Don”t ask me why I did it. Sometimes the rules need to be broken. Sometimes creative thought and risk-taking needs to come into play, especially when we”re talking about life. Sometimes the forward momentum of consensus reality needs to be examined from a different vantage point on the outside, from afar, from the top. So I climbed to the top of the crane of the Life Sciences construction site, risking my own life to understand the future of life.

Paul Wong
Soul of the City<br><br>Josh Wickerham

I was trying to imagine how a big hole in the ground would translate into a some-say-necessary $700 million-dollar expenditure that purports to some day connect Central Campus with the Medical Campus and provide a cross-disciplinary approach to the new science of life.

Gaining entry to the site was a breeze. Without warning, I was transported into an imaginary digital reality akin to something from Goldeneye, the James Bond videogame, which was fine by me. I was be better off with the conviction that my actions didn”t have consequences. Plus, while channeling the spirit of James Bond, I”d be harder to spot while snooping around that forbidden place.

Tiptoeing through the mud from the freshly fallen rain, I clung low to the ground as I worked my way toward the point of interest: A phallic, metal apparatus a few meters wide, cemented in the ground and climbing to the sky. The crane. Yes, the crane, with its over 150 feet of modernism, towered ahead of me.

But there was only one problem. The perimeter was secured via high-voltage chain link fence. Normally I would just burn my way through. But fiddlesticks, I had forgotten my specially outfitted Handspring Visor with Palm OS-powered springboard laser beam attachment at home.

So I concentrated my efforts on the other tower, which was protected from outsiders somewhat more medievally. I found the foundation of this crane in a stony pit some thirty feet below, surrounded by a moat. I almost turned away. I couldn”t hide from the passing traffic.

Now my heart was pounding. I waited patiently for the traffic to clear. After a nerve-racking moment in the spotlight, I slogged through the mud and sat at the base of the metal erector set of yellow ladders. Thoughts raced.

Premonitions of genetic mutants. Up. Go up. Don”t think about it. Just climb.

Humming, light, power being generated. Hands shaking, partly from exhaustion, partly from adrenaline and fear. Courage swelled and, hand-over-hand like a commando, the ladder was taken.

Damn, I shouldn”t have worn my Birkenstocks.

Hand over hand. Hand over hand. Monotonous like a scientific experiment.

At the top, I perched and surveyed. There was nothing below me but a screen-like metal floor and 150 feet of free fall. I was higher than the bell tower and Dennison. There, above it all, I saw the construction site as an allegory.

The Life Sciences Initiative is a way of putting the pieces of life together in new ways, just like the construction of a building is a way of displacing earth and matter to create new form and function.

And in the view of Western science, everything is waiting for our voyage of discovery. Yet no other culture has assumed it can compile a rigorous way of understanding life by pinning it down as geneticists do. Likewise, no other culture has encountered the risks involved.

Charting the genetic code is analogous to the Manhattan project. The scientists involved in that project assumed they were advancing humanity. They researched without knowledge of its eventual use as an implement of war. The same unforeseen consequences lie in the uncharted territory of life. The human genome has given us our first maps of a new landscape, but we”re still in the ship of fools stage.

Whereas the construction of a building and the assembly of a kick-ass faculty resides entirely in the realm of the understood, the unraveling of life is shadowed in mystery. We must make room for the holistic. And we must be ready for surprises. We must foster creative acceptance or, if need be, creative resistance to the Life Science”s machinations and manipulations. We cannot sell life to the highest bidder. However unlikely this is to happen, we cannot stay locked within our old paradigms.

No one knows what to expect on the other side of our take on life. Something which has for most of human history been out of our control is now coming within our grasp. We must take it by the hand and understand it, not sell to the highest bidder. Otherwise, the life sciences initiative is obsolete before it even gets off the ground.

Josh Wickerham can be reached via e-mail at jwickerh@umich.edu.

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