Synopsis: The Top 11 Science Stories of 2008… Merry TWIS-mas!!!
Justin/Kirsten: We wish you a Merry TWIS-mas. We wish you a Merry TWIS-mas. We wish you a Merry TWIS-mas and a Happy New Year.
Bring us some sciencey stories. Oh, bring us some sciencey stories. Oh, bring us some sciencey stories.
Justin: We want them right now.
Kirsten: Right now.
Justin/Kirsten: We won’t go until we get some. We won’t go until we get some. We won’t go until we get some. So bring them right now.
Kirsten: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!
You are listening to This Week in Science. And…
Justin: Nothing that we say reflects anything on the University to fine people that work here, to fine people that work for the people that work here to fine people to work around the people that work here and advertise on this show or anywhere else.
Kirsten: That work here, that work here, that work here, that work here, that work here.
Justin: Yeah. We have nothing to do with those people. They don’t even know who we are…
Kirsten: Oh, Merry TWIS-mas.
Justin: …which is smoking.
Good morning and Merry TWIS-mas, Kirsten!
Kirsten: Good morning, Justin. Merry TWIS-mas to you too! We are here for another fabulous show. Welcome everyone to the 2008 TWIS-mas episode on This Week in Science.
Justin: I’m just barely here. I got really Yule last night. I’m still recovering.
Kirsten: A little Yule log. Yeah, right. We have a great show ahead. And you know what it’s like what it is?
Kirsten: It’s a recap of the year we’d left behind.
Justin: Whoa! We’re going to have to do the entire year in a single episode. So folks, brace yourselves, we’re going to talk really, really fast. We’re going to have to get going.
Kirsten: No, no, no, no.
Justin: How do we feel? It’s just like 52 hours into one hour show. We’re going to have to – 52 to 1.
Kirsten: No. We’re just going to talk about the Top 11 stories from 2008. So, we don’t have to talk so fast.
Justin: That will make it much easier.
Kirsten: But why don’t we – wait 11? Don’t most lists go to 10?
Justin: No! No! No! Because ten is what most lists do but we’re going to do one better because…
Kirsten: Because we like giving you that one that was almost left out.
Kirsten: the one that what would have been on the list that almost made it. It’s like, you always want to know what was beyond ten. What almost made the list? And so it’s good.
Justin: You never have to wonder what just barely got left out here because we give it to you.
Kirsten: Oh, we do. But we should still probably talk fairly quickly because first I want to read a couple of comments from the Minions. Yeah, on last week’s show we talked about the deglaciation of Greenland. Do you remember that? Yeah, you do remember that.
Justin: I remember it.
Kirsten: You remember it. You’re walking around this – you’re walking around the whole studio.
Justin: I’m plugging in. I’m getting strap on, plug in.
Kirsten: Are you ready?
Justin: Yes. I’ve been ready…
Kirsten: All right.
Justin: …for like a whole minute.
Kirsten: So, Minion (Gram) a Glaswegian from the UK said or he asked rather, “As Justin was mentioning about Ice Sheet lost in terms of Manhattan multiples last week for those of us who are metric, how many Glasgow, UK units is that?”
You got that number, Justin?
Justin: Yes. Actually it’s approximately equal to two Glasgows for those of you who are requiring the UK unit of measurement. Two Glasgows equals that number of Manhattans.
Kirsten: Very good.
Kirsten: I’m glad you had that, like right at your fingertips.
Justin: It’s like I’m so on it.
Kirsten: You’re so on it. Well, let’s see. We also have Minion (Larry) who wrote in to say, “In the first place, the three analogies used to describe the increase in ice lost in Greenland were unscientific and largely emotional.
But what I really had difficulty understanding is if 24 square miles was a record in 2007, 71 square miles was a record in 2008. And the total has been 335 square miles since 2000, how does that work?”
Well, sorry if you don’t really like the analogies. Sometimes they really help people get in perspective on things that are otherwise removed from their normal everyday lives.
Justin: And I think I was poking fun at the analogy units…
Kirsten: You got – you usually.
Justin: …of the island as the amount loss.
Kirsten: Yeah. You do – you, of all people normally have a bone to pick with analogies. So…
Justin: I’m the master analogist. So, I can see flaws in the analogies of others. And I do point them out. It maybe rude but I’m going to point them out.
Kirsten: Let’s see. What was the other? Oh, in terms of the numbers, the 24 square miles in 2007 was NOT a record. But last year’s number of 71 square miles was.
Justin: Wait, wait, wait. Rewind that, last year was 24 square miles which was a record.
Kirsten: No, no. no, 2007-2008 is 71.
Justin: 2008 was the 71, that’s a record.
Kirsten: That’s what we’re already talking about. Last 2008 is so last year.
Justin: Oh gosh.
Kirsten: That’s what I mean.
Justin: Okay. Well, in that case then, two years ago, which is 2007 if I’m getting my Math right, was also a record.
Kirsten: It was NOT a record. It didn’t say that. It wasn’t a record.
Justin: Yes, it was.
Kirsten: No, it wasn’t a record.
Justin: When was the record?
Kirsten: You are incorrect in that, Justin.
Kirsten: Yeah, it wasn’t a record.
Kirsten: Yeah. The 71 square miles was a record for the last few – for all time or whatever. But the issue here is the jump…
Justin: I think I’m right.
Kirsten: …the tripling of the rate of de-glaciation in one year. That is the most outstanding result from the study of looking at the movement of the glaciers and change in de-glaciation of Greenland.
Justin: I still think 24 was a record.
Kirsten: It was not a record.
Justin: It was a record.
Kirsten: Go back and read the story.
Justin: What do you mean? Okay, I can do it right now because I have the access. Go ahead, keep talking much to yourselves. I’m going to go prove Kirsten wrong. It was filed under…
Kirsten: Yeah, not a record. (Larry) also went on to say, “Also, while no one disputes the observed global warming and lost of ice in Greenland and West Antarctica, no one ever mentions that fact, the fact that the East Antarctica ice sheet, which is significantly larger than the other two combined is actually accreting. Wouldn’t a balance scientific discussion address this as well?”
Justin: Here it is, right here, 24 square miles last year was the record that was it says. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong.
Kirsten: No it doesn’t. I was just looking at…
Justin: You are looking at something else.
Kirsten: No. Where does it say?
Justin: It was my own writing.
Kirsten: Like yeah, okay.
Justin: But that means it came from a source.
Kirsten: Not necessarily.
Justin: Okay. Balance discussion is not necessarily needed.
Kirsten: No, that’s not the answer either.
Justin: No. What happened?
Kirsten: Antarctica is totally a red hearing. I mean we were just simply discussing Greenland.
Kirsten: So, to bring into Antarctica up at that point.
Justin: It had nothing to do with Antarctica.
Kirsten: Yeah. The study didn’t make any comparisons to Antarctica.
Justin: Nothing, no.
Kirsten: And so, there’s not reason for us to bring it up there on two different poles of the planet and the climactic, the conditions. The conditions in the different areas might be completely different and might be unique to those areas. So, what the study was covering was Greenland.
Kirsten: So, why do we have to balance it with Antarctica?
Justin: Because we have to say the other half of the story. He has a point.
Kirsten: No. And the other…
Justin: There is a good point there. Whenever we talk about Greenland, we should talk about Antarctica. It’s just that for fair and balance reasons.
Kirsten: No. Yeah.
Justin: It was like if we do a western hemisphere story, we should do an eastern hemisphere story too. It’s just right.
Kirsten: Okay, I see. Okay.
Justin: It makes sense.
Kirsten: Yeah, I do think it was really important. The point that you made at the end of study though is that there is snow fall that’s increasing in Greenland.
Kirsten: Which you would think, okay it’s snowfall. Maybe that would lead to accretion as opposed to de-glaciation. But the rate of de-glaciation is so rapid right now that the snowfall can’t keep up with it.
Kirsten: So we don’t have any growth in the glaciers.
Justin: Yeah. And that’s one of those things that does keep getting pointed out which is that there is more snowfall than there’s (unintelligible). Well yeah, and it’s, but that’s not necessarily ice forming stuff.
Kristen: Not necessarily.
Justin: And I still think I’m right. We’re going to have to make a bet because I don’t have the original story in front of me. I just have my version of it. So, we’re going to have to make a pride bet here.
Justin: Because I am confident that I’m right because I’m rarely wrong. Like it never really happens when I look around them like I was so wrong.
Kristen: No, if you work it out, if you add it up for both years to have been a record that means that the de-glaciation would have to be less than 24 square miles a year for all those previous years.
Kristen: But you do the Math and it has to be the average for those six years remaining has to be 40 square miles.
Justin: No way.
Kristen: 335 – 71 – 24.
Kirsten: And then you take that number and divide it by the remaining number of years, the answer is near 40. Okay?
Justin: No way.
Kristen: Do the Math.
Justin: I’m trying.
Kristen: Somebody else do the Math for Justin and send us the answer next week. Okay? All righty? I’d love that. Okay. Can we go on with the show, the top 11?
Justin: Yeah go ahead. Go ahead.
Kristen: Are you still doing the Math?
Justin: No, no, no! I’m not.
Kristen: Carry the one, carry the one. The Top 11 Science News Stories as we decide the TWIS Top 11 of 2008 begins now. Number…?
Justin: Number 11!
Kristen: Climydia! Climydia! Climydia! Climydia!
Justin: Climydia the carbon lady.
Kirsten: Climydia the lovely carbon lady. It pulls the last spot in our list.
Justin: The last, how did that happen? It was like number one for years.
Kirsten: Well, because as you’ll see later in our list, it’s just problems, problems, problems. We’re like, “All right, the world has got problems.” But I think – all right, we’ve got problems. But solutions are the big things this year. I see a lot of solutions.
Justin: And solutions are higher up on the list.
Kristen: And solutions are higher up on the list so we’ll get to those in a little bit.
Justin: Also, I think we’re just – I think part of the reason that maybe global warming is so low on the list.
Kristen: Climate change.
Justin: Climate change, climydia.
Justin: I think part of the reason it’s so low on the list, it’s still on the list. It made number 11. It’s on the cast. It’s on the cast where we’re getting knocked off.
Justin: It’s just that we’re just – I think you get tired of hearing about the same problem all the time.
Kristen: The end of the world.
Justin: You know t’s like a downer.
Kirsten: This Week in End of the World.
Justin: You know it’s like once your rent is like maybe three months past due and you haven’t paid it, you’re like “Oh rent, whatever.” Like when I pay it then right. You’re getting kicked out of your house anyway. Why pay now?
That mortgage isn’t going to get any healthier by making this one payment. Just what the heck, you know. Write it out. Wait until they knock on your door.
Kirsten: Sure. Okay getting on as to what actually happened this year. We had the melting of Greenland, the falling of the glaciers into the ocean. The fall of fish stocks were a huge aspect this year.
Kirsten: A lot of stories about the declining fish stocks, salmon populations, tuna populations. And also the decisions of many foreign governments to actually keep fishing and to maintain a high catch numbers even though we have studies that are coming out saying, “Hey, you got to catch less fish and they need to be smaller.”
We also have ocean acidification, the death of coral reefs and the rise of the jelly fish.
Justin: And that’s going to be the decline of the octopi.
Kirsten: The decline of the octopuses.
Justin: Because the acidification isn’t good for octopi parent.
Kirsten: Octopuses. And dead zones.
Kirsten: The dead zones off of various coastlines around the world where organic matter ends up choking out.
Justin: It’s like a tropicalification, if you will, of the ocean floor.
Justin: Which is not a healthy thing apparently.
Kirsten: Lack of oxygen, death of creatures and then the take over of blue green algae and other things. It doesn’t bode well for the entire ecosystem. And yes, so there’s a lot of kind of nice stuff happening in there.
Justin: The one good thing though, one good thing that’s happened we now know how to spell climydia.
Kirsten: That’s right. We had the contest. Right?
Justin: We had the contest and the winner is climydia.
Justin: That is the new official TWIS spelling
Kirsten: Official spelling, yes. So, when you go out in the world and spread your climydia knowledge use the right spelling, folks.
Kirsten: The spelling that has been decided upon.
Justin: It’s not what I would have picked either.
Kirsten: By the Minions.
Justin: Not at all would I have put a pick but this is by democratification than the spelling.
Kirsten: That it is.
Justin: The second place one.
Justin: That was first place was at. Second place was climatia…
Justin: …which is how I have been spelling it. But since – what we’re going to do is climydia with the “y” is going to be with the “y” and the “d”.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: That’s going to be the American spelling. Right?
The Brits because he always do stuff a little different, you can have climatia while we’re going to hang on to climydia. Did that make any sense to anybody other than me?
Kirsten: I’m glad you’re being so generous.
Justin: Oh, I’m so Yule right now, totally feeling it.
Kirsten: Merry Christmas. On to number ten.
Kirsten: Biofuels, this year we saw the rise and the fall of corn ethanol.
Justin: I think that might have even been – I’ve got to go look at my predictions from last year. I think I might have predicted that.
Justin: Maybe we both might have that it’s going to end badly.
Kirsten: Yeah. I think that may have been something you’re on to. Yeah, it rose. We had it fell. We had a drop in corn prices. We had…
Justin: A rise and drop for corn prices.
Kirsten: …a rise in corn prices. Yeah, a lot of subsidies for corn. We grew too much corn but there was also a shortage of corn.
Justin: And rice.
Kirsten: And yeah, this was very interesting year as people realized that the benefits of corn ethanol really are not all that great. And growing it – in growing it, what people suggested was, “All of you plant field with corn. The plants are going to do a lot of carbon fixing and take carbon dioxide out of the air.”
But really a lot of farmers started tilling previously untilled ground to plant new corn. And that untilled ground was already doing a lot of carbon fixing and taking stuff out of the air. And so the benefits — negatory.
Justin: That and then there’s a whole like putting like 90% of what we eat I think is corn. I think even if you’re eating beef it’s corn-fed. Like all animals in America are corn-fed.
Kirsten: Yeah. And the amount of…
Justin: So, we’re competing against the food source. It’s like going to a refrigerator and taking out half of your refrigerator and pouring it into your vehicle to drive it. And then going back and being like, “Oh wow, I’m like out of food I’ve to drive to the store again because I need it.”
Kirsten: Yeah. And then the raising of rainforest land and other areas became quite obvious this year. The problem with foreign government is going into third world countries to use their land and their available property to start growing biofuels which is not necessarily the best decision.
However, other research has been showing that cellulosic…
Kirsten: …ethanol might be good. Algae is…
Justin: Algae have a lot of stories this year.
Kirsten: A lot of stories, hot developments on the algae front.
Kirsten: And people really starting to turn to the idea of maybe not promoting biofuels as petroleum substitutes or diesel substitutes or anything of that sort. But actually maybe just using biomass or algae or the cellulosic things to be able to produce electricity and just directly put it into the electrical grid because that’s a more efficient way to distribute it.
Justin: Why don’t we ever get away from like the hamsters on a treadmill starting electricity. I would say that’s going to be the future squirrel cars.
Kirsten: Yeah. I think there was one story just like year that was about not squirrel cars but athletic club that started using people to power the bicycles.
Justin: Let the bicycles and the thing.
Kirsten: I mean, it’s great.
Justin: The unfortunate thing is apparently the power you get out of a human being is pretty gosh awful.
Kirsten: Gosh awful.
Justin: Like even riding a treadmill, that’s going to be about like – I mean exercise bike going out on exercise bike is going to be keeping like one light on. Like 40 watt light bulb. Really, that’s how much energy is in energy. It’s crazy. Human beings can’t put it out.
Kirsten: Not as efficiently, no.
Justin: No, we just suck it up but we cannot put it back.
Kirsten: And that’s the lovely thing about petroleum is it’s a very energy dense product. And so, all we need to do is get the algae to produce those long chain carbon molecules because that’s where the energy in the bonds between the carbon molecules that’s where it’s held breaking the bonds, breaking the bonds.
Justin: And now – I mean there’s a bacteria that they found that they could make do that I guess.
Justin: It seems like all kinds of new stuff going on there.
Kirsten: Yeah. Moving on.
Justin: Moving on, number nine.
Kirsten: What is number nine?
Justin: Tiny stuffs, little technologies.
Kirsten: Yeah, cool.
Justin: Tiny technologies.
Kirsten: The big, big development that I thought this year, the memristor in the nanotechnologies. It’s maybe not necessarily so nano. But it’s a little technology.
Justin: They’re going to have to call it the rememberingster because the memristor I think is miming and then that’s a whole different thing.
Kirsten: But that’s not how you pronounce it anyway.
Justin: No, I know.
Kirsten: But the memristor, a memory resistor, it is the fourth out of the electrical components, the resistor, the insulator, the capacitor and the memristor for years was predicted that scientist have said, “Oh, we should have this component. This should be possible.” But nobody had developed it. And then finally this year somebody did it and somebody…
Kirsten: Brainiac, yeah. It came out of – I think it was maybe an HP lab or something at some company’s laboratory.
Justin: Thank you for the HP because I think I remember making fun of them because my printer keeps breaking.
Kirsten: Right. The application for the memristor which is potentially very neat is to make computers that don’t have to boot, don’t have to go to a through a boot.
Justin: You turn it on and it’s on, just like that.
Kirsten: And it’s on because the memristor, memory resistor pretty much remembers where it was before. And so, it has a memory for previous electrical stimulation that’s going through it.
So, those electrical signals are held and you actually – you don’t need a battery, you would or not as many batteries. You can drive a computer with less power needs. I mean there are so many neat potential applications.
Justin: If you just tuned in, you’re listening to This Week in Science with Dr. Kirsten Sanford and not doctor, Justin Jackson.
Kirsten: Yeah. The other thing was the tiny transistor.
Justin: Tiny transistors.
Kirsten: Like one – this transistor, one atom thick.
Justin: But like how would you even – is it even useful at that point? I don’t even know, I wouldn’t even know where if my…
Kirsten: Oh yeah. It’s to make the little tiny cellphone. You know that that’s as big as your thumb
Justin: I know but that’s the problem. If my technology gets any smaller, I won’t be able to use – I’ll just lose everything. You can barely hang on to a cellphone these days.
Kirsten: No. No. No. Implanted.
Justin: Oh! Then I wouldn’t be able to lose it.
Kirsten: Yeah. And it wouldn’t be lost.
Kirsten: That’s the idea.
Yeah the tiny transistor was developed this year. Let’s see if it will help make things even smaller. It’s very exciting. And once they start looking at other materials, maybe the transistor can get even smaller then the small that they’ve got right now, which is just insane.
Insane technology is out of control.
Justin: Number eight.
Kirsten: Number eight, one of my favorites.
Justin: Your favorites? Is it totally – no, come on. Is it your BFF?
Kirsten: I think they are my BFF, yeah.
Justin: Stem cells. Really?
Kirsten: Stem cells, pluripotent stem cells, embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells, I love them all.
Justin: I like blastocystic over embryonic but that’s like technical side of me.
Kirsten: All right. Yeah, that’s fine. Fair enough. Technical, yeah. What happened this year?
Justin: British doctors, they did like – this is like the biggest stem cell story I think in a really long time. And somehow I completely missed it. This is from a month ago, British doctors…
Kirsten: Yeah, we didn’t report this at all.
Justin: British doctors replaced the damage windpipe of a 30-year-old mother of two. But the amazing thing is the esophagus that they replaced was created from her own stem cells grown in a laboratory. They did the organ transplant. She did not need any of the typical, anti-rejection drugs, the anti-tissue rejection drugs that are on.
Kirsten: Right because the cells are from her own body.
Justin: Was hers. It was cloned from her own body. And yeah, that I think is – that is like very incredible because this is like the thing one of the promises.
Kirsten: It’s the beginning, yeah, to be able to grow organs.
Justin: You go into the doctor’s office. Your doctor is like, “Oh, your liver is not so good.” And then you go, “Oh, what do I do?” And they’re like, “We’re going to take a little of this and a little of that and we will give you a new one. Come back in two weeks, we have a new liver for you.”
Kirsten: We’ll have a new one.
Justin: I’ll put it on order.
Kirsten: It’s all yours.
Justin: Yeah, brilliant.
Kirsten: Yeah. And I think when this study did come out I saw it and I made a decision not to cover the story even though it’s one of those things where every once in a while look at the story and then like, “Yeah. It’s not quite where it needs to be at.” I mean, it’s a tube that I mean – the esophagus is a tube…
Justin: An organ, it’s an organ.
Kirsten: …of muscle.
Justin: So like the heart if it was a heart transplant.
Kirsten: It’s a little bit more complex than the esophagus.
Justin: Would you be just like it’s a clump of muscle. You’re just such a – you know what it is?
Kirsten: I’m an elitist.
Justin: You’re elitist. You’re like brain or nothing. Until you replace somebody’s brain you’re going to be like, “Yeah, that’s easy.”
Kirsten: Yeah, pretty much. No.
Justin: It’s just the part. It’s just a spare part.
Kirsten: Yeah. Also this year with stem cells, researchers at advance cell technologies run by Robert Lanza. They produced blood cells, the first red blood cells from stem cells.
But even though they had some characteristics of being adult cells, adult red blood cells have their denucleated – enucleated. They have no nucleus. And so, they’re called erythrocytes.
These were called erythrotids or something like that or erythroids. I believe they are called erytroids suggest that they are…
Kirsten: No they’re not. That’s one of the things. They are enucleated but they were still not quite like mature red blood cells. So, they had some characteristics but not others. But it’s one of the first steps towards – I mean blood shortages happened all the time when, there are huge accidents, when there are disasters in different areas of our country and or around the world.
And to be able to get a fresh blood supply is sometimes really difficult. And so, to be able to produce blood to save lives it would be pretty amazing.
Justin: Which is a good thing, you know.
Kristen: And to not have to use artificial blood which does caused some problems.
Justin: Yeah. It’s not as good as the good stuff. Also it cuts down on vampirism if you have a good blood supply out there. Good, simple, cheap.
Kristen: Right. The vampires, they could just go to the store and just be like, “I’m going to buy one.”
Justin: “I get a gallon of blood a little bit of – no garlic today no.” No, what is it?
Justin/Kirsten: Number seven!
Kirsten: The Marsifest Destiny, the Watery Wonderland. The watery what of the red planet?
Justin: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: That’s right. Phoenix, which was laid to rest just recently. Poor, poor Phoenix
Justin: Went quiet. It won’t be heard from again. But hey…
Kirsten: But it might be. We don’t know.
Kirsten: They put it to sleep, its solar panels that were powering it up. It’s powered down. Its solar panels might be come covered in the red dust.
Justin: It’s not, no, no, no, no. That’s not going to have this – no.
Kirsten: It may come back to life in the spring.
Justin: It’s not going to have the same potential as the other probe because it’s too far North.
Kirsten: It is very far. I know its batteries are…
Justin: It’s going o freeze its little…
Justin: Yeah it’s kind of – that’s why it won’t – doesn’t have the chance of coming back.
Kirsten: It does have a chance to come back, really.
Justin: No. The cold is going to be too intense for what they build and it’s going to destroy the little things on Earth.
Kirsten: All right, fine. I just like, it’s called Phoenix the rising from the frozen ashes I just – I have a dream.
Justin: Oh you can dream all you want. That little robot is done. That robot is frozen toast.
Kirsten: But that little robot, in the time that it was on the planet number one it did the first soft landing.
Justin: Now the third. The third
Kirsten: Now the others used the big balloons.
Justin: Although lately but it’s the third in history.
Kirsten: Okay fine.
Justin: I’m all about facts. If you want to check me up on – there’s something wrong with my 40 per thing, you’re right. But I’ll figure out something else.
Kirsten: It landed safely. It almost landed exactly on the mark. It was only a little bit removed from where they want it to go.
Justin: You can say it landed further North and anything else before. That’s I thought you could say that.
Kirsten: It did land further North, yes. And they had amazing data just scratch the surface and “Oh look, what’s that white stuff?”
Justin: Took that ice cream scoop.
Kirsten: Oh ice, water, ice, yeah that was pretty amazing. Let me just land right here and do a little scoop and we’ve got water.
Justin: Perchlorate salts, calcium carbonate…
Kirsten: Perchlorate yeah.
Justin: Is that how you?
Kirsten: Yeah Perchlorate, which is a bacterial food source.
Justin: Yes, huge.
Kirsten: And so, as one scientist put it, well it’s better than they’re being no energy source at all. So, finding perchlorate even though it does not end water and the carbonates and all that stuffs, even though these are things that life uses and likes it, they just not a promise that life is on Mars.
Kirsten: But it could be.
Justin: It could be especially if we go there. I mean if we go there then there’s going to be – then we can say 100% there are Martians left on Mars, sort of thing, which is like a whole side of story which I don’t think you seen here but we may not be going to the moon in doing our moon basis anymore.
It seems like the funding is being – has been slowed down to a certain degree. And from what I’m hearing from the scientificky community, the idea of colonizing Mars is gaining more and more interest and much…
Kirsten: Yeah, people love the idea.
Justin: Well, they love the idea but the idea of having the moon as sort of like the launching pad to Mars is like not necessary. And actually building on Mars makes more sense than building on the moon. Its’ going to be more useful anyway. So why do it twice. That’s what I’m hearing. We might just be going straight to Mars.
Kirsten: Yeah okay. I mean, the Chinese will live on the moon.
Kirsten: Which is very exciting.
Kirsten: I try – this last year the moon was fantastic. The Chinese made it to the moon – I’m sorry. They did their first space walk. They went up to the space station.
Justin: Yes. India went to the moon but not with people, took some pictures.
Kirsten: India went to the moon and Japan went around the moon and took pictures. There’s been some really neat research around the moon in the last year which is unprecedented since pretty much since we went there.
Kirsten: We’ve been ignoring the moon for a really long time. And this year it was a lot of mooner stuff, lunarsey.
Justin: I don’t know. I don’t want to say we’ve been ignoring the moon.
Kirsten: Oh I look at it every night.
Kirsten: Yeah. But also the other exciting space advancement, not Mars, so not necessarily in the top 11 but the Cassini mission looking at Enceladus and the jets of water spraying from…
Justin: Hello, water in space, wow.
Kirsten: …water being jets of water that contained potential building blocks of life, methane and other things. Just amazing.
Kirsten: It’s really amazing, amazing. And the pictures are so beautiful, so beautiful. All right, we’ve just a minute left. What else, what else?
Justin: For this half? Or do you want to go to number six?
Justin: Number six!
Kristen: Scientific observation of the eye of Sauron.
Justin: Mm hmm?
Kristen: Well, not really there is no Lord of the Rings in outer space but it sure look like it. We have now, this year we have more extraterrestrial planets than you could shake in observatory aspect.
Justin: Which is some of these observatories are pretty big (unintelligible).
Kristen: Two hundred new planets detected this year.
Kristen: Two hundred, over 200 planets detected this year.
Kristen: It’s amazing. And one of the most amazing beautiful ones, formal hot bees around formal hot the star. It looks – if the red infrared image looks you can see basically the ring around the star in the center of the image is the dust path of dust that’s left by this planet that encircles the star.
Kristen: It’s a beautiful image but really this was the first image that wasn’t like a planet detected by radio signals or, it’s an actual picture.
Kristen: Like this is actually a visual image.
Justin: The observatory version of a naked eye.
Kristen: Exactly. So, that was a very, very amazing advancement. Additionally, we – what else that we also have – we also had a protoplanet that was found near star like 520 light years from Earth and this protoplanet might only be 2,000 years old. So, researchers caught it in the beginning of like maybe the formation process of the planet, yeah.
Justin: Cute little baby. Oh, how cute.
Kristen: And the star orbits the way that they found it is they actually look at a very young star. So, the star itself is only about 100,000 years old. So, the whole system we’re catching it in the process of forming and so you have this clumping of dust matter that hasn’t actually turned into anything yet but it could turn into a gas giant like Jupiter or Saturn. Very exciting.
And there were also another planet that was found last year actually confirmed to have water and carbon dioxide and methane in its atmosphere which is — those were all the things that we like. But it’s a big, hot, gas giant soap well.
We are at our break.
Kristen: It’s amazing. This time comes so quickly.
Justin: We’re going to go to the break. We’ve got another five top sciencey things to talk about.
Kristen: We do.
Justin: Yes, we will.
Kristen: We are only on number six so far. So, we will be going back in just a moment – couple of moments actually with more of the Top 11 of This Week in Science short stories.
Justin: Year-end review.
Kristen: Yes, right. That’s right. We’ll be back in just a moment. Stay tuned.
Kristen: Oh we love the robots. Yes we do. Thanks for that song that was off of the 2000 what year six, 2006 Compilation CD, Chris Taylor.
Justin: Best one ever.
Kristen: Yeah. Best one ever! This is This Week in Science and we have five more stories to count down before the end of our hour.
Justin: Number five!
Kristen: Number five is microbes.
Justin: Microbes, my goodness there’s so much microbial news.
Kirsten: That’s right. Our ancestral – what did you say here – our ancestral roots.
Justin: That’s where we came from.
Kirsten: Our daily companions.
Justin: They’re with us everywhere we go.
Kirsten: Our abundant colony of colony goodness.
Justin: Yes! Well, that’s like one of the first ones. Like the amount of separate species of bacteria in our colon went from around 500 which seemed plenty.
Kirsten: Right. Yeah, I have enough.
Justin: To over 5,000.
Justin: I think we didn’t actually get more microbial. We just could now, we can see it better.
Kirsten: We just – right we just started recognizing it.
Justin: Yeah, respect.
Kirsten: Additionally, we had some news on the bacterial colonies on our hands and how our left hand is different from our right hand. There was other news about bacteria in our mouths actually affecting the way that we taste food.
Kirsten: Crazy. So like we meet the bacteria actually change some of the compounds and foods are breaking them down and release other odorant molecules that we then perceive as taste or flavor.
Kirsten: Very interesting. What else?
Justin: The archeo living hundreds of feet even under the ocean floors which biology counts have added. I mean previous to these we had enough, there was what lived on the planet.
Now that we’re aware of these microbials, which can be like 16 – wait what is it – 1600 million per cubic inch of hundreds of feet under the ocean floors.
Kristen: Or in the soil or wherever.
Justin: It adds 10% to the planet’s biomass just discovering these archeo. There’s 10% more of us.
Kristen: If we thought that we were dominated by bacteria before, we’re even more dominated now.
Justin: Dominated but I mean these are genetically distinct from any other archeo that we knew of.
Justin: And I mean it makes up 10% of the Earth’s biomass which includes plants, includes all living stuff. We added 10% to the planet that’s not bad. We’re the only planet we know we just added 10%, that’s huge.
Kirsten: Gained a little weight anyway.
Justin: One year.
Kirsten: We also had some really neat microbial forensic research that researchers actually studied the anthrax that was sent to various government – the people in the governmental organizations a couple of years back. They studied the anthrax to look for its genetic signatures, find out where it came from and they were able to track.
Justin: Trace it to a lab.
Kirsten: In the United States.
Kirsten: Yeah, we’re able to collar the guy who did it. Unfortunately, he did commit suicide supposedly before.
Justin: Wow, it was supposedly with the question (Marky) things up in the quotation of things.
Kirsten: Yeah. But that also a really big story and then to be able to use microbial genetics, this forensic science, to be able to track it back, I mean that’s pretty amazing.
Justin: Yeah. I think it’s safe to say it came from that lab. I don’t think it’s safe to say it came from the scientist though because there was no trial. There was no…
Kirsten: Yup, there was no trial.
Justin: …we don’t get to see the evidence. We don’t get to see the things that somebody stuck on.
Kirsten: Right, fair enough. Fair enough as we move on.
Justin: Number four! Synthetic genome.
Kirsten: That’s right. The synthetic genome, Craig Venter does it again. Yeah, he is just all over the microbes number one. Number two, creating them from scratch.
I mean he and his team, they basically took DNA microbial DNA. They put it together base pair, by base pair, by base pair, by base pair. They said, “We want it to look like this.”
And they also put a signature of their facility and the names of the people involved using the base pairs – the letters, yeah to actually write.
Justin: Oh no, they didn’t.
Kirsten: He put a signature in a DNA of this synthetic microbe. So, they took the DNA and then they implant. They took the DNA out of an existing little bacteria and they took this DNA and put it in and then it worked. That was a little functioning bacteria.
Their next stop though is to get everything from scratch. So, to actually – bacteria from scratch, not just the genome but everything.
Kirsten: A little microbe who could, all artificial…
Justin: It’s creating life.
Justin: Where there wasn’t any.
Kirsten: That’s – yeah, I mean that’s pretty, pretty impressive and the implications are amazing. And I mean there’s no reason knowing the instructional code why we shouldn’t be able to and also the information that this research is going to give us about how the genome functions, you know.
As we go forward with this, we’ll learn a lot more about how genetics and epigenetics, how these things interact to make things function the way that they do. So fascinating! This is a huge step forward, I believe, huge step forward.
Justin: What kind of creationist story though with that form like a few (basillion) years from now. It’s like wait…
Kirsten: The aliens.
Justin: We came from Craig Venter? No, that can’t be the right story. That’s not how it happened.
Kirsten: Number three.
Justin: Number three was solar science, my goodness. We are – there is – it’s almost and then it will be here.
Kirsten: Yeah. And this is what we were talking about with being all about solutions this year. And the solar science that was going on – it’s just mind boggling some of the advances that were made. And number three, we also are co-awarding the institution of the year.
Kirsten: That’s right.
Justin: MIT which had the biggest grand breaking science done in the solar science room. Also, it seemed to have another stunning story just about every week of the year.
Kirsten: Yeah we had – there were stories coming out of MIT consistently that were just amazing research. And so…
Justin: I was picking a school next year. And I could pick my pick that’s the one if I would to go.
Justin: That’s what I’m saying.
Kirsten: It’s the hot spot where solar science is making strides among other research areas. So who did what their – Dan Nocera and his colleagues created – it’s basically a solar fuel cell. A little cell that from the power of the sun, so from light energy stimulates the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen.
Justin: Do you like photosynthesis?
Kirsten: Pretty much it’s based off – the whole process is based off the natural process of photosynthesis. This biomimicry is a huge area of research these days. I mean just things people are doing based off of natures designs. Fantastic and this is one of them. It’s one of the biggest ones.
It has implications, I mean if they can scale it up, if they can get it to a point where you can have a solar panel on your roof that solar panel will be link to this fuel cell set up. You will have hydrogen gas available to you in your house to power your car or to also power just basically power a fuel cell that can lead to electricity production within your house.
Justin: The prediction that was made from this was within ten years.
Kristen: That’s what he’d like to see.
Justin: Any house can go off the grid.
Kristen: That’s what Nocera is pushing.
Justin: And we can be solar powered every home.
Kristen: And there’s no reason why, if people don’t push forward with these types of solutions that’s not possible. And I mean it is, it’s a dramatic statement to make but it at the same time…
Justin: Yeah, we need some serious political backing to get the funds for that (unintelligible). I don’t know.
Kristen: I wonder where we would get that.
Kirsten: The second group was from researcher named Baldo who – his laboratory they created a really interesting solar cell that increased the efficiency of changing, the light energy into electricity. I don’t remember the exact percentage but it dramatically increased the efficiency of these solar cells.
And the way it basically work is it collects the light energy and then through small paths in the solar cell it focuses kind of like laser light ends up taking the light and focusing it on to smaller solar cell collectors. So, more light energy is going into an area of the solar cell.
And the way that it’s design is very simple. It doesn’t seem as though it will be a hugely expensive thing to create. And about like all these things it’s going to be…
Justin: Could have been starlight at that point.
Kirsten: Yeah, possibly.
Justin: Yeah, yeah.
Kirsten: I mean the efficiency is high enough, I mean to increase the efficiency, I mean then you’re going to make solar panels more efficient even on cloudy days and days when it’s – you’re not getting much light. And that’s part of the problem with solar energy as well sometimes, it’s dark.
Kirsten: So if we can get past that, it’s pretty amazing.
Justin: Sometimes it looks dark. I have a feeling that maybe the next step is, there’s probably like high energy gamma rays or something hitting us constantly that we’re just totally not aware of.
Kirsten: We just need to harness those. Yeah.
Justin: Yeah. We just need to open the spectrum of the solar panel a little bit and you’ll be fine.
Kirsten: Yeah. But I think all of these solutions are really where it’s at. This, solar is not the only area but solar is incredibly a hot area of research right now. And these discoveries out of MIT, these advances in technology if they can be scaled up and put into the marketplace within the next couple of years, it’s really going to change the way the solar field works.
Kirsten: That’s what I think. That’s why it’s a big story. It’s number three.
Justin: It’s up there.
Kirsten: It’s up there, yeah. You’re listening to This Week in Science right now.
Justin: And we’re doing our Top 11 countdown, the best stories of the biggest stories of 2008. Number two!
Kirsten: Number two.
Justin: We’re already up to number two.
Kirsten: Yeah. And number two and number one this year, Justin and I had some squabbling and disagreements but we finally came to an agreement. So, number two, I don’t know if any of you can guess it out there. But…
Justin: It starts with “L” ends with “C”.
Kirsten: And has an “H” in the middle.
Justin: It’s the Large Hadron Collider!
Kirsten: That’s right. All year long, I mean we’ve — on TWIS been following the story of the Large Hadron Collider.
Justin: For years.
Kirsten: For years, yeah. And just finally have it, this years, “It’s going be – it’s going to come online. It’s going to come online.” it had a few stops and starts and…
Justin: No, no. It came online.
Kirsten: And it wasn’t on schedule – they did – it wasn’t on schedule for, because they have some problems with the magnets to begin with.
Justin: Exactly, no. Because they’re big they have to move them around. This is running a little late and then it melted the extension chord or something.
Kirsten: No, no. But it did come online.
Justin: It came online.
Kirsten: And that was a huge advancement. There are physicist partying around the world. And it was a huge story that brought so many people around the country close to the idea of Science and Physics.
I mean whether or not they were scared of black holes destroying the Earth or whether they were excited about what was going to happen. I mean…
Justin: Excited about black holes destroying the universe?
Kirsten: Yeah. Exactly.
Justin: I wonder where their angle was?
Kirsten: Whatever the angle it really brought science, I mean they did such a good job of getting the story out there. I mean it was a brilliantly designed PR effort by the LHC.
Justin: It was definitely good conversation stuff.
Kristen: And then it broke. And then it broke.
Justin: Yes it is overheated.
Kristen: Within like a month.
Kristen: Something cracked. It was like it’s a cracked magnet. It moved, something moved.
Justin: Yeah. What it was apparently, I think they traced it down to spilt champagne…
Justin: …that got into some electronics and shorted it out. I think this where it was. The party got a little out of hand and yeah.
Kristen: Yeah. So, the story itself, it is not over which is exciting. they were going to power down for the winter anyway. But they are, so they’re in the process of powering it down.
They had to warm it back up again so that they could replace some of the parts and actually let workers go in there because it was cooled to an extreme degree. So, that’s really not safe for humans.
So, now they had to warm it up and they’re in the process. Everything, the electricity is turned off. They’re just fixing things going through the motions. And hopefully some time in the spring, early summer they’ll be back online again. I mean you look at the pictures though, the thing is so complex. The wires and the magnets, it’s huge.
Justin: Oh that’s the easy part.
Kirsten: I mean I have a problem with the stereo system. This is crazy.
Justin: Kirsten pretending she’s such a techie.
Kirsten: So, the best is yet to come, really, I think with the LHC.
Justin: The best is yet to come.
Justin: Come the day you’re online.
Kirsten: Yeah? And we do you have a top story.
Justin: Number one!
Kirsten: That’s right.
Justin: Scientists of the world unit!
Kirsten: Unit scientists.
Justin: Oh my goodness.
Kirsten: Science and politics.
Justin: So, getting the politics out of science by putting science in charge of the politics. How brilliant is that?
Kristen: Yeah. Basically just letting, yeah and hopefully this will allow scientists to do what scientists do best and give the information where the information is needed. And hopefully there won’t be politics top down issues.
Justin: So what are we talking about here?
Kirsten: This year we had okay – so basically this year has been the biggest year of the coming together of science and politics and in a good way, in a way that actually seems to be going in a good direction, the right direction making a difference.
First this year, we had the passing of the Genetic Nondiscrimination Act. After something like 13 years of maneuvering back and forth the, people bipartisan effort to come up with an agreement for this bill that says, “No matter who you were born from, no matter who your parents are, no matter what your genetic code is, you cannot be discriminated against by your insurance company, by an employer, by the government, by anyone. You are who you are and that is special” And the government…
Justin: What does it say? It does not call you special.
Kristen: It doesn’t call you special but that’s what it means.
Justin: It says you’re not special and you won’t be allowed to be special. That’s what it says. Nobody can say you’re special.
Kristen: All right, fair enough.
Justin: And that you get a different this, that or the other.
Kristen: Fair enough.
Justin: Because we’re all equal.
Kristen: We’re all equal. There we go. I think I like everybody is special.
Justin: No. Nobody’s special.
Kristen: Yeah. And so, to me that was very, very exciting. And I got a chance to talk with Francis Collins who was in charge of the human genome project shortly after the passing of this bill.
And he was so moved and excited that his years of work, what he had started in science, looking into what, the building blocks, the instructions that make us who we are.
And then the political, problems that could have come from that and then the way that finally after years and years and years people came to get, he was really moved. It was amazing.
Justin: Yeah, the bill it sort of de-weaponized the information.
Kristen: Which is perfect.
Kristen Another big story this year that we talked about, Mike Stebbins he discussed it a lot.
Justin: Yeah, Bisphenol-A.
Kirsten: First we had research we had people looking into it. So, is it good, is it bad, is it nothing, is it neutral? What is it? And nobody and basically everyone was coming out and saying, “Oh, it’s fine. We can’t find enough evidence against it.” That’s what the government’s review panel said.
Justin: That’s the review panel.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: But it started with a scientist who noticed in mice that there was this effect. And it wasn’t her study was supposed to be looking at. It was something completely separate.
She found this effect taking place on mice and by removing things from her experiment tracked it down to the bottles that the water was in that they were being given.
So, it wasn’t even part of the experiment she was initially looking at and tracked it down all the way down to the ingredients, the Bisphenol A in the water bottles that were giving water to the mice and part of her other experiments.
Kristen: Yeah, I actually heard her talk in 2007 and she was starting to get – she was really trying to get out there and say…
Kirsten: …“This is not good stuff.”
Kirsten: But people weren’t listening.
Justin: Right. And she went and made this her, focus on her research was the Bisphenol A, discovering its effects, trying to publicize this, trying to get people to pay attention to it. And others of course political ramifications for this because there’s money involved and legislating and regulating and all these arguments.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: But yeah, huge story.
Kristen: And finally, big study came out that did suggest that it was very bad for people and animals.
Justin: And so they immediately banned it.
Kristen: Immediate, yeah.
Justin: In Canada.
Kristen: In Canada.
Justin: Not here.
Kristen: We have so much here.
Justin: How can we still…?
Kristen: This is still get – so this might be a story to watch, the BPA story might be one to watch in 2009.
Kristen: Yes. And you are very excited about this.
Kristen: So go on with your bad self.
Justin: Well, our intern made good – I mean our intern went of to greener pastures this year.
Kristen: That’s right. Our wonderful science policy intern, Dr. Michael Stebbins…
Kirsten: …the imbedded intern in DC, Weird from Washington who is with us for oh gosh, a year and a half.
Justin: He is like with us for like…
Kristen: A year.
Kirsten: Maybe, yeah.
Justin: This year. And he went off…
Kirsten: That’s great.
Justin: …he got put in charge of the Presidential transition team’s Sciencey front. And pretty much he’s made some good picks so far.
Kirsten: I think he’s made some great picks.
Justin: Yeah. He picked Nobel winning physicist, Steven Chu.
Kirsten: Little Mickey done good.
Justin: Yeah, but he’ll try anything.
Justin: Steven it seems he was headed to Department of Energy. So we have a Nobel winning physicist in charge of the organization that funds physics more than anything more than any other organization.
Just Saturday, they picked John Holdren to be Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Director of the White House Office for Science and Technology Policy. He’s a hawk on the global warming issue, has been on it since day one. Okay, put it mildly our kind of people.
He’s going to be joined on the Science Policy Office by another Nobel Prize- winning scientist Harold Varmus. Varmus?
Justin: And who is the former director of the NIH and MIT professor Eric Lander, who’s specialist in human genome research. Wow! Brain trusts physicists Jane…
Justin: Lubchenco, that’s the word. Jane Lubchenco who’s an also a global warming hawk also got the nod to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The NOAA, which does the most global warming climydia research of any other organization.
Kirsten: That’s right.
Justin: She also gets to claim the milestone of being the first women to hold that position although these sorts of milestones are disappearing quickly.
So, in his radio address this past weekend, Obama said the following, “From landing on the moon, to sequencing the human genome, to inventing the Internet, America has been the first to cross that new frontier because we had leaders who paved the way, leaders who not only invested in our scientists, but who respected the integrity of the scientific process because the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources.
It’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and work to restore America’s place as the world leader in science and technology.” Be still my fluttering heart.
Kirsten: Yeah, you’ve been looking forward to science becoming front and center for a long time and so this is big. This year has been very big in terms of a lot of change taking place.
And in addition to being number one on the list I say that this is also the number one story to watch for 2009 because nothing has really happened yet in terms of the Obama, the President-Elect Administration.
Kirsten: He has named people but nothing has happened yet. So, actions will tell in the end. So, 2009 we’ll see if it tops our list yet again.
Justin: And for anybody who has been complaining thus far that I’ve been to on board with this guy believing that he was going to do exactly what he’s already doing. Your crow is fresh out of the oven prepare yourself to do.
Kirsten: All right. Shout-outs this week go to our TWIS person of the year.
Justin: Person of the year!
Kirsten: Dr. Mike Stebbins.
Justin: You won.
Kirsten: You win the game for your intrepid, interning.
Justin: Intrepid, interning.
Kirsten: And getting the job as part of Obama’s transition team. Your help in the place the scientists into government positions where science can really do what inform who it needs to inform and do what it needs to do. We’re proud of you Dr. Stebbins from such humble beginnings, look how far you’ve come.
Justin: He started with humble beginnings and then he got on to this show. And then that pretty much he was in this, in the spotlight from there on out.
Kirsten: That’s right. Next week’s show we will be talking with our favorite sci-fi horror author Scott Sigler about his newest novel. And we will hear your predictions for science in the New Year 2009.
Justin: The whole New Year’s predictions.
Kirsten: It’s going to be big.
Justin: And we’re going to compare to last year’s too.
Kirsten: We’ll compare it to last year’s and we’re also going to get Scott Sigler’s predictions what he thinks are going to be big. It’s a question. It’s a question.
Justin: Our predictions have been pretty rock solid over the last years. We’re really pretty good at this. We actually do see into the future somehow. I don’t know how we do it.
Kirsten: Yeah. We hope you enjoyed the show.
Justin: Yes we really do because we’re also available if you’re not listening on the radio you could be listening on the iTunes because we have podcast as well. You can go to www.twis.org and sign up at the Subscribe button.
Kirsten: That’s right. And for more information on anything you’ve heard here today, Show Notes will be available on our website www.twis.org. We also want to hear from you so email me at email@example.com or Justin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Justin: Put TWIS in the subject, TWIS, or it will end up spam filtered.
Kirsten: Thank you to everyone who has emailed us with questions, comments and stories. We love your feedback, you Minions, you keep us honest. If there’s a topic you would like us to cover or address or a suggestion for an interview or story, please let us know.
Justin: Our audio podcast will go on – wait we should be here tomorrow?
Kirsten: No. Later, today.
Justin: By tomorrow, by tonight, maybe today? Wow!
Kirsten: Later today, I’m getting it out there. We’ll be back here on KDVS next Tuesday.
Justin: Have a Yule TWIS-mas! If you’ve learned anything from today’s show, remember…
Kirsten: It’s all in your head.
Tags: KDVS, NASA, animals, astrophysics, bioethics, biology, cell biology, cognitive science, computer science, cosmology, ecology, end of the world, energy, engineering, global warming, jelleyfish, medicine, microbiology, molecular biology, nanotechnology, particle physics, physics, podcast, quantum physics, science, science and politics, science history, space, technology, theoretical physics, world robot domination
Podcast URL: http://www.twis.org/audio/2008/12/24/337/