Feb 3, 2009

Synopsis: One-Sided Monopole Magnets, Ballsy Mice equal men in risk assessments, Algae Genes changed to produce biofuels, Blowing Hard, Cosmic Extremes detected in deep holes, Glss Froggy Discoveries, and the Minion Mailbag.

Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!

The following hour of programming is not intended for entertainment purposes. It is instead a carefully crafted experiment to see whether or not subjects, given the opportunity, will tune into a show about cutting edge science news.

If successful, the experiment will be followed up by a further study. To see whether or not those same subjects will be willing to participate in overthrowing world governments and installing in their place a philosopher king state run by scientists.

If unsuccessful, the scientist once dead — dedicate themselves to ushering in the age of World Robot Domination by creating an army of robots who will overthrow world governments and install in their place a philosopher free overlord state run by robots.

In either scenario, the experiment, its outcome, and the resulting consequences do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the University of California at Davis, KDVS or its sponsors.

People of Earth, you have been warned. The choice is now yours. Toil thanklessly under the impressive butt-boot of robotic master or live freely in an ideal futuristic society of eudaimonian bliss by listening to This Week in Science, coming up next.

Good morning Kirsten!

Kirsten: Good morning Justin! How are you doing?

Justin: Great. Thanks for asking.

Kirsten: Awesome. We are both here on time — (we’d like)…

Justin: Oh, rub it in. Rub it – I was like – I’ve been late three times in these many years.

Kirsten: Oh. I mean the last month has been a comedy of…

Justin: And crazy.

Kirsten: Comedy of morning errors and I just want to say, hey…

Justin: In today’s show, it’s going to be perfect. I can tell already.

Kirsten: It’s going to be perfect. It is the first week in February 2009, This Week in Science.

Justin: Year of the Yak.

Kirsten: Year of the Yak. This is a big month. It’s Darwin’s 200th birthday…

Justin: Two hundred.

Kirsten: …next week.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: And we all — the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: Which — so, this is big. And this year is the International Year of Astronomy.

Justin: Cool.

Kirsten: So, it’s a big year there. And it’s the International Year of Science.

Justin: That’s also very cool.

Kirsten: Very cool stuff.

Justin: And don’t we — we’ve got a birthday too this year.

Kirsten: And we have a birthday this year.

Justin: TWIS turns ten.

Kirsten: And I believe, I mean, I kind of fudge the numbers because I wasn’t very sure but I believe this is episode 201.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: It could be 210. But we’re around episode — podcast episode 200. This show has been going for ten years, just about.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: I mean, we’ve been here for a long time.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: It’s a big year. It’s a big year and we have all sorts of science on this week’s show. I brought stories about half of a magnet.

Justin: Half a magnet.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: How long we have — we have — that would be a monopole, would it not?

Kirsten: It would be a monopole.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: You’ve been reading my stories.

Justin: No, no, no. I just know things. Can’t I know things. I’m allowed to know things.

Kirsten: Yeah. Half a magnet, cosmic rays, plant power and cloning. What do you have?

Justin: I’ve got some crazy wind.

Kirsten: Crazy wind.

Justin: Crazy wind. I’ve got mouse versus man…

Kirsten: Wasn’t that a movie?

Justin: …new things under the sun. The crazy wind. It’s one of those — I think it’s one of those disaster movies that didn’t quiet take off.

Kirsten: No, no. There was…

Justin: Wasn’t that a hurricane or a tornado movie? It’s just like a windy day movie.

Kirsten: No.

Justin: What happens when it’s kind of extra windy on one day?

Kirsten: Big wind, something like that, it was one of the movies…

Justin: You think it’s a Spinal Tap aren’t you?

Kirsten: It was by the same director, I think.

Justin: Yeah. It was this last Spinal Tap movie.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: It was something about riding the wind or some wind (unintelligible).

Kirsten: Anyway, what else do you have?

Justin: I’ve got a whole bunch of other stuff that I haven’t read which is going to be interesting to see how that works.

Kirsten: (We’ll be reading it.)

Justin: Tehran, Iran put a satellite up there apparently.

Kirsten: Really?

Justin: Yeah. It’s kind of disturbing way to read the story because it was all these supposedly, they say, they claim blah, blah, blah — like shouldn’t we be noticing like the rocket going up, launching the thing, like or this is supposedly they say.

Or apparently, we have friends in the United States have — through weird channels confirmed that a rocket took off from Tehran that did reach space. What’s not confirmed is whether or not a satellite was actually set out there with the satellite does or anything like that. But yeah, Iran joining the space race.

Kirsten: That’s pretty excellent.

Justin: It can or can’t be. I mean, their concern is for the rocket power for the roguish, we don’t trust them kind of a nation to have.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: On the other hand, I keep thinking like history is still unfolding for a lot of nations and places that have unfolded here already.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: And gosh, wouldn’t it be cool for somebody like Iran to land on the moon and then think, maybe there’s — maybe we can be putting our energy somewhere else. Skip the Jihad’s movement and let’s go to the moon.

Kirsten: Go to the moon.

Justin: Let’s follow science where science leads.

Kirsten: Yeah. So, science stories, the big story this week that — I think it’s pretty exciting. I mean, it’s kind of an imaginary story though.

Justin: Oh.

Kirsten: Yeah. It’s a story but it’s a reflection of a story.

Justin: A reflection of a story.

Kirsten: Reflection. Just look in the mirror.

Justin: An enigma wrapped within a conundrum.

Kirsten: Yes. As you’re hearing the details of this story unfold, imagine yourself looking into the mirror and imagine yourself as what you see in the mirror.

Justin: Wait. That’s what I see normally when I look in the mirror is myself.

Kirsten: Right. But be the thing in the mirror. Okay?

Justin: Oh, okay.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: I’ll be the mirror.

Kirsten: All right. So, researchers at Stanford University, a researcher named Xiao-Liang…

Justin: Go for it.

Kirsten: …Qi.

Justin: Yeah, it’s perfect.

Kirsten: And Zhang — Shou-Cheng Zhang, they’re physicist and they have mathematically — it hasn’t actually been experimentally determined yet. But they mathematically figured out a way that we could have a magnetic monopole.

What’s a magnetic monopole? Well, in a magnet, you have — it’s called the dipole. You have north and a south pole in a magnet, just you know, just like our planet, North Pole, South Pole.

And within the magnetic field, you have a current — a magnetic current that runs out the North Pole around, goes into the South Pole, all the way around.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: And any magnet, you take two north poles and push them together, they will repel each other, right? Because those — because the magnetic fields are coming out in the same direction and so, they’re pushing away from each other. South poles same exact thing, they push away from each other.

If you put a north pole and a south pole together, boom! Suddenly, you have a bigger magnet.

Justin: Mm hmm?

Kirsten: Yes. So, there’s — and if you take a magnet and you cut it in half…

Justin: It still — it doesn’t, yeah.

Kirsten: It just makes two new magnets.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: You never have just the north pole.

Justin: No.

Kirsten: Or just the south pole. You’d never have that. Now, this is something though that theoretically has been predicted. And things like String Theory and whatever is going to end up being the Grand Unifying Theory of all Physics are dependent on the existence of a magnetic monopole.

It is the — the magnetic monopole is the counter character, the counter particle to the electron.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: So, electrical current depends on one particle, the electron which is negatively charged. And you have electrons that flow and that’s an electrical current. And electrical current can induce magnetic current and vice versa.

However, nobody has ever been able to find the magnetic monopole. There is no particle. There’s no positive particle out there. And if you look in textbooks and you look at, Physics textbooks and they’ll show you, “Oh, on this side of the wire, it’s positive. On this side, it’s negative.”

Well, there’s really no positive. It’s just a lack of anything. So, it’s just not negative. And it’s this concept that everyone has just kind of been like, “Oh, there’s negative and there’s positive.” But there is no positive particle. It does not exists.

Justin: And not to throw any of this in arbitrary note but it maybe missed for — it may have been much easier if they’d just gone the other way. I think it was Franklin or somebody…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …who named negative or positive.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: If they’ve just gone the other way…

Kirsten: The cathode and the anode.

Justin: …everything would have been much simpler…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …if — because then you have all these positive particles that you wouldn’t have to put a positive charge and then you can just put negative or — but it is arbitrary.

Kirsten: I urge everyone to go out there and read a chapter in a textbook on electricity because it’s just fascinating.

Justin: Neat stuff.

Kirsten: It’s neat stuff.

Justin: It’s all around us.

Kirsten: Backwards — crazy interesting stuff. But this magnetic monopole — so, where is it? Physicists have been trying to find it for years. “You know, it’s got to be out there. We will find it.”

But they’ve never found it. And so, this guy, Shou-Cheng Zhang and his partners, they published in Science Express online in the January 29th issue, they have published their paper entitled, “Inducing a Magnetic Monopole with Topological Surface States” whatever.

So, they have this material that is a topological — considered a topological insulator. I do not know exactly what this means. Some of the surface — it’s a surface insulator. Okay, topological — topo surface…

Justin: Top.

Kirsten: Anyway so, what the Math that they have determined, all the equations they put together. They say when it comes down to it, even a, a kind of an upper level undergraduate Physics student could solve these equations and understand them.

So, this is kind of neat. Simplicity is usually…

Justin: That’s a good indicator that…

Kirsten: It’s a good indicator that this might be right. So, they’ve got this material…

Justin: Gosh, my Physics theories must be genius then because they’re extremely simple. They have no Math.

Kirsten: They’ve got this material that in effect, if you take an electron and hold it up to the surface of that material, instead of having the electrons in the surface of that material just kind of go inside and have that lack the positive charge that is not there come out and just be…

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: …okay, this electron is now attracted to the outside of this material. What actually happens is if you hold an electron up to the material, as if it were, say the south pole of a magnet, it induces a current so that there’s a flow within the material itself.

Justin: Interesting.

Kirsten: So, it looks like the reflection that would be something — so, if you put your hand up, it’s kind of a mirror image. And so, if the electron you’re holding up to it is a south pole then what exists in the material is then the north pole of the magnet.

Justin: But all by itself-ish.

Kirsten: But all by itself. It’s kind of brain twisting.

Justin: I didn’t know.

Kirsten: And so, it only exists — this magnetic monopole only exists theoretically within this material in this particular situation as it’s induced…

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: …by, an electron coming close to it.

So, the question is, can we find this magnetic monopoles through experimentation? Can we find them in other materials? And then, can we make use of them? And what are we going to learn, I mean we still haven’t just found them existing, they’re not flying through space.

You know, it’s like this very specific kind of material. I mean, there are lots of caveats…

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: You know lots of very important assumptions that are taking place. So, in a sense, it’s like, “Mirror, you haven’t really found the magnetic monopole.” You know…

Justin: It’s good to know, it’s out there being…

Kirsten: But…

Justin: …pursued though.

Kirsten: But it’s being pursued.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: And this is the first time that anyone’s…

Justin: Getting steps closer.

Kirsten: Yeah. This is the first – this is the closest anybody has gotten into finding the illusive monopole.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: It’s very exciting.

Justin: It is.

Kirsten: I think it’s neat. If you just tuned in, you’re listening to This Week in Science.

Justin: This next story can be interpreted in two ways, depending on how I read this. So, I’m going to try to deliver it both ways, okay?

This is either, a study that finds mice are as good as humans when it comes to assessing risk. Or it’s a study that finds human beings no better than mice when it comes to assessing risks. It’s depending completely on…

Kirsten: On your perspective.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: That’s good.

Justin: So, in the paper, Rutgers University Center for Cognitive Sciences titled, “Risk Assessment in Mouse and Man”. They say the finding contrast with the traditional view that humans are non-normative decision makers under probabilistic conditions. Which, I didn’t know probabilistic…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: …was a word.

Kirsten: Probabilistic.

Justin: It’s probabilistic. Probabilistic is a word I will now attempt to use.

Kirsten: It’s also — in the middle of it is a sound that you make when you’re trying to be motorboat, ba-ba-ba-ba-ba.

Justin: That’s why it seems like it may adjust in (makety) up word is probabilistic. It’s just a little — so, Professor of Psychology Charles R. Gallistel concludes that risk assessment is not basically a high-level conscious activity. But perhaps one that is programmed into the brains of all animals – mice, humans, other creatures on the planet.

In the experiment, subjects had only a few seconds to judge in which of two locations they are more likely to find a reward. And this age old competition of mouse versus men, they came out about even. Their ability to judge this human being versus tiny little rodent, worked out about the same.

The experiment is kind of a — I don’t know, I almost want to re-read into what they’ve discovered here. This experiment’s subjects waited at a location for food or a reward or target to appear.

There was a set short delay after which there was a reward possible then there was a set – long delay under which a reward COULD BE showing up. Which means that there is a third chance that nothing will show up, that you’ll just keep waiting. All right.

So, in judging when to switch from one location to another to increase your chances of getting something, subjects had to take into account how long they’ve already been waiting, the probability that it was better to switch, they had to run this sort of risk assessment scenario in their heads.

Kirsten: Right. And it is unusual for animals to switch.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: I mean, if you’ve been rewarded at one place, most animals will stay…

Justin: Stay there forever. It’s like, “This is where it came from.”

Kirsten: Exactly. And it’s pretty common.

Justin: And so, this was matter of like, if you’re waiting too long, it was time to switch because it’s more likely to show up somewhere else.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: But there’s also a short versus a long and then you’re playing that game too. So, the mice were doing something…

Kirsten: Confuse them.

Justin: …that on the face of it, according to Gastel or Gallistel — I’m messing up your name sorry — was mathematically complicated. So, now mice do math apparently, intuitive math.

Kirsten: Intuitive math, yes.

Justin: On the one end, that’s surprising but then, maybe not because risk assessment is a natural part of life. It’s risky being a mouse. Lots of things out there trying to eat you.

So, the ability for these animals to do complicated — this complicated thing might actually be a very primitive, very basic cognitive mechanism that you might try to understand even by looking at molecules and cells in the nervous system. Which I’m amazed because…

Kirsten: Just go down to the…

Justin: …there’s a physical imprint of that that you could track.

Kirsten: Yeah. I mean, that’s what it comes down to eventually. I mean, they’re going to — at some point, it’s like, “Okay, does the sea slug, does the Aplysia, you know, react…

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: …in this similar manner.” Can we go to the more basic less complicated organisms and can we get similar results. Can we see exactly how this happens?

I mean, I think that the best test though would be to test the mice while there’s like a hawk flying over their head. How do you choose now, mouse?

Justin: To me, this is my — like I’m always reading something extra between the lines. And on this one, I don’t see this is a test of risk assessment.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: But as a test of impatience.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: To me, I’m like — okay so, mice and humans are equally impatient.

Kirsten: I mean — and the thing is, I mean, it’s not risky unless you’re starving. Because, I mean they’re probably food depriving the animals ahead of time.

Justin: Or the humans.

Kirsten: But I mean — or the humans. I mean how do you really do that to get to a state where, “Okay, I am now…” you know, starver person, “You’re not allowed to eat for 12 hours before you come in.” you know. How do you know that?

Justin: And actually to be kind of — it’s not so much fear of death risks that’s being assessed.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: But it’s more probably, like best chance, best chances of success versus…

Kirsten: Yeah. What’s the best chance of success?

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: It’s not risk.

Justin: Let me give you either $5 or ten lottery tickets, kind of a scenario.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Like which one do you choose. If you’re choosing the one that gives you the best option regardless of the pay-off, the one that can actually — has a best chance of winning…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …that’s sort of what they’re showing that the mice and humans had equal levels on this.

Kirsten: Right. And you know, in some sense, you know, in a certain situation that could be risky because okay, if you don’t have any money and you’re starving and you want to buy food, what do you do? You go for the $5 because it’s where you go for…

Justin: Can buy a lot more groceries…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: …with that lottery win, Kirsten. Come on! I’m totally going to win this time. I feel it.

Kirsten: But if you don’t, you know…

Justin: There goes my mic level. (Nice).

Kirsten: I know, I’m turning you down. But if you don’t win, you don’t get anything.

Justin: Yeah. That’s…

Kirsten: You know, and then, you’re still starving.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: And so, that is the risk, you know, if you are in a deprived state. But if you already are flushed, you know, what’s the risk in taking the lotto tickets?

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: You know, I already got stuff. What do I need?

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: It’s like the question now where people are losing their jobs and the economy are, you know, what are people choosing now? That’s what we should be looking at.

Justin: Mm hmm. Yeah. I don’t think (cheap) people are going to choose well.

Kirsten: Mice versus humans in a failing economy. So, like a said, Charles Darwin’s birthday is next week.

Justin: It’s like normally on a birthday, you’d wait until it’s the week of a birthday.

Kirsten: I’m celebrating…

Justin: You’ve been talking about this for months now. I think maybe even last year. It’s been brewing.

Kirsten: I don’t know how often you turn 200?

Justin: I haven’t done it…

Kirsten: I mean his…

Justin: …even once.

Kirsten: …not alive but still. So, the theory of evolution is something that is the basis of biology.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: The basis of life. We trust in the way that evolution works through natural selection through some kind of random accidental changes, mutations slowly over time and maybe some more dynamic rapid change.

But the basis of this is that it’s not directed, that it’s usually accidental. There’s like a mutation, something changes and, “Oh, look, it’s a benefit.” And then you can give it to your offspring and hey look, everyone is doing better.

So, scientists now — we’ve been genetically modifying things for years.

Justin: Oh, yeah. (Breeding).

Kirsten: We’re trying to circumvent evolution.

Scientists at Berkley are specifically interested in changing micro-algae so that they change the genetic instructions within the chlorophyll molecules. So that are within the algae’s little light-gathering cilia all over their antenna, all over the place.

So that they can change the way that photosynthesis takes place in these little organisms and switch the production of sugar which is what these little organisms do. They photosynthesize and they’re, “Ohm, sugar. I’m going to make more of me.”

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: “More biomass, more biomass, more me. Yeah.” If we could change that and get them instead of producing sugar…

Justin: Produce some electron.

Kirsten: …producing biofuels.

Justin: Oh, biofuels are good.

Kirsten: So, if we could get these little algae, instead of to create sugars, just have a few more carbon atoms and suddenly, we’ve got a lipid or hydrocarbon or even hydrogen.

And suddenly, we have a sun-driven production of fuel to help us get off of this petroleum addiction that we have. But it’s still petroleum, basically. I mean, it’s just not from the Earth.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Hydrocarbons from natural sources as opposed to — oh, not natural — from living sources as opposed to those dead for millions of years.

So, the question is how are they going to do that?

They are doing it through genetic modification. They’re going to — they’ve actually identified now the genetic instructions that are within the genome of these algae that deploy — that make the chlorophyll molecules that are necessary for photosynthesis.

So now, they know where the instructions are. And they can start the process of switching it up.

Justin: It’s awesome.

Kirsten: The testing begins now.

Justin: It’s good to know that the assumption that you like to have that somewhere in some laboratory, there’s somebody working on the thing. It’s going to fix all the stuff that’s missing from the planet right now.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: It’s good to hear actually that that does exist.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: It wasn’t — it’s not an empty warehouse with the cardboard sign that says, “Back in five minutes.” Now, they’re actually in there working and about to test the stuff.

Kirsten: Yeah. And the great thing about this is that the micro-algae with the rate, they have a super high rate of photosynthesis.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: And because of this, they are — it hasn’t actually been put into practice yet. But it’s estimated that the process of developing hydrocarbons from photosynthesis through micro-algae is as much as ten times as more efficient than gaining biofuels from sugar cane or switch grass or other…

Justin: They can see more than ten.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: I think it’s like — one thing I saw showed almost a 150 to 1 ratio?

Kirsten: So it has.

Justin: It’s going crazy.

Kirsten: It has a lot of…

Justin: Lot of potential.

Kirsten: …a lot of promise, a lot of potential. And we’ll see — the next few years, we’ll really see it play out.

Justin: Less promising was an idea of I came up with a little friend. We’re trying to work out a way to do solar panels.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Algae – living algae solar panels in which…

Kirsten: Oh, yeah! That’d be cool.

Justin: …the same process would free off an electron. Although we figured out that it would create these giant tanks of algae that would have to be on everybody’s roof which would smell also very bad on top of it.

Kirsten: Yeah, yeah.

Justin: It didn’t go very far.

Speaking of the new energies, this is the crazy wind. Global wind energy capacity searched by 28.8% in United States in 2008.

Kirsten: Wow!

Justin: There’s something I hinted – we talked about a little in the past. And every time I’ve talked about wind energy as being potential solution, people like, “Nah, it’s only like a 1% of the energy used in the United States.”

That was a couple of years, now it’s over 2%. And it’s the fastest growing sector, this wind energy. It’s jumping. A quarter of what’s there is showing up plus every year.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Which still — what might be ten years before we’re at 4% or 5%. But that’s still a significant addition.

Kirsten: What we need to do is get the, some of these government handouts — financial handouts to the auto industry. Get them to just take a few of their factories and turn them from car manufacturing plants into windmill plants.

Justin: Yeah. And actually, that’s probably not a bad idea at all. They may make more money that way. This actually does make the United States the world’s largest producer of wind energy now. We just overtook Germany.

Kirsten: Nice.

Justin: And — yeah. So, we’re number one. Whoa! Of course, Germany still boasts the highest percentage of their power…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …coming from wind energy. But they’re, a tiny nation somewhere last in the old country versus us being a, you know…

Kirsten: Oh, dear.

Justin: …taking up over half the world. This is — but no, this is really good news. I think that the wind energy is one of those — is just one of those pieces of the puzzle.

It’s not — there’s not going to be a silver bullet for energy. But we’re going to need to hit it at lots of fronts from the solar, from the biofuel, from the wind energy. I just — I’m encouraged by being number one in something cool.

Kirsten: Number one. Cosmic rays deep underground. Cosmic rays…

Justin: Under, yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah. Cosmic rays are being detected by detectors under the ground…

Justin: (CamLAN)?

Kirsten: No, not (CamLAN). At the U.S.-led particle physics experiment called MINOS, that’s managed by Fermilab, this is a cosmic ray detector that has been placed in an old iron mine in Minnesota.

Justin: Nice.

Kirsten: Yeah. Reusing old, old mineshafts. This is great, great idea. Take advantage of holes that have already been dug. Fascinating, fascinating research that’s coming out of this.

This detector underground has been — cosmic rays come in from outer space shoot through the Earth, hit a detector and we go, “Okay, look it was a muon. Look it was meson”. Exciting!

However, the proportion of what we find is determined by what kind of interactions these cosmic rays are having with other particles in the high atmosphere and on their way through, you know — the entire…

Justin: We got a big shield up there.

Kirsten: Yeah, the big shield that protects us from sunburn and you know that kind of stuff. This detector deep underground is actually telling us now about super high atmospheric weather events.

So, cosmic rays detected in a hole underground correspond to these particular weather events called the Sudden Stratospheric Warming in which the temperature of the stratosphere goes up by almost 40°C in some places.

Justin: What?

Kirsten: Within — yeah. Within just like a couple — it’s very sudden over a couple of days, there’s this huge increases in temperature in the stratosphere. And they’re kind of random in their currents. They occur every other year or so and there’s never been any way of determining when or why they’re going to happen.

But now, they’ve got a correlation between the proportion of the type of cosmic rays that they are detecting in these cosmic ray laboratories and these high atmospheric weather events.

So, the possibility is now to be able to figure out not just Particle Physics where these things are coming from…

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: …and, in the universe is to actually give us more information if we start looking at this data from these cosmic ray labs around the world. We can maybe gain more information about occurrences in the stratosphere which is notoriously…

Justin: It’s awesome.

Kirsten: …been difficult to measure.

So, maybe there’s more information that will be gained to be able to understand a little bit more about workings of our entire atmosphere as the result of these cosmic rays being detected in a hole underground.

Justin: That’s totally awesome.

Kirsten: It’s so great.

Justin: And I don’t why but for some reason this strange warming that happens every other year, I got the picture of some sort of alien race out there with the death ray that they just haven’t gotten down yet.

It’s like, “Oh no. It didn’t work again. We raised the upper temperature, sought their atmosphere by about 40°C but didn’t penetrate. It didn’t destroy anything.” Shoot! “We must go back to the laboratory. Try again next year.” I don’t know why. I just got this…

Kirsten: It’s awesome.

Justin: It’s like trying over and over with the death… it worked on all the other planets.

Kirsten: They worked before. We have…

Justin: And just right before we jumped in…

Kirsten: Okay.

Justin: …just when you thought there was nothing new under sun, scientist find new things under the sun including ten — count them ten, never before recorded entries into the amphibian branch of the tree of life all found in the mountains of Colombia.

Ten new amphibians — what makes this find both remarkable and surprising? Colombia’s home to some 750 different species of amphibian as it is, that’s incredible.

Kirsten: Wow!

Justin: And one of the list or three actually on this list are classes of glass frogs. Which I think I’ve seen but didn’t realize it was a natural occurrence. I thought it was a genetic mash up, something that we’ve done in the lab. Which is these frogs have transparent skin so you can see their organs from the outside.

I thought that was something that — we may have played with it to see if we could trick…

Kirsten: Probably.

Justin: …a frog into doing that.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: But no. This is actually a natural occurrence, glass frogs, transparent skin. And this may actually lead to a solution for those junior high school students who were too squeamish to…

Kirsten: To actually do it?

Justin: …do the incision. All right.

Kirsten: Look! There’s the liver.

Justin: So, you don’t have to stain…

Kirsten: Just point, point at it through the skin.

Justin: Get a magic marker and circle stuff on the outside.

Kirsten: This is This Week in Science. We’re going to take a short break. Please stay with us, we’ll be back in just a few moments.


Justin: We’re back with more on This Week in Science.

Kirsten: Back we are. Welcome back. We have — let’s see, this half hour I wanted to talk about…

Justin: We’re opening the minion mailbag at some point, all right.

Kirsten: That was I wanted to do…

Justin: All right.

Kirsten: …open the minion mailbag. First off, we have the Question of the Month for January.

Justin: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Kirsten: So, the Question of the Month to remind you all — my question is from (Jay Michael Pins).

“My question for my fellow listeners is this, are there any natural geological mechanisms that actually release carbon over geological time? I mean generally speaking, oil, coal, natural gas are comparatively stable over time and most natural phenomena won’t cause combustion.

Over geological time, is the carbon usually sequestered and those fuels ever released back into the system, or wouldn’t have been out of the game if we hadn’t found it so useful. And in what timeframe, if any, would it take to deplete the free carbon in our biological ecosystem if they were no human unmediated release?”

So, we have the (Merlin) answers — the minion answers. From (Steve Nurlick), “Fossil fuels are made from deposited plant and animal remains. The deposition that matters is mainly in continental tectonic plates. Since anything deposited on the deep ocean floor gets subducted and in geological terms is removed to magma fairly quickly.

Continental plate deposits can potentially sit around for billions of years. Since these plates tend to float around on top of other subducting plates. However, local deposits of fossil carbon can get returned to the atmosphere in copious amounts with any volcanic activity which commonly arises from plate collisions and subduction events.

Conversely, other local deposits could be ultra compressed into diamond which means they are completely out of the game anyway. However, taking all these on balance, it seems like likely a lot more carbon would be – remain sequestered if we weren’t digging it up and burning it.

A fair proportion of this stuff might have otherwise remained within the Earth’s crust until the sun blows up in 5 billion years. I’m not a geologist, so I am just making this up as I go. I look forward to hearing from other listeners.

P.S. Everyone should switch to carbon neutral kangaroo meat. It’s farming other grossly gaseous livestock. Apparently, ‘Roos don’t burp that much.”

Justin: Oh, interesting. Interesting.

Kirsten: Learned a few things there. (Thomas) says, “I’m not an expert. But this is what I’ve read. One, there are multiple reservoirs of carbon so there are multiple roots to the atmosphere. Believe or not they are natural oil-eating bacteria that will gradually devour any petroleum that reaches the surface in oil seeps.

This generally happens too slowly to make oil spills a good idea. Coal fires are a widespread and well documented phenomenon. They can occur naturally although humans have certainly increased the frequency of coal fires.

Natural gas is released to the atmosphere by underwater land slides, melting tundra and erosion of sedimentary rocks that confine the gas. The gas seems stable to humans. But it will react with atmospheric oxygen to form carbon dioxide and water.

Limestone and other carbon-rich rocks are another major storer of carbon. Most of these are not flammable or edible. So, it is more difficult to release the carbon.

However, the heat associated with volcanism and other geological processes can cook out the carbon dioxide leaving the rocks, other components underground. Incidentally, this process is similar to the one by which humans make Portland cement.

Carbon dioxide dissolved in seawater is released and absorbed to maintain an equilibrium with the atmosphere. This is a very fast process compared to the release of carbon from sediments and rocks.

Numbers two and three, due to the many natural causes of carbon release, I doubt that carbon dioxide will ever be completely out of the game. The amount of atmospheric carbon has fluctuated many times. But the long term trend appears to be downward. This is probably due to the deep burial of biologically sequestered carbon in sedimentary rocks.

Of course a major event like the impact of the moon-size meteorite could probably reset atmospheric carbon levels to what they were half billions ago. Other events that may temporarily alter carbon balance are continental collision, rifting, massive volcanism and human activities.” Pretty good.

Justin: I’d say — I kind of think there’s something missing in this context here. I think, first of all the important thing is — yeah, the ocean — carbons end up in the ocean come back out pretty quickly, another 50-year delay or something like that. All right? That’s what? Like 70% of the surface of the planet.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: So, then you’re talking about this smaller portion which things can get covered by dirt and sequestered away. Really, the percentage of the carbon that we’re talking about on the planet’s surface, the game that we’re talking about is very insignificant and such a tiny portion that’s actually can be even sequestered. That in itself is a non-factor.

What we’re talking about here though is free carbon. Carbon that’s not being sequestered, all life forms, everything under plants, human beings we’re all sequestering carbon constantly.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Everything on the surface of the planet is in a way…

Kirsten: Anything organic.

Justin: Correct.

Kirsten: yeah.

Justin: And so…

Kirsten: And that’s what being organic is…

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: …containing carbon.

Justin: So, where this is — and I think – the analogy I came up with is a game of musical chairs. It doesn’t matter if there’s ten people playing or if there’s a thousand people playing the game, right?

If you take away one chair, you have one person with no place to sit. And what we’re doing in burning fossil fuel is we’re taking away tons and tons of chairs. We’re taking away like, 5, 6, 7, 10 chairs at a time.

So, now you have all these people without anywhere to sit. And that’s how come we have more carbon in the atmosphere. There’s not really a ratio of carbons in play on the surface of our planet versus what’s going on in our atmosphere. Those are completely separate issues.

Kirsten: Yeah. I don’t know if they are separate. I mean, they’re all — it’s all..

Justin: The vast majority of…

Kirsten: It’s all connected.

Justin: Yeah. The vast majority of carbons stay sequestered…

Kirsten: True.

Justin: …when something eats something else.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: It’s still in the system.

Kirsten: True. It’s in the system, exactly.

Justin: It’s when you’re burning it, it’s not that there’s so much more carbon on the surface of the planet than there was before. It’s that it’s non-sequestered.

Kirsten: It’s not sequestered anymore.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: Now, it’s free.

Justin: It’s freed up with no easy way of recapturing it and that’s the issue. It’s not that we could run out of carbons by not having burnt oil or anything like that. The amount of carbon sequestered in oil, in coal is almost insignificant to the amount of carbon that actually exists on the planet surface.

Kirsten: Pillaging and plundering. Minion (Andrew) gives our final answer. He says, “Anyway, I’m a graduate student in Geology at Indiana University.” Oh, geologist.

Justin: Oh, finally.

Kirsten: Here we go, finally. “While fossil fuels aren’t my specific focus, geomorphology and hydrology is. I think I can take a stab at the Question of the Month. Over geological time, there are a number of things that could happen to fossil fuels reserves to release some of the carbon as carbon dioxide.

The heat required for combustion is easily obtained from molten rock. Igneous intrusions as well as volcanoes are very common around the planet. While volcanoes are typically located along plate boundaries, there are exceptions, yellow stone in Hawaii. And because of plate tectonics, molten rock could intrude near the surface anywhere there is fracturing and faulting like all mountains and basins.

Coal seams can burn underground for years when ignited by humans. So, I assume the same would happen if ignited by molten igneous rocks. As with anybody of oil or natural gas that contacts molten rock — as with anybody of oil or natural gas that contacts molten rock burns.

So, it’s possible. But at a much incredibly slower rate than we are currently burning fossil fuels. I guess, geologically speaking, eventually if all rocks will be eroded, subducted, melted and reworked as magma or lava, this process would eventually release much of the carbon dioxide and rework the rest as minerals.

So, net increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is inevitable. But again, we have the lead foot syndrome with the oil addiction and it’s not getting us anywhere good fast.

Justin: What will be fun is to put the carbon imprint of mankind in the context of a volcano. Like group it all up together, take all of our footprint…

Kirsten: I think — I wonder if somebody has done that.

Justin: It’s probably out there.

Kirsten: Yeah. How much are we releasing…

Justin: Maybe it only needs to be googled. Maybe somebody needs to run the Math — I don’t know. But just to see what size of a volcano would be required?

Kirsten: Speaking of which, this is a headline. Where is it? Yeah. The USGS, U.S. Geological Survey…

Justin: Survey.

Kirsten: …has recently created an alert map of volcanic threats. And they’ve taken research data and combined it with Google maps.

Justin: Hot.

Kirsten: So, basically you will look in a Google map and it’s got all the information layered into it, related to which volcanoes are nearing a danger point. And it turns out current “Orange” watch threat levels are for Mountain Redoubt in Alaska and for Mount Kilauea in Hawaii.

And Mount Redoubt actually is on like — it could — they’re thinking that it could blow like any couple of days.

Justin: Yikes.

Kirsten: Yeah. And so, we don’t we know — I don’t know. And in terms of blowing, isn’t going to — blow its top off or is it just going to be like, “Let’s just release a little pressure here.”

We’ll see what happens. As they say, it’s been growing and there’s some serious threat happening.

Justin: And there’s some melting going on — like there’s some heating up apparently. I think I was reading that ice is melting off the top of the peak in certain…

Kirsten: Yeah, hot.

Justin: …suspicious activities.

Kirsten: It’s getting hot. It’s getting hot in there. And there’s some other research. So, you can actually find the map at, let’s see, Yes. And I will link to this that location off of our website show notes.

Justin: Nice.


Justin: You can see if there’s a volcano near you.

Kirsten: You can. Most of the volcanoes — I looked at it yesterday, most of the volcanoes are within the ring of fire. Which is kind of the Pacific Northwest and off of up through Alaska and then out into like the Northern Pacific Ocean. It’s kind of cool.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Then, there’s Hawaii. And Hawaii is like is in the middle of everything.

Justin: Hawaii is a volcano.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: It’s a series of volcano, isn’t it?

Kirsten: Yeah. And they’ve been having some interesting activity. I think people were evacuated from a town in — near Mount Kilauea. Like 2,000 residents were evacuated because some noxious gases were being released by the volcano.

Justin: Yikes.

Kirsten: Yeah. So, that was our Question of the Month. Next week, I will be announcing our next Question of the Month.

Justin: Oh, right on.

Kirsten: Yeah. We’ll have a new question. So, if you have a question, something that you think is just really fascinating, interesting, you want to hear what other people think the answers might be to your question, go to our forums,

And you can — in the section, if you’re registered as a forum user, a forum member, you register for the forums and then, you can go in to the questions section and enter your question. Write your question in and then people can vote, you can say, “Oh, I like the question. I like this question.”

Vote for questions that other people have put in there. And by next week, I will have picked a question for our February Question of the Month.

Justin: I have so many questions, Kirsten.

Kirsten: Just go write them in there.

Justin: All right, all right.

Kirsten: Go, write them in there. Enter them in the Question of the Month.

Justin: I’m down. I’m totally — I’m going to bring it.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: I’m going to bring tons of — because you know I never get to…


Justin: …ask questions.

Kirsten: No.

Justin: I always have to answer them. And I don’t really have, I mean, base of knowledge. So, it’s a little awkward.

Kirsten: Yeah. You’re listening to This Week in Science. We also had a bunch of — it wasn’t a Question of the Month. But this month, lots of conversations about daylight savings.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: And so, we have some emails regarding daylight savings. And specifically Australia has been very interesting — interested in this topic of conversation.

Minion (David Widdle) from Melbourne wrote in to continue the daylight savings conversation and he says, “Minion (Matthew) from Melbourne…” That’s kind of alliteration. Alliterative, I like.

“Minion (Matthew) from Melbourne cast aspersions on our Queensland brothers. We in Melbourne like to do that. But in this case, there’s more to the story. The science is on the side of the banana vendors.”

Justin: The banana vendors?

Kirsten: Queenslanders.

Justin: Queenslanders.

Kirsten: I guess this is local slang. “Let’s compare Townsville Queensland…”

Justin: I wonder if that’s a dirty slang that we just put out over the radio, banana vendors. It just doesn’t sound…

Kirsten: No idea.

Justin: Clean.

Kirsten: Queenslanders. “Let’s compare Townsville, Queensland, a latitude of 19° south and Melbourne, Victoria, a latitude of 38° south. In Melbourne, dawn comes over 2 ½ hours earlier in summer than in winter. But in Townsville, the difference is only a little over an hour.”

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: “Those are the differences at the extremes.” In most of Australia, daylight savings starts on the fourth of October. On that day, if daylight savings was applied to Townsville, dawn would come at 6:52 a.m. later than in mid-winter.

I can understand them not really being happy about that. The explanation for this is the Earth is roughly spherical, it orbits the sun once per year and spins on an inclined axis once per day. It’s the inclined axis which gives us the seasons and the closer you are to the pole, the greater the chances in daylight from one season to the next.

If you live on the equator, the day will be about 12 hours long no matter what time of year at the pole of summer day last 24. And in winter, the sun never rises. So, question, what happens in between the poles and the equator?”

In between-y things. Melbourne is closer to a pole than Townsville. So, the seasonal changes in day length are more extreme.

Minion (Brett) in Adelaide also wrote in. And he says that, “(Matthew) is saying that Queensland’s non-adoption of daylight savings was silly due to the sun rising too early. But the situation is somewhat more complex in Australia.

Firstly the southern cities of Australia like (Matthew’s) Melbourne and my Adelaide have substantially varying day-night lengths across the year due to the low latitude they sit at. Thus, daylight savings makes a lot of sense here because it can maximize wind or sun during times during times that people are likely to be awake.

In higher latitudes, like Brisbane or Cairns, both in Queensland, daylight does not vary quite as much. Hence, daylight savings is not as useful. So, Queenslanders much as I love to bash other states, you would be surprised of the amount of interstate rivalry here in Australia are not as silly as (Matthew) makes out.

However, daylight savings gets really complicated when you take into account time zones across Australia. The eastern states, Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and Queensland operate in one time zone, the Eastern Standard Time.

South Australia and Northern Territory operate a half hour behind, they call Central Standard Time. During summer, when daylight savings is instituted in SA, Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales, you can have the situation where the Northern Territory is operating half hour behind Queensland which is now a half hour behind.

Justin: Oh, no. This is going to…

Kirsten: (Unintelligible) South Australia which is the half hour behind the rest despite being originally in only two time zones. This can be difficult for businesses to negotiate. Let alone the intrepid traveler.

Justin: Yeah. There’s actually a town, I think it’s in one of the Dakotas that splits down like a state line. One state that does do the daylight savings and one state that doesn’t.

Kirsten: And that doesn’t.

Justin: So that, yeah. You can go across town…

Kirsten: Just across.

Justin: …and gain or lose an hour.

Kirsten: It does make sense for it to have it in low latitude states. And I for one love it just as an aside, there’s an apocryphal tale about Queenslanders and daylight savings that says they don’t want it because they think the extra sunlight will fade the curtains.

I can’t confirm or deny this. But it’s funny nonetheless.

Justin: It is.

Kirsten: So, many Queenslanders out there can confirm or deny.

Justin: Well, on that (tack), I’m all for banning darkness all together. It’s so annoying. It’s not necessary. You can get a lot more done with 24 hour sun.

Kirsten: Yeah. So, I’ve learned a lot about Australia and daylight savings. (James Matsuoka) writes in and says that, “Minion (Mat) basically had it right. Also, the preference you and Justin showed for summer evenings is the crux of the issues surrounding daylight savings.

It all comes down to people wanting extra leisure after work. As you might — excuse me — as you might imagine the merchants and business people are the ones that push the hardest for it.

In the last round of debate in the United States, the candy makers were lobbying hard for extending the fallback to the first week in November so that the sun would be up longer during Halloween.

Justin: See? Is that really going to increase candy consumption or sales? I don’t get it.

Kirsten: I don’t know. The other big argument is savings and energy. Though I haven’t seen any good data supporting that notion. I can recommend a book titled, “Spring Forward, The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time” — and it’s saving not savings. There’s no “s” — Daylight Saving Time by Michael Downing.

If you haven’t read it, it’s a pretty good read about his trying to figure out the convoluted clock manipulations going on. I’d heard about the book a while ago but just not quite around to reading it.

Justin: Awesome.

Kirsten: Yeah. So that sounds like an interesting read.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: And finally, getting back to another question. Minion (Mike) in Portland, Oregon just says, “Justin asked for people to analyze his dream of controlling a remote control rodent that he used to harass a tiger, does this have anything to do with your hatred for cats?”

Justin: No. Maybe, maybe I have these secrets of conscious fear of the big cats that does transfer — no, my fear of — it’s not — I don’t hate cats first. I should probably also say it.

It’s that, no, they have a — the toxoplasma gondii that’s my real fear is the thing that blinds babies and only lives in cats and causes — Schizophrenia in people, come on, that’s a bad thing.

Kirsten: Yup. So let’s see, (Mike) also says, “Perhaps karma is playing a part there. Actually, I think that it is his feeling of not being in control next to a strong and brilliant host.”

Justin: That’s pretty good. And it was the morning before the show.

Kirsten: It was.

Justin: Wasn’t it?

Kirsten: Or delving deeper…

Justin: Oh no, no don’t delve deeper.

Kirsten: …it could be that he is…

Justin: No, I can’t handle it.

Kirsten: It could be that you’re also antagonizing Dr. Cat on the naked scientist podcast.

Justin: I see, I have never — I don’t have the pod thing going on.

Kirsten: Yeah. You’re not the podder. “Justin, regarding your 13 month calendar and interest rates, if the interest rate is at the same annual rate, you save interest charges by paying more frequently per year.

As an example, if you borrowed $12,000 for one year at 12%, you would pay the following interest. One payment at year end is $1,440 in interest…

Justin: That’s the interest if you didn’t make a single payment until the very end.

Kirsten: One payment.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: Yeah. Twelve payments in one year equals $794.28. Thirteen payments…

Justin: Drum roll.

Kirsten: …in one year equal…

Justin: What was that? I created feedback. That was hot.

Kirsten: You did. That was amazing — equals $789.66.

Justin: Oh, that’s less. That means the banks won’t be on my side. They won’t be charging more interests. They’ll be charging people less. People will get a better break out of my 13 month plan. Well, if I run for office maybe that would be a good platform.

Kirsten: Possibly.

Justin: But I’m not likely to get the banking system behind me. So, my thirteen month year may have been shot down.

Kirsten: Shot down by the banks.

Justin: That’s cool to know though.

Kirsten: Yeah, good to know. It’s all based in Math. So, if anyone else wants to work out interest payments in Math, I’m happy to get emails from you. We’re at the end of the show. It was a big hour.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: Good hour. Thanks everyone for all your emails. It was fun to read your answers to this various questions.

Justin: We love the minion mailbag.

Kirsten: Yeah. It was awesome to get all of your opinions and expert or no on these various subjects, I really like that. So, next week’s show, just in time for Darwin’s 200th birthday, as I said again, we have an interview with Dr. Sean B. Carroll.

He’s a professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the University of Wisconsin. And we’re going to be talking with him about the amazing adventures of all the people who have built the theory of evolution…

Justin: Very cool.

Kirsten: …over the last 150 or so 200 years. It would be very fun.

Justin: It’s amazing how many Sean Carrolls are leading scientists. Maybe, I should be – just, I mean, by looking for a name out there, maybe you should name your child Sean Carroll. It seems like that it gives him a good chance of a becoming hit scientist.

Kirsten: Yeah. If you’re looking for a book to read, consider joining the TWIS Book Club. We’re going to be discussing Michael Stebbins book, “Sex, Drugs and DNA” sometime this weekend. Possibly this Friday. I’m trying to get him lined up for an actual live online chat with everybody. So…

Justin: An interview?

Kirsten: Not an interview.

Justin: No?

Kirsten: Just a chat about the book…

Justin: Chat.

Kirsten: …with the author.

Justin: Oh, that’s pretty awesome.

Kirsten: Yeah. It could be fun. So, if you’ve read it in the past or if you are considering reading it, check out We’re reading “Sex, Drugs and DNA” this month. And we’ll be talking with Dr. Stebbins some time soon, in the next week.

Justin: Awesome.

Kirsten: I’m very excited. Reminder to everyone, also about the This Week in Science, Science Music Compilation.

Justin: Bring it.

Kirsten: We’re looking for submissions. Send me a link to a song. If you’ve written one already, send me an MP3. I’ll be looking for higher quality, higher quality formats as we get closer.

But the deadline for submission is March 1st, 2009. So, you have about one month to submit your songs. One month, that’s it, that’s all you get. Email to me If you have any questions or if you have a song that you want to submit for the compilation this year, very exciting stuff, very exciting stuff.

So, big thanks to everyone who wrote in with all your stories and your questions and your comments and your frustrations and everything. I want to say big shoutouts to (Andrew Wesley), (Kalidasa), (Charlie Hond), (Benjamin Hutchins), (Jame Watsuoka), (Ed Dyre), (Elliot Banvegnam), (Mike Schultz), (James K.), (Nick Sayers), (Nick) from Norway, (Nick) the Norwegian, (Remy Laboe), (Lee Knight), (Daniel Macer), (Louis Jay Villanueva), and (David Eckard) and (Phillip Fujiyoshi) and (Jessica Spalding). Thank you so much for writing in.

Justin: This show is of course available via the podcast. You can get the podcast by going to our website, Put on “subscribe” to the TWIS science podcast so you can get your weekly updates sent to your iTunes.

Kirsten: That’s right. And for information on anything you’ve heard here today, show notes with links to the source articles will be available on our website, We want to hear from you so, email us or

Justin: Put TWIS somewhere in the subject line otherwise, you will be sent to the spamosphere.

Kirsten: That’s right and we hate that. We’ll be back here on KDVS next Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. pacific time. And we hope you’ll join us again for more great science news.

Justin: And if you’ve learn anything from today’s show, remember…

Kirsten: It’s all in your head.

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