Adam Piore is the author of the new book The Body Builders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human. A former editor and correspondent for Newsweek, his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Conde Nast Traveler and GQ.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
A: At first I was following an intellectual thread. I wasn’t a science writer before, but I had done some on and off. In 2007-08, somebody gave me an assignment to write about Hugh Herr, who had a great story.
He was a champion rock climber, and at 17 he almost died of frostbite, and his legs were amputated below the knee. He was a C student [before], but he started messing around with prosthetics so he could use them on the climbing wall…
He ended up at MIT, and is now one of the leading prosthetics [inventors]. It was amazing to me. People often cry when he brings them in his lab because [the prosthetics] feel like the real thing.
Human resilience is something I’ve always been interested in. New technologies are unlocking human resilience, creating inspiring stories and showing where the limits lie.
The general idea is that in the 20th century, the best engineers were focused on the external world—space, skyscrapers. This century, some of the most exciting things are happening in the human body. It’s a very exciting story with a lot of great human drama…
Q: In the book, you ask, “Will we as a society, drunk on our own ingenuity, fly too close to the sun?” What do you think of the ethical concerns surrounding some of this technology?
A: The most obvious one is genetic engineering. I tried to get into the ethical issues, but it’s very hard. A lot of books on ethics are very vague, and I’m a reporter—I went on a fact-finding mission: Is this possible?
The stories that stayed with me are ones of human resilience. I came out with a much more positive view of these technologies. Someone said that a baseball bat is good if it’s used for baseball, but bad if it’s used for hitting someone over the head.
[Scientist Lee Sweeney] is working on genetically engineered mice and dogs. It’s caused hope for parents of kids who are terminally ill with Duschenne muscular dystrophy, but he is also besieged with calls from athletes. Lee Sweeney is pursuing technology, but he also sits on the world’s antidoping panel to come up with tests. All sorts of ethical questions come up…
I tried to raise questions, but my goal is to explain how technologies work so people can better evaluate them on their own…
Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to engineering the human body?
A: …We seem to be seizing technologies and using them…I like what Hugh Herr said: When you want to visit a friend across town 50 years from now, you are not going to get in a large metal box, you’ll strap on technology…
Q: Is there anything else we should know about the book?
A: I wrote it for people who want to understand how the human body and mind work, but maybe don’t have a Ph.D. in science. I recently wrote about the effort to extend human aging—they are testing the drug on dogs. One way they get the drug is in peanut butter. I put the science in the peanut butter, with the stories of real people you can get lost in.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb