Transcript: Aug 08, 2008

Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer! There is information all around us – from the spinning spools of the newspaper press to the planet that is spinning. And the solar system is spinning. Spinning in our atoms too. Electrons spinning since before the day began, spinning now and into the future and beyond that too.

And while the dizzying spin of information – much like the following hour of programming, does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the University of California Davis, KDVS or its sponsors, the potential loss of these spinning bits of information once threatened the very foundations of modern physics.

As massive black holes loomed in even the tiniest waves of anthropic space, even though ships ahead had singled back their eventful fates, one man fearlessly refused to abandon ship and set course for the heart of the swirling gravity well with a singular determination.

“Oh captain, my captain, will we ever see the shores of home?” “Both yes and no,” Captain Susskind assures us and raises sails made of the finest threads to catch a cosmic wind. So, batten your mental hatches, me miniony mates and get ready to cast off with us on This Week in Science, coming up next.
Justin: Good morning Kirsten.

Kirsten: Good morning Justin. It’s a loud day today down here.

Justin: Is that what you say I think what it is, is you just had your headphones tuned up. I’m now being extra loud.

Kirsten: No.

Justin: I’m the same.

Kirsten: I don’t know.

Justin: Good old, same Justin and everything.

Kirsten: Good old, same…

Justin: Except one thing is different about me. One thing is different about me. I now know that I have an IQ of 158.

Kirsten: That’s right! You took an IQ test. Yes, you said something about that in an email.

Justin: I’m a genius. I’m a genius everybody!

Kirsten: You took an IQ test on the…

Justin: Well, it was an online one.

Kirsten: Online?

Justin: It wasn’t timed and it was kind of easy. And they tried to sell me stuff at the end. However, until I get a different number, that’s the one I’m sticking to.

Kirsten: Stick with it. That’s right. Yes, I like, internet and IQ tests, the free ones. I like sticking with those numbers.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: They’re nice to me too.

Justin: A 158. Have you ever gotten up there? No, I didn’t think so. We got to figure this out.

Kirsten: I can’t remember.

Justin: I want to know.

Kirsten: IQ has never been something that I paid much attention to, Justin.

Justin: We will be because we’re going to…

Kirsten: It’s just a number.

Justin: …we’re going to do a challenge on the show somewhat in the future…

Kirsten: Man.

Justin: …where we’ll both going to take a test and then we’re going to interview some…

Kirsten: I know.

Justin: …totally IQ-y person who knows about intelligence quotients and what it all actually means and blah, blah, blah. And then at the end, we’ll do the big reveal, right? So that’s not today because we got to find…

Kirsten: Who?

Justin: …somebody who can actually administer a test but…

Kirsten: That’s right. We’re going to find someone to administer a test and we’re going to take an IQ testing with it.

Justin: Brainiacs (unintelligible).

Kirsten: And then we’re going to talk about the science behind IQ tests. So we’re going to discuss…

Justin: And then perhaps I will be in tears. Maybe you’ll be discussing about it. I’ll be sobbing in a corner.

Kirsten: And then at the end we will discover exactly how – oh dear, I hate taking tests. I’m having like an anxiety attack right now…

Justin: It’s not even today.

Kirsten: …just as a result of talking about it.

Justin: We have two minutes done.

Kirsten: Welcome to This Week in Science everybody. We have so many stories today. There’s been a ton of news. We also have an interview at the half hour with… Dr. Leonard Susskind. He has written a book called “The Black Hole Wars” and how he was battling it out scientifically with Stephen Hawking. It’s actually a…

Justin: Quite possibly the smartest man alive.

Kirsten: It’s a really great book. Actually, I’m enjoying it thoroughly, thoroughly. So, we will have him on the phone coming up in about half hour. Yes, Justin got the hardback version. I got the early paperback version.

Justin: I got the hardback version but I always take the dust covers off.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: The promo stuff with the picture which is too bad because we could be looking at him. Now we can see his foot…

Kirsten: Look in his…

Justin: …with nothing on it. It’s like gray, yes.

Kirsten: Nice picture of Lenny. Well anyway, that’s what you have to look forward to. In the mean time, we’ve got science, so much science. And there’s a huge story this year – this week.

Justin: This Year in Science.

Kirsten: This Year in Science. A huge, huge story coming out of MIT and…

Justin: Who probably have more people with IQs in the 200.

Kirsten: Probably.

Justin: This is – they need to bottle the water?

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Seriously, they need to bottle the water that’s in like the pipes of the institution there and start selling it because these people are insanely – it’s like every week they’re changing the world.

Kirsten: Oh, look! MIT did something else amazing. Oh, look! MIT did something else amazing. What did they do this week? Well, they came out with a study on electrolysis and hydrogen power.

Justin: Oh, interesting! We’ve done lots of studies on hydrogen power in the past. Is there any interesting results from it? Did they come up with anything new?

Kirsten: Yes. Do you want to move on that?

Justin: Oh, I’ve just got the press release. I keep reading and reading it. It says here, “Until now, solar power has been a daytime only energy source…

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: …because storing extra solar energy for later use is prohibitively expensive. The recent announcement of MIT researchers say they have hit upon a simple, inexpensive and highly efficient process for storing that energy. But it’s more than just storing the energy.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: What they’re doing is basically room temperature separation of hydrogen from water. Huh ?? Which means…

Kirsten: Well.

Justin: …you can then actually – it means this is also hydrogen. This is the hydrogen economy right here. I’m going to skip all the way down to the prediction and just tell you what the prediction is at the bottom of the page.

Within ten years, homeowners will be able to power their homes in daylight through photovoltaic cells, while using excess solar energy to produce hydrogen and oxygen to power their own household fuel cell.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Electricity-by-wire from a central source will be a thing of the past within ten years and it’s completely green.

Kirsten: It’s completely green. I think the one thing that may be a problem in this is water. And water is something that is a finite resource on this planet and there are problems in many areas of the world with water supply.

And so, there’s going to be a fine balance in determining what water will be going to what purposes and who is going to get it. And so, I believe, water is going to be a very limiting factor in the future of this technology.

However, I think it’s a really amazing technology, the idea that you can take –and currently electrolysis, which breaks apart the water molecule into the hydrogen and oxygen components relies on electricity.

It’s not that it’s, room temperature, yes but no electricity required. It’s using a solar chemically catalyzed process to break these molecules apart now, not relying on electricity, relying on the power of the sun, pretty much basing it on the ideas of photosynthesis.

Justin: Yes. Then, it’s brilliant?

Kirsten: It’s brilliant. Daniel Nocera – I actually had the opportunity to interview him briefly and hear him speak in New York City in the spring and he is so passionate about what he’s doing. He was just, “This is the way of the future.” And his presentation was so vibrant and exciting. He’s a very – he loves what he is doing and I think that’s just wonderful. And he believes in the work that he’s doing. So yes, I’m going to – maybe I’ll take him…

Justin: Make a phone call, you know?

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Put people on the show and you can explain it properly.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: I’m too excited I can’t read anymore. I’ve gone blind. My eyes are blurry. This is…

Kirsten: So, what they’ve done – so far, they are using a much smaller voltage, a voltage that can be produced by solar cells, it’s not the same as the 120 volts that comes out of your wall.

And they’ve applied a much smaller, smaller voltage to an electrode that’s in water that relies on cobalt ions with two extra electrons, two plus, and phosphate ions in a solution.

The cobalt ions are soluble but then they get oxidized into cobalt three plus.

Justin: Hmm?

Kirsten: Yes. They lose electrons through this oxidation process and then, they stick to the electrode and then, maybe they lose more electrons. And so, they become more sticky and come out of solutions, stick to the electrode and in the process, this oxidation, they’re breaking up hydrogen and oxygen.

Justin: So then, where…

Kirsten: They’re given up electrons and they’re saying, “Break apart, you water molecules, break up.”

Justin: Some crazy, big number like maybe more than 50% of Americans live somewhere near an ocean. It’s probably like 70% of us live near the ocean. We got to be able to use this for like salt water, right? I mean we got to be able to pump, drain the ocean. We’ll just that.

Kirsten: Drain the ocean.

Justin: We’ll drill for ocean, right? That’s got to be easy, offshore ocean drilling.

Kirsten: Yes. I think that that will be the trick, being able to use salt water in this kind of process.

Justin: There’s lot of that stuff.

Kirsten: There’s lots of salt water.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: It’s the pure water, distilled water or, water that doesn’t have lots of stuff in it to corrode and…

Justin: Yes, that’s it. But the other thing is like we don’t have rooftop collectors for water, I mean we could. And many, many many parts of the country have some sort of rooftop on your house collect – of course and you’re vying against the solar (system). Well then, it had to be waterproof.

So basically, you could collect a lot of water from the sky. And people don’t.

Kirsten: Absolutely.

Justin: It’s like all kinds of stuff we could do if it was important enough. It’s like manna…

Kirsten: And this might make it – be that way.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: Another really exciting important part to this – so you’ve got the oxidation reduction reaction, the oxidation part of it that takes electrons from the cobalt that catalyzes a reaction that breaks apart the water molecules leading to the formation of hydrogen gas.

So you’ve got the cobalt that’s losing its electrons that’s sticking to electrodes you’re going to think, “Okay, so it’s just going to stay that way and pretty soon you’re going to have to replace your electrode.

You’re going to have to redo your solution. But no, it rebuilds itself. So you turn off the electrode and the cobalt starts to go back into solution and taking back electrons that it lost reforming itself down to the different electron state.

Justin: Huh?

Kirsten: Yes, so then you can start again. And Nocera says that it has this repair mechanism. So it – yes, it’s exciting.

Justin: I’m very excited.

Kirsten: The process seems to cycle without any losses. It’s amazing. It’s amazing. So as soon as everything gets working on a scaleable size. This is going to be big.

Justin: Again, make the phone call. Get him on the show.

Kirsten: No.

Justin: And use your cellphone too because – hey, do they melt brain? Do they cross the cellphones because…

Kirsten: This is a great article. Who sent in?

Justin: This was minion Marcy.

Kirsten: That’s right, Marcy.

Justin: Do they melt?

Kirsten: Yes, thank you.

Justin: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Yes, this is an awesome story. Do they melt your brain? Do they cause cancers, tumors in your bone marrow? Do cellphones need to be banned? That’s the question before.

The short answer is no. The long answer is, Noooooo!

While the issue has been studied and put the bed number of times a new can of rumor-made worms was opened when the media got hold of an internal memorandum by the head of a cancer research center in Pittsburgh, which warned employees of the center about the potential health risks of using devices like cellphones.

This is a story that people have now been asking me about constantly. There is a brilliant article – yes, that was sent in by minion Marcy, thank you.

The article was written by Eric Swanson who is an associate professor of Nuclear Physics at the University of Pittsburgh, member of the American Physics Society Forum on Physics in Society and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Kirsten: Consigned?

Justin: Consigned – no. He’s a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists and he is not concerned about cellphones.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: He did some tracking back of the prompting of the anti-cellphone memo. And there was – the cancer research director who made the memorandum also cited that the Toronto Department of Public Health had made a health alert advisory on the subject.

He went and actually looked at that and it turns out that the Toronto Department of Public Health advisory was issued by an anthropologist – not that there’s anything wrong with that. Anthropologists – good people, right? There’s nothing wrong with that. People make different choices in life.

But the thing is there’s no – okay, so where is the gloomy study though? Where is the gloomy study behind the advisory that says we’re all going to die of brain cancer from using cellphones?

Kirsten: There have been none yet.

Justin: Ipso facto infectus veritas – there isn’t one. And now I speak Latin as well because of my 158 IQ. It’s amazing! You’ll learn things just by knowing.

Swanson points out that the article…

Kirsten: Dear.

Justin: …in the article that cellphones broadcast under 2.1 GHz, which corresponds to an energy that is one million times less than of visible light. And wraps up the article pointing out, the only effect of such low energy radiation is a tiny amount of heating of the ear and the brain matter about one-thousandth as much as brain heating caused by wearing a hat.

Kirsten: Putting on a hat.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: I love it.

Justin: He also makes the analogy of its like…

Kirsten: So if using a cellphone is going to fry your brain then, you need to stop wearing hats, okay?

Justin: Eric Swanson is brilliant. He also makes…

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: …the analogy that its like…

Kirsten: Got analogy.

Justin: …throwing a Frisbee at a Mack truck and being afraid that the truck will fall apart. Similarly…

Kirsten: Oh no, I might break it.

Justin: Yes, I know. It’s like – no, it’s okay. Yes. If your wrist hurts from doing lots of texting, it’s not because you’re getting bone marrow cancer in your wrist. It’s because you probably got some tendonitis going on from texting. How does this…?

Kirsten: Oh, that’s a great study.

Justin: It’s so bizarre to me that…

Kirsten: Great story, great. And it’s well written too.

Justin: Yes, excellent and brilliant.

Kirsten: It’s an enjoyable read. Where was that again?

Justin: It’s in the – I don’t know, The Sunday Gazette.

Kirsten: Oh, the Post-Gazette. Yes, Post-Gazette, And it’s somewhere in there. There’s a lot of letters and numbers and dashes.

Justin: Kirsten trying desperately to keep us somewhat having credential ability for our news reporting.

Kirsten: Yes. Now in another story thats coming from the BBC that researchers at Aberdeen University have been doing research that they just presented at the International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease.

They have been researching using a drug known as Rember, otherwise called Methylthioninium Chloride, which is the first treatment specifically designed to target Tau Tangles that are related to Alzheimer’s disease.

Now about 20 or 30 – yup, 20 years ago this methylthioninium chloride was accidentally discovered to destroy the Tau Tangles in Alzheimer’s when a researcher like dropped some of it. It’s a blue dye that’s used in research very commonly.

It was dropped in a test tube and all the Tangles disappeared. And so, he was like, “May be should take a look at this and see what happens.” People have mostly been taking a look at beta-amyloid plaques because these plaques seem to build up.

They’re Tau Tangles and they lead to beta-amyloid plaque build up, and then, this all correlates with neurodegeneration and a lot of the behavioral symptoms that come along with Alzheimer’s disease.

So, they’ve been injecting patients with this drug that’s called Rember. 321 patients showed an 81% difference in the rate of mental decline compared with those not taking the drug. 81%, that’s highly significant.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: So, they’re going to have to do larger trials. They’re going to have to figure these all out but it looks as though they might be able to get this drug on the market as early as 2012, if things go well because they’re already in the stage of doing human drug trials.

So, they took patients and gave them either 30, 60 or 100 mg of the drug Rember or a placebo that did not contain anything. And the 60 mg dose had the highest effect.

And so, in 19 months, there was no significant decline in mental function in patients taking the drug. So, it seems that there might be, that this drug might be halting the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s pretty exciting.

Yes, they’re going to start more trials in 2009. And they’re going to also look at in addition to the… whether or not it halts the progression of the disease or whether or not this drug can have a preventive effect.

So if you know that you are likely to start coming down with Alzheimer’s or, if you have a predilection or if there’s some amount of – that you’re starting to get symptoms of some kind of another or, you’ve had your brain scanned and they’ve noticed something, maybe you can start taking it and keep yourself from getting Alzheimer’s.

So this is something that they’re going to look into. It’s really exciting that there’s this kind of result coming up because Alzheimer’s disease is something that a lot – it affects many, many people.

Justin: I’m totally bummed. I forgot one of my favorite stories this week. I can’t find it. It’s not here.

Kirsten: Oh, no!

Justin: Yes, but…

Kirsten: Anyway, thanks to Ed Dyer for sending in that story.

Justin: Exercise in a pill.

Kirsten: Oh yes.

Justin: Exercise – but they’ve actually…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …invented exercise in a pill.

Kirsten: They have. I do have that story here.

Justin: Find it. Find it because, it’s – if you’ve ever watched people running, walking, biking by — like all for the physical fitness reason and thought to yourself, “Self, if it wasn’t for you I’d be doing too.” This is definitely, definitely a huge, huge discovery for the couch potatoes.

Kirsten: Yes. There are two – gosh, I don’t even know where it is. But pretty much what happens is it stimulates parts of the metabolic pathway that are usually only stimulated by exercise.

So the idea is that they looked at gene products, I think and they also looked at the effects on rats that were given two different compounds. And the compounds both lead to loss of weight pretty much with — if the rats exercised or not.

Justin: Yes, I mean it helps stabilize glucose. It did like a bunch of things.

Kirsten: Yes, stabilized glucose.

Justin: It gave them 44 % more endurance when they would go running afterwards compared to other mice that weren’t given the drug. They’ve figure it out – actually, it was started with genetically-altered mice that they had the certain para- something pathways switched on so it was always generating – I guess it was generating something that would stimulate more ATP, which – I don’t even know what that is. But it made more ATP which then…

Kirsten: An ATP, it’s like the fuel for cells.

Justin: Okay.

Kirsten: It gives energy.

Justin: So basically, they discovered this in the genetic mice that was having this effect, that they were giving them a lot more endurance. They were running like little marathon mice. And then, the backtracked and found a couple of drugs that aren’t really on the market, don’t even have names. They’re drugs that just have numbers in the laboratory.

Kirsten: The article that is on the Nature website is actually kind of funny because it’s like, “Oh, now that we know about these drugs you know that long distance runners are going to abuse them.

Justin: Totally.

Kirsten: and it’s just – and it’s like the article…

Justin: As well as they should.

Kirsten: …the article is less about like the interesting aspects of the research than it is about the possibility for abuse in athletes…

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: …which is kind of sad. I’m like, I think it’s more exciting that people are finding a way to maybe help people with problems with obesity, help people who are bed-ridden…

Justin: Yes, totally.

Kirsten: …or who have diabetes I mean the…

Justin: Huge I mean if you have somebody who can’t get out of bed and exercise, this is, I mean this one can actually help stimulate their system.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: It can help increase muscle mass and all the rest of it to an extent I mean it’s more…

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: …the long distance endurance stuff. But people, athletes – the idea of athletes abusing themselves, that’s what people who workout are doing. That’s why they call it “no pain, no gain”. They’re involved in something masochistic in the now for a longer term benefit.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: They’re always abusing themselves. That’s the whole point of it.

Kirsten: Yes. To take this on a completely different tangent now towards like the Olympics and testing for drugs in any kind of competition really…

Justin: Which they already have the test by the way. They’ve already came up with their test and its…

Kirsten: Yes, they’re working on a test for this already to make sure that athletes aren’t – and they can even – they put athletes’ blood in urine samples on file for like years so they can test for this stuff even years later if a better test for these substances comes up five…

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: …years from now. They can retroactively go back and test athletes if somebody says, “Well, I think you should do that.” “Okay, we’ll test them.”

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: And it just (purse) – okay, so like you said, athletes are going out. And, they’re abusing themselves, they’re putting themselves, they’re fighting to get in peak physical condition.

Okay, why not allow athletes who feel like – maybe we can have two different groups of athletes — athletes who are, only basing their performance on what they can do through…

Justin: Just natural gene selection.

Kirsten: Natural – yes, through what they have naturally. What can you do? Let’s see if you…

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: …can work out to an optimum extent and eat foods that are of, the best, possible proportions for your workout regime and see what you can do. Let’s have…

Justin: That group of people.

Kirsten: Yes, that group of people. And let’s allow, if other athletes want to use, steroid like compounds or…

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: …these particular enzymes that boost the metabolism and let you run for 80% longer than your competitors. Well, let’s use drugs to allow…

Justin: Bring it.

Kirsten: …athletes to do the extreme limits…

Justin: Oh, that’s what football has been.

Kirsten: …of what the human body is able to do. Why not? Why not?

Justin: That’s what football has been for the last 30, 40 years. But yes. But also allow them genetic modification.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Allow them… they can’t robotic – come in.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: But robots – that’s the robot league too. You let the robot play against those guys, right…

Kirsten: I know you…

Justin: …and you just see what happens.

Kirsten: Just – yes, let the athletes go out and do whatever they want to do to get to the…

Justin: They need them.

Kirsten: …most extreme limit.

Justin: Best engineered system win.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: Why not?

Justin: (Honest?)

Kirsten: I ask everyone out there, why not? Why do we have this insistence on drug testing and leveling the playing field, making sure nobody has an advantage? What do I mean nobody has a better advantage? You get the best coach you can possibly get.

Justin: There you go.

Kirsten: You buy the best shoes you can possibly buy.

Justin: That’s an advantage.

Kirsten: You eat the best food you can possibly eat I mean, give me a break. Come on, that’s the whole point of competition. You’re looking for advantage.

Justin: Right, I mean certainly I think when a lot of the fear of this came along too, maybe it was access to the drugs that was, maybe making it available to all the athletes and then there’s no disadvantage.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: There is like, the illegal market in this means that are health ramifications for using steroids incorrectly so…

Kirsten: Right. And if there’s no illegal side to it, then we can monitor athletes.

Justin: You can have a doctor…

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: …not a, training coach, specialist, a guy you pay a lot of money on the side who shoots you in the butt with something that you hope is steroid every so often.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Right. I totally agree with you. Totally down with that.

Kirsten: Yes. I don’t know I mean one of the other things are also testing, for chromosomal abnormalities to make sure the people who are men aren’t competing as women and…

Justin: Which they found because there are actually women who have the…

Kirsten: More X chromosomes or a Y.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: Or they have a Y like double XY…

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: …or whatever it happens to be.

Justin: They figured that out because they were testing some of the East German women, someone was caught because they looked…

Kirsten: Oh, hey.

Justin: …rather manly. But it…

Kirsten: And the women didn’t know they were a man until they were tested?

Justin: Well, they weren’t. They’re still not a man if you have a – no, if they didn’t have the right equipment for that. And it didn’t actually make them – it wasn’t any sort of benefit physically in that regard either. They didn’t have different levels of testosterone and all the rest of that (from others) but it was interesting.

We have these so many more stories…

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: …we’re not going to get to… we’re running out of time. [Is that a] great work of art painted by one of the great masters, would you recognize its genius?

Kirsten: Oh, would I?

Justin: If not, no, maybe, I don’t know. But have no fear. You’re not alone. In fact, you’re in good company as even the great masters don’t always appreciate a good thing when they see it.

Kirsten: Nope.

Justin: Joris Dick, a material scientist from Delft University, and Koen Janssens, a chemist from the University of Antwerp found a new method for looking at hidden paintings using high-intensity x-rays from a particle accelerator.

Wow! How do you do that? How do you fit the painting in the particle accelerator? I don’t know how they do that. But while not exact in every detail, the image they produced shows a woman’s head that Vincent van Gogh painted over the painting and painted it over another painting called a “Patch of Grass”.

For the price of a fresh canvass, van Gogh who was truly a struggling artist back in the day, often painted over his own canvasses which means, maybe he didn’t appreciate what it would be worth one day. Poor guy.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: He also…

Kirsten: I don’t need this so let’s paint over it. I’ve got a better idea.

Justin: But yes, this was kind of interesting though, they really used chemistry in this and that they figured out that the different type of metal atoms used in the paints back in the day were specific to different pigments. And by correlating that to colors, they got a color image.

Usually when they do these x-ray things, you get this sort of fuzzy black and white image that just sort of lets you know the – like it’s almost like a really rough charcoal sketch of what’s underneath them, right?

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: The image they’ve recovered – it’s not a full image but it’s got color, it’s got some feeling of depth, or appearance of depth to it. And it’s really amazing improvement over past imaging techniques.

But it does require them to have the specific chemistry knowledge and history knowledge of what pigments were being used in that time. This is going to make – because if anybody has seen some of the painting things that they’ve taken from underneath frescoes and the other, this is a whole new way of going about it that looks very cool.

Kirsten: It is very cool. And unfortunately, it’s 9 o’clock.

Justin: World’s smallest snake ever – we don’t have time for – well, how was this made out of chicken feathers? It’s not a even joke people. It’s like the stuff that’s going on.

Kirsten: Seals steering by the stars.

Justin: Oh, seals.

Kirsten: Yes, seals steering by the stars.

Justin: You say that 17 times. I can’t even talk I mean…

Kirsten: What?

Justin: And (unintelligible) mechanism, it also predicts…with all the other wonderful things that old computer does, it also predicts the Olympics. It tells when the Olympics are going to come around again.

Kirsten: Every four years? Every two.

Justin: It’s every four and two years. They have like different, they didn’t… and it was never in China back then.

Kirsten: That’s right. And finally…

Justin: And it may have been from Syracuse now. This is amazing. It could be – no, it could be Archimedes. It’s like what?

Kirsten: And genes were found in the Fruit Fly by one of our favorite Fruit Fly researchers Bjorn Brembs.

Justin: Bjorn Brembs?

Kirsten: Yes. He found genes in the Fruit Fly that are expressed in the Fruit Fly neurons related to learning memory that are stimulated by Skinnarian learning. So, the Skinner box where you press a lever, get a food reward. Press a lever, get a food reward. Yes.

Justin: Where’s the button?

Kirsten: Exactly.

Justin: This means go other way, the button is not here.

Kirsten: Exactly, I got the button right here and I’m going to press it. And we are going to go to a break. We’ll be back in just a few moments.

Justin: With Dr. Leonard Susskind, the smartest man ever to live on the planet, I think.

Kirsten: What?


Kirsten: Welcome back. This is This Week in Science. And on the phone we have Dr. Leonard Susskind. He is the Felix Block professor of Theoretical Physics at Stanford University, the author of “The Cosmic Landscape,” and he’s a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Justin: And he is here to talk to us today about the new book “The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics .”

Kirsten: So, Dr. Susskind, are you with us?

Leonard Susskind: Yes, I am. Good morning.

Kirsten: Good morning. It’s great to have you on our show.

Leonard: Same here.

Kirsten: Yes. I remember we interviewed you briefly when your book “The Cosmic Landscape” came out. And it’s exciting to have you back to discuss black holes and the battle royale with Stephen…

Leonard: Yes, right.

Kirsten: That was years in the making.

Leonard: Right.

Justin: Set up the scenario for us. I think 1974 you walked into a conference, you look up on the big board there and you see that the world of physics has been set on fire and everyone is still sitting in the building…

Leonard: That’s right.

Justin: …acting very calmly.

Leonard: Okay, I’m not very good with arithmetic. In the book it says 1983, not 1974.

Justin: That’s probably totally correct. I might have – yes.

Leonard: Yes, yes, yes. But I was also incorrect. My wife and I were having dinner with Stephen Hawking about a month ago in his house in Cambridge. And Stephen asked me if I would read to him for a little bit from the book and I did. And I started out with how he and I met in 1983.

About five minutes later, it takes him that long to compose a little message, “Here, I think it was 1981” and my wife looked at me and said, “Yes, it was 1981.” Sorry. I’m just terrible at arithmetic.

Kirsten: Wait, that year wasn’t…

Leonard: Anyway, ’74, ’81, ’83 all the same. Yes, that’s right. We walked into a conference. It was a very small conference up in San Francisco and – oh, oh, oh, I know what you’re talking about. Excuse me. You’re talking about what I saw in New York, not in San Francisco.

Justin: Yes, I conflated the two, that I conflated the two, I think.

Leonard: Yes, yes, yes. That’s right. I forgot all about that. Yes, that’s right. I saw in the blackboard a set of equations, a picture that was drawn by in fact the person who was Stephen Hawking’s thesis advisor…

Kirsten: Right.

Leonard: …Dennis Sciama. And I was cold, I was wet and I had gotten into the lecture late and I couldn’t figure out what it was all about. It took about ten minutes to realize either that this man was completely nuts or there was something extremely dramatic that happened in physics.

It essentially came down to saying that black holes have some heat in them. Everybody had thought that black holes were the deadest, coldest objects there could possibly be, no heat in them, no life, no warmth and truly black.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Leonard: And here was this fellow who I’d never heard of before saying that, “No, black holes have a little bit of heat. And they shine with a tiny bit of light. And they eventually evaporate because all of this little bit of radiation that comes out of them eventually gives off all their energy and they just disappear.”

Now, he did say, “My student, Stephen, says this. My student, Stephen, says that.”

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Leonard: But at the time, I had never heard of Stephen Hawking. I have never heard of Dennis Sciama. And I simply thought this was a generous thesis advisor crediting his student. That’s usually what we do, we tend to sell our students.

Kirsten: Right.

Leonard: But it took a little while until Stephen Hawking burst into my consciousness and it was very clear that he was a great physicist, somebody who was in the process of revolutionizing physics.

Kirsten: So why was it that, pretty much the entire physics community until that point believed that black holes were these dead cold stars I mean I’m sure it’s…

Leonard: Well, it’s because they failed to take into account quantum mechanics.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Leonard: Quantum mechanics that makes everything fluctuate a little bit. It gives a little bit of randomness to everything. The perfect idealized black hole without quantum mechanics was an infinitely cold, dead thing.

But quantum mechanics caused the horizon of the black hole, the edge that you can see, just the place that you can see to causes it to fluctuate and vibrate a little bit.

And fluctuating and vibrating creates a little bit of heat. And that quanto-mechanical heat is eventually radiated away in what is now called Hawking radiation until the black hole evaporates.

And so, it was that – nobody had ever thought that quantum mechanics which – remember what quantum mechanics is, it’s that which rules the world of the very small, the very light, single electrons. How could it have anything to do with these giant objects, black holes, and that was shock. That was really the shock, that quantum mechanics could cause black holes to evaporate.

Kirsten: That’s right and the amount of energy.

Justin: Yes. Well, especially because that, come on, that’s black holes. That’s relativity, right? That’s there. That’s sort of almost – there’s almost like two rounds in physics, right? They’re about…

Leonard: Yes, yes I mean black holes was relativity theory. It was a theory of gravity. It was Einstein’s general relativity. And it really was thought to be quite apart and quite separate, not inconsistent we hoped but quite separate from the world of quantum mechanics.

And the reason was very simple. Gravity, relativity had to do with big, big, massive things. Quantum mechanics had to do with tiny, tiny things. And how could anything be big enough and massive enough for quantum mechanics to matter? How could anything be small enough and light enough for gravity to matter?

So we thought these were separate worlds. And it was really Stephen and another physicist by the name of Jacob Bekenstein, who really shoved it in our face that quantum mechanics had to be confronted in the world of black holes.

Kirsten: So, Stephen was saying that these black holes – while everyone else thought they were cold and dark, they’ve got all this energy and they’re evaporating through heat loss… heat production, heat loss. But at the same time, he still did not believe that there was any information lost from it?

Justin: Although there was.

Leonard: Oh no, he’s…

Kirsten: Although there was information lost from the universe into black holes.

Leonard: It took another two years for him to, sort of come forth with an idea that was actually quite extraordinary. It did turn out to be wrong. But the question that he asked, it was a very, very deep question. And the question goes something like this. It’s a rule in physics that nothing ever really gets lost.

Sometimes information – the distinctions between things get very, very badly scrambled. The example that I’d like to use is you have a bathtub full of water and you dropped ink into it – drip, drip, drop, drip. And you send that ink in, sending a Morse code message if you like.

That Morse code message would be information. The information gets all scrambled up in the water but nevertheless, it’s there. If you could examine every single molecule, you could trace it backward and you could reconstruct the message.

Eventually, the bathtub evaporates. What happens to that message? Well, that message is radiated out in a form of the steam, water vapor and – but it’s still there. It never completely disappears, that little bit of information. That’s a fundamental rule of physics. And essentially everything we know about physics is based on it.

And here was Stephen. Stephen came to the conclusion – and it was a very, very compelling conclusion, that when information, the drip, drip, drop of water or any other kind of information falls into a black hole, it can never get out. It’s lost forever. It cannot get out of the black hole without exceeding the speed of light – and nothing can exceed the speed of light. And yet eventually, that would be okay.

Okay, information falls into a black hole. There it is inside the black hole. You can never get at it.

Justin: It’s stuck there.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Leonard: But then, the darn black hole just evaporates and it’s gone. And so, Stephen said, “The basic law of physics that says that nothing is ever lost is wrong. Black holes will violate it.”

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Leonard: And that was really stunning.

Justin: To you.

Leonard: It was shocking.

Kirsten: Right.

Leonard: It turns out to be wrong but…

Justin: Yes.

Leonard: …it led to some very, very profound insights and developments in physics that we’re still trying to absorb.

Justin: The amazing thing to me is also how String Theory got involved in this at some point.

Leonard: Yes.

Justin: But how – when looking at the black hole, I get this weird feeling like when we’re talking about things in the quantum level and we’re talking about, gravity in the large scale. You have the relativists who were explaining the very large things, the quantum physicist explaining the very small things…

Leonard: Right.

Justin: …and it’s sort of that’s the divide between the big and small.

Leonard: That’s the divide or thought to be the divide.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: (Unintelligible).

Justin: Because now, we’ve got the quantum physics. It’s almost like they jumped inside of the black hole and said, “You can have everything between all of space except in the black hole and things that are very small.” And now, it’s going well beyond that.

How did quantum physics surround the black hole and figure out a way to keep our information loss out of the universe?

Leonard: Well, of course that’s the story of the book.

Justin: And it’s the whole book, I know.

Leonard: Yes.

Justin: Tell me the whole book again, please. I want to hear it again.

Leonard: And it was a fundamental paradox. Well, let me explain the paradox another way. Look, most of the great physics or the great theoretical physics that has happened in the past grew out of paradox, grew out of conflict of principles, grew out of two principles both of which seemed they had to be right…

Kirsten: Yes.

Leonard …and yet they couldn’t be right. They couldn’t both be right because they conflicted with each other. That’s what was happening here.

And let me explain it this way. One view of the horizon of a black hole is that it is a point of no return. And I’ll explain what that means. Imagine that you’re in a row boat and you’re floating down Niagara River.

Kirsten: Oh, dear.

Leonard: Okay? And at some point, the river velocity exceeds the velocity at which you can row. Obviously, when you pass that point you’re in trouble. You can’t outrow the river. And you may still be alive and in fact, you may not have even realized that anything important has happened. Everything is floating along with you. You feel perfectly safe but you passed the point of no return. You cannot out row the river.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Leonard: Eventually, you’re going to go over the edge. So, you’re doomed. You’re not dead, but you’re doomed. That’s pretty much the idea of the horizon of a black hole.

At the center of a black hole… that’s like the rocks at the bottom of the river, extremely dangerous. They will kill you. The horizon of the black hole is just like this point of no return. You don’t feel anything when you pass it. You may be doomed but you don’t know it. And so, that was the standard picture.

Oh, incidentally, when I say you can’t outrow the flow of the water, in the context of a black hole, nothing can outrow the flow toward the center of the black hole, nothing light included.

Kirsten: Right.

Leonard: The flow is so fast that even light can’t get out. No signal can get out. Nothing can get out. So, the black hole was thought to be pretty much like Niagara River — nothing special, no sign post, no warning, no warning sirens. You don’t get hit over the head when you pass the point of no return. It’s just you passed the point of no return. That’s all that a black hole horizon was supposed to be.

Justin: You can no longer warn anybody behind you that there’s a black hole coming.

Leonard: Actually you can. You can – that’s right.

Kirsten: But you don’t know it.

Leonard: You can’t warn anybody behind you because your signal cannot get out.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: Yes.

Leonard: Even your light waves get dragged in, right. So that’s a point of no return. But nothing special happens and in particular, you don’t get harmed when you through the horizon of a black hole. That was the classic picture that followed from Einstein’s theory of gravity.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Leonard: The Equivalence Principle it’s called. But then, when people started to think, in particular Jacob Bekenstein and Hawking started to think about the combination of gravity with quantum mechanics, something new came up.

According to the quanto-mechanical picture …the quanto-mechanical picture said all the material that ever falls on to the black hole, all the information, all the distinctions between things which might have fallen into the black hole collect via the horizon of the black hole, via this place which was supposed to be nothing but a point of no return.

And they get hotter and hotter and hotter.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Leonard: And eventually, this horizon becomes a seething, boiling, hot mass of information that are spread over the two-dimensional horizon of the black hole. These seem like extremely conflicting views of what a black hole is.

And to see that they’re conflicting, you can imagine we always talk about (Alice) and (Bob). That (Bob) always stays outside the black hole. (Alice) always falls into the black hole.

Kirsten: Poor (Alice).

Leonard: Poor (Alice), right. And what happens to (Alice)? From one point of view, from the point of view of the equivalence principle, the principle that said that the horizon is nothing but a point of no return. The picture was that (Alice) would just smoothly and comfortably just slide past the horizon, nothing bad would happen to her at that point.

A little bit later after she went over the waterfall, she might crash into the rocks which translated…

Kirsten: Smash.

Leonard: …to hit the singularity.

Kirsten: Yes.

Leonard: But the horizon is nothing at all. That was one picture. So, (Alice) just -cool as a cucumber, just slides past the horizon. That was one picture.

The other picture that follows from quantum mechanics was that (Alice) as she approaches the horizon get hotter and hotter and hotter and eventually becomes evaporated, ionized and radiated out away from the horizon in the form of elementary particles. How could both of those be true?

Justin: Yes, that’s the big question. One of them has to be right. One of them has to be wrong or maybe not?

Leonard: Or maybe not.

Justin: Right.

Leonard: Right.

Kirsten: Or maybe the universe is a lot stranger than we thought.

Leonard: Right. That’s right. It seems like they’re conflicting. It seems like how can they both one thing and its opposite be true. Either (Alice) was destroyed at the horizon or she wasn’t. They are negatives of each other and they can’t both be true.

Well, what we found and what is now believed, is that they are both true. That in (Alice’s) frame of reference, yes, she falls through and is totally unharmed. (Bob) watching her from the outside, every experiment that he does, every empirical observation that he can make, every counting of the Hawking radiation will say (Alice) was destroyed at the horizon and radiated back out.

Why is there no conflict between the two of them? Well, physics is an operational science. You only have a conflict when somebody does an experiment and gets two different answers.

(Alice) cannot report back from behind the horizon.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Leonard: She cannot say, “I’m okay (Bob).” Or she can say it but (Bob) will never get the information. So it’s one of these situations are really careful analysis of what can be measured, what can’t be measured, what can be detected.

So, there really is no conflict. Both things are true. And but it is one of the most puzzling and I should say unintuitive discoveries in physics that both are true.

Kirsten: Right.

Leonard: Ultimately, it led to an entirely new principle in physics which is gradually being absorbed into the mainstream of physics called the Holographic Principle.

Justin: Which is many times as I’ve had to rewire my own brain over the years.

Leonard: Right.

Justin: That one is going to take a lot of soldering.

Leonard: That was – yes, exactly. That’s right. One of the themes of the book is that physics, modern physics is about things which are extremely hard to understand because we simply weren’t wired for a world of parameters that are so strange that were, were so far from ordinary things. And we do have to rewire ourselves to understand them.

This is the thing that we’re now rewiring ourselves about. But essentially, one way of saying what’s going on… if you know what a hologram is. A hologram is a two-dimensional sheet of film. It’s a two-dimensional sheet of film which contains somehow in it full three-dimensional information.

If you looked at the film that was made of a holographic film, and you look at it through a microscope, all you see is a bunch of random, noisy scratches that are not really scratches. They’re just little lines.

And you just see something completely undecipherable. There’s no image there that you can make sense of. But if you know the code and the code simply in this case can be decoded by shining some light on the hologram, it will reconstruct itself into a full three-dimensional solid image, not like a picture.

A picture is really two-dimensional but the hologram is three-dimensional. You can go around to the back of it and look at it from the back, you can look at it from the side. And so, it really is three-dimensional information that’s somehow been encoded or encrypted on a two-dimensional sheet. That’s more or less what we’ve found out the horizon of the black hole is like.

Justin: It chills.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Leonard: The horizon of the black hole was like the film, a scrambled, undecipherable…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Leonard: …a very, very difficult to decipher representation of what falls into the black hole.

Kirsten: Right.

Leonard: So (Alice) is like the image. What (Bob) sees is like the scratchy, random, noisy film. But on top of everything else, just like a real film, would eventually evaporate. And real films do eventually evaporate. Everything eventually evaporates. That film on the surface of the black hole, that hologram on the surface of the black hole eventually evaporates.

So, it’s very confusing. What is real, I mean, the real…to the question is what is real? And what we’re finding out is that reality is more relative than we had ever really thought.

Einstein taught us that reality is relative in a certain sense but it’s gotten much, much deeper. We now seem to have almost conflicting 180 degree differences between what (Alice) would experience from what (Bob) would detect that she experiences and yet it’s all in the eye of the beholder. It all depends on the frame of reference of who is asking the question.

One of – now, it’s gone deeper. We’ve begun to realize that it’s not just the black hole which is behaving like a hologram but the whole universe as a whole seems in many ways to resemble in the hologram with everything that we see, all the world of ordinary experience, stars, planets, people, being the holographic image of a mathematical film, an imaginary film that’s way out at the surface of the boundaries of the universe. That’s the theme that much of physics is about now.

Kirsten: It’s amazing. It’s just is something that you start to try and wrap your head around it and it’s just so fantastical. But it’s just amazing that mathematics can lead us in this direction.

Unfortunately, we’re at the end of our hour here so I’m going to have to wrap this up. But…you make the comment in the book that really it was – even though Steven Hawking was wrong in his hypothesis that information was lost, he asked the questions that led everyone in this direction.

Leonard: Absolutely. Absolutely, I mean, to say that it was Steven Hawking’s mistake is so entirely a wrong way to think about it. It was a fabulous and deep and profound question that just took a lot of guts and a lot of boldness to ask.

The fact that he gave the wrong answer – well, that he gave the answer that he could give at the time.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Leonard: And he stuck to his guns. And by sticking to his guns, he sort of forced us to answer the question. If he wouldn’t have asked the question – if he wouldn’t have stuck to his guns about it, probably nobody would have even bothered to try to figure it out.

Kirsten: Or it would have been a long time in the coming.

Justin: And I think this…

Leonard: I think it would have been a much longer time in the coming, that’s right.

Justin: And I think the same can be said for you because of course when you took up this idea, it was a not very popular one.

Leonard: That’s true.

Justin: And it took a lot of work to convince and a lot of convincing to be done to…

Leonard: Oh, you said it.

Justin: Yes.

Leonard: That was true.

Justin: Yes. I can’t wait to read The Holographic Universe. When is that coming out?

Kirsten: Yes.

Leonard: Oh, you mean the next book…

Justin: The next book

Kirsten: The next book.

Leonard: … that I promised to write someday.

Justin: Someday? You’re not even working… come on, get working.

Leonard: Well, I’m working on the physics of it now.

Justin: Oh, details.

Leonard: I even have a lot of cosmologists to working on the physics of it but…

Justin: Details, details, details. Yes, just asking.

Leonard: I can’t write the book until we know the answer. I never write books about things I don’t know the answer to…

Kirsten: And that’s a start…

Leonard: …or at least I don’t think – I shouldn’t say that but I never write a book unless there’s some degree of consensus about what the answer is likely to be or what the answer might be.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Well, a lot of us want to follow along the journey regardless.

Kirsten: Yes.

Leonard: Okay. I hope so.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: It’s a fascinating journey. You’ve written a very great story here that is full of good science that really does a great job of trying to explain something that’s so mind-bending.

And I thank you very much for joining us on the show today. Thank you for writing “The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics .” And I’m glad that you guys were able to maintain a friendship through this entire battle.

Leonard: (Unintelligible). Thank you very much.

Kirsten: Thank you.

Justin: Thank you Dr. Susskind.

Kirsten: Have a great day. Bye.

Leonard: Bye-bye.

Kirsten: That was Dr. Leonard Susskind. He’s an interesting fellow.

Justin: He’s a cool cat.

Kirsten: He’s a cool cat, a smart, cool cat who writes some great books. Anyway, that’s it for us today. Next week, we’re going to be joined by Michael Stebbins, our semi…

Justin: Policy (nut) wonk.

Kirsten: …semi monthly? Yes, policy.

Justin: (Nut) wonk or what’s going on. The Weird from Washington, that guy, yes.

Kirsten: The Weird from Washington, that’s right. And as usual, science, science, science.

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

Kirsten: It is all in your head.

Credits to: Paul Vieglemann for Editing. Listen to the Podcast here: