Transcipt: April 29, 2008

Justin: Disclaimer, disclaimer, disclaimer! From the beginning mankind and for that matter womankind have looked to the night sky for guidance, mystery and inspiration.
Gazing into the starry night we imagined all sorts of wondrous meanings in the twinklings from a distant sphere upon which they hung like Christmas lights on the inside of a cosmic snow globe to the embodiment of the gods themselves. And we found the twinklings to be useful here on earth.
Whether it was navigating a ship in uncharted waters or charting the fate of a new relationship. The stars held answers that could keep us from hitting the rocky shores.
While many brave scientists have died as heretics for defining these celestial inspirations, the true nature of the universe would not allow itself to be shrouded indefinitely from the mind of man or the mind of women for that matter.
And while the nightly twinkling of stars continues to inspire inspite of their true nature begin known much like the hosts of the following hour of programming, they do not necessarily represent the views of the University of California Davis KDVS or its sponsors.
And yet, if you looked carefully next time when the moon is hiding and the stars are at their brightest by connecting just a few points of light visible with the naked eye you may make out a message in the heavens that has been waiting to reach you for quite some time. I believe it says, stay tuned for This Week In Science, coming up next.
[musical interlude]

Justin: Yes! Good morning Kirsten!
Kirsten: Good morning Justin.
Justin: Whoa!
Kirsten: Dance party!
Justin: Yes!
Kirsten: At This Week In Science. Oh yes. This is Payton.
Justin: You ran all kinds of new music lately.
Kirsten: [Laughs]. No, I’m just playing the field with the music these days. Seeing what seems to stick and what I like. You know or what don’t we like!
Justin: DJ Kirsten.
Kirsten: Just trying all sorts of new things! You know eventually we will nail down a real permanent theme song.
Justin: I think we should change it all the time. I mean there is something to be said to like you hear the familiar song and you go, oh! That’s the show!
Kirsten: Yes.
Justin: But then you know that’s great but then on the other hand it is also like you get bored.
Kirsten: [Laughs].
Justin: You know?
Kirsten: That’s right! That’s right. Anyway, if you have got a theme song for us send it along. You know, and eventually this year those of you who donated this last week, thank you very much for donating in the KDVS Fund Raiser. You will be receiving, if you wanted one anyway – you had to ask for it, you will be receiving the 2008 compilation CD.
All science inspired music and those of you who did not get it for the fund raiser, you have got to wait. You have got to wait! That’s the way it is. If you have any communications for us, send us an email at kirsten or
Our website is And the phone number down here, you can call us for about the next half hour at 530-752-2777. We have a guest today.
Justin: George.
Kirsten: A half hour. George. George Johnson. He is a science writer and he has written a book in which he tells like it is. What were the ten most beautiful experiments ever! Ever! Ever! Ever!
Justin: I don’t know maybe he missed one. At least my favorite ones are not in there but.
Kirsten: [Laughs]. You think he might have missed one or two?
Justin: A couple of my favorites in there.
Kirsten: Yes. Well, and in the meantime we have got all sorts of exciting science news.
Justin: I have an astounding feat of biological technology to report.
Kirsten: Whoa!
Justin: Yes. This is one of those, it’s not a complete breakthrough in science that they have discovered this but they have really, because they have seen some of the correlations, but this is one of those like I didn’t know that was possible kind of deals.
Kirsten: [Laughs]. I love that kind of technology.
Justin: Underground root-eating insects have been found to communicate to above ground leaf-eating insects via the plant itself. Like cellulose phone or something.
Kirsten: What? [Laughs].
Justin: Yes! Subterranean insects that normally…
Kirsten: I’ll call you on the cellulo-phone.
Justin: [Laughs]. It’s cellulose-phone. Yes! Subterranean underground insects, right? They eat roots, send chemical signals which then emit via the leaves of the plant up above the surface that then warn the above ground insects who would eating the leaves that there are root-eating insects below ground.
Kirsten: Oh.
Justin: This is convenient because the above ground leaf-eating insects preferred to eat plants that had not been occupied by subterranean root-eating insects. So in the past it has been shown that different types of above ground insects develop slowly if they feed on plants that also have subterranean residents and in reverse the same is true for the subterranean ones.
So, if you know if you’re just nibbling away on the roots, the plants could I guess would be fine and give off enough nutrition and you’ll be totally happy.
Kirsten: Right.
Justin: As well as if you are just eating the leaves. But if you are eating leaves while somebody else is eating the roots, competition, and the plant does not handle it so well.
Kirsten: The plant is not distributing the nutrients as well, maybe so you won’t be as well fed.
Justin: Right! And then you get failed plant more often.
Kirsten: Oh and if they are communicating about it maybe the insects together won’t kill the plant.
Justin: Exactly!
Kirsten: But they are all surviving.
Justin: Yes. Because with this emitted signal via the leaves, the leaf eaters avoid those plants and they try to seek plants that don’t have the root-eaters already on them. So it’s like a no vacancy sign kind of a thing.
Kirsten: Right! That’s fascinating though that there is a signal that is being sent through the plant. It’s very fascinating.
Justin: And, and this signal, and this isn’t a very detailed, so this is a sort of the gist of it. There is parasitic wasps who also benefit from the same signals.
Kirsten: Really?
Justin: Yes! Because the wasps lay their eggs inside above ground insects and the signals reveal to them quickly what plants they should be checking out to find a good host for the eggs.
Kirsten: Right.
Justin: So if they see the signal, they are like, nah.. not that one.
Kirsten: Oh! We should take this exit. There is a good diner over here. [Laughs].
Justin: [Laughs].
Kirsten: I don’t know where we should stop.
Justin: It has only been studied in a few systems so far and it is not clear quite how widespread the phenomenon is but scientists are looking into it. I think that is just really cool.
Kirsten: The more we learn about the world of insects, I mean, there is so much about competition and predator-prey relationships and communication and all these things that you know, as humans we just think, ah insects you know they’re not going to be all that “intelligent” or advanced.
Yet there are so many social aspects to these very what we consider basic organisms. Not so basic, huh?
Justin: Well, I don’t know if it’s just that…
Kirsten: They are basic signals. You eat or don’t eat.
Justin: I like to think… Yes. I like to take the reverse and say that all of our intelligence isn’t really that astounding if you know.
Kirsten: [Laughs].
Justin: If you can compare it to some of the insects, you know, I mean a lot of it is just being a biological life form and having these mechanisms within you that make you do things.
Kirsten: You know, to me it makes me think you know, well insects are doing these things and responding to these signals and choosing where to stop and eat, where to not stop and eat based on signals in their environment and it puts us a little bit closer to the biological world that for so long as humans we have kind of thought that we were above and not so related to.
Justin: Oh yes.
Kirsten: You know, psychologically its like, oh humans we have this ability to think and blah…
Justin: Whatever. Bacteria have altruism.
Kirsten: (Laughs).
Justin: No they do. They exhibit… There has got to be.
Kirsten: And when it comes down to it, people are just you know we respond to signals just the same way as an insect or…
Justin: And then to take it to the next step. What’s the next thing is how then are we going to differentiate ourselves from artificial intelligence if we are doing things based on signals and instinct, what is the difference really between those signals and instincts and say a very good programming?
Kirsten: Right! Programmed to have instinct.
Justin: Yes! What is the difference between instinct and programming at the end of the final equation? There won’t be any difference.
Kirsten: Yes. It is fascinating I know like in bird research with language, bird’s song, there has been all this research looking into how birds learn their song and it turns out that there are several species who have say a template inside their head that when they hear a song, when the bird is born, it starts to cut in and starts growing up.
It starts kind of warbling a bit. It has these notes, kind of a template of what it is supposed to sing in its head but it does not quite know exactly what it is supposed to sing and then it will hear a tutor. Some kind of a mentor bird singing.
Justin: Singing that way.
Kirsten: And go oh yes! That’s good and they kind of go into this period of like okay I got to think about that for a while. And while they are thinking about it they are matching up what they heard with what’s in their head and then when they come back they are like, “oh, I can do that” and they practice it and then they have their own song that is a result of what they heard and what was in their head.
Justin: It is important that they have the template too otherwise, they’d be sounding like you know, if they were near a freeway, they’d maybe making car sounds.
Kirsten: Right! [Laughs]
Justin: If they are outside a window they might be making radio sounds.
Kirsten: Well, you have heard mockingbirds right?
Justin: Mockingbirds! Yes. Oh yes. Mockingbirds are wild.
Kirsten: Yes. But then when it comes down to human language people think that humans don’t have any kind of a template and that inside our head is just blank slate and we just learn language. And its like why would it be that we have no template? How do we know we have no template?
Maybe we have a program inside of our head that is our instinct that will help us figure out you know, what we are supposed to speak based on what the tutors have said.
Justin: I think I might be Chinese. Based on having had a couple of infant children in the past, they really do seem to talk. It sounds very Chinese.
Kirsten: [Laughs].
Justin: It sounds very, I don’t know why that is but there did seem to be a theme amongst…
Kirsten: I don’t know. Yes. Babies…
Justin: The youth…
Kirsten: They totally speak a foreign language. I don’t get it. Okay. My favorite story of the last week, big story published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.
Researchers studying the human genome, looking at mitochondrial DNA have concluded that there was a genetic split back in Africa about 150,000 years ago when were still only on the African continent, we hadn’t migrate away yet.
But that humans because of say drought conditions or some kind of an environmental shift- it split the human population into two subpopulations. So there was like an eastern more northern population and there was a population that was stuck down in southern Africa.
And that those two lineages started to evolve away from each other so that there was actually a point at which if the weather hadn’t changed and the populations hadn’t come back together again, there would have possibly have become two separate human species.
Homo sapiens could have split completely into another species. But as it turns out because you know, people walk around a lot, they like to get around and after a while humans came back together again and…
Justin: Yay! [Clapping].
Kirsten: Yay! We’re all one happy family. According to the BBC website, present day people carry a signature of the ancient split in their DNA and today’s Africans are part of a single population.
So the researchers put together a family tree of these different mitochondrial DNA groupings and they found that a major split first happened about 150,000 years ago.
And then they found mitochondrial lineages that were eastern and western African and all maternal lineages that are outside of African. And then on other side of the things are lineages that are found in hunter-gatherer people, the khoi and khoi-san people of southern Africa.
And a lot of people populations in African harbor a combination of both. So you can see that there was a blending back together of the two different groups of DNA. You know there are people who argue that maybe you can’t really tell that there was a split from mitochondrial DNA.
Maybe it wasn’t really a split. Maybe it was some other reason for this change. Its said that maybe there were just multiple different lineages kind of mixed into the population to begin with so you know.
Justin: Yes but it does fit very much our out of African scenario because if there are two different lineages, part of the reason you have the out of Africa scenario, as a catalyst for that could be severe droughts and could be severe conditions and could be pressure on that northern-eastern community that forced them to leave.
Not head back to some grounds that perhaps they knew better but to enter absolutely new territory. And they did it on a couple of different, you know, like a 120 and again at like 90,000 years ago or something like two separate times.
But you can see in that especially in places as big as Africa that you have giant dessert or something that pops up in the middle of two different populations. They’re probably not going to hang out.
Kirsten: And especially you know that long ago there were not that many people. Not that many Homo sapiens on the planet. So that kind of a split really might have pushed humanity to the verge of extinction.
Justin: Oh are you kidding me? If there was…
Kirsten: And if you have that kind of like an isolation event in a population, in evolutionary theory that is one of the events that is thought to drive speciation. So when you have a small group of people that is isolated from another part of the population…
Justin: Especially back in the day people would have to walk to get places. So then…
Kirsten: And Africa is a big blaze!
Justin: If there was 30,000 people in Los Angeles and 30,000 people up here in Northern California, I don’t think we’d hang out that much. I don’t think there would be whole lot of interaction. You know? It would be too far to walk for not enough pay off.
Kirsten: Yes. Maybe there would a couple of you know, those John Meer types. The people who like walking along the you know, Sierra Crest Trail.
Justin: It would be the overly sun-burnt people with the funny talk about how the world is coming to an end or something. It would be the end of days or it would be the absolute lunatics walking the earth.
Kirsten: [Laughs]. Everyone else will like…
Justin: Doing kung fu to get people out of trouble or something.
Kirsten; …Stay here. Yes. It is just a fascinating idea though that once upon a time humans, the Homo sapiens species almost came close to extinction and possibly was isolated enough in one area to maybe almost form a new species. I mean that is so… it’s mind boggling. I love it!
Justin: I think genetic connection has been locked in a little bit harder.
Kirsten; Yes!
Justin: More bird with feathered flock than lizard lounging on a rock. Researchers on Tyrannosaurus rex’s recently discovered 6 peptides and 89 amino acids have resulted in resounding confirmation of previous conclusions in establishing the voracious dinosaurs evolutionary relationship to modern day birds.
The newest revelation is that T. rex is closer related to an ostrich? Or a chicken than it is related to an alligator or any other reptile.
Kirsten: That’s really neat.
Justin: Yes! So this matches the traditional method…
Kirsten: [Laughs]. I’m just imagining the sound that the T. rex might have made instead of making a [roar], dinosaur-ey scary sound it probably was like a [chicken cluck].
Justin: Well you know you scale up to [chicken cluck] and to a lower tone and oblige your vocal system and then it [roars]. You know its…
Kirsten: And you have something like weird Scooby-Doo. Oh I don’t know. [Scooby-Doo sound].
Justin: So it matches the methods of taxonomic classification based on morphology which is the shape of the dinosaur’s skeleton and its similarities to birds. But now scientists can rely on more of then the, if it-looks-like-a-duck methodology and point to mass spectrometry of modern ostriches and alligators to solidify the ancestral link to birds.
This is the first dinosaur that with the use of molecular data, placed a non-avian dinosaur in the tree of life. The phylogenetic tree that traces the evolution of species and scientists actually also reported doing a similar analysis of collagen protein sequences derived from a mastodon bone, established of course that there is a close family tree of life relationship between mastodons and modern day elephants. I think that one was…
Kirsten: That’s a neat lineage. That’s a neat connection.
Justin: Is it? Because I thought that one was kind of obvious.
Kirsten: [Laughs].
Justin: I mean to me when a mastodon is, it’s like a big hairy elephant but you wouldn’t expect like if they came out it was like mastodon is actually very related to a domestic house cat. Then I’d be like, huh?
Kirsten: Right.
Justin: But mastodon-elephant, like I expected that. Anyway you could have probably filled that blank in. It probably wasn’t even penciled in. It was already probably in the tree of life in pen and they are like we’ll have to white over if something crazy happens, but T. rex to an ostrich? That’s nice. I like that.
Kirsten: It is nice. It’s very nice.
Justin: Did it make sense to you? Because alligators were like their own species way back when anyway. So they have probably got their own complete lineage.
Kirsten: They have been around for a long time.
Justin: Yes.
Kirsten: Yes. They split off into their own species and haven’t, well alligators, they themselves they haven’t changed but…
Justin: I mean they changed but not so much really. I mean they haven’t gotten feathered and started flying. I mean that’s a pretty huge difference.
Kirsten: Well maybe they did but we just haven’t found the evidence of it yet.
Justin: Flying?
Kirsten: So far it’s just the T. rex.
Justin: Crocodiles? Ah!
Kirsten: I don’t know. So in another amazing story of evolution news this week, it’s an accidental experiment took place.
Justin: I love those.
Kirsten: Yes. National Geographic news reported on this story. Some Italian researchers put some Italian wall lizards on a tiny island near Croatia and they transplanted these five pairs, so five male-female pairs of these lizards from their original home to this other island.
They are kind of transplanting them because there was a Croatian war. They did not want the lizards to die out. So they thought, Hey! We’ll put them on this other island and you know they’ll be fine. They’ll be safe over here. There is no war happening over here. But then because of the war and because of all sorts of stuff going on they never went back to…
Justin: They forgot to pick them up.
Kirsten: Yes. They did not revisit the lizards and in 2004, the article says that tourism opened back up and the researchers were able to access the island again and they had no idea what they were going to find. Ended up finding the lizards, these wall lizards – they did great. They totally, like they beat out the endemic lizards of the islands which is kind of sad but they…
Justin: It’s just a conservation act right there.
Kirsten: Yes. They did really well. They beat out the lizards that were living there but in the process, the researchers checked out they did really well, these lizards just boomed and the population grew to more than 5,000 and they look internally different. They have evolved new organs…
Justin: What?
Kirsten: …To be able to eat the food like they have new stomach, a new chamber in their digestive tract that makes them more able to digest the food source on the island which has more vegetation as opposed to less insects.
Justin: How long have they been there?
Kirsten: They’ve been there for 30 years and so what is thought an event that is thought should have taken or that we would expect to take millions of years, like it’s…
Justin: You’ve ruled out crossbreeding with existing…
Kirsten: Yes.
Justin: Wow!
Kirsten: Yes. I think they ruled out crossbreeding and its that these lizards had mutated, they evolved new organs, they are now considered a different species and it took 30 years.
Justin: Oh my goodness.
Kirsten: Yes.
Justin: Go lizards!
Kirsten: Yes. So this is a huge, I mean for a species, such a macro species, I mean this isn’t bacteria which can evolve and change because they reproduce so quickly and their population time is really quick. This is a larger species. It you know, they probably reproduced quite a bunch but at the same time it’s not nearly…
Justin: Wait. Is this that concrete proof of evolution before our eyes? That every scientist is hounding is for like, show me one thing that has evolved. Like watch while it’s evolving. Could that be it?
Kirsten: Yes. It’s very possible. So…
Justin: I wonder if it’s some sort of like primitive tie in like some…
Kirsten: And it was not something that anybody designed. It was an accident. One of the lead authors is Dunkin Irschick from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and…
Justin: So they have got to repeat this.
Kirsten: Yes. So there is going to have to be more research done to determine exactly how this might have happened.
Justin: Just find another animal. Grab another bunch of lizards. Toss them in there.
Kirsten: Right.
Justin: See if they can do it again.
Kirsten: Right. Is this because there was an existing mutation that was just able to be through a weeding like…
Justin: And that was I was saying. Maybe there is some not even inbreeding but maybe there is an old DNA from a time way back when, when they needed that sort of thing. Lizards are very…
Kirsten: Right. That has been repressed because they did not need it for a long time but now maybe it came back out.
Justin: Yes. They didn’t need it. Lizards like some of them like re-grow tails and stuff. Maybe they’ve got a lot of stuff going on under the hood that we aren’t even aware of.
Kirsten: Yes, but 30 years to basically turn into a new species.
Justin: That’s awesome. Okay before we hit the brake I got a quiz time.
Kirsten: Quiz time.
Justin: Get you number 2 pencils out and be prepared to show your work. Ready? A half empty glass of…
Kirsten: C! [Laughs].
Justin: [Laughs]. Wait that’s close! A half empty glass of beer sits on a counter next to a half empty pitcher in Charlottesville while a train leaving San Francisco traveling west at 75 miles an hour goes off the rails, sinks into the Pacific. Okay. What color am I thinking about when this happens?
Kirsten: [Laughs].
Justin: Okay. That seems like a very confusing question right? You’d have to just slowly like guess at the – according to a study conducted at Ohio State University Center for Cognitive Science, it is the sort of confusion that can result from learning mathematical principles in concrete examples versus learning the concepts as abstract symbols.
For example, teachers might explain probability of pulling marbles out of a bag like they have you know, half red, half blue and they’d use that to show probability of determining which color will come out next. Right?
But students may learn better if the teacher explains the concept without the bag of marbles and just in a probability of choosing one of N thing from a larger set of M things so finds Jennifer Kaminski, lead researcher on the study.
There is a classic problem of two trains leaving different cities heading towards each other at different speeds. Students are asked to figure out when the two trains will meet. The danger says Kaminski in teaching using examples that many students will only learn to solve a problem is with trains. Then they apply the same principle to…
Kirsten: To a different scenario. Yes.
Justin: …Water levels in this example and they can’t do it.
Kirsten: And they can’t do it. Yes.
Justin: They have no idea.
Kirsten: Yes.
Justin: So they ran a bunch of experiments where they would teach mathematical principles to some using the abstract mathematical symbols only, just the pure math, versus using lots of different concrete world examples to teach the people.
Kirsten: Right.
Justin: This is what they ended up with. At the end, they created a kids’ game. The students were told they were going to be doing, these are actually undergraduate students, told that they were going to be doing a kids game. And the kid’s game relied on the exact same mathematical principles that they were just trained on.
And what’s amazing too is when they were tested on these mathematical principles using the concrete examples versus using the mathematical, both groups did very well. They understood the concept. So it wasn’t that they did not learn the math.
Kirsten: Right.
Justin: But they learned it for the concrete example versus just the abstract mathematical principle. So when they were then tasked with applying the same thing to the kids game, the ones who had learned the mathematical concept and principle with symbols scored about 80%, got it about 80% right. The others were worse than guessing.
Kirsten: Wow!
Justin: They had no way of transferring the mathematical principles to the concrete.
Kirsten: This explains so much about like why…
Justin: Doesn’t it?
Kirsten: …People are like I don’t know how to do something. You know, it just explains so much.
Justin: And I guess part of it is that they do point out the fact that the concrete examples are a great way of testing the mathematical principles later and giving people an opportunity to use the mathematical principle once they have it.
Kirsten: But not a great way to teach it.
Justin: But a horrible way to teach it because it locks them into a concrete world as opposed to the actual mathematical answer.
Kirsten: Trains or cars or… Yes.
Justin: And prior to what they think gosh trains are everywhere because Einstein lived near a train station when he did most of his great works on relativity.
Kirsten: [Laughs].
Justin: So if Einstein’s got trains going back and forth, up and down, and left to right. But if you tried to figure out the speed of light and the way matter works in the universe and gravity by looking at trains, you’re going to be doomed.
Kirsten: [Laughs].
Justin: You’re not going to learn that from the trains.
Kirsten: Like doomed!
Justin: You already know the math. You’re already working on the problem and you’re trying to use trains so you can communicate that to other people.
Kirsten: [Laughs]. Don’t you get it? It’s trains!
Justin: No! There are no trains in space! Its not because trains are heavy that we have gravity. That’s not how it works! No!
Kirsten: [Laughs]. Oh my goodness. One last story.
Justin: We have many. I have a book over here.
Kirsten: I know.
Justin: More shows.
Kirsten: Honda Motor Company, their ASIMO robot is being programmed right now to conduct the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Justin: Is that the biggest slap in the face to the American auto industry that could possibly happen?
Kirsten: Well, I don’t know.
Justin: I mean if they have to pick Detroit, that’s all I’m saying.
Kirsten: Oh, actually you know that is kind of an interesting point.
Justin: Were and inventor or robot that’s going to conduct your orchestra that all you executives have tickets to watch. It’s just… more power to them. I mean technology rules.
Kirsten: And it cost them a mere 1 million dollars.
Justin: That’s nothing.
Kirsten: Yes. It will be interesting to see how ASIMO performs. They are programming him to behave and conduct Impossible Dream from the Man of La Mancha.
Justin: Nice.
Kirsten: And the musicians are going to have to follow him as they would follow any other conductor. So it will be very interesting to see exactly how he does. ASIMO is one of the most advanced robots out there in human activity being able to climb stairs, run…
Justin: I had to tell you I won’t be too well impressed. I’m sorry. A million dollar metronome is not…
Kirsten: [Laughs].
Justin: …Is not to me… You do the opposite. You put him out there on the cello. You put the robot on the cello with a new conductor who he hasn’t worked with before and see if he can follow on to the conductor’s pace by watching him, I’ll be well impressed.
Kirsten: Right.
Justin: But they are doing a little four sweep metronome thing. Not so much. [Laughs]. Not worth a million dollars.
Kirsten: I’d like to thank Ed Dyer for that story. Thanks Kalidasa and also…
Justin: Kalidasa is a beast in this story.
Kirsten: Yes. He was great and Raul Villanueva, thank you for the story on the evolution. Were going to go the break right now and we’ll be back with an interview with George Johnson. He’s going to tell us about the best experiments ever! Stay tuned.
[musical interlude]
Kirsten: [Whistling]. They died, died, died, died. [Singing].
Justin: We are back!
Kirsten: It’s almost the end of the flu season… right?
Justin: I’m hearing people getting sick all the time anyway.
Kirsten: Oh man…
Justin: People don’t care anymore.
Kirsten: You’re listening to This Week in Science and we have George Johnson on the line. He is a science writer. He writes regularly for the New York Times, written for the Scientific American Daily on a monthly time slate and Wired, and he’s also been included in the best American science writing book that’s released every year.
He has written a book called The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments and we had him on before to talk about a blind female astronomer. So let’s see what he’s got this time. Without further ado.
Justin: Ah! Further ado… Hey further ado… Oh!
Kirsten: [Laughs].
Justin: Good morning George! Welcome to This Week in Science.
George Johnson: Hey! Thanks. It’s good to be here.
Kirsten: Yes. Thank you for joining us. We had you on a little – last year wasn’t it? You were…
George Johnson: Oh… I don’t think so.
Kirsten: [Laughs]. You’re like… I don’t know.
George Johnson: Yes. It must be the other George Johnson.
Kirsten: Right.
Justin: Is there more than one?
George Johnson: Well there is actually two in Santa Fe and only two, and we get each others phone call and over the years we met each other and…
Kirsten: [Laughs].
George Johnson: We become acquainted anyway.
Kirsten: Yes but he is not a science writer is he?
George Johnson: No. He is actually a stage manager.
Kirsten: [Laughs].
George Johnson: I get weird calls from, you know, people saying that the ballet troupe has just arrived…
Justin: [Laughs].
George Johnson: And no one was in to meet them at the theater and…
Justin: Do you ever give advice?
Kirsten: That’s interesting.
Justin: Or just roll with it. Just like, Okay! Just go ahead in the back. Yes.
George Johnson: Once, I’ve done that before but not with the other George. [Everybody laughs].
Kirsten: Yes. You could send people places, it would be fantastic.
George Johnson: Oh yes! Actually as they call you. You know, in the middle of the night acting stuff for you.
Kirsten: [Laughs].
George Johnson: And say. Oh, you know, is Joey there?
Kirsten: [Laughs].No. Yes.
George Johnson: And say. No, I’m sorry Joey passed away.
Kirsten: [Laughs].
Justin: Oh no. I actually got a job interview off a wrong number once. That was pretty good.
George Johnson: Wow.
Justin: Yes. It just turned out the other person was looking for the same kind of work that I was, and they called the wrong place…
George Johnson: [Laughs].
Justin: And they were asking for somebody else and like “Oh that person died never heard of him but hey sounds like a great gig!”
George Johnson: You’re new in synchronicity.
Justin: Yes.
Kirsten: So you’ve got this book “The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments” and here at This Week in Science we love beautiful experiments. You know, science should be beautiful. What spurred you on to write this book and how did you only pick ten?
George Johnson: Yes. The most of what I write about, like for the Times, at least then, lately doing things like super strength theory and ten eleven dimensions of space or quantum computers that are calculating problems by solving them in parallel universes.
Justin: [laughs]
Kirsten: Right. Things that people have a real hard time understanding on.
George Johnson: Well. It’s because it is so abstract.
Kirsten: Yes.
George Johnson: It is wonderful and I love that stuff but I felt this need to kind of, you know, get back to the basics and one thing, it was always really, both fascinated and bothered me is how we know what we think we know, you know, we learn the stuff in school or we read in the newspapers and there is just something about going back and having a this visceral experiment of say, putting a dime and penny, and lemon and find out that it actually does generate a voltage and that you can put a few of them together and light up a little LED.
Kirsten: That sounds like a good science experiment for any grade schoolers out there looking for something to do.
George Johnson: Oh yes. You know, I think they do it in school. They used to do it on Mr. Wizard.
Kirsten: Right.
George Johnson: And just one day, I felt wow! I wonder if this really works. It is relieving and kind of mystifying to see that it does and there is actually electricity in the lemon.
Kirsten: Right. And that there a very basic common, kind of, household things around in which you can observe scientific principles.
George Johnson: Yes. I was asked In this book were cases where one person, like one mind with one pair of hands was able to setup an apparatus to post a question to nature and then get very, you know, crisp and unambiguous reply like, Newton figuring out that white isn’t the basic fundamental light that get stained with colors but that the colors come together to make up white light.
Kirsten: That a pretty neat – that would have been just very satisfying to discover.
George Johnson: Oh. Yes. This is the moment when, well I mean you know first he, you know he cut a hole in his window shutter and then held up the prism and then projected this oblong spectrum on the wall and then one of his experiments, he then ran the spectrum through a second prism and recombined it into white light.
Kirsten: Oh.
George Johnson: But the really amazing thing is where if you broke up the light into the spectrum and then one by one. He showed that each color going from, you know, red to blue was refracted and a little more or a little less in order and that’s why you got the spectrum spreading out like that. No one believed him.
Kirsten: [Laughs].
Justin: [Laughs]. Wow.
Kirsten: He had an uphill battle to fight to…
George Johnson: Oh yes.
Kirsten: ..prove it.
George Johnson: Oh yes. Robert Hooke was you know, kind of his self-proclaimed rival and could not stand the fact that this upstart Newton was telling him the great Robert Hooke what color was.
Kirsten: Even beside the experiments that these individuals did, is that their life that surrounded it and it is something that you don’t really learn about it in school as you are studying science. You don’t learn about Newton as a person. You don’t learn about his rivals. You don’t learn about his friends. You never find that out and it’s really…
George Johnson: Yes. It feels kind of shrunk wrapped and…
Justin: It is really annoying.
George Johnson: Repackaged and… Yes.
Justin: They do that with politicians all the time, I mean, you will hear about the lives of presidents and the lives of other things…
George Johnson: You know. Yes that’s true, Aaron Burr…
Justin: Yes. Like who cares.
George Johnson: Why they had this duel… Yes, the scientist is usually a lot more interesting.
Justin: Yes.
Kirsten: [Laughs].
George Johnson: Yes. Some of this stuff is pretty well known. There are all these little canned stories about Newton or Galileo but it was really fun to find out, you know, things that I didn’t know and try to weave them into the story.
Kirsten: What was one of you’re favorite pieces of information about a scientist that you got to put it inside the book.
George Johnson: I think it was the Michael Faraday.
Justin: Yes.
George Johnson: In his mid 50’s member of some very conservative religious group called the Sandemanians and he was being pursued by Lady Ada Lovelace.
Kirsten: Lady Ada Lovelace.
Justin: People use to have great names.
George Johnson: The daughter of the poet Byron.
Kirsten: Wow.
George Johnson: And basically, the story was that her mother after Byron disappeared. Her mother got her a mathematics tutor to try to get some discipline in this young woman’s mind and then she ran off with the math tutor.
And you know, later she used to hangout with Charles Babbage when he was inventing the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine and she wrote this famous essay describing his work and the concepts of the first computer.
She was a very good writer, a very interesting, kind of a, science fan or a very advanced amateur but she started sending Faraday this really flirtatious notes that I quoted in the book and my theory, at this point, Faraday had really had a nervous breakdown and he’d fallen into this big depression and some people think it was because he had a religious, some kind of, schism in his church and some people think it’s because all the chemicals he was using in his experiments…
Kirsten: [Laughs].
Justin: Oh yes.
Kirsten: No so…
George Johnson: That was poisoning his mind and when he starts getting flattery from a Lady Ada. [Laughs].
Kirsten: And he responded well?
George Johnson: Yes, well he was trying to fend her off, at least that’s how it sounds in the letters but it was about this time that he really, kind of, broke out of his funk and he did this wonderful experiment where before he had shown that electricity and magnetism are intimately related.
And he wanted to go further and show that electromagnetism was related to light and of course, we know now that electromagnetism is light and vice versa but he did this wonderful experiment, he was using a gas argon lamp.
Which is like what they use in lighthouses in those days and they projected a polarized light beam through a piece of glass and then he could look at that, you know, beam by holding a little polarizing filter up to his eye and then he twist it 90 degrees and the flame would disappear because it was polarized.
And then he turned on this big electromagnet and it would twist the light beam into it and flame would appear given the eye piece. He could just turn the magnet on and off and watch the flame appear and disappear and was actually twisting the light beam with magnetism.
Justin: Awesome.
Kirsten: That’s very cool.
Justin: This is why we need to have more of this science history going on. Byron is one of my favorite poets.
George Johnson: Yes.
Justin: And I have to find out that there’s a connection between at least through his daughter and Faraday who was the forefather of basically electromagnetism.
George Johnson: Yes right.
Justin: A good part of everything that operates that… today. I mean, thanks a lot.
Kirsten: Radios, television…
George Johnson: Yes, everything, we really only know the world through electromagnetism.
Justin: Yes.
George Johnson: And everything else was kind of another layer of abstraction.
Justin: Yes.
George Johnson: Yes. So that was good story.
Kirsten: That’s a great story. Were there any stories that just, you know, almost made the cuts that were just…
George Johnson: Oh yes. A lot of them, when I was talking about this book, my colleague Sandra Blakesley was saying, well what do you mean “The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments”?
Kirsten: [Laughs].
George Johnson: Shouldn’t you just call it Ten Beautiful experiments? [Laughs].
Kirsten: Yes.
George Johnson: I said well, you know, I just want it throw down the gauntlet and say. These are my Ten and, you know, you’ll have a different Ten and there will be some overlaps but… yes, I thought about including Pasteur’s, some of his work and… there is kind of tendency to try, well I got to get a, you know, French person…
Justin: [Laughs].
Kirsten: [Laughs].
George Johnson: You know, I have to get a German… but I didn’t want to have any criteria other than just what struck me as the beauty of the experiment.
Kirsten: The simplicity and just…
George Johnson: Yes. That existential moments were you posed this question and then you get an answer and the exhilarating feeling that must be.
Kirsten: So what was one of the others, other than Pasteur the Frenchman. [Laughs].
George Johnson: Oh yes, well Marie Curie, with her discovery of radium and another thing I was trying to distinguish between was, you know, a great discovery is not necessarily a great experiment.
Kirsten: That is a great point.
George Johnson: So by discovering radium. It did not strike so much as a controlled experiment where you posing specific question, getting an answer or when Becquerel accidentally discovered gamma rays by having this radioactive material near some film and finding that he exposed it through an opaque wrapping. He wasn’t setting up the experiment and posing a question.
Kirsten: Right.
George Johnson: He just had a serendipitous discovery.
Justin: Which is why my favorite experiment of all time isn’t in the book.
George Johnson: Which is that?
Justin: That’s Fleming when he goes off on a vacation and comes back and finds his Petri dish has been disturbed and it turns out to be penicillin.
George Johnson: Oh right, penicillin. Yes.
Kirsten: [Laughs].
George Johnson: Yes. That’s exactly the kind of thing that ruled out.
Justin: It was intentional.
Kirsten: Your next book should be The Ten Best Accidents. [Laughs].
Justin: [Laughs]. Yes. There we go.
George Johnson: I did call the last chapter of this book the eleventh most beautiful experiment so I could basically talk about, oh God, maybe I should’ve put in this and that or.. There was this great experiment that Madame Woo, The Dragon Lady at Columbia University showing the parity was violated by the weak nuclear force and that’s a beautiful experiment that has started that something like that, there’s so much abstraction.
Kirsten: Yes.
George Johnson: That I didn’t quite seem right for the book.
Justin: The eleventh one could be that ancient Greek guy whose name I can never remember because it’s like hetha…hexa… heda…
George Johnson: You know…
Justin: But this other one who like measured the tower and then at the same time of day measured another tower…
George Johnson: Oh yes and then computed the circumference of the earth.
Justin: Within 10% and this was yes.
George Johnson: That’s pretty amazing. Yes.
Justin: Yes.
George Johnson: You ever tried to do that?
Justin: [Laughs]. No. I wouldn’t.
Kirsten: [Laughs].
Justin: No. Were wrong! The earth is much smaller than we thought. It’s about the size of bowling ball. My calculations show!
Kirsten: [Laughs].
George Johnson: That was really pretty brilliant. Yes. I guess it makes you wonder, if you know, someone is going to do an experiment like that and just, kind off, pull the bottom card out of the house of cards and the whole thing…Oh!
Justin: Well it’s seems like it’s still going to be possible for a couple of those sorts of revelations. Just at least in the perspective. It wouldn’t change the actual mathematics in a surreal universe but for instance we have mathematics that could very well plot the planet’s traveling around the earth.
George Johnson: Right.
Justin: Right?
George Johnson: Right.
Justin: When the earth was the center. He had mathematics that could facilitate that to some degree.
George Johnson: Oh yes. I mean actually, you know, I mean it’s obvious to anyone that the universe revolves around the earth.
Justin: Yes and it wasn’t
George Johnson: Actually, you know, navigation when, you know, If you were out sailing people actually using the Ptolemaic system, you know, they’re using math that are based on the perspective that the earth is the center and the starts are going overhead. So it’s just kind of mapping the whole thing into a different coordinate system.
Kirsten: Different frame of references entirely.
George Johnson: Yes. If Ptolemy survives.
Kirsten: [Laughs].
Justin: Yes. So it might not be that anything would have to change from the universe as we know it now but maybe the next step getting deeper into the quantum or trying to go beyond the Big bang or previous to it.
George Johnson: Yes.
Justin: Maybe there’s going to have to be some other big shift in the way that the universe operates for us to actually start looking beyond.
George Johnson: Oh yes. That what you wonder if you could rewind the tape or, you know, tear up the science book and go back to the beginning and have people starting over not knowing what we know now with completely fresh minds, what will they come up with?
Justin: What if the opposite way.
Kirsten: Would it be the same or would it be something.
Justin: I think it’s time start the top down.
Kirsten: Top down?
Justin: Everything we know, but forget how we know it.
George Johnson: Yes. [Laughs].
Justin: Why we know it.
George Johnson: That’s when you give them their school.
Justin: Back Engineer. Back engineer the universe as we know it now and see what comes out.
George Johnson: Yes. [Laughs].
George Johnson: Well then of course, the great question if we were able to communicate with the extraterrestrial civilization our science would map on to their science and our math would map on their math and…
Justin: I don’t think it would. I would depend…if we met, like out in space somewhere and we are already space traveling totally possible. If they come all the way to see us and we haven’t left the rock yet.
Kirsten: There probably a little bit more advanced.
Justin: It could be pointless.
George Johnson: Yes, yes. But you would like to think that certain things like gravity or the concept of acceleration, things would be equivalent.
Kirsten: What we call constants.
George Johnson: The constants would be the same. Yes, that is if you’re a hardcore Platon.
Justin: Yes. But what if they’re dark matter aliens?
Kirsten: [Laughs].
Justin: You wouldn’t even see them.
George Johnson: [Laughs].
Justin: They might have the same physics but we don’t even they’re there.
George Johnson: Yes. That’s true. I mean it’s…
Kirsten: What I’m wondering right now is these experiments that were put into your books, you picked them because they were simple elegant demonstrations of science and action.
George Johnson: Yes.
Kirsten: And, I mean, as we’re going forward into the new realm of science with so much quantum work and just things that are like you said very theoretical and very difficult for people to grasp.
George Johnson: Yes.
Kirsten: Do you think we’re going to have those simple beautiful experiments much more?
George Johnson: It is possible to have someone would basically sit down put together some equipment with his or her own hands on a table top and discover something completely unknown and fundamental about nature. You know, it almost seemed that that happened with cold fusion.
Kirsten: Almost. [Laughs].
George Johnson: What so exciting about that, I remember, I was on a train somewhere back east and I picked up the Times and read this story, I thought, my God! These people together this apparatus and found this credible source of energy in fusion at room temperature and of course it turned out to be, to good to be true.
Kirsten: Unfortunately.
George Johnson: Yes. I guess, I think it gets less and less likely all the time that something that fundamental could still be discovered so simply without being imbedded in all these layers of abstraction.
Kirsten: There are lots of people who still want to believe in, you know like, perpetual motion machines and energy free.
George Johnson: Oh yes. [Laughs].
Kirsten: Free energy that, you know, if there is…
George Johnson: You get the crank element…
Kirsten: Yes. But you know, at this point, it so hard to, you know, kind of, still consider that a possibility because if it really were at this point in our technological advancement why aren’t we using it…
Justin: No. Actually the perpetual motion machines…
George Johnson: Yes but the low hanging fruit has been picked so [laughs].
Justin: No, no, no.
Kirsten: Yes.
George Johnson: It’s difficult.
Justin: Don’t put the word out about that though.
George Johnson: [laughs]
Justin: Because in the attempt to make these perpetual motion machines and all the last of it. We’ve come out with all kinds of great technology.
George Johnson: Well yes. Yes that’s true. I mean Volta who’s in my book and invented the battery, he basically thought that when he put copper in silver discs together and the spacers made of card boards soaked in salt water and it was producing voltage and is zapping himself and he felt, wow! I’m getting energy just by putting these stuffs together, this must be perpetual motion. So…
Kirsten: Well now you know, now it got very large, there is some companies that are creating really large batteries for businesses, for corporations and stuff that are like giant tanks of salt water.
George Johnson: Yes.
Justin: Yes.
Kirsten: To create current.
George Johnson: It just amazing when you sleep with primitive technology were still stuck with, I mean Volta thinking that battery was perpetual motion and your laptop can’t even last on a flight.
Kirsten: Constantly looking for that plug, we’re going to plug in. [Laughs].
George Johnson: Yes.
Kirsten: So you’re on a book tour right now, aside from you, you know, your article writing from various periodicals, do you have any other books in the fire that we could expect later or…
George Johnson: Yes. Not at the moment. This is my eighth book and I think it would be…
Kirsten: Good work.
George Johnson: and I think this is the first time since I started writing books, I didn’t overlap them so, it is really good to be starting on one when the other one’s done because it’s kind of takes your mind off obsessing things, over things, like huh! Why isn’t my book there in front of the store…
Kirsten: [Laughs].
Justin: [Laughs].
George Johnson: And this is the first time that I haven’t overlapped and I’m still kind of keeping myself open for a number nine.
Kirsten: Very cool.
Justin: I think Kirsten gave you the ammo for the number nine.
George Johnson: Well yes.
Kirsten: [Laughs].
Justin: The unintended beautiful experiments.
George Johnson: Well yes. Watch for yourself in the acknowledgment.
Kirsten: Excellent. Thank you very much for joining us this morning George.
George Johnson: Oh, I loved it.
Kirsten: It has been great talking with you, have a wonderful day and good luck with your Ten Most Beautiful Experiments.
George Johnson: Thanks so much.
Kirsten: You’re welcome.
Justin: Which is available in hardcover now?
George Johnson: It is. Yes.
Kirsten: Wonderful.
George Johnson: It should be out there sometime then go out and buy a copy because I forgot to bring it. I will do another interview later today and they asked to me read from the book and I said, oh my God.
Kirsten: Uh oh. [Laughs].
George Johnson: I went on the web and found that they do stock it at the borders on market street.
Kirsten: So you’re in luck. [Laughs]. that’s really funny.
George Johnson: Maybe I’ll get a discount.
Kirsten: [Laughs].
Justin: Oh look that’s my picture! That’s me!
Kirsten: Alright take care.
George Johnson: Okay thanks.
Kirsten: Thank you very much.
George Johnson: Bye.
Kirsten: That was George Johnson, The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments. He’s a funny guy and he definitely tells a good story and it will be great to read more about these scientists through history who have just created these simple elegant, wonderful experiments, and done so in a way that, you know…
Justin: Change the future of science.
Kirsten: Yes. Change science and, you know, to find about them in the lives that surrounded that one experiment, you know, who was the person?
Justin: Sometimes it’s fascinating.
Kirsten: I found that fascination.
Justin: I always find Tesla very fascinating. He has all these very strange quirks.
Kirsten: Yes. Tesla is one of my… yes.
Justin: He turned out into quite a neurotic. Pretty cool.
Kirsten: He did. I think he would be probably would have been alright if he didn’t go crazy. Do you want electricity in the brain?
Justin: I think it has got to do if he’s crazier than he is so brilliant.
Kirsten: Too much AC current. Anyway, I’d like to thank everyone out there for listening today. Gordon McCormick for writing in, Jessie Heitler, Richard Barton, Emilio Delise, I’m going to sing when I want to darn it!. He doesn’t like it when I sing.
Justin: What?
Kirsten: He told me so.
Justin: Oh. That’s just not right sir.
Kirsten: And then he thought, we it may have something to do with him that I didn’t sing during the show last week and oh maybe it’s because Justin wasn’t there. Maybe it’s because I told you not to anyway. I’m going to sing when I darn well please anyway. [Laughs]. Thanks for listening.
Justin: And if you learned anything from today’s show, remember…
Kirsten: It’s all in your head.
[musical interlude]