September 22, 2011
Did you see this news story the other day?
An online game has helped determine the structure of an enzyme that could pave the way for anti-AIDS drugs.
The game, called Foldit, allows players to create new shapes of proteins by randomly folding digital molecules on their computer screens.
In the journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, scientists write that they have been puzzled by the protein’s structure for over a decade.
But it took the online community just a few days to produce the enzyme’s model.
The name that leaps to mind here is Ragle Gumm, at least if you are an old Philip K. Dick addict.
Gumm is the hero of Dick’s 1959 novel Time Out of Joint, which my early-teen self consumed from the pages of New Worlds Science Fiction, a British pulp magazine. Gumm, resident of a cozy 1959 American suburb, makes a living by repeatedly winning the prize in a newspaper competition called “Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?”
It turns out that Gumm’s reality is all fake. His real reality is the late 20th century, a time of interplanetary war. Gumm has the gift of figuring out where enemy missiles will strike. For complicated reasons, his military-intelligence employers have put him through certain cognitive adjustments, given him an illusory mid-20th-century environment, and dressed up the missile-strike calculations as a newspaper competition.
So we are catching up with Philip K. Dick. I need to hold onto something solid here, or I shall go off on a long Philip K. Dick tangent. He was one of the most imaginative of the mid-century sci-fi authors, with particular appeal to those of us inclined to speculations about what is really real. His influence has rippled down through the decades, apparent most obviously in movies such as The Matrix and Richard Linklater’s strange little gem Waking Life.
So here we have these gamers solving a difficult problem in molecular biology. Did they know that’s what they were doing? It seems they did; though there was no reason—I mean, no technical necessity—for them to. With a little imagination, the problem could have been dressed up as a Dungeons & Dragons-type exercise. Then the gamers would have been so many Ragle Gumms, having fun solving a brainteaser competition—for prizes! Making a living at it!
And there you have the solution to the jobs problem.
The jobs problem—ah, yes: the problem of getting Americans back to productive work, right?