Transcript: Dec 11, 2007

Justin: Good morning, Kirsten.

Kirsten: Good morning, Justin.

Justin: And happy birthday to me because it is my birthday today.

Kirsten: It’s your birthday today?

Justin: Yes and I didn’t…

Kirsten: Why do I never know this until…?

Justin: Because I never tell people until the day or the day after. I gave myself…

Kirsten: There’s no chance to prepare.

Justin: I got myself an awesome present for my birthday.

Kirsten: Yes?

Justin: A fever induced three-day in bed sick-o-rama which turned into a detox session. Haven’t had any of the nicotine since the weekend.

Kirsten: Good job.

Justin: Since the beginning of the weekend.

Kirsten: Good job.

Justin: When I first went down into pajama and blanket land. It’s awesome.

Kirsten: That is awesome.

Justin: I think I’m a brand new person. I feel a little bit insane. To be quite honest with you, I don’t feel quite normal.

Kirsten: Oh, this is going to be a fabulous show. I can see it already, feverish, delirium…

Justin: I feel like I could leap over a building.

Kirsten: Withdrawls.

Justin: I could. I’m going to try. As soon as the show is over, I’m going to go outside and try jumping over a building. I think I can do it.

Kirsten: Could. Okay, well, this is the very first stage. We’ll see where you are next week. But I see…

Justin: (Kirsten), I’ve only had a sip of the coffee. This is – I haven’t drunk a – this is the first sip of the coffee this morning. And I’m just – it’s crazy.

Kirsten: It seems crazy.

Justin: But I would suggest – if anybody – because I’ve tried to quit the nicotine many, many times in life and it’s so hard. I would suggest to anybody trying actively…

Kirsten: Do it when you get sick, right.

Justin: No. Go out. Go to your like a local preschool, just shake hands with all the children. Don’t wash your hands afterwards.

Kirsten: Oh, ouch.

Justin: Find a way to get yourself a nice two-day in bed type flu symptoms kind of thing just where you fatigue and the throwing up and all of those stuff. Because then, you won’t have the will to fight. Those little craving things that attack you, you won’t be – they’re not there.

Kirsten: They’re not there. They just don’t care.

Justin: They get trumped by fever and wretchedness. That’s the way to do it. Forget all those patchings and gummings and lozenges and hypnotherapy, needles in the – no.

Kirsten: That’s right. Just go get disease from children.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: Message of the day. Welcome to This Week In Science, everybody. It’s Kirsten and Justin here for the next hour. We have an interview at 9 o’clock with astrobiologist, Chris Impey from the University of Arizona.

Justin: Achoo.

Kirsten: Achoo, excuse me. I’ve been sneezing all morning. I don’t know what I’m doing with allergies on a day like today. But anyway, we’re going to be talking with Chris about his new book, The Living Cosmos: Our Search for Life in the Universe.

I don’t if we’re going to be talking about the book per se but we’re sure we’ll be talking about…

Justin: Aliens?

Kirsten: Aliens.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: The alien’s among us. We’re going to be talking about everything that astrobiology is about. So stay tuned for that. In the meantime, we’ve got all sorts of the stories that you know and love. Well, maybe don’t know because we’re telling them to you today.

If you’d like to call in…

Justin: And we’re telling you that you will love them so you will.

Kirsten: That’s right. If you’d like to call in for the next half hour, 25 minutes, the phone number is 530-752-2777. And if you would like to check out the website online, the address is or They go to the same place.

I’ve been posting detailed show notes that have links to all the stories that we talk about. So if you miss something or if you want more information and you want to start the research yourself, you can go to our website and get links that will direct you places.

And I’m also putting up, you know — people keep asking me what it was that band that you played at the break and everything because I’m labeling. And I’m letting you know all the music that we’re playing on this show so you can see who the bands are and where they come from and all that kind of stuff. Links, links, links galore.

So why don’t we get started? Speaking of the disease.

Justin: Woohoo! Wait, what?

Kirsten: Woohoo! Yes. Okay, so we had Ralph called in on like a month or so back. He is a researcher who looks at…

Justin: All the chemicals…

Kirsten: …chemicals.

Justin: …in our environment that have been added over the last century.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Or less…

Kirsten: And we talked a bit about a certain chemical called tricocarban which is not triclosan but it’s a similar type of molecule, a halide. What is it? A halogenated – I’m forgetting. Anyway…

Justin: I believe you.

Kirsten: Anyway, basically, it’s a carbon based ring structure that is persistent in the environment after it gets into the environment. It doesn’t break down right away. So the question is, once it gets into the environment, is it going to have negative effects on animals and humans because if it’s staying there, what’s it doing. Or is it completely inert?

Well, research seems to be building up that to the extent that it’s not such good stuff. And there’s in fact a study that just came out from UC Davis here, our home school that shows that in human cells in the laboratory, triclocarban increased gene expression that’s normally regulated by testosterone in addition when given to male rats, testosterone dependent organs such as the prostate gland grew abnormally large.

Justin: Huh?

Kirsten: Yes, triclocarban is used in hand soaps, personal care products like body washes, lotions, in household products like baby wipes and detergents and all sorts of stuff. So it’s it as very common. And usually it’s in products that say anti bacterial soap.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: Yes. So it hasn’t been tested yet.

Justin: Which again is extremely hard to not find now.

Kirsten: Oh, it’s everywhere.

Justin: You have to like scourer…

Kirsten: You have to look for stuff that doesn’t have this or triclosan in it.

Justin: Right. It’s like anything that has — now everything else has high fructose corn syrup which causes like children to have diabetes immediately like instantaneously?

Kirsten: It’s not instantaneous.

Justin: What is that?

Kirsten: Disclaimer, disclaimer, disclaimer.

Justin: But no. It’s like in everything though. It’s like these – they get this product and they just say, “Okay this is the – now, if you’re not anti bacterial soap, you’re not in the soap business anymore everybody wants that way.

Kirsten: Right. Because everybody wants anti bacterial products because they’re afraid of bacteria because they’ve been — just people are being I guess conditioned to be afraid of microbes and bacteria because those are the things that cause disease in humans.


Justin: Just help me quit (smoking)…

Kirsten: There is over one million pounds of triclocarban imported annually for the US market. And it’s – this product has been in use in Europe and United States for over 45 years. So if it doesn’t disintegrate, where does it go? That means that there’s possibly 45 million pounds of triclocarbon in the environment…

Justin: In our fatty tissue alone because we can handle that…

Kirsten: …there’s stuff that – possibly. But okay, so the big things about this is that it is an endocrine disruptor. The research, it’s showing it’s an endocrine disruptor.

Justin: Messes with hormones.

Kirsten: It messes with hormones. Testosterone is the male hormones in humans, in mammals. And so, in these rats the prostate gland grew big because of triclocarbon.

So, maybe this is another clue as to what’s happening in our environment that is leading to an increased prevalence of things like prostate cancer in humans although this study itself does not — is not actually on humans.

Justin: No. And it’s one of the things that always still annoys me about science’s timidness as it were. There’s a disclaimer on the…

Kirsten: It’s never 100% so that…

Justin: I know.

Kirsten: And you can’t say that.

Justin: But this story from UC Davis, from their press release from UC Davis has the disclaimer at the end, “We wouldn’t want people to determine whether or not this antibacterial soap is safe or not based on this study.”

Right. But then you look at all the other studies and all the other evidence. I mean can’t we — are we allowed to formulate an idea based on science or who do we trust on the other hand.

Kirsten: Sure. Well, it’s basically, you’re taking…

Justin: The advertising companies?

Kirsten: You’re taking all the information that’s available to you and then you process that information and make your best decision as to how you’re going to continue to live your life.

Justin: Disclaimer, disclaimer, disclaimer. No liability upon them.

Kirsten: Okay.

Justin: Right. No, I understand. I get that. But, I mean, sciences is science. And science should say look, there may be other evidence that says that, hey, maybe this – you could say maybe it cures cancer. Why not? But for sure, it messes with endocrine systems in mice. And very likely then will do so in humans too.

Kirsten: Slightly.

Justin: I mean you could probably tell people I wouldn’t use it. And I did this. I was part of this study. I did this study. I’m a scientist. I would not use these.

Kirsten: Yes. Well, the –and with these antibacterial products, the reality is that if you do not use them but you wash your hands…

Justin: Oh, yes.

Kirsten: …regularly soap is equally effective at removing bacteria from your skin.

Justin: it’s kind of weird…

Kirsten: Equally effective.

Justin: …I always wondered about that with the antibacterial soaps.

Kirsten: It doesn’t make difference.

Justin: Is it supposed to be killing the bacteria that are going down the drain?

Kirsten: The – yes.

Justin: Is that pretty much like — because otherwise, it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: Yes, makes no sense to me.

Justin: I’m going to kill bacteria in the sewer by using anti bacterial. Of course I’m going to kill the weak bacteria in the sewer and then my sewer will be full of strong bacteria.

Kirsten: Strong bacteria. And then they’re all going to (call as) into a giant slime organism and come and kill us all. No.

Justin: So, like okay, my printer is done. It’s over. I need a new printer. I’m out there searching for a new printer in life. So I emailed stuff to Kirsten this morning and I get everything and it’s got holes on the margin. And this is the most — I can’t read almost. It’s so distracting, these holes in the margin.

But here’s a…

Kirsten: Sorry about that.

Justin: It – I…

Kirsten: Sorry about the paper with the holes in the margin, Justin. Just read the story.

Justin: Okay.

Kirsten: Just read the story. Bring it.

Justin: Belief, disbelief and uncertainty activate distinct brain regions. Huh? We have different parts of our brain that account for whether we believe something or don’t believe in it.

Capacity for the human mind believe or believe, a statement is a powerful force for controlling basically anything we do because we have to make these decisions constantly continually quickly. We believe this we don’t believe that, okay.

I saw somebody go through door number one and they entered the cafe. I should probably go through — I believe that if I go through door number one, I also – it’s just everything is based on these quick assumptions that things are going to…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …work out which really…

Kirsten: Experience leads to beliefs in future events.

Justin: Now here’s something a little interesting because we always wondered what happened to our sense of smell. You know most animals in the animal kingdom rely very heavily on their sense of smell for doing these, for everything. I mean dogs are constantly figuring out their environment through smell. I mean pretty much all animals are.

This — and this study found…

Kirsten: I can’t smell anything.

Justin: No, I’m starting to. I’m frightened. That’s the thing that scares me most about the non-nicotine using portion of my life now is the sense of smell comes back. And it comes back like sight comes back to a blind man. It comes back to a sense that your entire brain is turned on full volume because we’re not getting anything. Turn it up higher and then when it comes back, everything is a powerful scent and that’s all — the world stinks. It’s a foul smelling place.

But anyway, back to the story. New study found that belief, disbelief in the certain — affect the distinct regions in the brain with belief and disbelief affecting areas associated with the pleasantness and unpleasantness of odors.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: So a lot of our belief and disbelief portions of our brain that reflect whether we do or don’t believe something are triggered in the areas that are associated with odor.

Kirsten: Ha!

Justin: Which I think is just kind of interesting. Maybe we’ve somehow recombobulated the odor sensing portions of our brain to take care of some of this more cognitive decision making stuff.

Kirsten: Well it would make sense if something smells like it’s decaying, something smells – what we would consider bad.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: It might be a signal that it’s not a good place for us to go, a healthy place for us to go. And so, I mean I would believe my sense of smell in that case.

Justin: Oh, yes. Absolutely.

Kirsten: Smells bad. Don’t go there.

Justin: So it’s kind of – they did a bunch of MRI stuff. I’m sure there was monkeys are rats as some kind of thing involved. But the basic thing of this is a little bit also disturbing in a way because they’re also determining that you can actually see whether somebody is believing or not believing a statement. And they’re trying to figure a way — because of the MRI, because where it’s triggering in the brain, they triggered slightly different areas.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: So what would be kind of interesting is I think they could do a reverse, sort of a reversed lie detector where they can get you to see – they could be watching to see if you’re believing or disbelieving your own statements.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Wouldn’t that be kind of wow? It’s like the new truth detectors, don’t tell if you’re saying the truth or not the truth. It just tell if you actually believe what you’re saying.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Which for some people that could be – I think there’s people out there that talk constantly that don’t believe what they’re saying and there’s others out there that probably sincerely believe even the biggest BS that they’ve ever thrown out but…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Yes. That’s kind of a – it’s kind of an interesting…

Kirsten: That would be definitely an interesting new lie detector.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: Do you believe what you’re telling me? Because if you believe it – but I don’t know. Sometimes you might be telling the truth but not believe it. There’s something about it even though you saw it with your own eyes or, that there is a truth to what you’re saying however you might not have face in what you saw.

So there is, it would have to be – if they were to use this as a lie detection technology, they would have to correlate it with other methods of lie detection because there are psychological states – I mean there are probably reasons where people would not necessarily believe what they’re saying.

Justin: Right. What they’ve done here – and they’ve contrasted between disbelief and belief by showing increased signal in the interior insula which point to the part of the brain, where is that, Kirsten?

Kirsten: It’s in there.

Justin: It’s awe way in it. It’s deep.

Kirsten: It’s in there, yes.

Justin: It’s deep. Origin and involved and necessitate, the perception of pain and the feeling of disgust indicated that false propositions actually disgust us. So that was the thing. It’s like disbelief is actually the repugnant. It something that smells bad and it’s actually painful.

So I mean I’ve been a salesperson for over 15 years. I know people who can lie and be completely undisgusted or repulsed by it.

Kirsten: Right. Right.

Justin: So then, I wonder yes like, if that can actually work for everybody but…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …I can see how most people, just the notion of some — not believing something is just repugnant. It’s a false – it’s like bad meat. It’s like…

Kirsten: Well, you’re brought up not to tell…

Justin: It’s like a dog that doesn’t eat a piece of meat.

Kirsten: You’re brought up not to tell lies. And so, if you’re saying something that’s a lie and it goes against what you’ve been brought up to believe or brought up to think is right or wrong then you’re going to be internally going, “I’m lying. I’m lying. This is bad. This is bad. This is bad.” So, I don’t know. Psychology stuff is fascinating. We’ll never know anything about ourselves.

Justin: The brain is a wonderful place to play but I had never want to live there.

Kirsten: It is. Another wonderful place to play is the rings of Saturn. Yes. The rings of Saturn. A couple of papers came out this week in the Journal Science talking about how the small planet, not planets, the moons of Saturn actually formed in the rings.

The hypothesis that has been the leading hypothesis is basically that the moons began as kind of leftovers from – that they started from leftover shards of things that broke apart.

And then they became filled out as they collected material from other broken bodies and debris that was surrounding the body of Saturn so that the accretion disc that basically there was an accretion disc of the planet that came together and there was debris around the outside as asteroids and the planetoids and little things came in and crashed into Saturn that debris would be left when things crashed into each other around Saturn.

There would be chunks left in little tiny pieces, big chunks, little chunks. And that the bigger chunks, if they were of a particular size or more, they would be more likely to collect these little tiny pieces.

And so, there have been pictures coming in for the rings. They’ve been looking at all of these pictures at – the Cassini mission has been sending back, beaming back to us.

And they’ve been able to determine that this is probably what happened and they used calculations and computer simulations to be able to determine that they had to be about ten kilometers – the initial chunk to make a moon had to be about ten kilometers or six miles in diameter to be able to start collecting debris to make a 19 mile or 30 kilometer mile diameter moon.

Justin: It still just amazes me that if – I mean however the rings formed…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: It’s pretty cool because I haven’t seen it on any other planet.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: And they’re pretty amazing looking and there’s something weird honestly about the rings, about the sort of the single plane that they’re taking.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: There’s something really not right about them. Well I don’t mean not right. But I mean there’s something that just sort of boggles the…

Kirsten: Well, they think that…

Justin: If you look at our debris in space and it just — like you were talking about how the – how must I said, the Martians – the Chinese blew up the satellite.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Why do they think Martians – the red army and maybe that’s it.

Kirsten: I don’t know.

Justin: The Chinese blew up that satellite.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Now, there’s debris that sort of in all sorts of different areas as a debris…

Kirsten: It’s spreading out.

Justin: …field there that’s spreading out.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: And then, like the debris around Saturn though is so nicely uniform and compact, it’s…

Kirsten: Well, it’s also from like millions of years of time of this material spreading out of the rings and the planet spinning and being able to flatten out and spread out overtime.

They think that Saturn could be used as a model for all sorts of planetary and solar system formation – that basically the general idea is that everything forms from an initial clumping of material as it starts to collect. And there’s an accretion disc of material that gets brought in to that.

So our very own solar system probably formed in a similar manner. And so…

Justin: So Saturn’s our sun. Saturn is also an example of the center of the Milky Way.

Kirsten: Right. Right, exactly.

Justin: Saturn is (got you). Interesting.

Kirsten: So it’s kind of an interesting idea. And in fact, one of the two papers in Science this Week suggests they looked at a couple of moons that, let’s see the two of them, they’re called Pan and Atlas. And they actually have these weird ridges along their midlines.

And so people have been trying – research have been trying to determine where these ridges would have come out.

Justin: Planetary love handles.

Kirsten: Exactly. Why do you have that handle there? I would have grabbed it. It’s so cute. Anyway, what they think based on the pictures that they’ve got back and the data that they’ve been analyzing – that they actually say that the ridges might be there remains of fossilized accretion discs. So that these accretion discs are actually very fundamental to the development of all parts of the universe. So that everything accretes.

And as it comes together, it can either clump, it can like spread out, you know what is our — our asteroid belt is probably very similar to one of Saturn’s rings.

There’s just — it’s really, it’s an interesting way to think of it if you’ll look at those levels. Yes.

Justin: This is a story that I have to say here is — oh, by the way, one the stories didn’t get printed out or I forget to send you. Giant dinosaur found frozen in Antarctica.

Kirsten: Ooh.

Justin: Oh not that completely – I mean it was frozen and fossilized. It’s not the frozen dinosaur.

Kirsten: That’s not a – it’s not frozen. They’re not going to bring it back to life.

Justin: No but it’s a new species of a giant sauropodomorph which is like they’re really big like a podosaur size like huge long necked dinosaurs. They had to actually – they not only was in rock but they had to chisel it out of ice too.

Kirsten: That’s awesome.

Justin: That’s story is in here.

Kirsten: That’s called work.

Justin: This one now, this story – because I spend a bunch of time this year in, critical care areas of a hospital. They’re looking at clinical care protocols about — and around and about sleep when people are doing recovery time in hospitals.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: And doctors here is Dr. (Freese), Dr. (Randolph Freese) of – it’s hard to tell with these foreign names.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: But Dr. (Randolph) here is — we haven’t recognized the importance of prescribing sleep but patients in the ICU may look like they’re sleeping. But what we found is that they’re not sleeping well. They’re not getting restorative stages that are required.

Now spend a lot of nights, all nighters in the hospital. And there’s constantly beeping things and the things going off…

Kirsten: And then the nurses come to turn you every so – yes.

Justin: Yes, and the nurses which is important that you get turned but sometimes if they’ve just gone to sleep – you’re going to be like “Look that they need to.

When they find that 95% of the sleep — 96% of their sleep was in superficial stages, the patients in the ICU compared to normal sleep which you’ve spent 50% and well less than 50% actually in that superficial stage.

But you spend a full 50% in restorative stages, places where your deepest sleep the body somehow they don’t really know exactly how that works. Body and mind recouping energy you’re in super healing and restore mode

But in the patients in the ICU, 96% of the time was spent in the superficial stage which I don’t think even allows you to get to the restore stage because there’s actually a number of degrees that you kind of go through.

Kirsten: There are stages of sleep that you go through with that.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: And yes, you have to – and it is a normally a progression of the stages, you don’t normally jump from one stage to another.

Justin: Correct, yes. It begins in the superficial then it goes down through stages and then there’s like their REM. Like their rapid eye movement…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …and get into dreamland and I think the restorative is below that even. It’s like once you’ve been in REM land for a little while.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Then you start to actually…

So it’s just — it’s an amazing thing. And what they did was it’s kind of a cool bed that they designed that monitored patient brain waves and they had equipped them into these beds in the ICU so that they were passively watching on these.

And basically it’s a real simple study but they’ve come to the realization that they need to find ways of being less invasive and allowing the ICU areas to be a better place for sleep. Whether it means prescribing sleeping pills or just having less frequent visits.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: And this is another – there was a study they did awhile ago where they were talking about diet in the ICU in the hospitals. And one of the things they noticed is that that people eat a lot more when they weren’t having bed pans changed at the same time they were being fed.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: No, well this is like that anybody who’s there that’s a no-brainer.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: If you’re in the bad, all this stuff makes sense I guess. If you’re just running the ship and trying to make sure all these points get covered, you got a nurse in there, you take care of many things in the room as you can so that you don’t – when you come back to it, it’s nothing’s been left undone which also makes sense.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Anyway.

Kirsten: A lot of these things make sense.

Justin: Sometimes making sense and having things done right though don’t co…

Kirsten: Don’t coexist, right. They don’t coincide.

Researchers at the University of Illinois in Chicago have determined that there is a gene in fruit flies that when mutated turns flies into bisexuals.

Justin: Is it bisexual or homosexual?

Kirsten: Bisexual. What they determined — so this gene…

Justin: They did the homosexual flies because I think I read this story too.

Kirsten: Well this gene called — that they called gender blind normally transports glutamate out of glial cells and glutamate outside cells can change the strength of nerve cell junctions or synapses.

So they’ve found this mutant form of gender blind in which the male flies recording other males. They did some tests and found that the gender blind mutants maybe have stronger synapses so that something’s happening that’s stronger that leads to homosexual courtship in the fruit flies.

They genetically altered the synapse strength of gender blind and they fed the flies drugs that could increase or decrease synapse strength. And then they discovered that they could turn fruit fly sexual behavior towards other male flies on or off all within a number of hours just by changing the levels of how glutamate was being released in neurons in these fruit flies.

Basically what their reasoning is that there are two circuits or a dual track sensory circuit that response to pheromones and normally, one triggers heterosexual behavior and the other homosexual behavior when gender blind suppresses these synapses, the homosexuals circuit gets blocked and that’s the normal behavior.

However when the mutant form is there, the homosexual circuit is no longer blocked and so they don’t interpret smells the same way and therefore they react sexually to both males and females.

Justin: First of all, I’m glad this was a study done on fruit flies. Second, I think this is possibly…

Kirsten: Well, our behavior is much more complex than that of fruit fly, so.

Justin: I think this is possibly going to lead to the vast – what I have been talked about on the air but I think is the vast right wing homosexual agenda of this nation.

Kirsten: I know.

Justin: That’s pretty interesting though.

Kirsten: Well, it’s fascinating that sexual behavior in…

Justin: Within a couple hours.

Kirsten: …an organism – yes, exactly. That within a couple of hours, behavior can be changed.

Justin: I’m sure these weren’t just closeted flies they happened upon, they got them alone inebriated and then the real them came out. I mean…

Kirsten: That’s right. They weren’t given them drugs. They were getting them drunk.

Justin: They’re just giving them alcohol.

Kirsten: That’s right. No, no, no. Anyway we are going to take a break and be back in just a few minutes to speak with Dr. Chris Impey who has written a book on Astrobiology.

Justin: Alien life — real life alien life.

Kirsten: Life in outer space.

Justin: I’ve got a question for him. Well, I’ve got a couple – we’re both going to have…

Kirsten: I think we have a couple of questions.

Justin: I think I hope we do, otherwise, it’s going to be a terrible…

We’ll right back with more of This Week In Science after the break.

Kirsten: That’s right. Stay tuned.

[music break]

Justin: And we’re back with more of This Week In Science.

Kirsten: We are. I’m playing the calm music to keep Justin calm…

Justin: Very soothing, yes.

Kirsten: In your nicotine caffeine fits.

Justin: No fits. I’m fit free. All the caffeine – no, the caffeine is working extra super crazy.

Kirsten: Excellent. Well we have doctor Chris Impey on the line. He has written a book called the Living Cosmos: Our Search For Life in the Universe. He is at the University of Arizona and let’s bring him on the line right now. Doctor Impey, are you on the phone with us?

Chris: Yes, I am.

Justin: Welcome to This Week In Science.

Chris: Thanks very much.

Kirsten: Yes, thank you so much for joining us. I’ve got your book here, the Living Cosmos: Our Search for Life in Universe. And this is something that here on This Week In Science we always postulate about extraterrestrial life be it microbial or something more intelligent like ourselves.

But in your book, you kind of start off with a history of the study of the universe and kind of give – to put humans in our place in the universe. Can you give us a little background on kind of a summarized version of what your book talks about?

Chris: Right. I mean the starting point is the stance that, well, first of all, the book is really about nothing because there is no life no one beyond this planet. So the title is almost a statement of expectation than sort of optimism that biology is not unique to this planet but of course at the moment. And that’s – this is all we know.

So, in the cosmic setting, the universe is built for life. Stars have been turning out carbon for billions of years, the debris leftover when stars form naturally makes planets and we’ve started to find them by the hundreds. There’s tons of time for biology to occur – far longer than the span of the earth.

And water, for example, another little piece of the biological equation people presume is one of the most abundant molecules in the universe.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Chris: So the raw material is all there and it’s just a question of — really it’s a question of the vastness of space that makes it very hard to answer the question scientifically.

Kirsten: But this is a question that probably is relatively new to the human mind.

Chris: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Is it not? I mean historically, I mean, it was only a few hundred years ago that we – not a few hundred but relatively recently that we actually determined that we’re not the center of the universe that we’re even, in a universe bigger than the earth itself.

Chris: Right. And actually there were couple of the ancient Greek Philosophers who speculated, they were free to speculate about anything so it included speculation about creatures beyond earth.

And of course, (Geodon and Vernon) got burned at the state not just for that but, he was happily speculating about other creatures on planets around sun. I mean it was way ahead of his time.

So people have had that speculation out there. But yes, it’s very hard to get over the sense that the universe is built around and for us and also that we’re special.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Now, in the sense of us being special, I know that recently that there is a research paper they came out where some astrobiologists have basically gotten together and said “Well maybe life isn’t the way that we — maybe it isn’t like us. Maybe it isn’t carbon based, maybe it doesn’t rely on water, maybe there are other forms of life that we wouldn’t necessarily recognize.”

This is something that I think people who’ve read science fiction have maybe thought about for much longer as a possibility. How would we go about recognizing something that, would be so different from ourselves as a life?

Chris: Yes, I mean that’s a great question and it’s really at the heart of this field because, NASA, when it does missions to search for life on Mars and elsewhere, will be fairly conservative and will make a strong assumption that it’s our kind of biology they may send life probes that’ll check for DNA or RNA. And they’re making a very strong assumption that it’s biology like ours.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Chris: And so, the tension in the field is that if it’s not anything like us, how do we define the experiment to detect it and return in unambiguous result? So it’s very difficult science when you don’t know what exactly you’re looking for.

But I think, we’re sort of obligated by the vast potential of what the universe might have created to really think out of the box. I mean if you just take the diversity of life forms on earth.

From things that exist in superheated water at 100 atmosphere is pressured near a volcanic vent in the ocean, to the large creatures on the land and so on. That’s all one thing. That just one biological experiment that’s propagated life into almost every ecological niche you can imagine.

And we’re now sort of asking the question of what’s the general case of biology elsewhere? And it’s really hard. We don’t — it may not be based on cells, it may not use – it probably won’t use the same replicating molecule. There will be some information coding somewhere in the chemistry and the mechanism but it might not be like ours.

And then of course science fiction happily points us towards this option of a post biological evolution where…

Kirsten: Right.

Chris: …as we’re doing right now we become – we either merge the biological entity with machines or the computational side just takes over supersedes biology. And if that’s about to happen on this planet, why might it not already have happened out there in space?

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Well, I think partly it’s because we’re actually the smartest aliens in the universe. I think we’ll probably – we’re going to be greatly disappointed when we finally meet aliens from another planet, they’ll be very slow. It will have taken them several hundred millennia to achieve space flight from wagon wheel to space flight where we’ve done it in a couple hundred.

But when we’re looking at these life forms from another planet that aren’t biological based, I mean then where are the prerequisites for that? I mean is it that it can self replicate, is it that it can self move – motivate?

How are we going to define something like versus a crystal formation or even the cycles of a sun or a star versus what we would consider a life form?

Chris: Right. So the interesting thing is biologists themselves don’t agree on how to define life. And so, you end up with a spectrum of definitions. And the most particular definitions of life essentially only admit our form of biology and so there’s sort of sterile.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Chris: The most general definitions that a physicist might come up with for example are so broad that they would encompass computational forms of life.

Kirsten: Right.

Chris: So, I mean, yes you’re probing the question that really admits that if life is not biologically based or go through a biological phase and then something else, it’s going to be very hard to define.

But we presume that it will have attributes of evolution that it will sculpt and be sculpted by its environment whatever that is. That it will reproduce, that it will use energy. And they’ll have some general properties like that but they may be independent of any particular set of molecules or biological structure like a cell.

Justin: Because then, I think stars have a pretty good run at being a life form in the universe.

Chris: Well, stars are — I mean I consider them just big nuclear furnaces. They are absolutely critical element of the whole story because if stars did not recycle heavy elements – if they were just selfish and kept all that carbon to themselves and just form corpse, which life forms do, then we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be having this conversation because…

Kirsten: Right.

Chris: …the carbon would never got out there in the universe. So the stars, apart from providing the energy for life are, the critical element of biology.

But of course there are forms of life even on the earth that don’t depend directly on star light. So another of the predicates that astrobiologists use that may be wrong is that life needs a star or life needs a planet. Maybe neither of those might not – either of those may not be necessarily true.

Kirsten: Yes. What are extremophiles on our planet telling us about that possibility? I mean where are we finding – I mean we’re finding them in very strange places. What are some of the and the weirdest extremophiles that you would never have expected?

Chris: Oh, I would say definitely the entire ecosystems on the ocean floor living off the energy from volcanic vent. I would say, well in near you in Northern California and the sort of toxic runoff from mines, there are microbes that metabolize arsenic and iron and heavy metals that are essentially fatal to us in small quantities.

Kirsten: Right.

Chris: So basically, microbes have learned how to harness energy from their environment in an astounding variety of ways. And of course life started on the earth probably 4 billion years ago and the earth pretty nasty place then. So, and then, radiated into amazing set of ecological niches.

So life is robust and I think it’s the diversity of microbial life on the earth that makes people think that the traditional idea of a habitable zone where you have Darwin’s nice warm pond, or you have to have a planet.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Chris: And it just so distant from a star is not necessarily true. You can have life obviously on the moons with outer planets because we think Titan and Europa are quite plausible sites for biology, if we can get there again with better instruments.

Kirsten: Right.

Chris: So, there’s no — the habitable zone has sort of been blown out of the water by things we’ve learned in the last 10 or 20 years.

Justin: And I think that to me, that’s also the biggest argument in favor of biological life being out there.

Chris: Mm hmm.

Justin: Because of the extremophiles, because of the range that biological life forms on this planet can survive in versus we haven’t seen any or at least I don’t know we just haven’t looked for it properly but I have a feeling we haven’t found other life forms on this planet?
Chris: Right. We have not found other forms I mean – there’s still, because the fossil record obviously runs out of about a billion years ago and then you’re left with molecular traces and very and traces of life. It’s entirely possible that life got independents starts on the year or that there were independent biology’s on the earth. That’s a speculations some astrobiologists like to make.

For instance, endolithic life. So we’re talking about strange extremophiles and other kind – or the kind that might live in deep rock. So there’s the argument being made that there’s as much biomass in deep rock that there is on the surface of the planet. And that’s just very poorly understood or explored.

Kirsten: Wow. Yes one of the things that I think is really fascinating about the study of astrobiology is that, aside from us being on Mars with our rovers right now, we really can only study extraterrestrial life here on our own planet.

Chris: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Just things that’s – I think that, and trying to look for signatures on our own planet of may be extinct life that might give us clues to what to look for say on Mars.

Chris: Right. And there’s a big argument in the astrobiological community about what the best bio markers are. Whether you’re doing a detailed chemical experiment with the Lander or a rover or whether you’re inspecting the atmosphere of a planet around the distant star which is something we’ll be able to do in a few years. What are the tracers? I mean is oxygen in an atmosphere sufficient to tell you there’s biology there? It doesn’t have to be.

So unfortunately, there’s no single smoking gun if you take, say, the spectrum of the atmosphere of a distant planet that will say,” oh yes that’s life” Because they interplay of biology and geology and atmospheric chemistry is pretty complex and we don’t completely understand it.

But that for me is one of the exciting next step that we will do our best at searching the best places in the solar system for life. There’s only a handful. And beyond that it’s really going to depend on taking the most earth like of the hundreds of extrasolar planets we found and getting telescopes big enough to disperse the reflected light at those planet into a little spectrum. And then hoping to be bio markers in the spectrum of the atmosphere of a distant planet.

Kirsten: Right.

Chris: That could be very exciting.

Kirsten: Right.

Chris: And that’s coming in three to five years.

Kirsten: That’ll be pretty neat. Now, what is the placement of our planet in the universe where we’re located tell us about, say we have evolved this far, life on our planet has developed up to these organisms, these organisms and these organisms.

What does that potentially suggest about other planets that we can see that might be in a similar place in the universe just on other side.

Chris: Well, I think there’s two types of possibility. There’s the possibility of number which is a fantastic. The numbers of this game or what lead most scientists, most astronomers to be optimistic that biology’s out there even if we haven’t found it yet.

By the most fairly rigid definition of an earth life planet where it’s in a traditional habitable zone water can be liquid on the surface.

Kirsten: Yes.

Chris: There are probably a hundred million earth like planet in the Milky Way. That’s just one galaxy.

Kirsten: Just in the Milky Way.

Chris: And the universe you got to multiply by 50 billion.

Justin: Still quite rare.

Chris: Still quite rare. But that’s right. So, the nearest one may be 100 light years away. And that’s not that close. But there’s hundred million earth like planets and then if you take a liberal definition of habitability where you include moons of giant planets as we would do in our solar system, you’re up to a few billion in just one galaxy.

So you have those possibilities of numbers. I think that probability – the time dimension is equally interesting because you – carbon has been made and planets have been created for seven or eight billion…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Chris: …before the earth form. And so, you could have life that got to our stage, 6 billion or 7 billion years ago. And where would it be now? And that’s why I actually don’t think we’re the most – the smartest critters in the galaxy of our universe.

Because you can imagine life that’s as advance to us as we are to bacteria. And that would be as ours with regards at any sufficiently advanced civilization that’s indistinguishable from magic.

I mean that would just be unrecognizable to us. And also sort of mortifying to our sense of ego and self esteem. We probably wouldn’t be interesting to them. We’re just too dumb and unevolved to be interesting. So the sort of standard troves and concedes of science fiction are just wrong in that regard.

Kirsten: Now, there definitely is – there are a lot of astrobiologists, a lot of physicists, people who kind of work on the scales of the universe who have gone into science fiction writing.

Chris: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: I know you’re really quite, quite dedicated to your teaching and to your research. Do you take science fiction into your teaching with you? Do you have a little story that you’re cooking up in the back of your mind.

Chris: Well, I like — I mean I’ve been devoted off and on to science fiction and I read science fiction. I actually just rewrite Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Chris: And, — it’s just stunningly good book, all these decades after he wrote it as a vision of a sort of cyber future that we’re walking into. So I think science fiction has always informed the most visionary types of science thinking because it permits you to step outside the box.

I mean if you just think about biologists, I mean biologists probably don’t like to consider that they’re doomed to study one form of biology rather than the general case out there in the universe that we don’t know what it is yet. But a science fiction writer is just free to speculate about how wild biology might be without getting in trouble.

So I mean science fiction is – the best writing is so well informed by the science that really molds your thinking. And the universe has been so surprising to us that I think we’re sort of — it’s not sort silly speculation. It’s sort of meaningful speculation and it should inform the next generation of scientific experiments as well.

Kirsten: In terms of scientific study, what are you – I mean we’ve been talking about your book and like, just information on astrobiology in general. But what do you focus on in your research?

Chris: Oh, so my astrobiology is the sort of a hobby, if you like. I had really wrote the book just so I could learn about biology because I have taken a biology class since I was like 15 or something. I wanted to learn about this.

I work on observational cosmology so I have an experiment to try and measure dark energy using astronomical techniques. And then I have a big survey trying to do a sense of the super massive black holes to show how they and their surrounding galaxies grew over time.

So in my research, I’m not really interested in anything closer than a billion light years away. That’s kind of boring. That’s the nearby universe.

Kirsten: Now, there was a study that just I think just came out recently suggesting that there’s another maybe stage in the development of stars, the dark star that they’re talking about that stars, maybe there’s a point at which starts early on were not mostly hydrogen and helium but also mostly dark matter.

Chris: Right.

Kirsten: And that – so it’s a big, dark, fluffy star that’s really hot and the dark matter keeps the hydrogen and helium from colliding and creating – or cooling down and so it keeps it hot and dark. Do you think that those kinds of structures might still be out in the universe?

Chris: They should have mostly died away. And so, there was a phase of the universe that the cosmologists call the dark ages because it’s the phase a few hundred million years after the big bang before gravity had taken enough grip to form stars and galaxies.

And so, dark matter was always present and so that’s a phase when what you were describing could have been omnipresent.

Now, by this late stage of the universe when it’s much colder and more diffused and stand out and gravity has been acting for 13 billion years, those kinds of things should be very rare. But they’re worth looking for.

Kirsten: Right.

Chris: I mean dark matter is one of those things that astronomers don’t really know about. Astronomy is in, in this tension of being very good shape because have a great model of the universe. We know how stars work, we’re finding planets.

But there’s these incredible things we don’t know about. The only 1% of the universe is really well understood by us. That’s the normal atoms that we, and stars and planets are made of. Dark energy and dark matter is almost everything else and we’re still scratching our heads about those two things.

Kirsten: Now, what do you think? I mean we still really haven’t detected I mean dark matter and dark energy, we can’t see it. We don’t — we were guessing it’s there because everything else…

Chris: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Something needs to fill up that space. So I mean what do you think that will — discovering that will tell us about our universe?

Chris: In sort of different categories…

Kirsten: Right, right.

Chris: …dark matter have been cemented by its existence unless gravity theory is completely wrong. It’s been cemented by decades of observations. So we’ve mapped out dark matter. Without knowing exactly what it is, we sort of mapped it as cartographers would pretty well.

And it looks like physics will come to the rescue there. The next generation of particle accelerators have a good chance of finding the subatomic particle that could account for dark matter, the best candidate. So that’s the hope.

Dark energy is absolutely up for grabs. It’s not predicted out of any standard model of physics. If you crunch calculations to try and predict what the vacuum of space might generate as far as the repulsive force, you get an answer that’s 80 orders of magnitude wrong. And that’s a big goofy for scientists.

And really, people wave their hands about superstrings and so on. But it really is waving their hands. There’s no answer there yet. So, dark energy is a huge issue. And of course it’s accelerating in the universe in such a way that, will eventually – well, actually, astronomy will not be worth doing in a few billion years because there will nothing to observe because everything would have been shoved away by dark energy out of the range of telescopes. So I’m sort of gliding with astronomy now.

Justin: This is actually a question I have had about the acceleration of the universe. Is it actually moving faster or is it just that as things are moving outwards they become multiples of distance from each other? But it’s not actually going out faster, it’s just the distances are increasing? Is that correct?

Chris: It is – no, it’s actually an acceleration so that the rate of change of the distance between any two points in the space is increasing.

Justin: It’s increasing but it’s not actually that we’re moving faster from the center of the universe. The way it was described to me is if you took a balloon and you drew a grid of dots on the balloon, every dot one inch apart.

So, if there’s a dot inch away, two inches away, three inches away, then you blow up that balloon more. And now, that which was an inch away is now two inches away, what used to be two inches is now four inches away and what used to be three inches away is now six inches.

So everything seems like it’s going apart further. And I guess relative, there’s an acceleration. But actual speed from the center of the universe isn’t actually increasing. It’s just as we go around into this three dimensional vastness of space are relative distance to other objects is increasing. Is that right?

Chris: It’s still. It’s both aspects. The relative distance is increasing because that’s just like a Hubble law, the points that are two times further apart are moving at twice the speed away from each other…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Chris: …and that would be with no acceleration. That’s just a constant expansion. But in addition, the same distance between any two points is increasing more each unit of time that passes by. So the thing really is stretching at an ever increasing rate between any two points.

Justin: So we’re sort of then being pulled or propelled or following into the empty universe around us.

Chris: Yes. And what the fate is that since the speed of life forms on information barrier when something is moving away fast than the speed of light you lose information of it. It’s like an event horizon. The universe is being – the distant universe is being carried outside our event horizon and so, it’s disappearing from view.

And eventually, even the nearest galaxies will be carried that fast and that far away. So that’s what I mean by astronomy will be over because we’ll just have to stare at our own navels and look at Milky Way.

Justin: We should take a lot of pictures now.

Chris: Well, it’s a billion years. The astronomers are strange creatures because they get all animated and worried about, the sun dying in four and half billion years or losing observational astronomy in a few billion years. I think we can still have plenty of pictures.

Kirsten: Yes.

Chris: Great time for pictures.

Kirsten: Yes. We’re going to have plenty of time and plenty of pictures to look at. We’re about at the end of our hour here so I just want to say thank you so much for joining us this morning and I just want to remind our listeners that your book is The Living Cosmos: Our Search for Life in the Universe, Dr. Chris Impey from the University of Arizona.

I had one final question.

Chris: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: I saw online that you have a collection of plastic food.

Justin: I do.

Chris: I actually have a – also have a collection of fossilized feces. I have also some obscure collections in my office. It’s – but I do have plastic food, yes.

Kirsten: Where did that come from?

Chris: Oh, just various world travel.

Kirsten: Excellent. Well, thank you very much for joining us this morning.

Chris: Okay, it’s a pleasure.

Kirsten: Yes and thank you for writing such an – a book on such an interesting topic and it’s a very well written and it covers stuff from history to philosophy to science itself. And I wish you all the luck in your research.

Chris: Okay, thanks very much.

Kirsten: Okay, bye.

Justin: The fossilized species I actually.

Chris: Yes.

Justin: Dino poop would be very cool. The plastic food I don’t understand at all. But that would be really cool to have some dinosaur poop hanging around. That’ll be awesome.

Chris: Yes, I don’t have dinosaur. I have 20 million year old shark poop…

Justin: Oh, that’s cool.

Chris: …and 15 million year old mammal poop.

Justin: That rocks. Yes.

Chris: Yes.

Kirsten: Excellent.

Chris: Okay. Thanks very much. Bye.

Kirsten: Well, have a great day. You’re welcome. Bye.

That was Dr. Chris Impey, fascinating fellow with some very interesting things to say. I’d like to thank all of you for listening to this hour of This Week In Science. We will be back next week, Dr. Michael Stebbins with Weird from Washington will be visiting us next week unless he is dead from whatever cold hit him last week.

Justin: No, he’ll be fine I’m sure. Yes, that’s going to be a full show because there’s been a lot of policies wonky staff that he can go off on.

Kirsten: Yes, I think we’re going to have a lot of fun talking with him next week and gosh, we’re getting so close to TWISmas.

Justin: It’s almost TWISmas time again.

Kirsten: It’s almost TWISmas time. So everybody, put your Santa hats on, think about science.

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

Kirsten: It’s all in your head.

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