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  • Amish Tiwari

Whales and Space: Peto’s Paradox

Deep space is often referred to as “humanity's final frontier”, and rightly so. But will this final frontier ever be conquered or will it be humanity's final graveyard? Most individuals would assume that this is entirely conceivable as humans have done this in the past. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Yuri Gagarin, and even dogs have traversed space. 

It is often everyone’s desire to pursue the profession of an astronaut. NASA, ISRO, ROSCOSMOS, and multiple other space agencies are conventionally the most famous among young children. What is not well known is the magnitude of danger associated with space. There are blatantly apparent dangers like detaching from the space vessel, but there are more silent dangers that lurk in space, specifically radiation.

Radiation is usually associated with nuclear reactor meltdowns, explosions, or accidents, but in space, the main source of harmful radiation is the most appreciated object, the sun. The sun emits ultraviolet radiation, x-rays, gamma rays, microwaves, and radio waves which can cause the most noxious disease, cancer. But how, how could something as common as radiation cause cancer? Well, we will have to analyze cancer itself for the answer.

Cancer is a consequence of multiple occurrences in a cell, but in essence, cancer is caused when cells malfunction. Cells function via DNA which provides information to respective cells. If DNA is ruptured, the body attempts to repair it. Still, it executes this imperfectly, leading to mutations which can eventually lead to the cell malfunctioning and creating its own mass, a tumor. Radiation and ionizing particles possess energy that causes these disruptions, despite the presence of a spacesuit.

Well, what can humanity do? It relies on “Peto’s Paradox”. Peto’s paradox states that even though larger organisms, like blue whales, possess more cells which should logically relate to more cancer, they do not have a greater cancer rate. There are two proposed solutions to this paradox, one evolution and the second, hyper tumors. The latter relies on the fact that cancer cells mutate as they replicate, and eventually, a mass of cancer cells starts functioning individually, redirecting nutrient flow towards itself and killing the original tumor. 

However, how does this aid our original problem? Since cancer is extremely common and chemotherapy would weaken the astronaut, hypertumors could be inserted into a region of cancer to weaken and kill off the tumor cell. The original would kill off the hyper tumor, and the hyper tumor would kill off the original, if not, they would be weak enough to be eliminated faster and thus prevent the weakening of the astronaut.

Solving a problem often relies on innovating and doing what the unusual. If we utilize our observations of mundane things like blue whales and innovate space travel, space will be humanity's final conquest, not our graveyard.

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