Transcript: TWIS.ORG April 14, 2009

Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!

I think I can. I think I can. I think I can. The mortal words of the anthropomorphic little engine that did while face the seemingly undoable task of scaling a steep mountain grade. Much like the little engine, bound to travel the rails laid before it, science too has little choice but to take head on the obstacles and its path.

There are less treacherous tasks to tackle in life than those of astrophysics quantum unification and autoimmune disease. There are much smaller mountains to master than those of global climate, cancer or the multitude of mental afflictions that assault the human line.

And just like the moralistic little engine tail, it is the belief that anything can be accomplished through persistent thinking and doing that science ultimately makes a grade.

And while making the moralistic mental grade, much like the following hour of our programming, does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the University of California at Davis, KDVS or its sponsors, the plain old fashion pluckiness of science continues to push us to new heights chugging away with pistons of persistent PhDs patiently plodding out data proofs like pops of smoke from the stack of a story book steam engine.

“I think I can” unify all forces under one theory. I think I can cure cancer. I think I can put a man on Mars. And while the plucky mountain climb continues, other trains are just now returning to the station here on This Week in Science, coming up next.

Good morning, Kirsten!

Kirsten: Good morning, Justin!

Justin: Welcome back.

Kirsten: Thank you. I came home from the Mile High City.

Justin: Wait, that’s Denver.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: I thought you’re in Boulder.

Kirsten: That’s close enough, right?

Justin: It’s like the half Mile High City.

Kirsten: Boulder’s I get a Mile.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah, 5,000 of feet.

Justin: Oh.

Kirsten: Oh yes.

Justin: Was it snowing?

Kirsten: And it’s snowed while I was there.

Justin: That’s wild.

Kirsten: It was beautiful and sunny while I was there. I had the gamut of spring weather. It was pretty amazing. And I met people from all over the world involved in all sorts of amazing, amazing work. It was great.

Justin: While you’re gone, I got to see Nobel Prize winning physicist, David Gross. Yeah. He’s got some weird – he’s got QCD. So I think he does strings theory like 2/3 of the time now.

Kirsten: Oh.

Justin: Actually, it was a great lecture. It’s one of the wonderful things about living in a town that’s got a major university is they bring wonderful people right to your doorstep and let you listen to him.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Hey, here’s somebody saying something really interesting.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Just listen. Just listen. Try and expand your mind a little bit.

Justin: Sit back in a fancy little lecture hall and learn things.

Kirsten: Yeah. But, you know, we now have the internet as well. And so, people don’t even have to be in universities to be able to have their minds expanded.

Justin: This is true. I’m a big…

Kirsten: Which is pretty cool.

Justin: I’m a big, big fan of the iTunes University. If you haven’t really gone checked it out there, there’s tons of lectures. Almost all of it – I think all of it is free.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: And my favorite though of all time though was the Walter Lewin physics lectures. Here’s like 90 hours of introductions to physics with demonstrations and such wonderful stuff.

Kirsten: That’s nice. Well, as usual, we have lots of science because this is This Week in Science, right?

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah. So, I brought stories about eggs for mice, life around the universe and hobbitses.

Justin: Hobbitseses.

Kirsten: Hobbitses’ years.

Justin: One hundred years.

Kirsten: Every once in a while the little hobbit, yeah, a little hobbit she, I guess it’s she, just pokes up her little head and says, “Hey, I got more news, hobbits news.”

Justin: I’ve got dinner date tips that will insure a sure thing, gentlemen, a cure for cloudy vision, babies’ first dream, and compared of Math for minors along with maybe when good schools go bad. Yeah.

Kirsten: That sounds exciting. So, first story, new eggs for old mice – eggs for mice. What? Easter’s over.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Bunnies and eggs, mice and eggs, it’s all very confusing. Not really. So, the story goes – the scientific story goes that all female mammals are born with the number of eggs that they’re going to have for their entire life.

And then, you know, female humans once a month go through our estrous cycle, shed a few eggs, you know, every once in awhile when egg is fertilized, you’re able to have child or not.

And on you go and on you go. Until you reach point where there aren’t that many eggs left and you go through menopause and then you don’t have the ability to have children anymore.

Men on the other hand have these little stem cells in their reproductive gonads. And the stem cells allow them to constantly reproduce and make new gametes, new sperm that are able to for as long, you know, guys reproduce almost forever. It’s like on and on and on and on and on, right?

Justin: All day long, everyday.

Kirsten: Right. And so, there’s just been a story. And this is very interesting to me because it’s very similar to what was thought about the brain about ten years ago.

Justin: Brain, about fat cells, about heart cells.

Kirsten: Right, this all you get.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: And they – from the moment you’re born, and then they just start dying. You know, it’s like this their life is a long process of death.

Justin: The clock has been round up and now it’s just ticking off the moments.

Kirsten: Right. And so, this story which I find fascinating is published in Nature Cell Biology. And this is building on a few studies that started some time around 2004 claiming that female mice that they had found germ cell lines in the ovaries of female mice. And germ cells being stem cells would allow mice to be able to continuously reproduce new eggs, new ova.

Now – and so, this is really controversial, is it?

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Because every – like since 1950s everyone’s been like, “Nope, that’s all you got. No more new eggs.” And so, there is a study now. What they did, what this researchers did in their, I believe the lab is a Harvard Medical School. They took what they thought were stem cells from the ovaries of mice.

So they’re like, “Okay, we believe this to be stem cells.” So, then they put them in a petri dish and they cultured the cells so they will have a lot of them like grow a big population of these cells I think are stem cells.

Then they took mice – female mice and they put them basically through a chemical, a process that killed their ability – killed all the gametes, killed their ovaries basically. They took the stem cells from what they thought were stem cells from the previous population of mice. They implanted them into this kind of poisoned population of mice. And then the implanted mice were able to go on and reproduce.

Justin: Awesome!

Kirsten: They suddenly – by implanting the stem cells into the other mice, that means that these stem cells – and their stem cells not actually ova, so that means that the cells that were implanted created eggs that would then be able to go on and produce little baby mice.

Justin: That’s brilliant.

Kirsten: It’s really, really brilliant. Now there’s, you know, people are going, “Well, we don’t know whether or not this is really – they were really stem cells.” That’s one thing that really has to be verified. This has to be replicated again and again to actually show that this is indeed what they’ve done. And this is not necessarily something that is true for humans.

So, even though mice have this ability or, you know, if they do have this ability maybe we don’t have germ cells continuing into our adulthood. But I mean it’s very possible that we do.

And so possibly, you know, one thing this potentially – if this research continuous down the line, one thing that it could potentially do is that for women who go through chemotherapy whose eggs, whose ovaries are destroyed by chemotherapy and lose the ability to reproduce. They could potentially get implanted stem cells or be able to save some stem cells from before they go through chemotherapy and then put those back in after chemotherapy.

So there’s a bunch of different ways that this could potentially help.

Justin: Or just infertility in the first place. I mean, yes.

Kirsten: Right, the more we understand about it.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah. So I think this is one of the biggest stories, I mean I don’t know if it’s flying and how far it’s flying under or over radar in general. But I think this is a huge story. Whenever science is refuted in a way, you know, old beliefs are, you know, there’s evidence that comes up against old beliefs and says, “Hey, you might want to take a second look at this.” I think it’s fascinating. I think it’s really interesting.

Justin: Yeah. There’s something great about science which, you know, has the – takes the outage of honor thy Father a little bit because you honor, you sort of…

Kirsten: Yeah. So building on the shoulders of giants, yeah.

Justin: Building on the shoulders of giants.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: But then on the other hand, you also log — tear them down at the knees which you don’t – there’s not a lot of other philosophies that allow, you know, that make it an option for you to really take out the ancestor at the knees, you know, shake the entire foundation of what your ideas were built on.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Like, “You know what? It all sounds good but no.”

Kirsten: Yeah, I don’t know.

Justin: Yeah, I think you’re wrong.

Kirsten: We’re going to start over.

Justin: I’m going to switch the auto mice stories here because this one sort of ties in. The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine has made a profound (scieraculus) discovery.

Kirsten: (Scieraculus), are you creating a new term?

Justin: Once a show I try to come up with a new. Stromal stem cells collected from the cornea and kept in a lab continue to make biochemical components critical to creating cornea’s structural clarity.

The next step was to test it on a scar-like eye trauma, which they did in mice, using a human adult corneal stem cells injected into mice made the cloudy corneas clear again.

What? Yes!

Kirsten: So, they implanted these stem cells in human…

Justin: Human adult corneal…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: …stem cells injected into mice that had eye trauma, not exactly scarring tissue but something similar to it that sort of clouded the corneas.

Kirsten: Glaucoma.

Justin: Mm hmm. And the stem cells went in, restructured things so that the cornea was clear again. They actually remodeled it back to normal.

Kirsten: Let there be light.

Justin: So, what is especially convenient here and this is what sort of – what’s especially convenient is that the cells that can – (first of all, it) can be mass produced. You can take stem cells out of a body and create millions and millions and millions of them in the lab in this case. And then put them back in.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Right?

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: So you can mass produce these. And the cells appeared to be “immune privileged”. What immune privileged is immune privileged means that not only could eye – without doing blood tests or any other immunological tests to see if were tissue compatible…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …or relatives even, I can take your corneal stem cells inject to mine that worked fine, plus they work across species.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: These are human cells that were operating just fine in the mice. The more of these things we find, right? Then we can actually – then it doesn’t matter that we’re doing the study on mice so much. We still have to go back. They’ll still going to do human trials before, you know, this ever becomes an approved therapy.

Kirsten: But the possibility of things going wrong because you’re doing the study in a different species is reduced.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Incredibly reduced.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Because you’re already using the human stem cell and you’re finding that there’s no, you know, that because of the immune privileged, there’s no rejection taking place there. There’s no sideways, you know. It’s a pretty…

Kirsten: Yeah. I wonder what it is about the cells that make them immune privileged, like what keeps them from being attacked? It’s interesting.

Justin: Maybe that – my guess estimation because I don’t really know. My guess estimation is that there’s such a sort of primitive — not primitive, that might not be even the right — primitive cell in the body that’s or common throughout species, something that harkens back to the early development, that the immune system doesn’t have or anything to see this as a rejectable. There’s no (unintelligible).

Kirsten: Possibly.

Justin: There’s nothing unique about it compared to the cells that are already in that body, right?

Kirsten: Got it!

Justin: So this finding suggest the cell-based therapies might be ineffective way to treat human corneal blindness and vision impairment due to the scarring that occurs after infections, traumas, eye problems, et cetera.

According to investigator, James L. Funderburgh, PhD associate professor, Department of Ophthalmology, “Corneal scars are permanent, so currently the best solution available is corneal transplant. Transplants have a high success rate, but they don’t last forever.

And current popularity of LASIK corrective eye surgery is expected to substantially reduce the availability of donor tissue in the future because, you know, the procedure alters the cornea in a way that makes it unsuitable for transplantation later.”

So the next step is, yeah, they’re going to do the next step and do actual eye scarring and see if the repairs are made there as well. Very cool!

Kirsten: Yeah. And they can see again. Wow! I think this is, again, we’re going to have like last week’s episode, a lot of stuff to do with the amazing ability of the body and life in general. I have a lot of life news this week.

Justin: You’re thinking life news. I’m thinking future vampires when everybody’s cured of most diseases and he’s going to live forever.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: But needs a constant supply of stem cells. And the only way to get them is from other living humans.

Kirsten: I want to suck your stem cells. Oh dear, I would be a terrible vampire. All right. So, how did we arise? How did we get to where we are, you know?

Justin: Coffee, because if it wasn’t for coffee I wouldn’t have arisen at all.

Kirsten: Okay, that’s a good point. Good point! But we’re thought to have arisen from a very hot soup of chemicals. And the prebiotic chemicals and everything that went into the pre-forming of life, the basic elements of DNA came – we’ve been looking for a prebiotic chemical with a telescope called Spitzer Space Telescope. And the chemical is called hydrogen cyanide.

And we think that this is a very important chemical because it’s a component of one of the amino acids — adenine. And adenine, because it’s an amino acid that is used to make – that is part of our — not amino acid, what am I thinking — it’s one of our based, a nucleotides base pairs. I’m using the wrong terminology here.

Justin: Yeah, you had me fooled.

Kirsten: I can tell you whatever I want, right?

Justin: Totally.

Kirsten: Amine, it’s a nucleotide. It’s part of DNA. It goes from the amine, quinine, blah, blah, blah, all the stuff ties. The four basic…

Justin: Hey wait! This is a science show. You can’t blah, blah, blah.

Kirsten: Blah, blah, blah, and the four nucleotides that are part of DNA from there, they go on to create (arginine), which then goes on to create amino acids, which goes into proteins, which build everything that make up our bodies.

So DNA is pretty important. And to be able to figure out the chemicals that, you know, where those chemicals are in space that are part of those formative compounds…

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: …that could potentially give us an idea of where we can find life in the universe. Oh, yeah. It’s pretty exciting.

So, we’ve put our space telescopes. Our telescopes are looking at stars, planets elsewhere to look for the chemical signatures in the light from those stars of something like the hydrogen cyanide which is found in adenine .

Justin: That’s awesome.

Kirsten: Yeah. So, we’ve been looking for all this stuff. However – so Spitzer has been looking for this hydrogen – looking for hydrogen cyanide molecules circling yellow stars which are hotter stars like our Sun. It hasn’t found any around cooler and smaller stars. So hydrogen cyanide seems to be located around these hot stars.

What they’re thinking from the results of the study is that stars that are cooler that don’t have the hydrogen cyanide. So, either they aren’t hot enough to be able to have the chemicals that are preformed – are the pre-formation of life or they might possess a completely different mix of chemicals. So maybe they don’t use hydrogen cyanide. Maybe they use something else.

So, they’ve been looking and Ilaria Pascucci, lead author of the study from Johns Hopkins University says that, “Prebiotic chemistry may unfold differently on planets around cool stars.” You can check out the study in the Astrophysical Journal.

So, it’s kind of interesting.

There’s another aspect of this that maybe the heat, the type of light that comes from the hotter stars, that part of the ultraviolet spectrum, maybe that leads to the formation of certain chemicals.

So, one idea that they’ve got going right now is talking with Michelle Thaller from – who actually works on the Spitzer Space Telescope last week at this conference I went to in Boulder.

She was saying that because of the light that’s emitted from our Sun, what they’re thinking is that all of our molecules or the majority of them are made up of left-handed forms of molecules. But the entire universe has a pretty 50-50 mix of left-handed and right-handed isomers.

So, this basically they’re like your two hands, they’re mirror images, these molecules are mirror images of each other. And there’s no reason, really. When you think about it, why are we made up of all these left-handed molecules? Why is our solar system based on this left-handed format?

And they think it might have to do with the light that the ultraviolet light, the polarization of it from our Sun has actually destroyed the right-handed molecules.

Justin: Interesting.

Kirsten: And so all we had to these left-hand molecules to make everything up. So, it’s a really fascinating idea that maybe the light, specifically the type of light that comes from different stars influences the molecules that are available and that will influence the type of life that is formed.

Justin: Well then that’s a great discovery because then it makes it even easier to track down our type of potential life…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …in the universe.

Kirsten: Right. How do we find us-like organisms?

Justin: Us-like organisms.

Kirsten: And I have another study like that. I have a couple of these studies. This to me, this week is crazy, life crazy.

Justin: Gentlemen Minions?

Kirsten: This is for the boys.

Justin: This is for the boys. It doesn’t require a scientific study to know that just because you take a lady out to a nice dinner– does not guarantee that you’ll later be sharing a romantic dessert of copulatary bliss cream, if that make any sense.

Kirsten: What?

Justin: According to research from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology published in the Public Library of Science online, “The lack of post-date woo pitching may not be due to the dating strategy, but in who are selecting as your date. Suggesting that, your expectations of reciprocations are much more likely to be fulfilled up instead of a lady you invite the wild female to dine with you. A wild female chimpanzee, that is.

So, the study illustrates that female chimpanzees mate much more frequently with males that share meat than those who do not. According to Cristina Gomes, “Our results strongly suggest that wild chimpanzees exchange meat for sex, doing so on a long term basis, males who shared meat with females double their mating success.”

Kirsten: Looky, this is long term though.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: It’s not just like hey.

Justin: Don’t get mad if the chimpanzee does not put out on the first date.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Right. Yeah, right.

Kirsten: This is a relationship that’s being built here.

Justin: Yeah, based on wining and dining. Absolutely! So, she also adds that previous studies might not have found this relationship between mating success and meat-sharing because they were focused very much on short term exchanges, you know, sharing the meat and then having it work out that night, or through that afternoon or whenever chimpanzees get about their business.

And so, you take this and you think about what we saw illustrate recently what I think was Santino, I think was the name of the premeditated rock throwing Swedish Chimp who is plotting and planting out his attack on the zoo going audience by stacking rocks and waiting for them to show up on visitation days.

Long term thinking now well within the realm of chimp psychology makes the study, you know, fit just perfectly. While human dating rituals will still remain a mystery, at least to me, I think the overall result here is about the same. Long term thinking, just like you said, greater payoff than the short term judgments.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Eating out is romantic across species. And being a good provider makes you more attractive.

Kirsten: That’s a big key.

Justin: Yeah. And there also – this is also – and they’re going to go look at some of the few hunter gather cultures that we still have on the planet and see if there’s a connection between sort of hunting prowess and the amount of the offspring, that sort of thing.

Kirsten: To see if this is a type of behavior that has been conserved.

Justin: Yeah. And there’s other – you know, there’s other chimp cultures where the females hunt. This particular one is one which females do not hunt. So they do not go out on a hunt. They don’t use the energy for that. So, they’re finding a negotiation to get meat that’s, you know, a little more akin to the 50s, American culture maybe.

Kirsten: That’s handy. It’s just handy, that’s right. Bring me some meat. Thank you very much. That’s nice.

I’m going to bring a story in about, again, life in outer space.

Now, there’s a study that was published in It’s an online physics journal. Researches looking at amino acids that make up life. So, this isn’t the nucleotides that I was talking about in the last story. These are now from the RNA, the amino acids that get formed that incorporate into proteins.

There are about 20 amino acids that are used in life in creating the organisms that are alive. But why are they only 20? We have synthetically created more than 20. They’re, you know – why only 20? And why does all of life use the same 20? You know, why has that happened?

So these researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada has analyzed the amino acids on the basis of thermodynamics. So, based on the energy that goes into creating the amino acids, the chemical energy that is required that it is an analysis of how likely these amino acids were to be produced. It turns out that there are ten amino acids that are most likely to be produced.

And so, looking at their analysis, they compared it against experiments and they found that experiments to recreate the conditions in the Earth’s early atmosphere produced the same ten amino acids that were likely produce based on this thermodynamic analysis.

Justin: Very cool.

Kirsten: Yeah. And so, there’s been this link of why are these ten amino acids’ constantly there? The same ten amino acids are also found in meteorites samples from outer space.

Justin: Very common.

Kirsten: Yeah. So, there are ten out of the 20 amino acids that are just very common because of what is required energetically to get them to be produced. So what they suggest based on their analysis is that first ten, the first genetic codes probably evolved to exploit these ten pretty easy to make amino acids.

And then the remaining ten to make up the 20 that are a little bit harder to make that take more energy, different chemicals, the enzymes maybe to get them to put together appropriately. Those are probably the ones that evolved later that came about by the time that the earliest common ancestor of all organisms on Earth evolved about 3.5 billion years ago.

Justin: Yeah. So the first ten we got as freebie from our solar system floating around.

Kirsten: Exactly. Floating around in outer space, the first ten probably showed up to mess like, “Yeah, whatever.”

Justin: Yeah. And then the next ten is sort of built in the laboratory Earth, the early primordial laboratory Earth, which does – yeah, and then that eliminates a whole like – yeah, I mean it’s half of the stuff that needed to be formed under early Earth conditions.

Kirsten: It probably was just there easy. It came about easily just in the environment that was available to it in space. And so, this is a quote from the paper from the blog that I – the archive blog that I found the story in. “The combined actions of thermodynamics in subsequent natural selection suggest that the genetic code we observed on the Earth today may have significant features in common with life throughout the cosmos.”

Justin: And again, I disagree.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Yeah, just because based – I mean, even the meteorites, those are still on our solar system.

Kirsten: That’s a good point.

Justin: So, you know, the ten amino acids were still…

Kirsten: And it’s still going to be based on, like I said earlier, the light from our star.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah. Okay.

Justin: So, yeah don’t go too far reaching with your, you know, your big (esinof ) theories.

Kirsten: You’re just ready to chop it down there.

Justin: Yeah, you know. Let’s keep it real people.

Kirsten: Keeping it real This Week in Science.

Justin: Oh, should I go to chaos in the womb or should we hit the break?

Kirsten: Chaos in the womb?

Justin: I think I can do chaos in the womb. Chaos! Chaos in the womb!

Kirsten: Whoa!

Justin: Unborn baby sheep found to be dreaming. Yes, counting humans no doubt.

Kirsten: Probably.

Justin: New research in the American Institute of Physics journal, their journal Chaos, which is focused on nonlinear dynamics in cognitive and neural systems. So, it’s sort of the chaos factor of the brain, right?

Kirsten: That’s awesome. I love the title, “Chaos”.

Justin: “Chaos!”

Kirsten: Don’t you just want to be a physicist and just thumb through that journal for the heck of it.

Justin: Yeah. Well, this is – but, you know, it’s all about the dynamics of the mind.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: How the mind is on the brink of chaos.

Kirsten: We are constantly.

Justin: Constantly.

Kirsten: Mm hmm. It’s only – the only thing that hold us together is probability.

Justin: No. So, they have revealed something amazing. They’ve revealed sleep cycles in the physicist of early sheep. So, a little back (store) on this, in humans about seven months into development in the womb, a human fetus spends most of its time asleep. And the brain has these cycles where it goes back and forth between sort of this the rapid eye movement sleep, right, and the quiet resting state of non-REM sleep.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: And it cycles back and forth. I think it’s every 20 minutes or so. But whether the brain in younger fetuses in humans cycle through sleep has been a mystery because it’s un-recordable. The only way that we’ve actually made a determination that the sleep is going on is we can observe it seven months the rapid eye movement. That’s when it begins.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: So, then Karin Schwab said, “I think I can,” and gathered a team of neuroscientists at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany. What they discovered was that the immature sheep fetuses can enter into a dreaming sleep state many weeks before the first rapid eye movements are visible.

Kirsten: Wow.

Justin: So, yeah. Let’s see. So yeah, in the human developing embryo appears the cycle every 20 to 40 minutes at that seventh month period with the REM sleep. And it’s a brain activity of which I think is mimicking or rivaling that, it’s a consciousness for sure. Or, yeah, it appears this consciousness and brain activity.

Schwab’s sheep study recorded electrical activity in the brains of 106-day old developing sheep directly, right, something never been done before. Detecting the patterns, Schwab discovered cycles in the complexity of immature brain activity. Unlike sleep patterns in later stages of development, these cycles were fluctuating every like five to ten minutes.

Kirsten: Much faster.

Justin: So it’s a much frequent and they would slow down more and more as the fetus grows until you’re like oh 30-something years old and you cycle in and out of sleep seemingly on an hourly basis without coffee.

So sleep – what this is saying is perhaps that the – and according to (Schwab) is that, “Sleep does not suddenly evolve from arresting brain. Sleep and sleep state changes are active regulated processes from the very beginning.”

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: So that sleep is, yeah, not something that comes on just by fatigue, but it’s just the normal cycle of the brain…

Kirsten: Normal cycling.

Justin: …from, you know, our earliest developmental stage.

Kirsten: Yup. One of the most interesting things that I’ve heard about sleep is, like I said probability, that sleep as you get older, and I’m guessing it, would be a result of this ongoing cycling from the time that your brain is starting to switch on the neurons in the brain, or switch and on, and switch and off, and they go through these different patterns of stimulation.

And so, we have like the different wave forms. You have your alpha state, your beta state, beta waves. There’s all these different – these waves that indicate different levels of activation. And there’s this idea that each neuron in the brain cycles independently through this on and off…

Justin: Interesting.

Kirsten: …and kind of, you know, cycles through not really off ever but this kind of waking and less waking…

Justin: Virtual, yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah, less waking states. And that’s because each one of them is constantly cycling sleep. Then it’s just a probability of a majority of the neurons in your brain being kind of off at the same time.

Justin: Interesting. Well, I mean, it’s like a whale, so I think it is, can…

Kirsten: Dolphins use half of their brains.

Justin: …dolphins, they can shut, yeah.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Half of their brain will shut down for sleep and then they can keep swimming. And then their other half of their brain will shut down.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: It would be pretty handy trick.

Kirsten: It would be very handy. I’m sure the military is working on it.

Justin: Well, yeah. Good. Somebody should be. I want that.

Kirsten: Oh, great. Okay, we are at the break. I hope none of you out there have fallen asleep while we’ve been talking or maybe if you have that you’ve been having some really interesting dreams as a result of our conversations here on This Week in Science. Stay tuned. We’ll be back with more after this break.

Commercial: From Monday, April 20th through Sunday the 26th, KDVS non-commercial free-form radio will be holding it’s annual fund raising. So please remember to show your support and donate, and in exchange receive great premiums, thanks and quality program.

Justin: And are we back?

Kirsten: We are back.

Justin: We are back with more of This Week in Science.

Kirsten: That’s right. You are listening to the science show that you’re listening to.

Justin: The only one you’re listening to at the moment most likely.

Kirsten: The only science show you’re listening to right now. The hobbits are back.

Justin: Hobbits.

Kirsten: Well, maybe one hobbit. Researchers publishing in the Journal of Human Evolution and also bringing her studies to the Association of Physical Anthropologists annual meeting. Researcher has taken a look at the inner cranium’s surface from specimen LB1 one of the Indonesian island of Flores, little skeletons – little pieces of skeleton that were found in a cave a few years ago.

Now, there’s been this ongoing debate about whether or not the skeleton is a deceased micro-cephalic human, so just a regular human but with some genetic disorder or abnormalities.

Justin: Which I think I predicted against just because it would be more fun if there was the little people.

Kirsten: Right, right. Other people are saying, “Hey, it’s another species entirely.” Other people are saying, “Well, no, maybe it’s not another species. Maybe it is just a subspecies of human.”

So, instead of, you know, being something aside from Homo – maybe it’s Homo sapien floras.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah. Maybe it’s a subspecies, just a human, an offshoot of the Homo sapien lineage, a little branch of the Homo sapien.

Justin: A little branch.

Kirsten: A little branch.

Justin: A little branch of island dwarfism.

Kirsten: Right, that this group of individuals, this population was isolated on an island, and evolved a little separately over time just enough to make it different enough from the rest of Homo sapiens that maybe they might be able to reproduce, might not. We don’t know.

So, I happen to – I like the idea that it’s a subspecies. I mean they haven’t found enough differences like really enough differences that I’ve seen to make it really seem like its own independent species. But…

Justin: I thought there were some risks stuff that was more ape than man, but okay.

Kirsten: Right. Right, there is that risk stuff. However, okay this study looking at this cast. Basically, they took the fossil of the skull. So – and they took a cast, like a plaster that probably something a little bit, I guess, it more able to get into the nooks and crannies of that.

Justin: Rubbery foam.

Kirsten: Maybe rubbery foam, yeah. I don’t know what they use. But they took an impression, a cast of the inside of the skull and knowing that the inside of the skull has little crevasses and is modeled as a result of what the surface of the brain looks like.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: I mean it’s kind of – it’s two living pieces of tissue. Even though on the outside our skull seems so very hard, it’s two living pieces of tissue up against one another. And they do have effects on each other. And so, the brain actually puts it imprint like a fingerprint on the inside of your skull.

And so these researchers are able to take a look at that and be able to go, “Okay, what is it look like? Is it smooth which would indicate not very advance cognitive processes because the outside area of our brain is what is the, you know, ours is identified by the fact that it’s, you know, crevassed and creased and has all sorts of ridges that gives more processing surface area, more brain tissue.

So they took a look at it and they’re like, “Oh hey, look at that. It looks pretty complicated.” And so, they decided that, “Hey, maybe this cortical reorganization of this ape-sized brain…” So the brain size was fairly small. But it has more…

Justin: …crevasses surface area than a normally chimp brain would have.

Kirsten: Exactly! Exactly! And so, they’re saying that, “Hey!” This suggests that they had the neural reorganization that was important for being able to do things like my tools and have complicated interactions between individuals. They think that the brain features might be implicated in complex forms of thinking that, you know, people of today have.

Justin: Well, they had tools. I mean pretty well crafted ones.

Kirsten: They did have tools that were found in the cave.

Justin: I hope so.

Kirsten: So, this is, you know, one more piece of evidence that the cretinism…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …which or the micro-cephaly which both would be genetic disorders, but human.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: So Homo sapien genetic disorders, they’re saying that this is one more piece of evidence that suggest that those are not likely. So, it pushes the idea that the Homo florosiensis is maybe its own species or a subspecies. So, even once again, it’s moving away from the genetic disorder and more too.

Justin: Yehey!

Kirsten: Well, yeah, I’m sure that give it a few months, we’re going to have more news on the hobbitses coming up. I love the hobbits.

Justin: Well, the more ways we look at it the better we’re likely to be to, you know, learn something on this.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: And in fact, this also – that also applies to school children given Math problems.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Yes. New study has found that when teaching little schoolers math concepts, this is research from a Vanderbilt in Harvard Universities. They found that comparing different ways to solve problems help middle schools students become more flexible problem solvers and better understand the concepts behind the methods.

This is according to Bethany Rittle-Johnson, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College and co-author of the new research study.

So basically, what happen is you learn a way to solve a problem in Mathematics. They say, “Here’s the problem. Here’s how you solve it.” And then they have you solve using the same method of solving a bunch of different problems.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: And you repeat it and repeat it and repeat it and of course you remember.

Kirsten: Right, repetition.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: What this study found basically is that doing a comparison, finding a different way, a different mathematical model to solve the same problem, not a different question, same question. So you know what the answer is going to be but you got to work at a different way because you’re using a different, right.

Actually the students responded by understanding the mathematical inter-workings of it much better that way. So, it’s a very interesting concept versus, you know, repetitive learning versus challenging and creating a critical thinking like in environment in classroom.

Kirsten: Yeah. I think the critical thinking environment or the conceptual environment allows you to create a better understanding. I mean the study out this week also about the baby chicks who are – the math ability of baby chicks is not that they can do math per se.

Justin: They look like they were added and subtracted.

Kirsten: It was not like they’re counting. But they do have an understanding of, you know, things added or subtracted from group. So they had these little chicks that were shown groups of little orange balls. And so, two, they were given a choice to go to one group of balls versus another, so two balls versus three balls.

Justin: And balls because the balls were reminiscent of eggs.

Kirsten: They look similar to the chicks. Yeah, they look like eggs.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah, they look like…

Justin: So, there was something familiar that they would want to associate themselves.

Kirsten: To group with.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: Right. And the chicks normally, if they’re in a group of chicks or with eggs, they’ll go to the larger group. So, maybe this is some kind of self-preservation like safety in numbers kind of thing.

But how do they know? Do they actually know that one group is bigger than the other? And what is the (count)? And they found that when they showed these chicks, a group of two versus three, the chicks went to the group of tree. Then they showed the chicks four and two, I think. And then they covered them up.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: And then they took – they showed the chicks that they were taking balls away from the group of four and putting it with the other group. And the balls are now hidden behind these blinds. So the chicks can’t actually see how many are there anymore. But they watched the removal and the change of location…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …of the balls. And so, they were then able to – and then chicks chose to go to where the balls went, which is where the more balls were.

Justin: Which is doing math because they’re not looking and seeing a larger group.

Kirsten: Yup.

Justin: They have to keep an abstract amount…

Kirsten: An abstract.

Justin: …in their head of where things are.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: And how much is behind, you know, the mysterious door number one, versus these mysterious door number two.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: They had to keep tracking these abstract numbers in their head…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …to figure out which one to go to.

Kirsten: And so, this is really interesting. They say – the researcher say this is the first time that this has been done with young animals showing that it’s not just this abstract ability of number or math, I guess is our terminology, this abstract concept isn’t just an adult ability.

They’ve shown that adult chimps can do this. They’ve shown that young children, babies have this ability also. But this is the first time a different young animal group has been used. And also this is bird versus mammal, you know.

Justin: Yeah. This is baby chicken.

Kirsten: Baby chicken.

Justin: Little, fuzzy, yellow. Yeah.

Kirsten: They’re so cute, fluffy. And wow, they can do math. But this is my idea that it’s so basic, I guess, from looking at this to social animals, I think this is. And it also suggest that maybe — I mean to me, I was looking at it and thinking, “Wow! Maybe we should be teaching math differently. Maybe there needs to be some – instead of this very – we’re not doing, we’re not teaching in an abstract manner. We teach in a very direct manner.

So, there’s like the 1, 2, 3, 4, you know, we have this very concrete system of teaching and learning. Maybe if we were to use more abstract conceptual stuff and to go at problems from different angles maybe it would help. And so this kind of ties in with the story you were talking about.

Justin: Yeah. And we’ve also as you know there are studies that showed that just using the abstracts of Mathematics to teach mathematical problems, made – it made students — this was at college level, I think it was college or high school — made students much more able to apply those mathematical concepts to other problems…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …versus when they actually used a concrete definition like trains, you know, or water levels.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: When they used the natural physical demonstration, the students had a hard time applying those Mathematics to a different type of problem.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Like if you learned it in a mathematical formula in terms of trains, you had a hard time applying it to the level of water in a beaker. But if you just learned it as the mathematical formula, you had no problem switching back and forth.

Kirsten: Right. I don’t know. It’s just – it’s very, very interesting. Math is something obviously that’s very – that underpins a lot of abilities…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …our brains across the animal kingdom like numbers.

Justin: Numbers?

Kirsten: Interesting.

Justin: You know, it is the…

Kirsten: It’s not just the human construct.

Justin: No. It is – I mean it’s a framework.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: But so is vision, so is hearing, so is taste, so is language. So everything is a framework.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: The wonderful thing about Mathematics as a framework is that it’s much more universal and its results are less subjective if evenly applied, if that made any sense.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: So, talking about Mathematics and comparisons and running statistics and looking at things from different angles, 2002 — 45 public middle-grades schools were placed under private management as part of a state-run overhaul of the Philadelphia School District.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Education, the now privately managed schools underperformed the city’s public schools. The study which tracks schools through from, I think ’97 through 2006, found that the test scores had improved in the privatized schools.

But the scores in the rest of the city’s public schools improved at a much faster rate, leaving the privatized schools, and therefore the privatized children, in the dust.

“By 2006, the achievement gap between the privatized school and the public school district was greater than it was before the intervention,” says the study author Vaughan Byrnes, researcher at Johns Hopkins University. “Both groups improved, but the privatized schools improved at a slower rate.”

So, Philadelphia got the chance to, you know, sort of be the big Guinea Pig…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: …for privatizing schools in 2002 when state government officials took over the city’s schools and decided to do this restructuring. They took 45 of the worse group of performing schools and turned them over to several private education management organizations. The rest of the city’s schools remained under the control of the Philadelphia School District, which instituted its own reform efforts.

Byrnes’ study analyzed reading and math scores from the entire school systems between, yeah, 1997 to 2006 at 88 different grade schools. “The schools placed under private management were significantly worse off than the rest of the district in 1997.” But the data shows that they were gaining. Those 45 that were shifted over in the private…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …we’re doing – we’re underperforming in the outset, but they were actually gaining. They’re actually between ’97 and 2002. They were gaining on the rest of the schools.

So, after the takeover though, the gap widened. Oh, okay. So, supporters of privatized schools are claiming that the improvement of the privatized schools was stunted because the schools were the worst.

But the “a-huh” here is that five of the absolute worse schools in the entire district were restructured in the public.

Kirsten: Right. Not in this privatized, yeah.

Justin: Not in the private. So, the absolute worse five and those schools did much better after 2002, outpacing the privatized schools, and perhaps even the rest of the district. That rules out the argument that the privatized schools improved more slowly because they were worse to start off which says Byrnes…

Kirsten: One aspect of the privatization actually, I mean held them back.

Justin: I have a feeling.

Kirsten: You have? You always do.

Justin: I always do. So, here’s what I pictured happening. I mean, and I’m not for privatized schools in this. I think public schools should just be focused on more, you know.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: I don’t see a real need to privatize it or turn it into. I think what happened here very likely is the Independent School Management systems hired their own teachers through their protocol.

Those 45 schools that the city turned over, those 45 schools are no longer under the Public School District— probably reorganized their best teachers from those schools into the other school systems, meaning they had 45 schools worth of teachers that they could pick and choose from, the teachers they wanted to hang on to and had positions at all the other schools where they now have 45 schools worth of people which whom they could replace people’s jobs with their.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: And I bet you, what happen is they reorganized it. So what you saw is – basically, I think this says that we need more teachers is really the result here is that we need more people going after this profession becoming proficient at it because I bet you, they took all their tenure.

If you’re working for the city or actually the state run…

Kirsten: I don’t know.

Justin: …so if you’re taking state school employees who have tenure, who have all these sort of thing, you can’t just get rid of them. You can’t just tell them, “Well, now you work for a private.” You have to maintain them in the state program.

So, all the tenure teachers come out of those 45 schools, all their, you know, the people who really been there.

Kirsten: And they get new t-shirt. Yeah.

Justin: They get new teaching positions at the existing schools. And I think, I bet you anything that — but it doesn’t say that here in the study but I bet you that was a big part of it.

Kirsten: I don’t know. I don’t know. That is definitely something that needs to be looked into as to what were the factors that…

Justin: What were the other factors?

Kirsten: What were the factors that have to do with the movement of teachers not having it, you know? So, good question.

Justin: But although, even with that, it doesn’t, you know, that shows that perhaps privatization of schools is one of those fake magic bullets that, you know, isn’t actually going to help.

Kirsten: Absolutely! Absolutely! And I think that’s the key point from the study.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: You are listening to This Week In Science. We have a few minutes left here. Viruses are tied to – viruses and mass extinctions might be tied to life’s origins.

Justin: Viruses and mass extinctions.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Have you have mass extinction before you have the origin?

Kirsten: What? Okay. So, what were looking at? This study, researchers in Finland at the University of – I can’t even – I don’t even know how to pronounce that. I don’t even know but I should try — Jyvaskyla in Finland. I’m sure for all the Fins out there…

Justin: You can Americanize it, Jyvaskyla.

Kirsten: They determined that viruses that exists in this very, very, very hot undersea vents, hydrothermal vents, these extromophiles or what they’re calling them are hyperthermophiles with that thrive — that love super hot temperatures more over 176 °F, and that are highly acidic. So I wouldn’t like being there. Yeah, not a good place for me.

But there are these microorganisms that love it there. And there are viruses that exist down there also. So, there are viruses. They co-exist with life. And these viruses are down there in this crazy, hot, acidic environment attacking these hyperthermophiles. So not only do the hyperthermophiles have to deal with hot temperatures, acid baths but also viruses.

Yeah. It’s a crazy world down there. They found that these viruses withstand the extreme environment, and they don’t evolve much. They haven’t changed very much over billions of years.

Now, it’s what these researchers have found by looking at these viruses down there. They might be one of the oldest and most unchanging life forms on Earth, if we consider virus as a life. That’s still a question.

Justin: Well, if there was nothing else in the universe but viruses…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …you don’t have to say, “Hey, babe!” You hold that biggest sway in terms of life.

Kirsten: So anyway, these researchers looked at — excuse me — they looked at mass extinctions that happen on the surface of the planet and what happens with those. So mass extinctions wiped out existing species, but at the same time it wipes out viruses.

And so, at the time on the surface of the planet, at the time that life is springing back from the mass extinctions, new viruses also come back. So, the slate is wiped clean then everything kind of starts over, a new virus evolved and adapt to go along with the new forms of life that are coming from – that came from the mass extinctions.

And so, what this researcher says is that normally, organisms must constantly evolve under pressure from viruses updating their anti-virus strategies. But under virus free conditions, organisms can inherit mutations that are likely to be more useful in the long run, rather than simply evolving defensive strategies.

So, these virus-free periods may actually speed up the development of new biological functions that otherwise would be unlikely to emerge.

So, there’s this constant back and forth between periods after mass – so mass extinctions, no viruses, and then this evolution from a long term strategies, viruses come into the mix. And that makes evolution adaption co-mingling with the viruses.

So, there’s this kind of long term-short term, long term-short term, change in variation in the way that life is evolving.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: So, this is really interesting idea and it all comes from looking at this crazy dipsy viruses.

Justin: And also the way that viruses can interject into the DNA, you could be having within the overall DNA an entire chain of event of viruses coming and going over generations even. So, they could even be contributing in the long term.

Kirsten: That’s very possible. Yes. Yeah, so anyway, it’s fascinating to think of all the different factors that MIGHT have gone into affecting the way that life exists currently on the planet. What are all the factors? What got in there and push life in certain directions — viruses, mass extinctions, oh my.

We’re at the end of the show.

Justin: And potty training. That’s pretty new for the planet.

Kirsten: What?

Justin: Yeah, potty training. We’ve all been potty-trained for few hundred years, I think, even that.

Kirsten: It’s the end of the show.

Justin: There was – wait, I got to say. Just because I just thought it, there was an advertising I saw, I think from the 30s for toilet paper that was claiming that it was splinter-free.

Kirsten: Ouch!

Justin: Just to put in context how different not long ago was? They would have to say on the packaging, splinter-free toilet paper.

Kirsten: Wow, 1930s, that’s exciting. Thank goodness for modern technology. Science!

Justin: Science!

Kirsten: On next week show, it is the annual KDVS Fundraiser. So get your wallets ready to support free-form community radio. We’re going to be offering our compilation of science-y tunes as a thank you to all who donate to our show. So, that’s our special gift to you for helping out This Week In Science and KDVS.

Justin: Fundraiser, KDVS, whoa!

Kirsten: Yeah. Also this month, the TWIS Bookclub is reading the Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow who we will be speaking with in early May.

And if you, you know, want to get involve in the TWIS Bookclub and get up on the book and know what Leonard will be talking about, you can check out

Thanks to everyone who emailed us, questions, comments, stories, frustrations, all those kind of wonderful things. We had email from (Sheryl), from David, from (Kara), from (Shannon), from (Glenn), from Carrie, from Adam, from John, from (Angela), from (Rick), (Kalidasa), Ed Dyer and Mark.

Justin: And I think I got birthday shout outs Pamela Sue Taylor down in Australia and (Tatiana Gabor). Happy Birthdays to you both!

Kirsten: It was their birthdays?

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Oh, happy birthday, nice to hear it. I hope you celebrate it in very fun science-y ways. Yeah.

Justin: So, thank you for listening today’s show. TWIS is available via podcast if you’re interested in that sort of formatty thing, Click on the Subscribe to the TWIS Science Podcast for information on how to or just search for This Week In Science in the iTunes’ podcast directory.

Kirsten: And for any more information on anything you’ve heard here, our show notes are posted to our website every week, except I forgot last week. So, you can go, get links to the stories at And you can email us if you have any questions of anything at or

Justin: Be sure to include TWIS in the subject line because we want to hear your feedback. We don’t want you to be spam filtered into oblivion.

Kirsten: No.

Justin: If there is a topic you’d like us to cover or address, the suggestion for an interview, let us know.

Kirsten: And we will be back here on KDVS next Tuesday at 8:30am Pacific Time. We hope you will join us again for more great science news.

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

Kirsten: It’s all in your head.

Tags: KDVS, animals, anthropology, archeology, astrobiology, biology, chemistry, cognitive science, emergent behavior, evolution, mammals, medicine, neuroscience, paleontology, physics, podcast, science, science and politics, space, stem cells