Transcript: Aug 18, 2009

Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!

What we say has meaning even if that meaning is lost on others. When other people speak, it has meaning to us even if it is not what they intended to convey.

Whether our words are chosen wisely or allowed to escape before being carefully thought through, the impact of those words will depend more on who is hearing them than on what we have said. Such is the case even now as I say these words.

For whatever point I intended by saying them in the beginning has already left my ability to control and has been made irrelevant by the fact that you are interpreting what I’m saying and associating meanings that I couldn’t possibly have imagined let alone intended.

Or perhaps you understand exactly what I intended to say and have thought these thoughts to yourself making what I’m saying now just a reminder of your own thoughts which are ultimately what I’m talking about even though I have no idea what those thoughts may be.

And while a thought-filled confusion much like this disclaimer in the following hour of programming do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the University of California Davis, KDVS or its sponsors, one thing should remain perfectly clear. What that one thing is, we will surely not agree upon. So instead, we will drop the subject all together and instead turn our attentions to This Week in Science, coming up next.

Good morning, Kirsten!

Kirsten: Good morning, Justin. Welcome everyone to another week of This Week in Science. Another installment of all the science that we can fit into an hour because we do love the science, we do. Even though Justin is running away…

Justin: I’m behind you.

Kirsten: …from the microphone right now. He’s running away. He’s like no! No science, not today!

Justin: I think I got hit by an EMP burst last night. All my batteries are drained.

Kirsten: Oh, your…

Justin: Phone, computer, car most likely not affected.

Kirsten: Personal, Dave Albert, David Albert, dear Dr. David Albert. He is a Philosopher of Science.

Justin: Wow, that’s such a good a title.

Kirsten: Yeah, and he will be joining us today at the half hour. And we’ll be talking about the Philosophy of Science.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Justin wanted to step off the discussion today with something related to Bose-Einstein debates from…

Justin: I did?

Kirsten: Oh, yeah. This was your idea.

Justin: Bose-Einstein debates, I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Kirsten: This is all your idea, Justin.

Justin: I don’t remember. I wasn’t serious. Like I don’t – like there may have been an argument that crossed my mind that I was babbling on like “We got to get David Albert talking about the Bose-Einstein…” I have no idea what it is now. But we’ll find out.

Kirsten: Yup.

Justin: We’ll try.

Kirsten: You need to check your e-mail more often.

Justin: Oh, man.

Kirsten: In the meantime, we are talking about some interesting stories like mice being cured again. It happens all the time.

Justin: They are – very soon, very soon, there will be no disease on earth…

Kirsten: No disease.

Justin: …that can plague a mouse.

Kirsten: No, I don’t know.

Justin: We’re getting there, people.

Kirsten: Yeah, we’re finding planets going backwards.

Justin: What?

Kirsten: And, yeah.

Justin: Backwards.

Kirsten: Backwards running planets. So what does this mean for like…?

Justin: How can we tell? Like what’s the right way?

Kirsten: Well, let me tell you about it later.

Justin: Okay, okay, okay.

Kirsten: We’ll get to the story and I also have a story about the world’s smallest laser And if we get to things, there are just so many stories out there. Let’s see what we can get to in the half hour that we – well less than a half hour that we’ve got.

Justin: Yeah. Yeah, oh…

Kirsten: What did you have? What were you…

Justin: Oh, I…

Kirsten: …going to talk about today?

Justin: I was going to talk about drugs and bees and cars and…

Kirsten: Oh, bees.

Justin: …maybe some trees, I don’t know.

Kirsten: Oh, bees…

Justin: I got quite a big pile of…

Kirsten: I know, stack, oh…

Justin: I know, there’s no way we’re getting through it all. So, I don’t know what I’m going to talk about. I’m going to wing it.

Kirsten: Yeah. So big story this week, the mice being cured of multiple sclerosis.

Justin: Really? That’s a big one.

Kirsten: This is very big actually. Researchers at the Institute for Medical Research at McGill University in Montreal, it’s a Jewish General Hospital Lady Davis Institute Medical Research, McGill.

Anyway, multiple sclerosis is a disease that affects the nervous system. It’s a plague of the autoimmune disease – of an autoimmune nature. So what that means is the body is attacking itself. The body’s immune cells suddenly think that the packing material, the myelin sheath for the nerves is dangerous and/or not supposed to be there, whatever it’s an invader. And it starts attacking it. And then the myelin is damaged and forms hard plaques like scabs…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …around that, you know, that’s supposed to heal but they never really quite heal. And so, as the result, the nerves are never really able to conduct electricity the way that they are supposed to, as well.

Justin: So then inter-body communications are breaking down motor functions.

Kirsten: Breaking motor functions, people have problems controlling various aspects of their behavior movement…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …breathing, eating, hearing, vision, anything is fair game in this disease. So it would be really, really great to be able to get a cure for it. There are hundreds of thousands of individuals who have multiple sclerosis around in the United States, around the world even more.

What they have done, the researchers took a treatment that they have called “GIFT15” which is a complex of two proteins called GSM-CSF and interleukin-15 that were fused together in the laboratory.

So normally, each of these individual proteins stimulates various aspects of the immune system, but when they’re fused together, the complex axon reverse so that it actually inhibits the immune system, which is really interesting.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Yeah. So it’s basically using proteins that are normally produced by the body’s own cells to suppress immunity in a very specific way. What ends up happening is that B cells which are a form of white blood cell that are involved in the immune response, they – let’s see, the ability to control them is relatively unknown. It hasn’t happened before.

This GIFT15 takes the B cells and converts them into a super powerful B cell, super powerful so that in a Petri-dish, they were able to actually control and turn down the immune response that normally occurs. So the B cell will come in and say “nothing to see here, nothing to see here” where normally the B cell goes in and says “Hey, T-cells come over here, come over here and attack.”

Justin: This is just a little Jedi mind trick.

Kirsten: So it’s like a Jedi…

Justin: These are not the Droids you are looking for.

Kirsten: These are not the nerve cells you are looking for. No. Yeah. So the B cells come in and they’re turned into this different – they act differently than they would if they have been stimulated normally. That’s a really fascinating, fascinating advancement.

They’ve been able to do this. Control the immune cells in a Petri-dish and then take as additionally and then inject into mice with multiple sclerosis that had been genetically altered, manipulated to have a similar disease to what we call multiple sclerosis and cure them so that they were no side effects, they say or no significant side effects, I don’t know what that necessarily means. And at the earliest stages, it completely reverses it. So it’s as if it never happened.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: This isn’t something that if the mouse had had multiple sclerosis for a long time that it would’ve gotten rid of…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …the damage that had already occurred. This is if you catch it early enough, what they are doing…

Justin: Stopping the progress.

Kirsten: …is stopping it.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: They’re stopping the immune system from responding. This could potentially have other immune effects because you are damping down the immune system.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: So as a whole bud, you know, if you’re not going to – you have to balance the benefits with the negative sides that could possibly occur from damping down your immune system. You know, so if this is something that works. This is probably on the way to trying it in people which would be really cool.

Justin: Yay!

Kirsten: Yay! I love it.

Justin: Okay everyone out there in radio, podlandness. Check the contents of your pockets, your purses, your wallets, right now, take a minute. Check, see what you got on there. Okay, you’ve got maybe keys, ID, credit card, a little bit of cash. Credit card, I actually don’t need that one for a while.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Raise your hand, raise your hand though if you saw – if you found any cocaine anywhere in it. One hand? No, no, you’ve decided no? You’re not going to raise your hand? Okay. No hands up, well, think again. According to research, the largest most comprehensive analysis to date of cocaine contamination in banknotes…

Kirsten: That would be your money.

Justin: That’s your money.

Kirsten: That’s your money.

Justin: That’s cash, that’s…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Scientists are reporting that cocaine is present in up to – do you want to guess, want to guess, want to guess? Ninety percent of paper money in the United States.

Kirsten: Really?

Justin: Yup, 90.

Kirsten: That’s insane.

Justin: Isn’t it? Particularly in large cities such as Baltimore, Boston and Detroit.

Kirsten: Wow.

Justin: Scientists found traces of cocaine in 95% of banknotes analyzed from Washington DC alone. Washington DC, really, where like all our politicians are running stuff, there’s even extra cocaine there? Okay.

Presented by the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, the new study suggests that cocaine abuse is still widespread maybe on the rise in some areas. It helped raise public awareness about cocaine use the greater emphasis on curbing its abuse, researchers say.

Scientists, they tested the banknotes from more than 30 cities in five different countries, some interesting differences there. Canada, Brazil, China and Japan found “alarming” evidence of cocaine use in many areas. However, they weren’t nearly as high as us. U.S. and Canada had the highest levels, average contamination rate in the cities between 85% and 90%.

China and Japan had the lowest, somewhere between 12% and 20%. So cocaine quite – hasn’t quite made it to China yet.

Kirsten: Interesting.

Justin: Well the studies – one of the problems here though – I mean, I’m not going to nitpick on the study. I remember one point when they were discovering it, what a big problem cocaine was. They also found like, you know, something like 80% of $100 bills were coming back into the system through banks in Florida.

There’s like a huge percentage of our cash on hand was going back into our banks in like a few banks…

Kirsten: A few banks.

Justin: …in the one in region. So there is a lot of cash in the black market, absolutely.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: The thing with this is that it does mention somewhere in here that one of the ways – this is a very sensitive test – and this is the first test that they’ve used on the banknotes. It doesn’t have to actually destroy the cash. So, they’ve been limited in the ability to study this in the past because whatever money you were studying, you had to destroy it, basically like incinerate.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: So this study doesn’t have to incinerate. They’ve got a method now where they can test. But one of the ways that the cocaine can transfer is in counting machines. So that kind of throws the whole study a little, you know.

Kirsten: Like where the cocaine might be originating…

Justin: If you.

Kirsten: …where it might be coming from. But…

Justin: Right, if $10,000 goes into a banking cash and they’re going to count $80,000 and it goes through the same counting machine and it’s enough of a transfer there, then like I think sure 90% of the cash. But then it kind of ruins the whole point of the study.

Kirsten: I think it’s rather interesting that it is so prevalent. I mean, I don’t think that 90% of people, you know, using money are doing…

Justin: I don’t.

Kirsten: …the cocaine problem.

Justin: It might just be you and me.

Kirsten: Just us.

Justin: It might just be us. I mean, you know, maybe the rest – maybe those people out there are all doing the cocaine and all the other stuff.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: I don’t know.

Kirsten: I just think this kind of goes hand in hand with – just the interesting nature of chemicals and how they transfer in our environment and how things can become very widespread that you would not expect to be that way. So, you know, cocaine ending up in a majority of our banknotes, you know, pharmaceuticals ending up in water or cocaine ends up in the water too. But…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …the metabolites of it from people excreting it. All this stuff is really interesting and it just I think puts a fine point on how things spread. And how things end up almost everywhere, anywhere and, you know, I don’t know. It’s very fascinating.

Justin: Yeah, yeah. They say there are also – if you came positive on your drug test, this is not going to work as an excuse that you handled a lot of cash.

Kirsten: That you handled cash.

Justin: You went retail.

Kirsten: That’s not going to do it.

Justin: It’s not the amounts that are going to show up in your body. And they’re saying, there’s no – there’s not enough. These are trace elements. This is not enough that means if you’re handling cash that you’re getting contact highs or going to be in any medical danger in any way.

Kirsten: Right, yeah, this is trace – very small amounts. You visited your astrologer lately?

Justin: No.

Kirsten: No, well.

Justin: I didn’t.

Kirsten: Next time.

Justin: I’m sorry.

Kirsten: Next time tells your astrologer tells you that your planet is in retrograde…

Justin: Oh.

Kirsten: …maybe take them seriously.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Yeah, a couple of studies have actually reported the discovery of giant planets orbiting their stars in a retrograde fashion which means backwards. They’re traveling the opposite direction from everything else that is traveling around the stars.

So the idea with planetary formation and with solar system formation is that you have things accreting around a central spot. And they all kind of spin. Everything spins in the same direction. And as it’s spinning in the same direction, some stuff clumps together and becomes planets.

The other stuff closest to the middle clumps in and becomes a big star. And you have things gravitationally attracting themselves. And then you end up with things like our solar system where you have planets orbiting in relatively the same direction.

However, there’s an idea that, you know, sometimes things can come through during the developmental process of solar systems and knock things off kilter because they have a large enough gravitational effect to just move something at completely different direction.

So, some researchers published this last week that – and they published this in The discovery of a transiting giant planet WASP-17b and it’s the least…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …dense planet currently known. This is from their abstract. It has 1.6 Saturn masses but 1.5 to 2 Jupiter radii giving a density of 6% to 14% that of Jupiter. It’s in a 3.7 day orbit around a sub-solar metallicity of F6 star.

Preliminary detection of the Rossiter-McLaughlin effect suggests that WASP-17b is in a retrograde orbit indicative of a violent history involving planet-planet or planet-star scattering.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Whoa. So they don’t know exactly how it ended up in this retrograde orbit but they believe it came along as something else, say another star or another planetary body causing it to deform in a particular way.

They’re figuring out – they’re also looking at this what they’re calling a puffy planet because it’s not very dense but pretty big. And so they’re calling it a puffy planet.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: And it doesn’t have – it’s pretty close to the star as well. So a 3.7 day orbit is really quick.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Really quick. But this is interesting. Now we’re actually getting to the point where we’re observe – not only observing and finding extra solar planets but we’re able to figure out, what, you know, how dense they are, what they look like, what they consist of and whether or not they’re going backwards. Are they spinning in a retrograde fashion?

Then – let’s see. They had observations using a telescope, South African Astronomical Observatory. They’re looking at the dimming of the light of the host star as the planet went around it. They found the direction of the star spin. Half the star kind of moves toward us and the other half appears to be away from us. This is kind of a Dopplery looking kind of effect.

And then they’re checking out how the light was blocked by the star. They found the opposite of what was expected to be true. And they found that, “A near collision with right track trajectories can make a gravitational sling shot that flings one of the planets into a retrograde orbit”, says a team member.

This isn’t the only one that’s been observed. Just after they published it, another – a day after…

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: …another team researchers found a second extra-solar planet orbiting its star backwards.

Justin: Cool.

Kirsten: Yeah, so it’s like, “Hey, I’m going to publish this.” “Oh look, we found one too.” And this has become a…

Justin: Or maybe it was…

Kirsten: …as a trend.

Justin: Or maybe it was, you know, the second study could have been…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …discovered first. It’s like, “Really? Backwards planet? Are we sure?” You know, I don’t think that’s really…

Kirsten: And they just haven’t…

Justin: …possible.

Kirsten: They haven’t published yet.

Justin: Let’s go back and re-analyze it. Someone many published a backwards planet. “We found it first…” Oh, shoot.

Kirsten: Yeah, the researchers, there are two teams that have checked out the second extra-solar backwards orbiting planet. And they’re looking at them but both teams have different measurements for the angle of the orbit or the inclination of the orbit. The numbers disagree by about 45°…

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: …which is huge. And so the two teams are like, “Let’s rectify this. We need to figure out what’s going on.” That’s probably why neither of these two teams have published yet is because…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …their numbers are really far off which – that means somebody might be wrong. It could be a systematic error, whatever. But the exciting thing is that we have two planets. This one, the second one is HAT-P-7b and WASP-17b, these hot gas giant Jupiter-like planets orbiting very close to their stars but backwards.

Justin: Backwards Bs.

Kirsten: Backwards Bs.

Justin: Well speaking of retrograding backwards Bs, study is finding that higher pathogen loads may be connected to the collapse of honeybee colonies.

Kirsten: No.

Justin: So, this is like a huge problem. I don’t know if it’s the huge problem ever. I guess it’s been in Germany they’ve been…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …you know, it’s been reported.

Kirsten: I think it’s all over.

Justin: It’s all over. And honeybees account for the way that – I mean we’re in the Ag State here in California. We don’t go out there and pollinate our crops and our food and our…

Kirsten: Not by hand anyway.

Justin: No, we put bees out there. And they do the work for us. Billions and billions of dollars they save us…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: …from having to hand pollinate corn or what – I don’t know what they do. But this study is saying that they’ve been looking for this because the colonies have been collapsing, have been just disappearing and dying. And nobody’s really been able to figure out why.

And this study is kind of interesting because what they’re discovering is that there’s higher loads of parasites but in viruses and fungi and bacteria, mites. But it’s a higher load of them but nothing specific, no one individual attacker or no offending organism.

Kirsten: There’s nothing single – that singularly stands out.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: It’s just that they’re noticing the overall load to be high, very high in the collapsed colonies. So it’s a very good observation. It’s good that they’ve figured that out. It actually might make – I mean the more information you have, the better it is to tackle, easier it is to tackle a problem.

Kirsten: This is…

Justin: Go ahead.

Kirsten: This again though, it’s indicative of a problem maybe. But because you can’t find a single thing that’s…

Justin: The mechanism is a little tougher, yeah.

Kirsten: Right, so this is a symptom but not the actual problem. There is probably something that is decreasing their immune response, something that’s suppressing it in some way to allow them to have these higher parasites, these higher disease loads. But nobody knows what that is.

Justin: Yeah. It’s some kind of bee AIDS that – I mean they haven’t found that yet. But…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Yeah, that’s the appearance of it.

Kirsten: It’s what it seems like.

Justin: It’s all the secondary causes are getting – take advantage of the bee.

Kirsten: And it’s probably a lot. I mean, something compromises the bees. The bees get really sick. They have these high levels of disease, parasite, whatever. And then the colony collapses cause it can’t take it.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: And yeah. And so, yeah, there’s something upstream that we haven’t found yet. And until we do, this is going to be a significant problem. And it’s going to – it could potentially hugely impact our agriculture especially in states like here in California.

Justin: Yeah, if the bees collapse and then the agriculture will collapse after. I mean it will follow pretty quickly, pretty quickly. We need our bees.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: We need to have a bee telethon…

Kirsten: A bee telethon.

Justin: …to, you know, raise some money for…

Kirsten: Sort of muscular dystrophy…

Justin: Well…

Kirsten: …we’ll raise money for the bees.

Justin: Yeah, we need this. We need to cure these bees. I’m getting nervous.

Kirsten: No.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: There are people working on it.

Justin: Okay. Oh, good.

Kirsten: Scientists are working on it.

Justin: Okay. I’m cool. Just want to make sure somebody was in the lab…

Kirsten: That’s right.

Justin: …you know, have the Bunsen burners burning on this one.

Kirsten: We got the scientists in the lab…

Justin: Ooh.

Kirsten: …with the bees. And the world’s smallest laser…

Justin: Piw.

Kirsten: Piw. That’s the sound of the world’s smallest laser. Yeah. So okay, LASER acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Yes. Well this new world’s smallest laser is called a SPASER.

Justin: Because it’s small?

Kirsten: No, because it generates radiation that’s called “surface plasmon.” So surface plasmon amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: At least that’s what I’m guessing here. And these surface plasmon lasers, “spasers” which I just kind of – I just want to hear, you know, Dr. Evil, “It’s my spaser.” Yeah. I don’t know. Shrek with Spasers. I’m just going to bad places, I don’t know.

This could, could bring us an entirely new faster generation of computers, of electronics. It could take the place of many optical electronics that we currently have, transistors, silicon chips.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: So this laser, what they’re doing – researchers have been working for a while on nanolasers, nanophotonics. The problem with using light normally is you have a limit to how small you can get and how small of an effect you can have, that’s limited to half of a wavelength of whatever frequency light you’re using.

But with the spasers, what they’re doing is they’re actually using light to activate these surface wave functions that occur within the surface of a metal.

So what they’ve done is a nonreactive metal at that. So they’ve taken gold and they use these little tiny mirrors and this – and let’s see what they have. They’re coating the gold with layer of silica embedded in the dye as a gain – acts as a gain function.

And then the light gets confined to the surface of the gold as a plasmon. And then it can leave it. And then if that plasmon is activated and multiplied and they use mirrors to amplify this signal, they can actually get photons to escape the surface of the gold with that or within the visible light range.

And so it kind of acts like a laser but it can be really, really tiny. And so by making it much smaller than what’s normally used and decreasing the space between reflective surfaces, we can actually fit these spasers into areas as small as 1 nanometer.

Justin: Oh my goodness.

Kirsten: It’s tiny. Until now, the smallest nanolaser that’s been produced is about 100 nanometers wide. And this is actually the very smallest at 1 nanometer. And so, because of the size it works faster than normal transistors.

It’s going to – “You could build amplifiers, logic elements,” so says the professor of physics Mark Stockman who’s been working on this at Georgia State University, microprocessors working about 1000 times faster than conventional silicon-based microprocessors.

If you just think about all the applications that could be affected by decreasing the size of your transistor component…

Justin: I don’t need…

Kirsten: This is huge.

Justin: …things to get any smaller. I really don’t.

Kirsten: This is huge.

Justin: I think most things are too small already. I think I need a larger phone. I need my old man phone with the big bodies.

Kirsten: I mean this could give us the little teeny-tiny cell phone, little tiny thing.

Justin: It’s too – my phone is too small…

Kirsten: This could make…

Justin: …already.

Kirsten: This could make the pod devices…

Justin: My cell phone…

Kirsten: …smaller.

Justin: …doesn’t reach from my earpiece to my mouth. I got to – I keep moving it back and forth because it’s gotten too small now. I don’t know.

Kirsten: It could increase the amount of data storage on…

Justin: Yes. That’s cool.

Kirsten: …what – on the current size of what things are. I mean you could make it smaller.

Kirsten: Same size, same amount of data, smaller space, more data, same size…

Justin: More data…

Kirsten: …space.

Justin: …same size space.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Okay, that’s good.

Kirsten: Yeah. Anyway, it’s fascinating. I think it’s very exciting. Oh my gosh, it’s 9 o’clock.

Justin: That means it’s time to go to the break…

Kirsten: So we can have a guest.

Justin: …with messages and then we’ll come back!

Kirsten: We will come back.

Justin: David Albert.

Kirsten: That’s right. We will come back in just a few moments, This Week in Science.

If you’re enjoying today’s show, if you learned something new or if you would just like to support our attempt at infotaining you, feel free to donate to the podcast by visiting and clicking on the donate button. Donations of any size are always welcome. Thank you for listening.

Justin: And you’re back with more of This Week in Science.

Kirsten: That’s right. This is This Week in Science. And on the line, we have Dr. David Albert who is the Frederick E. Woodbridge Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. He’s world-renowned for his insights into philosophical questions about the nature of time and physics itself.

Keep pressing that button, Justin. Dr. Albert, are you on the line with us?

David Albert: Yes, I am.

Kirsten: Good morning.

Justin: Welcome to This Week in Science.

David Albert: Thank you very much.

Kirsten: Yeah. Thanks.

Justin: So philosophy or science, aren’t you suppose to choose?

David Albert: Say it again.

Justin: Philosophy or science. Well, you can’t do both, can you?

David Albert: Well, I think there’s been a useful dialogue going on between them for a couple of hundred years now. And there have been – I think it’s characteristic of the more exciting moments, both in philosophy and in science, that these are moments when the two disciplines tend to overlap when people are doing work that can’t be easily be fit into one of those categories or another and when there’s a kind of very vital, very informative kind of dialogue going on between them. So no, I think it’s often good not to choose between them.

Justin: And then can you maintain both? Because I think, to me, philosophy is a lot of times just like regardless of what the scientists are saying, here’s what it means to the human being…

David Albert: Well, I mean…

Justin: …versus…

David Albert: I mean, look, philosophy is a large subject. And there are a lot of different ways of doing it. There are a lot of different things people think about under that umbrella.

There is a – we happen to be in a moment now when physics is reflecting in a fairly productive way on its logical and conceptual foundations. And there are – there’s a field, quite active field now which is usually referred to as “Foundations of Physics.”

Some of whose practitioners are employed in physics departments, some of whose practitioners are employed in philosophy departments. These people published in the same journals, they speak at the same conferences, they’re talking to each other all the time.

So it’s a moment when a certain corner of theoretical physics and a certain corner of philosophy are overlapping with one another. And when in a certain region of physics and philosophy, the disciplinary boundaries are beginning to make less sense.

That’s the kind of thing that happens from time to time. And it’s usually very good for both of the fields involved. They think it is very good for them in this instance.

Kirsten: Are there examples of it happening before in…?

David Albert: Well, I mean, it’s an old tradition for example in mathematics…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

David Albert: …that there are people doing issue – there are people working on questions about the foundations of mathematics, about logic and so on and so forth, where there’s a very strong overlap between what goes on in philosophy departments and what goes on in mathematics departments.

And in physics as well, you know, again and again in the beginning of the 20th century when the great revolutions of quantum mechanics and relativity were under way, this was a historical moment when philosophers and physicists were talking very, very intensely to one another.

And when physicists were very much motivated by questions that in more normal historical periods are classified as philosophical questions, Einstein for example…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

David Albert: …saw his work on special theory of relativity is coming very directly out of the work of Ernst Mach who was a (Viennese) philosopher, a generation earlier than him. Bohr in founding quantum mechanics was very much tied up with the rise of logical positivism and philosophical circles in the early years of the 20th century.

So yes, in physics in particular and in particular at moments when physics was undergoing fairly revolutionary change and feels the pressure to rethink itself from the foundations up, philosophical sorts of questions and philosophical sorts of interlocutors become very much involved in the way it works.

Justin: So but then Bose – I mean Bohr…

Kirsten: Bohr.

Justin: …and Einstein.

David Albert: Yes.

Justin: (Unhelped) with this philosophical background or this philosophical way of being able to view the information differently, of having that flexibility may not have made the scientific discovery.

David Albert: Oh yes, that’s for sure. That’s for sure. I mean in the case of Einstein, it’s very, very clear. You have to – in order to come up with special relativity, Einstein had to force himself in a way that’s not natural for us and in a way that would only arise as the result of a kind of philosophical reflection.

Einstein had to force himself to take very literally claims of the form. What you mean by “what time it is?” is what it says on a properly functioning clock. And what you mean by the distance between two objects is what you would determine by using a properly functioning ruler.

And in order – and if we discover mechanical reasons why under certain circumstances a properly functioning clock is going to slow down, that means time is slowing down. And if we discover circumstances under which the distance between two objects – under which a properly functioning ruler is going to behave differently, that means space itself is behaving differently.

Einstein had to take these sorts of statements extremely seriously in order to get to special relativity. And these are statements which were impressed on him by his reading of Mach.

Later on, ironically enough in order to go from special relativity to general relativity, it became necessary, it became intellectually necessary for Einstein to reject a lot of this, to see the limitations of the positivist philosophy that he had learned from Mach to learn to think about things in less operational ways, so on and so forth. But Einstein himself was the first to testify that without Mach, he wouldn’t have come up with special relativity.

Kirsten: That kind of, I guess, a disconnect where there’s thinking you have – where Einstein had to change the way that he was thinking about…

David Albert: Yes.

Kirsten: …his own theory.

David Albert: Yes.

Kirsten: I mean, that was something – that was and is it still a problem in quantum physics?

David Albert: Well, yeah. I mean in quantum physics in particular – Einstein in particular played a very interesting historical role. Einstein was someone who very early had foundational sorts of worries about quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics was something he admired enormously in order – in, you know, in virtue of its capacity to make all kinds of predictions about behaviors of very small objects with an accuracy that hadn’t been dreamed of before.

But there were reasons why if you ask yourself a sort of philosophical question, what kind of world is quantum mechanics telling us that we live in…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

David Albert: …that it was very, very difficult to understand the theory as presenting an intelligible picture of the world that could count this and answer to a question like that.

And Einstein was very, very bothered by this. And Einstein was the first to put his finger very clearly on one of the reasons why quantum mechanics seem to be confronting us with a world that we weren’t going to be able form a picture of. And that was this phenomenon of non-locality.

And it’s very much true that since this paper where Einstein pointed this out. This famous paper that he wrote with Podolsky and Rosen…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

David Albert: …that came to be known as the EPR paper, there is a long and fascinating and bizarre and probably unprecedented in the history of modern science, history of attempts by the sort of institution of theoretical physics as a body to resist.

What Einstein was telling them to hide themselves from what Einstein was telling them to conceal even from their own view, what Einstein was telling them and it took a long, long, long time. It took the much better part of the century for Einstein’s worries – for people to begin to look Einstein’s worries in the face which is something that’s only begun to happen in the past 20 years or so.

So yes, it’s an enormous challenge to physicists and to philosophers and to everybody all the time to be altering their way of thinking in the way that nature seems to be asking them to…

Kirsten: Yeah.

David Albert: …to do.

Kirsten: Yeah. And it’s fascinating that the more that we keep hearing, the more that people keep looking it in the face, these uncertainties…

David Albert: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …these ideas that reality is far stranger…

David Albert: Right.

Kirsten: …than we could possibly imagine.

David Albert: Right, right.

Kirsten: It’s just fascinating to me that, you know, uncertainty is central to science.

David Albert: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: And yet it’s been difficult for physics to come to terms with the fact that things are so uncertain.

David Albert: Well, but look, I mean, you know, the uncertainty that you’re referring to is central to science. I take it, what you have in mind are things like uncertainties in measurements, imperfections of measuring apparatuses that we have to deal with all the time — things like that. Yes. That’s something that everybody’s been used to for a long time.

The kind of uncertainty that seemed to becoming up on the other hand at the foundations of physics at the beginning of the 20th century was something quite different and something considerably more disturbing.

It wasn’t a matter of there being uncertainties or imperfections as it were in our – at the systemic relationship to nature, in our capacity to find out about nature but rather that there were uncertainties out there in the world itself quite independent of our attempts to get to know about it or something like that. That is it really was the case, it really appeared to be the case in the early part of the 20th century that subatomic particles don’t have strict laws which they obey.

It had been known for a long time that there are limits on our capacity to predict what’s going to happen in the future for example because the data we might need might be needed with greater accuracy than we were technically able to obtain it…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

David Albert: …or the calculations we would have to do would be much more complicated than we could do or than any computer we have could do or something like that. That’s something people were used to. That’s something that wasn’t so threatening.

The idea that there’s some kind of element of chance, there’s some kind of element of ill-definedness out there in the world itself is a much stranger idea.

Justin: And it has always struck me that isn’t that still a level of measurement? I mean, couldn’t it be that it’s not as simple at the atomic level?

David Albert: Mm hmm.

Justin: And that there is this whole other great group of laws of interactions that are taking place. They’re happening and it’s sure that we can’t measure.

David Albert: Well, I mean that certainly could be. But here’s the – you know, and it’s always going to be possible for somebody, you know, for some smarty pants to come along and say, “Well, maybe you just have to measure more accurately. Maybe we haven’t seen what’s going on…

Justin: That would be me.

David Albert: …yet” so and so forth. But look, in cases like that, you would expect to find something like this, that as we measure more and more and more accurately, we’re at least able to make a tiny bit of progress in how accurately we can predict things.

And what’s been impressive to people over the past 20 years – excuse me, over the past hundred years in our experience with quantum mechanical systems is that the amount of progress you make like that is exactly zero.

Justin: Yeah.

David Albert: Okay? Exactly zero. So yes, of course, one can still say “Well, that’s because there’s just a threshold of accuracy which you haven’t crossed yet. And when you cross it, you know, that’s going to change everything” and so on and so forth. But that – taking that kind of stance, how shall I put it, becomes progressively more embarrassing after a century of failures to get anywhere at all with this, okay?

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

David Albert: If, you know, if – you’ll hope nature is going to throw us some kind of a bone, okay, to keep us hoping and you don’t see anything like that. And we’ve been at these experiments for something on the order of a century now.

So it’s because of experience like that that people are more willing to entertain the possibility that they really are up against something fundamental here rather than just limitations in their own calculational ability or in their own capacity to measure accurately or something like that.

Kirsten: How do you think this kind of – I mean I guess we can’t keep calling it uncertainty but just the amount of information that is still yet to be determined…

David Albert: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …about the way that the universe works. How do we balance that against what is told to the public? How do we get the message out to the public without having it co-opted and taken advantage of by people…

David Albert: Well, yeah.

Kirsten: …with their own biases.

David Albert: Yeah. I mean, that’s a very good question. I don’t know, you know, I wish I knew of a – I mean I have a sort of boring answer to that which is just that you keep answering questions as honestly as you can.

And I’m not sure what else to do. There certainly are always going to be forces out in the culture and there certainly are forces out in the culture now in, you know, in religious fundamentalist camps, in new age camps, so on and so forth that are going to exploit uncertainties that we have…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

David Albert: …about how the world works or are going to exploit the fact that we don’t know everything about how the world works to fill in their own stories and to pretend that what we do know about science is somehow an endorsement of their own stories…

Justin: Mm hmm.

David Albert: …if you read it rightly.

And I think there’s not much to do about that except to try to tell the truth and to try to get people excited about the fact that what’s interesting about science is – I mean this is what it seems to me, you know, over and above distortions of particular facts is what’s wrong with attitudes towards science that you find, say in religious fundamentalist communities or in new age communities or something like that.

It isn’t just that they get the facts wrong, although of course they do. It’s that they’re all together missing what’s fun and what’s interesting about the scientific endeavor…

Justin: Mm hmm.

David Albert: …which is precisely that you’re encountering something out there in the world which is utterly alien to whatever ways of thinking you may have previously developed.

The interest all these communities always have in science is to somehow find in it endorsements of positions that they think they’re already sure of. And this is exactly what’s unexciting about science. And this is, you know, this is to exactly miss what science has to offer us.

And I think you should – you know, the thing to know besides telling the truth is to try to get people to see that it’s a lot more fun to learn that everything they always thought was wrong…

Justin: Mm hmm.

David Albert: …than it is to learn that everything they always thought was right.

Kirsten: I think that’s exciting too. One last question before the end of our show here.

David Albert: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: What is your – what excites you the most, your most recent exciting alien thought?

David Albert: Well, let’s see. I think there’s a lot of excitement. You know, if you want me to pick something at random out of my own recent work…

Kirsten: Yeah.

David Albert: …there is this I guess.

Here is a very old prejudice we have about how the world works. It’s a prejudice that we had prior to the beginning of scientific inquiry. It’s a prejudice that survived the development of science in the Renaissance. It’s a prejudice that survived the advent of relativity theory. It’s a prejudice that survived the advent of quantum mechanics.

The prejudice is as follows. It’s possible to say everything there is to say about the world in principle, in the form of a story that is in the form of some kind of narrative of the form. At this time, this is what was going on. And at that time, that’s what was going on. And at that time, that’s what was going on.

And it now appears – there appears to be a strong argument that although this is true of our pre-scientific view of the world, although it’s true of the Newtonian view of the world, although it’s true of the Maxwellian 19th century view of the world, although it’s true of the non-relativistic…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

David Albert: …quantum mechanical view of the world, although it’s true of the theory of relativity, it can’t possibly be true of any theory that’s going to successfully combine relativity and quantum mechanics.

That this is among the prejudices – this is one of those prejudices which nobody has noticed very much because it hasn’t been – you know, because it survived all these revolutions while lots of other prejudices have collapsed. It looks like this is another prejudice we’re going to have to give away.

Kirsten: That’s a really interesting note to leave it on. Everyone likes a good story, but let’s figure out how to…

Justin: Do we have to get rid of time?

Kirsten: Let’s figure out how not to tell one. We do.

Justin: The nonlinear – I can keep up with a nonlinear story. I don’t need it to be in the right order.

David Albert: Well, you know, you have to get a look at the explicit kind of stories that you’re going to be asked to take in and see how comfortable or uncomfortable they are.

Justin: Absolutely. I wish we have more time because there is – oh my goodness, there is a lot of combination of physics and philosophy that are going on now. To me, it’s just the – what is it – the multi-worlds theory…

David Albert: Yes. Mm hmm.

Justin: …is one that just I love the implications in the way that we can play with that.

David Albert: I think that’s, you know, that happens to be a discussion that I’ve been involved in. And yeah, there is a lot to say about that. There is a lot. I don’t know if we have – I don’t know if we have time to launch into that.

Kirsten: Yeah. No, we’re at the end of our hour.

David Albert: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: But I would love to invite you back, maybe…

David Albert: Sure.

Justin: Absolutely.

Kirsten: …maybe in a few weeks or so.

David Albert: That sounds great.

Kirsten: We’ll set up another time and we can talk about multi-worlds…

David Albert: That sounds great.

Kirsten: …and have plenty of time to delve into it.

David Albert: Very good.

Kirsten: Okay, wonderful. Thank you so much for joining us this morning.

David Albert: Thank you.

Kirsten: Have a wonderful day.

David Albert: Bye bye, you too.

Justin: Bye bye.

Kirsten: That was Dr. David Albert from Columbia University, Philosopher of Science. Many more interesting questions to delve into…

Justin: And the ability to…

Kirsten: …we only got time…

Justin: …switch gears…

Kirsten: …for a few.

Justin: …and go into the other subjects so quickly.

Kirsten: Oh yeah.

Justin: (He) would be fun.

Kirsten: (He’ll) – would be great fun. And that’s it for our show. Next week, we will be speaking with a…

Justin: A human being.

Kirsten: …a human being.

Justin: We will introduce you to the humans.

Kirsten: We will be speaking with…

Justin: …and allow them to speak on their own behalf.

Kirsten: …Dr. Richard Muller, who is the author…

Justin: Buller?

Kirsten: …the author of Physics for Presidents.

Justin: Buller? Physics for Presidents, oh yes, yes.

Kirsten: Not Buller, Muller.

Justin: Buller? Oh, Muller.

Kirsten: Or Moller? Muller. Physics for presidents so…

Justin: What they need to know.

Kirsten: What they need to know.

Justin: It’s the important basics.

Kirsten: What are the basics?

Justin: Something about the space.

Kirsten: I think it’ll be a very interesting discussion. He’s got some neat stuff up on the YouTubes, some lectures, some comments. So it might be fun for those of you out there to prepare for it, you can…

Justin: You’re just – she’s looking at me…

Kirsten: …you can ask your questions.

Justin: …“Prepare for it” looking at me and scaring me down.

Kirsten: Why am I looking at you? You’re just here, Justin.

Justin: Oh, okay.

Kirsten: You’re just here.

Justin: I took it personal. I don’t know why.

Kirsten: Don’t take it so personally.

Justin: Thank you everyone for enjoying the show today. We’re available via the podcast. Go to our website and you can click on some subscribe buttons there. You can just go to iTunes and look up This Week in Science.

Kirsten: Yeah, you can e-mail us at kirsten or justin@thisweekinscience and send us suggestions for stories like (Rob Hinckley), (Leonard Sitongia), (Ed Dire) who sent a whole bunch of stories that I couldn’t get to again this week.

Why flamingoes stand on one leg, something that’s a question that people have pondered for ages…

Justin: Because…

Kirsten: …now potentially a little bit more understood.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: (Peter) and (Lucy), (Steven) (Madison), (Artiam), (Dale), (David Wheeler) – Dr. (David Wheeler), he sends lots of good stories. (Shayne), get on your CD; (Tim Fletcher), (Jim Fully), (Arty John Sanina), (Ed Goodman), so many people.

Justin: And for all the people in my inbox…

Kirsten: So many people.

Justin: …who I haven’t looked at in like a week, I’m sorry.

Kirsten: Oh, so many people. Thank you. You can also go to – check out our show notes on our website which is There will be links to all the stories that we’ve covered.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: And yes.

Justin: Yeah. We’re also on the – what is it? The twitter? Did we do that?

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: How do you say? You’re not supposed to say the “@” when you’re telling people what your Twitter thing is. You’re not supposed to say, “I’m @ jacksonfly”. You’re just supposed to say jacksonfly because then, that’s what if – and you’re drkiki but that’s one word without any dots.

Kirsten: Right. D-R-K-I-K-I.

Justin: Yeah. But you don’t say “@.” You really leave that out when you’re telling people?

Kirsten: I don’t know.

Justin: Ugh.

Kirsten: This Twitter kit, I don’t get it, the Twitter kit.

Justin: See, and then you got to put Twitter in front of everything. No, it’s too – it’s like Smurf talk.

Kirsten: It is. We will be back here on KDVS next Tuesday morning like every Tuesday. We love it here.

Justin: I liked Tuesday since the beginning of time.

Kirsten: 8:30 am Pacific Time. Set your alarm clocks. Wake up to us if you’re not already awake and on your way to work. We hope you will join us again for more great science news.

Justin: And if you have learned anything from today’s show, remember.

Kirsten: It’s all in your head.

Justin: That was too long. You can’t pause that long. You could have driven a truck through that time.