Synopsis: Tiny Eyes, Roving Mars, Feeling Secure, Vitamin Hopes, Alcoholic Assays, and an Interview w/ Scott Sigler re: Contagious.
Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!
The following hour of programming does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the University of California at Davis, KDVS or its sponsors. This is lucky because if it did, it would be very boring, all about when you can take a class, what after school or things you can be doing, all kinds of boring UCD stuff.
Instead, we bring you the cutting edge in science-y news. Stay tuned, This Week in Science is coming up next.
Good morning, Kirsten!
Kirsten: Good morning, Justin! How is it going? It’s Tuesday, yet again and we’re back on the scene with the science.
Justin: Is it really – what? It’s January.
Kirsten: It’s January. Happy New Year everyone!
Kirsten: Yet, another year has passed and an additional second – or no, no. Was it an entire second that was added?
Justin: I think it was a second they added to the end of last year before they started this one.
Kirsten: To the end of last year. Right, because of shifting of the rotation, the slowing of the rotation of the planet with the orbit over time.
Kirsten: I don’t remember.
Justin: Yeah. There’s other fixes they could do. I think they should really switch to 13 months. That way, every month would have exactly four weeks.
Kirsten: I’ve heard people argue this before.
Justin: There’s – no, seriously, people don’t realize they’re getting jacked on their pay, if they’re getting paid like on the first and the fifteenth because sometimes, they’re getting that money for five weeks.
Sometimes they’re getting paid that for four. It’s not. If you get paid every two weeks regardless of what the date is, you make more money on your overall. It’s just kind of a weird thing that’s always bugged.
Kirsten: It’s always bugged you. Well, welcome everybody to This Week in Science. And today, we’re talking all about what bugs Justin.
Justin: Yes, yes.
Kirsten: No, no.
Kirsten: On this week’s show, we’re going to be talking with Scott Sigler after the half hour break about his newest sci-fi horror, thriller novel called the “Contagious”.
And as usual, we’ve got lots of science news. I’ve got some stories about vision and airport security. What do you have?
Justin: Let’s see. I’ve got a shout out to some robots, some bad news for vitamins. It may not be as protective as we would like. We got a caller. Should we take this…?
Justin: This on the randomized (unintelligible) line.
Kirsten: Random phone call of the morning.
Justin: Good morning, TWIS minion. You’re on the air with This Week in Science.
Man: Good morning. I just have a quick question regarding daylight savings time.
Man: Was it set up basically years ago for it to allow the farmers to have more work time in the field because it serves no purpose now?
Justin: I think…
Kirsten: That was…
Justin: …Ben Franklin invented it though, didn’t he?
Kirsten: I actually don’t know.
Justin: I don’t think he just live in farm territory.
Kirsten: I’ve heard the story that it was for farmers to have more time in the mornings. But I actually, I don’t know if that’s really correct. It might be…
Justin: We have a computer – we’ll Google it up…
Kirsten: Oh, Google.
Justin: …during the show.
Justin: And we’ll figure it out. We’ll get an answer to you…
Kirsten: We’ll figure it out.
Justin: …by the end of the show. I’m pretty sure it was a Ben Franklin invention right after libraries and right before fire departments for some reason. Maybe it was for fire fighters. Maybe, they were getting up too early to fight fires.
Kirsten: I doubt that’s what it actually was.
Justin: You don’t think that could.
Kirsten: Yeah. But I do agree that at this point in time, the way that our society is based, it doesn’t seem to have much of a purpose. I mean, except to maybe make me a little happier in the spring time than on the fall. I don’t know. It’s all about me.
Is the caller still there?
Justin: No, caller is gone.
Kirsten: He’s gone. Yeah, I think – and there are several – there are few states that do not observe daylight savings time.
Kirsten: Mm hmm. And it’s…
Justin: Don’t forget, no MLK day there.
Kirsten: Very interesting…
Justin: (Unintelligible) those people (unintelligible).
Kirsten: …(unintelligible) necessarily linked events and state history.
Yeah. So today, we will – I’ll Google that at some point. Maybe during the break and we’ll figure it out or if anyone else out there knows the answer to that question.
Justin: Anybody has a computer.
Kirsten: Give us a call, 752-2777.
So, listeners writing in, last week minion (Sky) says, “Sitting here at work listening to your last podcast of 2008, you mentioned that you’d like your dear minions to keep out an ear out for celebrities who are misrepresenting science.
And we’re talking about Sarah Palin’s fruit fly reference during the election. I just thought I’d give you a head’s up that Governor Palin’s son Trig has down syndrome and not autism. These are two entirely separate conditions and should not be confused.”
And minionist Kirsten – someone’s got my name, interesting, Kirsten, Kirsten – says, “I was listening to your show from December 30th and heard your comment about Sarah Palin concerning fruit flies. Ironically, I am both a student of genetics as well as a Palin fan. So, bear with me.
I did see the clip you were talking about on YouTube a month or so ago and I’m quite embarrassed that she was so unknowledgeable in that area. After all, fruit flies are essential to genetic research.
However, I did want to point out that her youngest son Trig is actually challenged with down syndrome not autism. Even so, I understand that she should be helping research in the fields of special needs research. I just felt like correcting Justin.”
Justin: Yes. And well done both of you. I often need more correction than I get. And given the…
Kirsten: Yeah. Thank you for the correction. There was also a letter from – see if I can find it – (Marvin Adams) in Columbia, Mississippi. Everyone wants to correct us. We asked for the celebrity corrections.
Justin: Yeah. We’re not quite celebrities yet, folks. Sorry.
Kirsten: I know. I don’t know if we count yet.
“When you mentioned the possibility of fog and other atmospheric disturbances affecting the efficacy of a laser strike in the Anti-Ballistic Missile 747, I wondered if the fact the laser is being placed on a 747 might be an attempt by the designers to overcome the problem of air quality.”
So, he found there a reference to a link to in the show notes from the Federation of American Scientists about the Star Wars program Anti-Ballistic Missile.
And he says, “One would think that at 40,000 ft the problem of fog would be practically non-existent.”
Kirsten: And I did say fog last week when I was talking about it. And yeah sure, they’re not going to be on the ground and probably fog is not to be an issue, water vapor, moisture in the air, anything that can scatter light. So, yes I was probably incorrect in mentioning fog as a factor.
Justin: It is denser the further down you go to, with the atmosphere in the clouds. And so yeah, plane to missile launch – I say we just don’t get into a situation where people are launching missiles at each other.
Kirsten: I think it would be great if we could get away with the whole missile launching issue. But…
Justin: Or just do it and get it over with and see what’s left after and start over now.
Kirsten: Yeah. (Marvin) has another question though. He says, “Since the majority of the bio on your webpage or your page on the website is obviously bogus…”
Kirsten: I don’t know what he’s talking about. Bogus?
Justin: Mine is legit. I don’t know about Kirsten’s.
Kirsten: That’s totally legitimate.
Justin: Mine is totally researched (unintelligible).
Kirsten: Although a very amusing read is the picture of you accurate? Justin, is the picture of me accurate on the website?
Justin: Is the picture of YOU accurate?
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: Yes. The picture of me however is completely, completely wrong.
Kirsten: We don’t even have a picture of you on the website, I don’t think. I think we need to remedy that fairly soon.
Justin: Again, I’d proposed that I’d be represented by a sock puppet.
Kirsten: A sock puppet.
And (Kim Clark) wrote in from West Yorkshire in the UK. And she had a weird anecdote. She has a young white heterochromic cat with differently colored eyes. She is strange in many ways but one of them is that she doesn’t like it when people sneeze especially if she is napping.
If someone in the room sneezes, she gives them a real telling-off. This is amusing certainly but the funny bit is that one week, I was listening to TWIS at my computer over the speakers – usually iPod and headphones – and you guessed it, Kiki, let’s out one humungous sneeze and woke up my cat. My kitty then proceeds to tell ME off and her insolent little meowy way for your sneeze.
I laughed so loud. I had to pause the show whilst I regained my composure. Anyway, keep up the great work and belated Merry TWIS-mas.”
And she included some pictures of her heterochromic cat who I will have to say is one of the cutest little things.
Kirsten: Look at how cute.
Justin: That is a yellow and a blue eyed? That’s wow!
Kirsten: Yeah. One yellowy green eye and one blue eye and a white kitty with a pink – oh, it’s so cute. (Kim), I love your cat. It’s so cute. Justin doesn’t like it because he doesn’t like any cats.
Justin: What? I have no – okay. For a record I have nothing…
Kirsten: You have a bone to pick with cats.
Justin: I don’t. I have nothing against cats. I’ve had cats. I’m against Toxoplasma Gondii.
Justin: The parasite that only completes a life cycle in cats is spread by cats and blinds babies, makes people get schizophrenia and may contribute to the downfall of civilization at large.
Kirsten: Sweet. Anyway, we appreciate all your letters in and your corrections whenever we do misspeak on the show because that does happen often as much as we try to be accurate. At least, I tried to be accurate.
Justin: What was that look? What was that look?
Kirsten: I’m kidding. I’m kidding. So, anybody who’d like to write in kirsten@thisweekinscience or email@example.com, we love hearing from you.
Oh, I just like to reiterate, we do have a “Question of the Month”. If you go to the forums, there is a place in the forums…
Kirsten: …for the Question of the Month. And we’d love to get the minion answers.
Justin: I think…
Kirsten: At the end of the month we’re going to…
Justin: I’ll jump in there. I think it answered it quite well.
Justin: I think it’s, yeah.
Kirsten: Yeah. Go, read it.
Justin: With an analogy though because that’s I thought.
Kirsten: The Question of the Month. We want your answers to that. So, the forums are at are twis.org/forums, I believe. I’m pretty sure that’s what it is.
Justin: Twis.org, there’s a button and you can click on the right.
Kirsten: There’s a button on the left hand side. It says, Forums.
Kirsten: And you go there.
Kirsten: Go in and you can talk to people through…
Justin: Your Internets.
Kirsten: …your Internets. That’s right. Do you have any science stories? Let’s start talking.
Justin: None. I have none.
Kirsten: You’re a liar.
Justin: I thought we were just going to small talk for the whole – I didn’t realize that there was coming, going to be this – yes, where is my story? It’s over, over here.
Kirsten: Somewhere over there.
Justin: You know – I actually – it’s gone. Oh no, here it is. Here it is. This is, yes, we are currently plotting to go to the moon. Moon bases by 2020.
Justin: We’re talking about colonizing Mars in our Marsifest Destiny of the future.
Justin: Meanwhile, robots are celebrating their 5th year anniversary on the red planet already.
Kirsten: Five years.
Justin: Five years this month.
Justin: Spirit and Opportunity…
Kirsten: Two little rovers.
Justin: The rovers, Spirit and Opportunity began the 90-day mission back in January of 2004. Not only do they surpass their original 90-day mission plan, they have outlasted even the most spirited and optimistic of life expectancy predictions by NASA. They kept thinking every Martian winter that they were going to freeze out some of the components that gets to like, I think it’s -140 °F.
Kirsten: Mm hmm. Cold.
Justin: They thought they would freeze out and die off that way. They thought the dust on Mars is going to collect on their solar panels. They wouldn’t be able to recharge. But thankfully, they’ve managed to hunker down in the winters and the Martian wind has been keeping the solar panels clean. Nice.
Kirsten: I love it. Yeah, I love it.
Justin: They have sent us 250,000 some odd snap shots and postcards of Mars which is, I mean, they’ve only traveled combined about 13 miles. They move a few inches at a time. So that’s probably a lot of repetitive pictures. But still it’s Mars. It’s cool.
Some 36 gigs of sample data that is going to take, I mean, we have all these information they’ve sent us. We don’t know what it means yet because we….
Kirsten: Still studying it, still looking at it.
Justin: …have our monkey brains need to work through it bit by bit. I’m thinking, this is probably NASA’s greatest success story since the successful Apollo missions, the moon landings. I mean, this is really a big triumph of the technology–to outlast your 90-day mission by five years.
That’s pretty outstanding.
So, the next thing we’re doing is we’re sending the Mars Science Laboratory that’s slotted that was supposed to leave but – I think this year, but now it’s going to be in 2011. Yeah, they push it out a little bit because I guess it’s every little over two years, they get to window for a launch and they’ve missed this one. So, but this Martian Science Laboratory is going to be pretty neat.
I think this really is a future, that robots exploring for us on other planets and other parts of the solar system really is where it’s at because they’re going to be so much less expensive than putting humans out there.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: And they can do as much if not more. They can go more places and that’s going to – when we make first contact with a foreign solar system…
Kirsten: Our robots are going to do it.
Justin: …our robots will be shaking hands with the terra firma there.
Kirsten: Yeah, yeah. I just saw WALL-E this last weekend, the animated robot film.
Kirsten: And that has a lot of what I think are maybe not completely accurate but the idea they had, one robot left on Earth, WALL-E that was left. One of the last remaining robots left to clean up the mess that humans left behind when they left the planet.
And, he is there cleaning things up or it is there cleaning things up. And what comes back to check out whether or not the planet is clean, not a human but a robot.
Kirsten: And so, the robot, EVE, comes back and just starts scanning the planet, checking the sea, looking for life to see if the planet can’t support life anymore. And then, the rest of the story occurs. If you haven’t seen the movie, I’m not going to ruin the end of it for you. But it’s really true that if we ever do leave, it’s going to be the robots that leave first and they already have left first.
Kirsten: The robots get out there…
Justin: They’re already out there.
Kirsten: Robots are already out there, moving on beyond us and checking things out for us.
Justin: And the most likely scenario, if we encounter anything out there of intelligent type design, it’s going to be a robot, most likely. It makes as much sense for any other life form in these billions and billions of galaxies to send robots to go search the universe. They can handle it.
Kirsten: It’s interesting. Yeah.
Justin: Biological life is so dependent on the little area. It was designed or it came up in and then learned how to craft its little niche of the universe to survive in.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: Regardless of its life like us or some other form of life that uses sulfur instead of oxygen or whatever.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: But in space, it becomes – there’s sort of a neutral playing ground. I mean, it’s harsh to everything.
Justin: It’s harsh to ANY form of life, no matter how you came up. So, robots.
Kirsten: Or so we think…
Justin: I’m like waiting for the story. Wait. What?
Kirsten: No, no, no. I got nothing.
Here on Earth though, we’re scanning, scanning and scanning and we’re looking for ways to scan ourselves and look for the bad apples in the bunches in these days of the continuous orange state of alert that the United States seems to be in. We’re always in orange.
Justin: Have you even checked that? I don’t even know what it look.
Kirsten: No, it’s like you go through an airport and it’s like, “Airport security state of alert, orange.” And there’s always like something. It’s always orange. Just like, “Okay, almost red, not quite yellow anymore. Yey!” It’s a little – anyway, I’m not going to get into that point of it.
But researchers are looking into ways that we can figure out who– instead of doing racial profiling or different things that are potentially happening, we heard this story this last week of a couple being detained with their family because they were of a particular racial descent, religious descent and religious preference.
And they mentioned something around other airline passengers about where the safest place to sit on an airplane was. And so, they were detained for questioning.
So things like these happen, how can we figure out whether or not a person has malicious intent without looking just at the exterior? How can we – or just at the words that come out of somebody’s mouth.
Research security organizations are looking into these things. There’s one firm – there’s an article on CNN this week and others that one firm called, “We See You” technologies.
Justin: Oh, God. Big Brother here we go.
Kirsten: Yeah. And they’re looking at infra red technology, various remote sensors, bio-sensors, subliminal imagery and…
Kirsten: …combining different sensors and subliminal imagery to be able to look at people’s reactions or the way they carry themselves; the way that they move through a security area, to read body temperature, heart rate, respiration, various biometric signals that might indicate whether or not somebody’s nervous, whether somebody’s aggressive, whether or not they’re calm.
Justin: I’m so doomed. I will never get through security again if they put this in place.
Kirsten: Yeah. It’s really fascinating. But they’re pretty much trying to develop these technologies that will be able to look past the simple exterior — the mask that people can wear.
Justin: This is where I’m doomed. First of all, I have like eyeball jazz, right? Some people call it like “looking shifty”.
Kirsten: Eyeball jazz. That’s a good (term).
Justin: I’m always like kind of looking around like my eyes don’t really chill out too much. And so, I’ll be like, okay I’m looking everywhere. I’m nervous about flying. So, my body temperature is going to be up – of course, I’m going to pace. I pace everywhere anyway. I’m doomed. I’m going to get yanked aside every time.
Kirsten: But if your state is continuous through a particular area as you’re being exposed to subliminal imagery that would potentially change your internal state based on your emotional reaction to it that…
Justin: Oh, that’s a subliminal imagery.
Kirsten: Yeah, yeah.
Justin: Oh, I like it. Yeah, it’s…
Kirsten: So, the way that it might work, they’ve got – they’re developing something called a smart carpet or even a smart seat.
So, a smart carpet would be as you walk through a particular area, there are hidden sensors within the carpet and around the area. And maybe, as you walk across it, there are images that are being displayed subliminally on screens nearby that are displaying maybe other airline information you’re walking through. And they’re also scanning your eyes as you walk through.
So, maybe, they look at pupil dilation. Maybe they look just – look at flushing of the skin, body temperature, all these…
Justin: They flash a picture of Osama Bin Laden, if you smile they pull you aside, making you frown you go right through.
Justin: I don’t know.
Kirsten: Yeah. The smart seat would potentially be in an airport waiting area. So, you’re not even in the security checkpoint but actually some place in a waiting area. So, they have a number of different locations within the entire airport terminal in the entire station that you could be scanned unknowingly.
It’s like a polygraph.
The whole idea would be like a polygraph test. There’s another company called NEMESISCO. It’s an Israeli-based technology company and that they use voice analysis to be able to determine a person’s intention.
And so, they are developing detectors that listen to the intonation and the tonality like different aspects of the voice as people are talking to security officers in an area.
Justin: Which again…
Kirsten: Really interesting.
Justin: …that can be so determined on like what you’re doing that day. Like, if I’d had too much coffee, I’ll get (sprakity) with my conversation, be a little more reckless and all and sentences with made up words because I forgot what I was saying in the beginning.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: It just seems like so subjective which is fine. But….
Kirsten: That’s the problem. It does seem very subjective. And lie detector tests are –we know that people can pass them when they’re lying.
Justin: Oh, yeah.
Kirsten: If they’re prepped appropriately.
Justin: Oh yeah. Do you want to know how? I can prep you because I think I told the story before. If you want it, if you’ve committed some horrible crime and then you’re getting a lie detector test, all you have to do is squinch your toes, clench your toes.
From the very beginning when they set up everything on you, keep your toes clenched from that point on through the entire proceedings. All the energy that would be flowing up and down, your little reactions that will get different or nervous, all that energy, right there in your toes, in your clenched toes. You’ll sail through that polygraph.
Kirsten: You’ve tried it?
Justin: Huh? Yeah. When it comes up, it’s just one of – it’s an occupational hazard in doing science news that occasionally get prep before the (50).
Kirsten: Yeah. Anyway, I’d love to hear what…
Justin: I don’t know why I’m sharing that. That’s probably bad information to put up into the world.
Kirsten: Yeah. I don’t know why you’re sharing it either.
However, a lot of these companies, it’s interesting that their… these are Israeli-based security companies, they’re doing – I mean, this is from some fairly sophisticated research to be able to analyze the human states that are generalizable across all people.
That’s something that’s really going to be quite interesting to see if they can perfect it and create systems that can actually be used with a very small failure rate…
Kirsten: …that actually work accurately most of the time. And that’s going to be – that’s a challenge. And so, it will be really interesting to see how this comes out and whether or not they do start putting this kind of stuff into airports. And will they tell us when they do?
Next story. Let’s move on.
Justin: Well, I think – yeah, at that point, I don’t think it would matter. Vitamin C and E, they’ve done a long-term study looking at – I guess it was women and cancer rates and supplementation of vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene turns out – it looks like from this research, they are offering no benefits in the primary prevention of cancer incidences and cancer mortalities.
So, I don’t think that we really thought that vitamins would be the silver bullet cure.
Kirsten: Would cure, yeah.
Justin: But they’ve sold a lot of supplements probably based on the idea that – I think vitamin C and E are absolutely essential and totally good to take and have lots of good benefits but just apparently not cancer.
Kirsten: Yeah. And if they are vitamins that you’re not getting adequately in your diet, it is good to supplement them. These vitamins are – they help processes in the body work.
Kirsten: So, vitamins are important. And the whole idea of supplementation, I mean, I don’t really know if there is any research to date that shows definitively that – I don’t think there is that vitamins really do – if you’re not getting – if you’re getting vitamins adequately in your diet that by supplementing ABOVE what your body just needs to function if it actually does really, like, help stuff. If you get it naturally in diet, do you really, really, really need to take supplements? Do they…
Justin: No, of course not.
Justin: The best way to get them is from the natural foods. But I think to get all of the vitamins, you’d have to have such a varied diet of nuts and things and vegetables and different kinds of vegetables that – I don’t know. It would be hard to – the prep time in cooking would just be forever.
Justin: … shopping… so many different things.
Kirsten: Welcome to the world of being a vegetarian.
And let’s see, moving on. There is a report this week in Nature that some Johns-Hopkins Neuroscientists have worked out -they figured out how these some cells – light detecting cells that contain melanopsin are able to detect light and communicate with the brain.
These are some really interesting, really tiny nerve cells. They’re light sensors and they’re very small number. They exist in the retina of the eye and they contain molecules called melanopsin. So, they’re pigment molecules called melanopsin. And rods and cones are the normal light-detecting – they detect dark and light and color.
And the melanopsin cells, they’re not used for doing that. They’re not used for actually recognizing images. The way that you look around, we see here at the CDs on the shelves, I see Justin with his headphones, my rods and my cones are detecting the light and the edges and sending this information to the brain and my visual cortex is figuring it all out.
The melanopsins containing cells monitor light levels and adjust the body’s clock. So, they’re connected to an area of the brain that controls your body clock when you wake up, when you get tired, all these things that affect various functions within the entire body.
Kirsten: And so, how do they work? What do they do? How do they work? They control constriction of the pupils in the eye, that’s one of the many things they do.
They say in here, one of the researchers says, “These melanopsin containing cells are the only other known photo receptors besides rods and cones in mammals.” And the question is how do they work?
So, they tested it on the light-sensitivity of the cells using mice, recorded the electrical current. And they found that the cells aren’t very sensitive to light. So, by shining light at them and the recording the current that was generated, usually rods and cones have a strong current that gets generated, they didn’t have a very strong current. There wasn’t much, much response.
And so, they kept saying, “So okay, are they less sensitive than cones which are responsible for vision in the daylight. What makes them so insensitive to light?”
And they flashed dim light at the cells and they say the light was so dimmed on average that only a single melanopsin molecule in each cell was activated by capturing one photon. So, a photon of light is very – it’s not very much light but a melanopsin molecule was activated by it.
And they found that each activated melanopsin molecule triggered a really large electrical signal. And the cell then transmitted that single photon signal all the way to the brain.
So, they were like – they were thinking, we thought maybe, they need so much light because each cell might also contain very few melanopsin molecules decreasing their ability to capture photons.
And when they did the calculation, they figured out that melanopsin molecules are 5,000 times sparser than other light-capturing molecules used for image-forming vision.
So, they capture very little light. But that little tiny amount is extremely effective at producing an electrical response that can then trigger signals to transmit to the brain.
So, it’s pretty cool. So, it’s not – they also say that the signal is really slow. So, it’s not intended for detecting really brief changes in ambient light but SLOW CHANGES over time. So, maybe the change in dawn to dusk, that kind of thing.
Justin: I wonder how useless that really is now.
Kirsten: I don’t know. They…
Justin: I mean, telling from dawn to dusk in this modern age of electro-lights…
Kirsten: Right, where the light is on all the time. Or maybe not just how useless it is but what effect does it have on us that we’re not — maybe is…
Kirsten: Yeah. What are do we doing to ourselves? So, they wanted to know also – they want to know also what these cells have to do with behavior. So, what the triggering — why the slow changes of light would be important.
And so, they looked at pupil constriction in mice that have been genetically altered to be free of rod and cone functions so that they could only function on that melanopsin containing signal.
And they figured out that in terms of controlling the pupils and the body clock, it makes sense to have a sensor that responds slowly and only to large light changes. You wouldn’t want your body to think every cloud passing through the sky is nightfall.
Justin: Was nightfall, yeah.
Kirsten: Yeah. And whether they are abnormal and disorders like seasonal effective disorder and jet lag, is what they’re hoping to tackle next.
Yeah. So, it’s a pretty interesting, interesting study. This was again, published in Nature. So, if you’re interested, you can take a look. It’s about time for our station break.
Justin: I have so many more stories, the moderate drinking that helps – weakens Alzheimer’s, grape seed extract kills cancer.
Kirsten: In a petri dish?
Justin: In the cells.
Kirsten: Yeah. The cells…
Justin: You can’t just drink it.
Kirsten: Grape seed extract they did the study.
Justin: Yeah. On us directly, yes. You have to open up your body and put it directly on your…
Kirsten: Yeah. This is not a study that people actually…
Justin: …leukemia cells.
Kirsten: …taking it, yeah.
Kirsten: Just a disclaimer.
Justin: Moderate drinking though reduces Alzheimer’s.
This was a study – of studies is one of those days I love which is they took 44 other studies compile them, found that in more than – much more than half the studies, published on some ‘90s, alcohol seem to reduce dementia and Alzheimer’s if it was drunk and used moderately. Excesses actually caught some sort of brain damages.
But moderate alcohol consumptions generally designed is one drink or less per day for women, one to two drinks or less per day for men, which means that if I don’t drink again until next Monday night, I’m a moderate drinker.
Kirsten: Fabulous. On that note we’re going to the station break. Stay tuned, we’ll be back in just a few moments with Scott Sigler about his book, “Contagious”.
Justin: We are back.
Kirsten: That’s the – we are back. And that’s the “Flu Pandemic” which I think seemed to be a suitable song for our interview this morning with Scott Sigler who’s written a book called, “Contagious”. Let’s bring him on the line.
Justin: Yeah, great.
Kirsten: You have to press the button just a little harder.
Justin: I thought I did.
Kirsten: There we go. Good morning, Scott!
Justin: Good morning, Scott!
Scott: Good morning! How are you guys?
Kirsten: How are you doing today?
Scott: I’m doing very well.
Kirsten: Wonderful. Yeah, we’re excited to have you on the air. We were just playing our little song about the flu pandemic of 1918 to…
Scott: That was my favorite flu pandemic.
Kirsten: Mine too, mine too. So, your book, “Contagious”, it follows in the footsteps from “Infected” which we had you on the air to discuss this last year, 2008. What’s happening? What’s new? What’s the story? Could you – maybe let’s reprise “Infected” and then let’s bring in – what’s going on with “Contagious”?
Scott: Okay. “Infected” is – it edicts the reader into the story basically following a pathogen that turns normal people into raving, paranoid killers.
Justin: A pathogen that has an origin in outer space, right?
Scott: Correct, correct.
When you begin in “Infected”, it’s basically a spore that lands on human host and then each of these spores turns into a little miniature sentient creature. So, “Infected”, you’re watching it grow from a single cell, how it taps into the human body’s processes. How it taps into the nervous system and uses your body kind of it’s like a using nervous system as an Internet so they can talk to each other.
And you follow along with Perry Dawsey who’s the main character in “Infected”. He was this gigantic(X Division I) linebacker who’s already got some serious rage control issues. And some of the side effects of the disease which makes people violent killers. He’s already extremely violent and extremely strong and extremely big. So, you follow his battle against these things. They tried to purge them from his body. That brings us to “Contagious”.
And in “Contagious” whereas in “Infected”, we kind of follow the infection along with one person and he doesn’t know what’s happening to him and there’s no big news coverage and there’s no big worldwide announcement of what’s happening. So, he’s confused in following through this.
“Contagious” sort of pulls the camera back, looks at the bigger national response, puts the story in a very modern day setting which is we have a new president coming in after a president who’s been in place for eight years, who has been very secretive and very anti-science and very – just kind of assuming that they know best and the people are stupid.
Optimistic new president comes in and has to deal with this ridiculously secret situation that has a lot of wrinkles and lot of complications.
Justin: I thought this was a fiction? Wait a second. Uh-oh.
Scott: It is fiction.
It was neat to look at it because I wrote “Infected” well before there was any Barack Obama on the horizon. And then, you just kind of carry your fictitious world and you’re heading like, “Okay. So, if a new, hopeful president came in and looked at this very desperate situation which has been kept very secret for a great reason, how would he handle it and how would that impact his decision making process and then of course how it would impact the main characters who were carried over from the first book?”
Kirsten: So, let’s talk a little bit about your research process to – I mean, what did you look into for this actual national governmental science organizations, the CDC, the organizations that would be dealing with a process like this.
Scott: That was – that’s where, the story kind of dictates where you go with those things. And all of the action of “Contagious” happens within basically two weeks of the president taking office.
So, there’s barely even enough time for him to evaluate and start to delegate what needs to be done. And there’s already military action afoot and the infection is spreading. So, he is — while he’s evaluating, he’s continuing this miniature cell within the CDC which is monitoring it.
The biggest problem they face is this parasite begins with nothing more than a simple skin rash. So, their concern is that if the secret gets out, if they publicized this in any way or even get it into the CDC at large, if the news breaks, every hospital in the country is going to be flooded with people who could have nothing more than psoriasis or poison ivy, they won’t be able to react anyone who is actually is infected because they still haven’t a got a live example of this parasite that’s making the people do things.
So it all happens very fast really before he can get into the proper procedures that should be followed.
Kirsten: So, let’s talk about – this is also the – I guess the parasite, the organism that infects the individuals. You’ve taken it – it is like a parasite. You really have delved into the science of…
Justin: Somewhat sentient parasite that…
Scott: Yes, yes. Well…
Kirsten: You’ve gotten into the science of that a little bit.
Scott: Well, it’s taking a different look at – it’s sort of taking the concept of what a virus does by hijacking our own cellular reproductive system to the macro-organic level where really what these things are doing is terraforming the human body, hijacking our normal biological maintenance systems to turn you into a factory that creates complex organic machines.
So, it’s taking all the things you do everyday which is cellular reproduction, millions of those a day and saying, “All right, well, here’s this process that’s already in place. I’m just going to make you kick out cells that are more conducive to what I want.”
And then, like a virus does with a cell, you kind of fill up with all of these little critters that eventually come out of you and serve their nefarious purpose.
So, it looks at the science of robotic self assembly and translates that over into the biological field. And then there’s a couple of people like (Nej Zarkin) from DARPA who’s working what he calls “programmable material cells”.
So, many thousands of little tiny (fan) grain-size robots that can assemble themselves into different shapes and different functions getting to any space, serve any purpose, different forms of mobility. And then when the purpose is done, they just sort of disintegrate and go back into their pool ready to make the next thing.
I just took that and put it in the human body. And instead of the little robots, you’ve got these modified human cells that can reconfigure themselves in a lot of different collective shapes and purposes.
Justin: It kind of concerns me because I already feel like this was taking in toxoplasma gondii. But you’ve also done something very interactive. I was checking out your website and you’ve got it set up so that there is – I think a street in San Francisco for instance where a bunch of the action takes place when your books – where you can Google Earth and do the street view.
And you’ve got it all pinpointed out so people can actually walk the path of the action, look at the actual buildings and be down the actual streets as the action is taking place.
That’s – I think though, I just want to comment that’s a brilliant idea. But how do you – do you start to like walk the streets of San Francisco and plot out physical, real places now to add that level?
Scott: Yeah, I do. I used to live in Michigan. So “Infected” and “Contagious”, they’re all set primarily in rural Michigan, in areas I was familiar with. Now, they’re been to San Francisco four or five years, all of the future stories are taking place there. So that one I’m referring to is called “Nocturnal” and that’s a podcast novel which is free at scottsigler.com I just completed.
We mapped up – I would go to different place in San Francisco, like this is a good setting. This serves the purposes of what I need for the story. And then you just add it into the Google Earth map and yeah. And that was the (tricky) part is people come on vacations in San Francisco. It may take the Scott Sigler death tour.
They walk around to find all the sites of all the horrible murders and where the monster showed up and then they take snap shots and keep therir own little journal. It’s pretty cool.
Justin: Yeah. It’s fun to add that level of realism too where you’re using real physical locations and throwing those in as opposed to makity up the street names and the like.
Scott: It does blur the lines a little bit because, like 95% of the people listen to this don’t go look at it. But the 5% that go to the Google map, like, “Okay, here we are. Something just happened on Van Nuys in California street.”
Go go to Google map, they’ll be able to call up the Google Earth, we can actually get down to the street view. And then they’ll do a panoramic view of the area it just makes the scene much more realistic and more alive to them.
You’re right, instead of an imaginary name, it’s a real city. And that’s a challenge in all my stories. I don’t – I haven’t made up any towns or made up even any streets. It’s all actual places that you could go check out if you wanted to.
Justin: It will also be disturbing if the raving lunatic who’s infected with the contagion turns out. “They live across the street from me. Wait a sec. Which one was it?”
Scott: Okay. (Unintelligible) all agree that there’s a couple of – as I was looking for locations, there’s a couple of pictures down in Google street view, where there is like some blurry guy wearing a trench coat and looks a little nefarious and like, I got to write that guy in because people freak out when they get down there.
Kirsten: Well, you also – you’ve been able to put, write the names in of a few of the people who have suggested changes for your book who’ve worked with you a little bit. You’ve been able to – for various books, you started working them in as characters, different places.
And then also, on top of the Google maps, just the basis of these scary stories in real science, all of it fits together in a way that places – these stories that are science fiction, horror, not real, yet, it places them in the real world.
Scott: It does provide an excellent realistic backdrop.
I think that the key to my work is putting forward scientifically accurate premises so you can — at some point, you go, “I’ve read about that. I’ve heard about that,” or “I even studied that back in high school Biology.” And using those real building blocks, to create something that pushes science beyond the level we’re currently at or get into the realm of complete imagination.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Scott: But you’ve already – the readers already kind of bought it. Because there’s no magic. There’s no magic wands or flying brooms or zombies or vampires. It’s all – the building blocks are subtlety put in place of things.
So, I sort of build of some street (cred) with the reader as they go through. Particularly, the readers that know their science, they find themselves slipping into that willing suspension of disbelief much easier and with much more excitement than they would say for some supernatural story.
Kirsten: Yeah. I mean, there have been times I watch various things and there are even stories that are supposedly based in science. But then you – there have been science fiction stories and the sci-fi channel these days. I look at stuff and I’m like, “They’re so wrong on that.”…
Justin: That’s because so much of it is no longer science fiction. It’s fantasy. I mean…
Kirsten: It is complete fantasy a lot of the time. And that, I think when you’re trying to present something that is, maybe just scary because the possibility is just kind of real, I mean you have to stay true to the things that we know in the real world. You can’t just break the rules.
Justin: Yeah. The old like 40’s radio, like a lot of the science fiction stuff from back then, space travel is very much like being on a submarine. There are lots of things you have to turn and crank. It’s like everything was atomic engines and Mars landings, colonies usually started around 1986. That was about it.
Scott: Yeah. Back then and all the Martians were super hot chicks in fur bikinis.
Kirsten: In bikinis.
Justin: I know. The future was so much brighter back then. My goodness.
Scott: I want that future. I don’t know what happened to that future.
Justin: Well, I’m glad we have no flying cars.
Kirsten: Oh, that could be…
Justin: I still think that would end badly until we get the robot drivers, the flying cars need to remain in the garage.
Kirsten: We just need to keep the DARPA researchers working on the robotic cars.
Justin: Keep them working, yeah.
Kirsten: That’s right. Let’s talk a little bit more. I want to hear more about some of the science that’s in the book. You started on the idea of the self-assembling robots.
I mean, that is just such a fascinating idea and to think that – I mean, I’ve seen some research where they have these cube robots where they find each other and they’re able to break into lots of pieces and then link up again. Do you know how far advanced that research is right now?
Scott: I would say it’s extremely advanced just because you can actually see that they have done it. It’s gone beyond the…
Scott: …theoretical stage. And even though these are just proof of concept, bits and pieces that find each other, they then assemble together and create a new shape.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Scott: Where, it’s not just like three-wheels get together and then you got a three-wheeled robot. It’s like, three crawling robots get together to make a walking robot that completely changes the physiology of the machine.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Scott: So, in my uneducated opinion…
Scott: …that’s the biggest hurdle. Can we do this? Yes, we can. Now, it’s just a matter of them improving the process and making it more effective. And the one that’s really amazing to me here is the robots that are existing pieces that come together.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Scott: But I have to look it up. But some people out there where they put together, there’s a big box of raw components like here’s a basic body, here’s a silver motor, here’s a magnet.
As the robots assemble themselves, they can reach out to these parts and make more copies of themselves. So as long as the raw material is available they can make as many of themselves as the raw material allow.
From there, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to, “Okay, how do we dig into the ground and put together the various materials we find there to make new robots.” And then, all hell is going to break loose because that’s when its going to get totally out of control.
Kirsten: Totally out of hand. And especially if we’re dealing with this on a nano level then the grey goo is everywhere.
Kirsten: Beyond the robots, I mean we have these little mechanical devices now that can do this but you’re looking at the idea of biological organic origin taking it to the next level. I mean, it’s like taking stem cells and robots and putting them together.
Scott: And that’s really what happens in “Contagious” is this alien vector comes in and it opens up stem cells goes into the DNA and reprograms them. So, it’s basically, “Okay, now stem cell, you’re going to be a factory to produce component D.” And then, as the stem cell continuous to split into their daughter cells, the differentiation once they’ve – stem cell and the other creates this new piece and then the pieces go forth and emerge in different ways.
Justin: And if we had been studying them properly, we might even have a way to combat that.
Scott: Yes. And what gets a little nutty in “Contagious” is it gets into the breakdown of your DNA as your cells continue to reproduce and cancer starts to come into the element.
So, not everything this alien cells produce is a perfect copy of the perfect copy, et cetera. They start to break down and there’s very bad results for both the host and for the little critters that they’re trying to create.
Kirsten: These are just fascinating ideas. I think it’s really fun. We’re almost out of time with our show here. But I just wanted to know, is “Contagious” the end of the series or are we going to see more of this storyline continuing?
Scott: There’s going to be one more book. And it’s going to be called “Pandemic”. So, it goes from…
Kirsten: Oh, no.
Scott: …“Infected” to “Contagious” to “Pandemic”. And “Pandemic” – I’m really excited about working – getting to work on that because it’s taking a look at a much larger scale of if a biological organism is really nothing more than a collection of individual parts, what can be done to take those existing parts and rearrange them in a new form? And you’re going to get some awesome, awesome monsters in “Pandemic”.
And then, you also – that starts to get into the apocalyptic phase of the tale. So, as these things start to spread and convert matter into a form more suitable for its purposes, how long until that spreads across the planet. And since it’s an action-adventure story and thriller, how does that stop, et cetera?
And so, there’s one more in the series. I don’t know when I’ll be publishing that.
Kirsten: And that’s…
Justin: Wait. It’s going to be stopped? Oh, it was a spoiler right there.
Scott: It might be.
Kirsten: Is it?
Scott: “Contagious” has a very unconventional non-Hollywood ending.
It’s what some of the fans are calling it. So, I think people will enjoy that. But what I try and do – I really try and reward the reader for buying the book, that’s giving them an ending that they can’t predict or they can’t see it coming.
If people can see the ending of “Contagious” coming. They’re probably biologist to start with. So…
Kirsten: All right. Well, maybe that gives the biologists out there a little hint to try and dig into it and try it out and test their science skills on a science fiction horror plot.
Scott: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: That sounds like so much fun. Thank you so much for joining us this morning, Scott. It’s fun as always to talk with you about the work that you’ve been doing.
Scott: Thanks for having me. And, as usual, I got tons of free, full novels available over at Scottsigler.com including by the time we record this, the first five episodes of “Contagious” are there for free. So, people can go try them out either as MP3 or as PDF.
Kirsten: Thank you very much. Have a wonderful day.
Scott: All right. Thanks, guys.
Kirsten: You’re welcome. Bye.
Kirsten: That was Scott Sigler about his new novel, “Contagious” in the trilogy. Now, we know it’s a trilogy, second book in its trilogy.
Justin: And those podcast of his book are great. He reads them himself.
Kirsten: And does all of the voices.
Justin: And he does – yeah, good job.
Kirsten: Yeah. He does all the voices himself.
Justin: Yeah. Because a lot of times when you get the first part, if somebody narrating a book, they sort of keep it in their own voice throughout the whole thing he kind of jumps around a little bit. He’s got some skills.
Kirsten: Yeah. And I know, if he’s set up – he’s got his whole voice, his recording system set up in his closet, in his apartment.
Justin: Yeah. So, occasionally, you can hear him brushing up against a vinyl jacket.
Kirsten: Exactly. He’s got some really interesting ideas. And I love in science fiction that roots itself in reality I think is much more terrifying than the false stuff.
Kirsten: Anyway, I’d love to thank (Logan Waterman). And who else? (Logan), thanks for sending all the XK CD cartoons. I love those. (Jessica Linchgraves), thank you so much for your kind letters. (Sky), thanks. (Glenn) in Vancouver, (Kim), (Kirsten), (Andy), (Steve Eckhom), (Kalidasa), (Hiroshi Water), thanks for keeping an eye on our RSS feed and let met know that things were broken. Hopefully, it’s all fixed. (Jason Parsley), (Carl Phink) and (Ed Dyer), as always.
Thank you so much for writing in. We really appreciate it. You can always write into us as kirsten@thisweekinscience or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Justin: Put TWIS in the subject or you’ll be spam-filtered.
Kirsten: And go to our website, twis.org. If you’re interested in taking a look at our Show Notes which can contain links to the various stories and guests that we interview on the show.
Our forums are there as well. And you can also subscribe to the TWIS podcast, if you’re interested in that. There’s a link there you can find.
Kirsten: And yeah. And we’ll back here next Tuesday, 8:30 a.m.
Justin: If you learned anything from today’s show, remember…
Kirsten: It is all in your head.
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