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Assignment: Impossible

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Visions: Only If They Catch You

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In the series “Visions,” science fiction about the very latest research will be paired with analysis looking into the facts behind the fiction. The goal is to marry ripped-from-the-headlines science fiction with analysis into the possibilities hinted at by new discoveries.

This edition of Visions is written by Jesse Emspak, a freelance science writer in New York.

A biodegradable integrated circuit during dissolution in water. Credit: Beckman Institute, University of Illinois and Tufts University.

Joaquín Ibarra nodded as the catcher gave the sign — the fastball. He took a quick look towards the outfield.

The batter was crowding the plate. Ibarra decided to brush him back. His fastball wasn’t going to hit 98 mph but he would show this youngster who was boss today. As he threw, his a dull stab hit his shoulder.

“Ball four.”

And now there was one man on, two out, ninth inning. The umpire wasn’t giving him a ton of slack on the strike zone.

He could walk away. The closer was warming up in the bullpen, and Gary, his manager, was standing on the top step of the dugout — heck, the whole damned team was up there. The crowd was on its feet, too. They wanted to see him break Nolan Ryan’s record as the oldest to throw a no-hitter.

Ibarra’s elbow and shoulder burned. He’d had Tommy John surgery once, and shoulder problems as well. He had to rework his conditioning program after both. You can’t come back. You’re washed up.

The catcher called for a time out and he jogged up to the mound.

“Joaquín, you okay?”

“Dammit, Billy, I can do this.” He touched the charm he wore around his neck. It was just a torus of coral-colored stone he got in Cuba. He told his teammates that it was lucky.

“I feel you, Joaquín, but you don’t need to be a hero tonight. You need another minute?”

“No. Get back before the ump starts getting antsy.”

Ibarra fired his 110th pitch. Strike one looking. The next one he tried was the curve. He didn’t get a swing. Ball one.

He shook off the first sign, for the slider. And now I’m going to show those bastards.

The pain in his shoulder and elbow was gone. He set, and threw his sinker. The bat hit the ball with a crack, but it was a fast grounder straight towards third. The second baseman picked it up and fielded it to short for a perfect double play.

The crowd let out a roar. Billy ran up and gave him a bear hug. The rest of the team came to slap him on the back and congratulate him. Ibarra was 44 years and six months old. Take that, Nolan. I may never play in a World Series, I was never getting a Cy Young. But I have this and none of you can take it from me.

It wasn’t until a full month after the season ended that he saw his name in the news again. He picked up the phone and called Gary’s office.

“Gary, you see this?”

It was a list, attached to a story posted on the ESPN web site, showing how statistical analysis could ferret out steroid users when standard tests might not. He was on it. The article noted his career statistics — along with several other players — and said that his last year was an outlier. It might be the result of good conditioning, luck and talent. It might not.

Ibarra’s fastball velocity, it said, was up from the year before, and his strikeout rate was up. His ERA was down by a full half a run, from a pedestrian 4.08 — average for starters that year — to 3.56. And it compared that to his career numbers, which went from acceptable for a number three starter to pushing number one levels. The piece noted that he hadn’t had any disabled list time, either. And that he went to Cuba just before the start of the season.

“Joaquín, what does it matter now? You’re retired. Heck, you even got your performance incentive — what, couple of hundred thousand for making all 30 starts? Leave it alone.”

“You’ve known me for 15 years, Gary. Heck, I knew you when you were a goddamned player. You know I never did any of that stuff. I’ll even take a goddamned steroid test if they want. I didn’t need anything to make me a better pitcher.”

“I’m not judging you, Joaquín. I never have, and I stood by you even though you led the league in hit batters, even though they said you were head-hunting. Other people? That’s their problem.”

“I gave the game 20 years. More than that. I get lucky on one of my last starts and now I’m a cheater?”

“That isn’t what’s bothering you, Joaquín, and you know it.”

“I never juiced, Gary.”

“Then sue the guy for libel, Joaquín. But don’t hold your breath. Call me again if you want that coaching gig.”

The January sky was blue, puffy white clouds dotting the horizon. Ibarra leaned back into his deck chair, and sipped a beer. The condo faced the Pacific, and the terrace offered shade from the early afternoon sunlight. It was the dry season in Costa Rica, and he wasn’t expecting rain to mar the day.

He touched the charm around his neck. It didn’t do anything for him, not anymore.

It was hard to do things with just his left arm. But the docs said that the sling would be off in a week. So much for breaking Jamie Moyer’s record as the oldest guy to pitch in the majors.

Someone knocked on the door. Tamarindo was a long way from home, and he hadn’t told anyone where he was going. There was only one person it could be.

He opened the door. “Doctor Lopez,” he said. “Nice of you to drop by.”

“No trouble at all, Joaquín. After all I do enjoy this country, and I also like this resort. I like to talk to patients sometimes, too. Follow-up, if you will. Besides, getting in and out of Cuba is hard, and they aren’t the only country with a more… liberal, shall we say, view of experimental treatments. May I come in?”

Ibarra stood still for a full second, and then turned aside. “Have a seat. There’s beer in the fridge.”

Lopez helped himself to one and sat in a chair next to Ibarra’s. “So. How are things? Implants gone?”

“The docs here didn’t see a thing. They say my arm is pretty well shot, though.”

“Controlled release of cortisone, anti-inflammatories and painkillers, with the latter triggered by the remote around your neck. Understand, stopping pain isn’t the same as stopping injury. Your arm wasn’t going to take much more abuse, you know. That said, you didn’t miss a single start — quite the accomplishment. ”

“Yeah, well, I couldn’t go to the team docs, unless I hit the self-destruct and then I’m on the DL with no performance bonus.”

“Well, you knew that going in, Joaquín. I only promised you the ability to play out the season and reduce the pain. I told you the risks. I also offered the option of other release chemicals — most of which would be undetectable by tests for steroids — ”

“I told you then, I didn’t want to cheat. Stuff natural to the body only, or for the pain.”

Lopez sighed. “Cheating is such an ugly word. And I’ll ask you, Joaquín, if you felt what you did was right, why did you go all the way to Cuba to see me last year? Or is it just because you didn’t use performance-enhancing drugs that you think you’re innocent? Well then, if it makes you feel any better we got a load of great data. You have helped future players a lot, you know.”

Ibarra took a pull from his beer. “Wonderful. Give them my regards.”

Ibarra turned away from the doctor. Lopez got up and walked out.

He gazed at the ocean again, and pulled off the charm, breaking the chain. He squeezed it in his fist, hard. It wasn’t going to break. He knew that.

Ibarra threw it towards the water, onto the beach. He didn’t look for where it landed.

***

Most of the time we think of implants, and the electronics that go into them, as hard, rigid and permanent. But that may be changing. Some recent work from a team spread across the University of Illinois, Tufts University and Northwestern University has found a way to make electronics that dissolve into the body, leaving few traces.

How do they do it? It starts with spider silk and the fact that some elements do in fact dissolve — it just takes a long time. The key was making the electronics really, really thin — on the order of nanometers, or billionths of a meter — and giving them lots of surface area for them to dissolve into the surrounding solution.

For the semiconductors, the researchers used silicon coated in silk. Magnesium oxide went into the gates and magnesium for the electrodes. They also designed the silicon to have tiny pores, to give it more surface area. The combination of a tiny amount of material and a lot of surface area means the electronics get in contact with all those liquids — mostly water — in the body.

Of course you wouldn’t want your electronics dissolving prematurely, and that is what the silk is for. Thicker coatings of silk means the device lasts longer.

All this means that it’s possible to do all kinds of things that previously were done by permanent implants or ones that had to be removed. Norplant, for example, is an implanted contraceptive, but one still has to take it out eventually. A device like this could administer the hormones over a set period of time.

But the real advance is the fact that each of these devices has a brain. That means one could inject drugs at a specific moment, when they are needed. The electronics allow for monitoring their environment, so it would be quite possible to release whatever drug is necessary in response to certain stimuli. Since they are electronic devices, that also means they can transmit data, or receive it, opening the way to remote control. One possibility is stimulating muscles for physical therapy, or even the brain. Right now, brain stimulation is either done by literally sticking wires in your head or with devices that can’t stay in your skull forever.

As to surgery, John Rogers, one of the authors, noted that if you need this kind of device odds are you’re going in for surgery anyway.

It’s still going to be a while before we see this in humans — the tests so far were on mice. But it looks promising, as the devices were able to use heat to fight infections in surgical wounds. They also tested a tiny camera, though it isn’t much like a typical point-and-shoot. The electronics dissolved, leaving only faint traces.

There are still a lot of challenges. One is making sure the materials used don’t themselves cause infections or irritate tissues.

Even with those limits, though, it is worth asking if one day athletes who cheat might choose to have a small implant to pump the relevant drugs just before a race, say, and then have it disappear. With many performance-enhancing drugs there’s already an arms race between the anti-dopers and the dopers. The only reason many people are detected is random tests — but that often assumes one is taking the relevant drugs over long periods. Not every doping agent lasts for months; if one could take them without injections or pills, they’d be much harder to see.

Beyond biomedical applications though, is another that might be more important: electronics that don’t last forever. One of the big problems with current consumer devices is that they end up in landfills and stay there. The chemicals used to make them are often pretty toxic, and recycling them is expensive enough that there aren’t many places that do it. Electronics that even partially dissolved — for example, leaving behind only the glass screen — would go a way towards alleviating the problem.

You can email me regarding Visions at toohardforscience@gmail.com.

Charles Q. Choi About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time, he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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