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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 October 2005, 02:23 GMT 03:23 UK
The world's master minds
As part of the BBC's Who Runs Your World? series, Stephen Evans visits the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, home to some of the best scientific brains on the planet.

Drew Endy
Drew Endy is involved in taking apart the very stuff of life. Pic: Sriram Kowitz
So, who does run our world? Politicians? Of course. Business leaders and central bankers? Perhaps. Scientists? This group rarely gets a mention, but you could make a case for them having more say over the way our lives are lived than many other prominent movers and shakers.

Who can doubt that the people who split the atom or developed penicillin or gave us the internet impinge on every day of our lives?

So what are they up to now? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on the Cambridge bank of the Charles River across from Boston is widely regarded as the most impressive concentration of scientists on the planet. It has Nobel prize-winners by the truck load and a tour round its campus makes the jaw drop.

Talk to Drew Endy, who is pioneering biological engineering, for example. He is at the forefront of what is a new science involving taking apart the very stuff of life - molecules of living organisms - and rebuilding them in ways that may be useful.

It is about programming living organisms to do what we want them to do. It might involve, for example, engineering an organism so that it devours a pollutant, or altering a bacterium so that it attacks disease.

Professor Wilson is studying the brains of rats
Matthew Wilson may one day be able to read the mind of a rat. Pic: Donna Coveney/MIT
Professor Endy talks of his dream of growing houses, no less. When the science is developed, he can't see why it shouldn't be possible to alter the genes of a gourd so that it grows in a particular shape - like the shape of some futuristic space in which we might live.

Or talk to Professor Ned Thomas, the Director of MIT's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. Nanotechnology is the new science of the smallest particles. When you work with atoms of a material, that material takes on different forms. Gold, for example, is actually red coloured at the nano level; some materials that are flexible in everyday life become rigid when split into their atoms and re-assembled.

So Professor Thomas is devising new materials with new properties. He's designing a suit for soldiers - what he calls a "combat suit" - that would be as flexible and comfortable as a vest, but which would morph into a rigid protection in the time it takes a bullet to go through it. The bullet hits the suit which would cover the soldier from head to foot; the suit becomes rigid enough to stop the bullet and then becomes flexible again.

When you ask "Who Runs Our World?", remember that whoever dominates a battlefield will have a big say in who runs the rest of our planet - and for that, Professor Thomas' contribution will be important.

Great Dome at Killian Court
MIT has Nobel prize-winners by the truck load. Pic: Donna Coveney/MIT
Or talk to Professor Matthew Wilson, who is studying the brains of rats. Electrodes in their brains record patterns as they sleep, and these patterns can be related to different activities while they were awake.

Eventually, it may be possible to work out what a rat has been doing through the day by the way its brain operates when it is asleep. In other words, it may be possible to read the mind of a rat.

This has obvious implications for humans way into the future. In a nightmarish world, it might be possible to read a mind to discover that the subject had been behaving badly or well, had been feeling guilty or, say, rebellious. This, Professor Wilson says, is not on the cards now. There are technical bridges to cross before we get anywhere near the ethical ones.

A lot of the work being done at MIT offers huge benefits but also ethical dangers. Reading minds is an obvious example. So is engineering organisms: Why not re-engineer humans to be the way we'd like them to be?

The scientists doing the work are highly intelligent people with a strong moral sense. They invariably say that they want full debate, and that it's for the wider world to decide what to do with their work. It's not for scientists alone to decide.

If you ask them: "Who Runs Our World?" they say that it shouldn't be them. It's for us, the citizens, to decide. "We," say the scientists, "should run our own world."

Master Minds is broadcast on the World Service on Sunday 2 October 0905 GMT. In some parts of the world broadcast times may change but you can find details by clicking on the link below


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