Africa, and Boston. Each of these labs operate using slightly different rules and approaches. To better understand Fab Labs, let us look at some of the results from these different locations.
Lyngen Alps, Norway
An interesting project that came out of this Lab where a herder by the name of Haakon Karlsen developed, with the help of a team, a short-range radio coupled with a GPS receiver that could be used by sheep to track their position. The obvious limitation was precisely the ‘short-range’ that defeated the purpose of distance monitoring of the animals. The solution was a network of repeaters fabricated with inexpensive, off-the-shelf radios to relay the signal. The placement of these transceivers helped negotiate the twists and turns of the Lyngen Alps and organically extended a network that serviced multiple users.

India
An important accomplishment was achieved in a Fab Lab in India that reflects the breadth of possibilities Fab Labs offer. A common practice in India among unscrupulous dairy farmers is to dilute milk with water, or worse, bad milk to increase volume. A sensor was developed using a microprocessor that measures a charge rate of milk when a voltage is applied to electrodes placed in a sample of milk. Essentially a device that measures the quality of milk was developed and perfected to help distributors and ultimately consumers.
Boston, USA
The “South End Technology Center” houses the only US based Fab Lab and arguably most clearly exemplifies the social mission that Fab Labs have served. The format at this Fab Lab is that of a class proper where students learn to operate the machines. Students have produced items ranging from a security system that takes a picture of any approaching person to custom game-console controllers. One significant accomplishment has been the transformation of recycled materials into sellable goods that empower inner-city students with an earning potential.
Ghana
In Ghana, a Fab Lab was able to inexpensively and effectively convert sunlight into usable energy. A contraption was fabricated that creates steam by boiling water using a parabolic reflector. This steam then was used to turn a turbine. One of the things that make this project unique is the turbine. Because the RPM attainable with the steam generated is fairly low, a Tesla turbine was used to maximize efficiency. Tesla turbines are an old design, rarely used today, where closely and precisely spaced discs very economically ‘capture’ the energy generated by the steam.
South Africa
In Soshanguve, South Africa users have assembled batteries from scrap zinc, carbon manganese dioxide and various plastics. In another application a user made a self-directing vacuum cleaner. With heavy governmental funding, the Fab Labs in South Africa have fulfilled an important role in spreading technology to a whole generation by creating centers that put up the Labs.

These centers, and any new Fab Lab, will necessarily obey certain ‘inventory’ principles and standards. All Fab Labs contain basic equipment that perform three basic tasks: subtraction, addition, and formation. Interestingly, the Internet is speckled with web sites and user groups supporting and promoting the creation of fabbers. According to Fabbers.com, “a fabber (short for ‘digital fabricator’) is a ‘factory in a box’ that makes things automatically from digital data”. Furthermore, “fabbers generate three-dimensional, solid objects you can hold in your hands, submit to testing, or assemble into working mechanisms.” The emergence of these fabbers is a testament to Gershenfelds prediction that these machines will shrink and become more accessible. The tools used to perform the three basic tasks that Fabbers and Fab Labs perform will evolve and perhaps fuse into hybrid variations but the functions will remain. Today, subtraction is performed by computer controlled cutting tools like laser, plasma, and water jet cutters as well as milling machines. The basic idea of subtractive processes is to remove everything that is not the desired ‘thing’ from a block of material. Additive processes today use tools such as vacuum formers and injection molders. There are currently commercially available machines that used additive and subtractive technologies and are marketed as ‘fabbers’ intended to meet the rapid prototyping needs. One example is a machine sold by a company called Soligen that essentially prints a three-dimensional object using a technique called ‘drop on powder deposition’. Like this machine, there are dozens that were designed specifically as fabbers and not to service any large-scale production need. The third process is the formative process. Just like swordsmith will fold and hammer away at a piece of hot steel to achieve a desired shape, formative tools neither add nor subtract material. Tools of this type would be presses of various types.
All the evidence so far seems to indicate that PFs are on their way to becoming a reality. There is a demand for personal fabrication and the cost of producing machines that fabricate is dropping. Both these forces, the supply and demand, however, have barriers that may steer the future of PFs in a direction and at a rate that perhaps are not expected. Professor Gershenfeld makes a specific reference to the killer apps as the success cornerstones of the personal computer and that a similar catalyst will define the survival and success of PFs. PCs had killer apps with names like Visicalc and WordStar, jobs that they performed that most everybody already did, and more importantly, a viable economic distribution channel and reward that made them commercial successes. This is perhaps where Gershenfeld’s analogy is not perfect. According to Gershenfeld, the killer app of PFs is fulfilling individual desires. There isn’t and will unlikely ever exist, a machine that can fulfill any individual desire. We don’t think much about this, but PCs evolved into something we sit in front of. People used to stand in front of mainframes. The current PC, with a mouse, graphical user interface and LCD inherited its format from an evolutionary process that included killer apps as defining influences. Much the same way, PFs will become machines that we have no business even imagining. Any prediction will most probably be laughable in a few years.

In a few years the Fabbers and Fab Labs will most certainly look a little different. They will still be recognizable in the sense that the there will be automated process fabricating things. Returning to the mainframe analogy, one aspect that contributes favorably to the analogy is the ability to distribute master plans between users. Someone can easily ‘package’ his idea into a digital document that can be shared with other users that have access to PFs. The ability to distribute these documents is what will carve the evolutionary path of PFs. Fabricators will need to operate on a common denominator that will limit their ability to fulfill any desire. They will indeed take much the same path as the PC did in that some type of ‘open source’ projects will surface, consolidating solutions for groups of people. Even the strict separation of hardware and software may not have been foreseen in the early days of mainframes. In the same way, PFs may suffer further sub classifications that we cannot conceive of today. It is helpful to remember also that mainframes still exist and are profitable in a flourish market even today.
Another element that disrupts the mainframe analogy is materials. The materials that are used by Fab Labs and Fabbers are as diverse as the machines themselves. In order to popularize PFs, new elements will need to be created, materials that are easier to manipulate and distribute. Materials may be considered the software of PFs and the emergence of new materials will dictate the direction PFs will take. The discovery of these materials will also define the time it will take to progress from what Fab Labs look like today to what PFs will look like whenever they come to fruition. Comparatively, PCs evolved very quickly. After all, the steps between thinking and doing are quicker and fewer when it comes to programming than it would ever be with personal fabrication. Methodologies and conventions helped PCs, software, and consequently killer apps take shape in an organized and modular way. Object oriented programming for example made it very easy applications to take a distributed development. It is difficult to imagine what the PF equivalent would be since materials and concepts can be so diverse.
Besides materials and other limitations, PFs will face challenges PCs never had. One of these challenges is more of a regulatory nature. In his book FAB, Gershenfeld describes a personal transportation project created by an MIT student. Using laser cutters and polycarbonate plastic, Saul Griffith created a bicycle that assembles with the addition of a few off the shelf parts, like wheels and tires. Conceivably, a PF will be able to fabricate the entire bicycle. Saul can email his bicycle to any friend and they can make a bicycle too. The potential problems with this and any similar project on a larger scale are that of quality and safety. The equivalent problem with the PC counter part is that of application bugs. They are common and many times get fixed but they are not life threatening. A miscalculated bolt can send a user veering off at high speeds on a poorly designed or constructed personal transportation device that came out of an out of tune PF.
Fab Labs are however, and important predecessor to PFs but perhaps more importantly, they currently serve as an equalizing element in the distribution of knowledge. The knowledge is not only concerned with the technologies available at the facilitaties. Learning how to operate machinery is the least of the tasks Fab Labs around the world accomplish. Fab Labs inspire new ideas and solutions. Most areas where Fab Labs were established were in dire need of resources of an intellectual nature, that is, the ability to create solutions and develop more opportunities. Because these labs for the most part rely on state funding or significant private investments, they are usually partnered into larger facilities that provide further community services. In many cases, the real objective is to help people help themselves from an early age. So many of the stories described in the book Fab and in articles that circulate on the Internet are about pre-teens who have tackled and mastered problems that would present a serious challenge to even a highly educated professional or academic. In most cases, it seems these children have understood just enough about each of the necessary element that will make a machine work. But Fab Labs is not about children; it is about making things, things that people (individuals) want. It is also about laying the tracks for the development of the technologies that will make PFs a reality.

In many respects, much of what Fab Lab represents is an effort to bridge a gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. This divide leads us to the final aspect of the analogy, one not explicitly made by Gershenfeld but relevant nevertheless. Much talk was made in the 1990’s about the digital divide and the implications of such an even distribution of resources. The coming digital divide is one of a material nature, where some will have access to personal fabrication while others will not. Fab Labs is preemptively addressing this gap by targeting areas where the need is greater. This almost seems unfair as access to the tools and resources available at Fab Labs is beyond the reach of most people living in first world countries, case and point is the overwhelming response Gershenfeld’s “How To Make (almost) Anything” had. This response is/was symptomatic of the sterile upbringing that ‘haves’ receive vis-à-vis the do-it-yourself culture that surrounds them.
However imperfect the analogy between the advancement of personal computation and the advancement of personal fabrication is, the underlying impact that Fab Labs is having on the future of PFs is undeniable. In summary, Fab Labs are an important predecessor to PFs. PFs may turn out to be almost unrecognizable to a time traveler leaving the present day to visit the far future. The basic principles of subtraction and addition will nevertheless define them and owe their nature to today’s pioneers at the many Fab Labs around the world. Gershenfeld conspicuously left out dates from his book on Fab Labs. Newer editions will certainly be out, transforming it into more of a blog than an ‘old testament’ of personal fabrication. Finally,it is important to recognize Fab Labs as a social equalizer in education and opportunity. The innovations, discoveries, inventions, gadgets, and personal fulfillment that they enable are the legacy that will endure.

References
Gershenfeld, N. (2005). Fab: the coming revolution on your desktop – from personal computers to personal fabrication. New York: Basic Books
Mikhak, B., Lyon, C., Gorton, T., Gershenfeld, N., McEnnis, C., Taylor, J.. Fab Lab: An Alternate Model Of Ict For Development. Retrieved December 29, 2006, from, http://cba.mit.edu/projects/fablab/fablab-dyd02.pdf
What is a Fabber? An Introduction to the 21st Century. Retrieved December 30, 2006, from, http://www.ennex.com/~fabbers/intro.asp
Hanes, S.. (2006, September 27). ‘Fab labs’ deliver high-tech tools. Retrieved December 30, 2006, from, http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0927/p16s01-stct.html
Associated Press. (2005, November 6). Imagine, Make It Real in Fab Lab. Retrieved December 30, 2006, from, http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,69495,00.html
Bellis, M.. WordStar – The First Word Processor. January 5, 2007, from, http://inventors.about.com/od/wstartinventions/a/WordStar.htm