Transcript: TWIS.ORG July 24, 2007

Kirsten: This Week in Science would like to thank for their support of this hour of science programming.

Justin: For all the mundane trudging that make up the a life lived, there comes a point at which all that has come before is represented in a single moment. Often referred to as the now, the present or the endless nothingness of being, this moment has such powers to be able to alter the course of all that will come after.

We can accept the things we have dared not challenge, deferring wisdom and courage to maintain our serenity or we can stand upon this moment of great purpose, hands on hips, chest out like some soon to be triumphant super hero of (ID) full certainty. And as low by pure force of will alone, we can overcome an obstacle, solve the mystery. And in doing so, change the future of our humanity for the better.

It may just be “now” like any other “now”, but it’s how you use this “now” that counts. And what did you do with all those other “nows” anyway? Not that it matters now, because this “now” is the only “now” that ever matters. And you have wisely chosen to use this “now” for something truly worth “nowing” about. This Week in Science, coming up now.

Good morning, Kirsten!

Kirsten: Good morning, Justin! How are you?

Justin: I’m doing good.

Kirsten: Great. You are listening to This Week in Science. We’re talking about science this week. We’re on KDVS and we’re going to be here for an hour. Yeah, awesome!

We’ve got all of the science news that’s been going down for the last week in all the journals, the things that we think are most exciting and important for you to listen to.

We have an interview today at 9 o’clock. Oh, yeah I forgot to tell you.

Justin: That’s okay. I like to be fresh for the interviews.

Kirsten: That’s what you say.

Justin: Without…

Kirsten: I don’t know. Fresh, fresh.

Justin: …knowing anything about what we’ll be discussing today.

Kirsten: We’re talking with Dr. Hope Jahren from John-Hopkins University. And she is a Paleo-geologist, Paleo-biologist, geochemist.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: Wow!

Justin: So many hats to be wearing.

Kirsten: Right. What she does is she uses Chemistry to investigate the history of our planet. Look at biological samples of plants from the Eocene, four to five million years ago.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: And figure out what was going with the climate back then, how the plants live, where they live, what was going on. And so, we’re going to talk with her about all the exciting adventures she has had in different parts of the world…

Justin: Nice.

Kirsten: …doing her studies. Yeah. So, we’re going to be talking with her at 9 o’clock. I’m very excited.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah. We have all sorts of other science news, right? What do you got? What do you have?

Justin: I’ve got all kinds of stuff. This is a little bit, I don’t know, if this is such a good idea. Doing a little about house cleaning, the international space station tossing out some very heavy objects into orbital debris land.

One of the things of 1400 lb. refrigerator sized ammonia tank and the other is 200 lb. camera mounting. And the kind of like, it’s hocking them out there.

Astronaut Clayton Anderson had to lean back at the end of the space station’s 58 ft. robot arm to get as far away from the space station as possible. Now, (unintelligible) threw these things out there.

NASA normally, apparently tries to avoid adding more pieces of junk to the like the 9,000 estimated pieces of junk they’ve thrown out already. But, you know…

Kirsten: Sometimes, you just have to have a spring house cleaning.

Justin: Yeah, you know…

Kirsten: It’s just necessary.

Justin: You’re about to stop the shuttle flights for a while. So, it’s supposed to stay up there for 10 to 11 months before reentering the atmosphere, this 1400 lb. refrigerator sized tank of ammonia. And it’s expected to burn up mostly in the atmosphere. And then, NASA hopes it lands in the ocean.

But this is like one of these little things that, it’s like they put the note in here in the story but you always wonder if it’s kind of like is there more to the story than what they said?

He threw the equipment in the opposite direction of the station’s travel, okay.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: So like, they threw it at the back.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Straight at the back.

Kirsten: That’s what you would do if you were littering on the highway and you were in a station wagon.

Justin: Or on a ship or whatever, you know, you throw it behind you, right? Shortly after, the station was maneuvered into a higher orbit. Because they think, maybe they realize, “Oh yeah, we threw it behind us. Oh, wait, we’re going to be there again in a very short amount of time because where in orbit.” So, maybe…

Kirsten: Maybe not in the same exact place.

Justin: …that’s actually we just throw it in front of us, possibly.

Kirsten: Possibly. Only if they come back to the same exact place in the orbit.

Justin: They changed, they move the space station. No, they moved the space station to a little further out orbit because – and they don’t explain why. But I’m thinking maybe there were like, “Oh, yeah.”

Kirsten: We don’t want a run into our junk. Who knows? It’s interesting.

Justin: (Quote) from Anderson is also priceless. “Our spaceship Earth is a beautiful place,” he said marveling back at our lovely planet Earth right before littering.

Kirsten: Excellent.

Justin: (Let’s) trash it.

Kirsten: Well, when you’ve an atmospheric garbage dump, you know, where a trash compactor of the atmosphere, that’s pretty, it’s good.

Justin: I would think – trash back in the atmosphere, plus you know, you figure out as big space is out there a couple of hundred of miles. It’s like dropping something on Earth and then running into it again later, like as you travel at 170,000 miles – or I don’t know. It’s very improbable.

Kirsten: Not if it’s burning up. If it’s not in orbit and like stuck in orbit that goes down.

Justin: Be there for a good (year).

Kirsten:Justin: (Quote) from Anderson is also priceless. “Our spaceship Earth is a beautiful place,” he said marveling back at our lovely planet Earth right before littering.

Kirsten: Excellent.

Justin: (Let’s) trash it.

Kirsten: Well, when you’ve an atmospheric garbage dump, you know, where a trash compactor of the atmosphere, that’s pretty, it’s good.

Justin: I would think – trash back in the atmosphere, plus you know, you figure out as big space is out there a couple of hundred of miles. It’s like dropping something on Earth and then running into it again later, like as you travel at 170,000 miles – or I don’t know. It’s very improbable.

Kirsten: Not if it’s burning up. If it’s not in orbit and like stuck in orbit that goes down.

Justin: Be there for a good (year).

Kirsten: Well, yeah. I’ve got another space story. We’ve also got some placebo psychology, placebo effect stories, a giant flood in Britain and queen bees plus some other stories if we have the time to get to them today.

Justin: I’ve been so addicted to placebos. It’s my little dirty secret.

Kirsten: Addicted to placebos. That’s actually could happen.

Justin: Really?

Kirsten: Yeah. The way that it works. Let me get down to the story, then.

Justin: That’s into the story?

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Oh, no.

Kirsten: So, this researcher Jon-Kar Zubieta of the University of Michigan Ann Arbor led this research that was published in the journal Neuron. What he did is he got volunteers to be randomly assigned an injection of everyone, not randomly but everybody a painful injection in their cheek of a salt solution.

So, it like was stuck into their cheek and it would sting because when you put, you know, put salt in a wound kind of that idea.

Justin: Yeah. How?

Kirsten: It would sting. And then half of them were either given a painkiller or a placebo. So, half got one and half got the other. And they didn’t know which one they were going to get. The reality is nobody got painkiller.

Justin: Aha!

Kirsten: Everybody got placebo. And then, they took half of the volunteers and scan their brains using, I believe, an MRI scanner. But the scan the brains looking to see where activation was occurring most strongly in the patients who thought that they might be getting a placebo.

They found that – the area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens that is highly involved in producing dopamine and is also involved in the reward pathway of the brain and becomes activated in the brains of addicts, people who are addicted to drugs or gambling or shopping or whatever it happens to be, the nucleus accumbens is the center of this activation.

So, the placebo effect was – it was a stronger effect and people reported less pain then, nucleus accumbens was being activated more strongly. And so, they saw this variation in that was correlated with the actual strength of the placebo effect.

Justin: You know what? The way you say it now makes more sense to me than I’ve ever try to figure out how a placebo works before. Because I never really thought of placebo, like if you could have placebo shopping. Like you know, like you…

Kirsten: It just makes you feel good.

Justin: Well, it makes it – it’s like, you know, you would expect the drug has some sort of chemical action in the brain and that’s why you get this feeling and blah, blah, blah every time…

Kirsten: But usually, if it’s a placebo then, it’s not a drug. It’s just…

Justin: No, it’s not a drug. It’s your brain…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: …creating that reaction.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: And so, it likes it kind of make sense. And if you could figure how to like to do placebo – I don’t know how would you do the experiment of placebo shopping versus (those). I know, if there’s somebody going to shopping spree, you don’t get to keep at the end. Only they don’t know that until the end. And then, see if they still feel better about the shopping. Not that we’re making…

Kirsten: I’m really weird that way. I actually have like placebo candy shopping. I buy candy, like I go, “Oh that candy bar looks so good.” And then, I buy it and I don’t eat it.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: And all I really wanted to do is just buy the candy bar.

Justin: So, I guess…

Kirsten: It’s very strange that way.

Justin: What if we just came up with fake drugs for the addicts?

Kirsten: Right. One of the things that they were wondering is now that they know where the activation is occurring. And that this placebo effect is part of the reward pathway.

That the placebo is actually a reward to people. That people think, “Okay, I’m going to be getting this treatment for this drug treatment or whatever it happens to be. And I’m going to feel better.” And so, they are expecting to feel better. And that in itself is a reward. And so it triggers…

Justin: It triggers their brain to respond…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …to be better feeling this.

Kirsten: Right. But they don’t actually know exactly how physiologically then. So, they know that is part of the reward pathway and that there is this activation going on. But they don’t know physiologically how it actually helps people get better.

Like they know whether it stimulates the opioid, pain killing pathway within the brain or whether it, you know, they have no idea what it does. There are many possibilities as to how it works once it does stimulate the reward pathway. But that’s all they figured out so far. They’re like, “All right, it has to do with rewards. We need to learn more.”

Justin: But it’s just the brain moving on. It’s like, “All right, I took the pill. So, the pain is going to go away I can do other stuff now.”

Kirsten: Possibly.

Justin: Stop fixing it.

Kirsten: There’s an interesting…

Justin: I’ve done the thing to take care of it.

Kirsten: There’s an interesting quote from a neuropsychologist at University College London in his article that I found on – I believe, it was Nature News website.

He says, “The doctors who are best are the ones who are most alluded that their treatments do work. And so, that one thing that doctors might want to do is be really positive and upbeat about any treatment that they’re giving to their patients because that will give their patients a heightened expectation of a positive result. And therefore, the likelihood of it being positive and working is higher.”

Justin: Yeah. Leeches. I’m telling you, leeches works every time. It’s a no feeling like, “I know.” But hey, it always works. What do you want?

Kirsten: How about NOT leeches?

Justin: Oh, I just had…

Kirsten: Leeches are good painkillers that work for you.

Justin: I have a reverse placebo effect in my brain. My sleep hygiene is really bad right now. I’m not getting enough of that stuff.

Kirsten: It’s the benefit of warm (osmosis).

Justin: And my osmosis was very weak because this is not the story – I was about to read a story – oh, this is still an interesting one.

Kirsten: Yeah, bring it.

Justin: Yeah. They went there and did some physical and mathematical modeling of terrasaurs, this giant flying dinosaurs except we don’t call them dinosaurs. We call them terrasaurs.

Kirsten: Terrasaurs.

Justin: Yeah. Long thought to be skimmers like they would swoop down to the tops of the Primordial Lakes and grab up a bunch of fishy looking things. Turns out…

Kirsten: Mm hmm. Similar to maybe a pelican.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Because of the similarities and some of the structures overall.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Now, they’re saying the actual physical modeling would have ended badly, yeah.

Kirsten: This big giant dino-bird would have ended up in the water.

Justin: Basically, I think it would have work like, they would have been putting on the face break on the water. It’s just…

Kirsten: Oh, my gosh. That will be awful.

Justin: Yeah. So, not the skim feeders…

Kirsten: Could you imagine…

Justin: …you have to go back in where you look at that some more.

Kirsten: The lower jaw hitting the water and then just being pulled back by the force of the friction, just blah, neck being torqued around…

Justin: Yeah, they’re just…

Kirsten: …terrasaur tumbling over the surface of the water and then jump by whatever is under the water.

Justin: Oh, yeah. Maybe a great meal for whatever is living in there.

Kirsten: Oh, my goodness.

Justin: But yeah. I guess they wouldn’t be able to hit the water with enough force and didn’t have the strength to maintain that skimming ability.

Kirsten: Well, speaking of water, Britain is surrounded by water. The UK is…

Justin: They’re covered – they’re under it right now.

Kirsten: Oh, yeah. They are under it right now. There’s a lot of flooding going on.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Well, in the past, there was also a lot flooding that went on. England used to be connected to the rest of Europe by a land bridge. Basically a ridge of land between, I believe it was Dover – the Dover area.

Justin: Isn’t it a tunnel that runs underneath the – oh, wait, now, that’s recent.

Kirsten: It was between Dover and Calais in France.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: This ridge of land. And in the past, you know, animals and people, things could move between the bodies of land because they were one. There was – to the northwest, there was this giant lake — body of water that at various times, throughout history has become dammed up and walled up by glaciation.

Justin: Yeah. And when that comes apart that changes Atlantic.

Kirsten: And then, due to melting or to just even the growth of the lake itself over the ice walls, it led to huge, huge deluges, floods of water that ripped past this ridge of land and just ate it away.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Tumble it away. This researchers – I actually saw something this weekend that showed images — from the imaging that these researchers did looking at the water pathways of the land under – in the channel currently.

And it does look like, you know, see the surface of Mars or places that are uplifted now that you can look at on the surface of the Earth and go, “Wow! A lot of water came through here.”

Justin: (South) Italy.

Kirsten: Yeah. It just looks like water rushed through there. It’s these channels underneath the surface of the water on the bottom of the channel. It just looks like it’s just been eaten away. And it’s just really neat that these geologists, it was led by – the team was lead by Sanjeev Gupta, Imperial College London.

It’s just amazing that they were able to use modern data to actually get to this. The idea was actually suggested decades ago that there might have been this flood, that there might have been this giant glacial lake that led to the process of separating England from the rest of the land of Europe.

But they didn’t have any way to look at it or figure it out, until now. And so, these researchers came across this idea and went, “Oh, I bet, we can look at that. We can figure that out.”

And so, they were able to use data from ships equipped with GPS and with high resolution acoustic measuring devices that use radar – acoustic radar beeping against the bottom of the sea floor to be able to map it and to look at it. And they were actually able to just – it has features that are really typical to giant flows like that.

And they think that this was the largest flood, like that’s ever – that they’ve ever…

Justin: Oh, come on now. The North American…

Kirsten: They think it was – it’s one of the largest floods on Earth that we have evidence for today.

Justin: Some northwestern floods in the United States formed the great lakes…

Kirsten: Yeah. But they think…

Justin: …that they chilled the oceans and changed climate. Come on.

Kirsten: They think this might have been up there.

Justin: We created an Ice Age with our ice dam break, a mini one anyway. Come one.

Kirsten: Come on.

Justin: I’ll take – maybe in the European tournaments, it was the biggest. But…

Kirsten: Yeah. I just thinks it’s – when evidence comes out, you know, and researchers are able to actually look at ideas for the first time because of advances in technology, it’s just so neat…

Justin: That’s the biggest…

Kirsten: That old ideas can come and actually get support.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: So neat.

Justin: So, this is like kind of an old story because I thought we did this. But this is – it’s they’re doing more things with the same idea that we were reporting a little bit. But this on the opal materials creating tiny structures that can do amazing things with color.

So, what they’re talking about now is looking at the doing its own packaging so it changes color when food items go bad. Not the traditional method of tentative smelling container. Yeah, that’s – I never even guess.

Kirsten: Right, right, right.

Justin: I don’t guess anymore. I just know.

Kirsten: Yeah. That’s bad.

Justin: Yeah. If it’s even in my refrigerator, it’s going to be bad. Because I’m not a cooking person. I eat out all the time. So, if there’s something in there, I can just assume that it’s been there too long.

Kirsten: That’s funny.

Justin: Another use of this stuff that – they’re making this elastic film of this polymer opal film that can do some really pretty neat stuff. They’re talking about a dollar bill that’s kind of stretchy.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: That you can tell if it’s counterfeit. Because if you stretch it, and it doesn’t turn the right hue of colors then, it’s not, you know…

Kirsten: Oh, neat.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Because that was one of the questions is to how they would actually implement this sniffer technology. How would they – what they would put it on, how they would incorporate it into packaging or wrappers to find out (crosstalk).

Justin: And they’re using – the same thing like now when they were doing those magnetic cosmetics that were – the little structures that are based on the butterfly wing…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …the little scales, the little holes in it, they’re trying to make a more perfect version of that with these little opalite structure films now.

Kirsten: Oh, neat.

Justin: So, you could have these brilliant colored cosmetics. They’re thinking now, it can replace the dye in clothing. Like they could make clothes with these opalite film stuff that they – because they can mass produce it. That’s the big step. That’s the big step they’re taking.

They’re mass producing large rolls and range of this and then, like running your – it’s kind of like the invention of ceram wrap be like, “We have this really thin plastic, cleans the stuff. What do we do with it?” “I don’t know. Let’s run around and put it on things and see what sticks.” You know, like, see what actually comes usually at the end of it.

It’s a pretty neat thing. But yeah, they’re trying to copy basically butterfly wings and certain types of peacocks, beetles and other…

Kirsten: Wow!

Justin: …different animals in the way that they’re…

Kirsten: I want to have a costume that makes me look like a butterfly.

Justin: Wouldn’t that be awesome?

Kirsten: That would be fun. I’d love it.

Justin: Yeah. The film is quite stretchy. And according to one of the researchers involved, when they stretch, they change color. And also, when you look at it from different angles, it changes color as well.

So, it maybe little too much even. I don’t know. I’m trying to fix it. I definitely need a shirt made out of this stuff.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: This is going to be cool.

Kirsten: I don’t know if I would be so into clothes that just change color all the time…

Justin: Costume.

Kirsten: …when you look at them. I’m not so into that kind of thing.

Justin: They kind of started doing that with the cars.

Kirsten: They look pretty but…

Justin: Cars that have that sort of…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: …people would be like, “ I don’t really — it’s nauseating almost”

Kirsten: Well, talking about other things that people have invented based on nature, what do a gecko and mussels have in common? Not muscles like, biceps in your arm, I’m talking about mussels, the ones that bivalves, the one that sticks to your pierce.

Justin: That’s the word “stick”, because the geckos with the little hand pads, you can climb up walls and then mussels that are sticking to things, I would assume on the barnicly bit of what they do.

Kirsten: That’s right. They’re both sticky. But not sticky. They have reversible stickiness.

Justin: Huh?

Kirsten: Yeah. And researchers have been looking the way geckos adhere to walls as maybe a possible use for making new tapes, new adhesives to be able to stick things to places reversibly. That when you need to put something on, take it off, put it on, take it off.

Justin: Right. Because if a gecko could just stick, then they’d never move again.

Kirsten: Exactly.

Justin: Because they couldn’t (unstuck) themselves.

Kirsten: Exactly. And so, geckos, the thing that sticks them to walls is that they have all these pullea, these ampullea, these little tiny ridges that have ridges upon ridges on the bottoms of their toes.

And they end up using little tiny molecular forces called vanderwall forces to allow them to stick to the surfaces of things. It’s such a very small forces but added up over the number of contacts that are made by these ridges on ridges on ridges on the bottom of their feet. It allows them to stick to walls.

Now, researchers have known that. But they’re not able to get stuff to stick underwater because geckos, you know, they’re land…

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: …air breathing reptiles. But they don’t go underwater all that much. Mussels however, they’re in and out of water all the time. And these researchers at Northwestern University have been studying the adhesive properties of mussels.

The researchers at Northwestern, they heard about this research going on in the gecko feet, in gecko adhesion and they went, “I wonder what happen if I put my mussel-sticky stuff on the gecko sticky-stuff.” And it was like a Reese’s peanut butter cup.

Justin: No, (way).

Kirsten: Two great things that go great together.

Justin: Oh, no.

Kirsten: Yeah, they did. They stuck them together and they ended up making what a substance that they call a “Geckel nanoadhesive”.

Justin: Huh?

Kirsten: The geckel, the gecko and mussel.

Justin: Yeah, yeah.

Kirsten: You got that.

Justin: (Clamado).

Kirsten: It puts together the adhesive properties of these two animals in a way that makes both of them even better. So, they tested it and they found that they were able to increase the ability of the gecko structures to adhere the walls by, I believe, 95% or something.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: It was some huge amount. Yeah. And then, underwater, it increased it by about 87%. So, they are able to – okay, where are my numbers here? I’m just talking like crazy.

Justin: So, it’s like – where do they…

Kirsten: There we go. So, basically they put it against the wall and they took it off and they put it against the wall and they took it off 1100 times under wet conditions before it started to fail.

And so that’s 85% maintenance of its adherence properties. And then, under dry conditions, it’s adherence was 98%. The wet adhesive force of each pillar increase 15 times when encoded with the mussel mimetic and applied to surfaces.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: Yeah. So, they’re thinking that this benefit, this could be use in all sorts of different things specifically the fact that it can attach to wet surfaces, one of the mussel chemicals that’s in the adhesive contains a chemical that adheres to mucosal surfaces. So, like the lining of your cheeks, the inside of your sinuses, your gut lining, things that are mucous membranes…

Justin: Vaginas.

Kirsten: Yeah, that too. And so, what they’re thinking is that they might be able to develop patches– like to date there is no band-aid for the inside of your mouth. And so, now they’re thinking that they might be able to have these re-adhesible bandages that don’t come off in water, that you know, this band-aid sticks on you forever until you take it off and it can also stick on the inside of your cheek or whatever.


Justin: What?

Kirsten: What? Anyway, I think this geckel adhesive is very exciting.

Justin: And rocks. I don’t really know…

Kirsten: I love things when we take things in nature and put them together…

Justin: I don’t really know if…

Kirsten: …and make new things.

Justin: Yeah. I’m trying to think like that’s probably got all kinds of cool uses for like, people maintaining boats at sea. (Unintelligible).

Kirsten: Oh, I’m sure. Yeah.

Justin: You know.

Kirsten: Absolutely. I mean that’s one thing – I remember sailing when I was younger and having problems with water coming up from the bottom of my boat and (unintelligible). I was trying to use Duct Tape to finish it. And Duct Tape (ain’t) so good for trying to fix things…

Justin: No. But yeah. Also…

Kirsten: …when you’re in water.

Justin: Yeah. All kinds of applications into for like plumbers tape, that would be like better than the tape that plumbers use now because it wouldn’t care that it was wet. Underwater tape operations.

This is – I don’t know why this is out there now. But I found this story in the current news that’s out and about in the world talking about circumcision again, saying that, you know, the CDC is in discussions about whether or not United States should focus on, circumcising our young boys, mutilating their genitals in order to prevent HIV.

Kirsten: Right. But the argument has been brought up against it that it might – that the results of the studies in Africa can probably not be brought over to different populations that…

Justin: Right. Because it’s…

Kirsten: That populations in different countries have different…

Justin: Lot of different parameters.

Kirsten: …different parameters.

Justin: And the fact that already like 2/3 of US males are mutilated and it doesn’t seem to really be the main factor in HIV. You know, I think that basically they just should listen to this show and go back, some back episodes where we went through the studies and explain…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …what the heck is going on.

Kirsten: Published in the August 1st issue of the American Chemical Society’s Analytical Chemistry is a study that is going to be pretty exciting for forensic sciences and for research investigations.

A new method of fingerprint testing…

Justin: Uh-huh.

Kirsten: Yeah. It’s very, very cool. It’s totally sci-fi actually. What they’ve created, this group out of Imperial College London have been able to use this basically, a gelatin tape that can pick up the fingerprint within – picks up the fingerprint oils, various compounds that are stuck in the oils. So, it picks it up in a three-dimensional way almost.

So, it can actually pick up signatures, residues, that are left within the fingerprint so that they can actually test what the person had to eat for lunch, you know.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: What, you know, where they’ve been. Maybe figure out more definitively whether they can be traced to the scene of a crime, you know. If you’re going to track that down…

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: …even more definitively. So, it’s a really interesting technique that they use. The gelatin tape gets put into a mass spectrometer and they can actually investigate using light – infrared light what the various components are that are stuck to the fingerprint.

And it doesn’t destroy the fingerprint so in normal fingerprinting, they dust it and then, they pick it up using a piece of regular tape. And the fingerprint is gone and they can’t use it anymore.

But in this technique, they can actually do multiple tests on it because this does not destroy the fingerprint in the lifting up.

Justin: Right. And it’s going to make much easier to frame people for crimes. Because then, you can take one of their fingerprints from one place and you can transfer it on to say, the deadly weapon.

Kirsten: Possibly.

Justin: I think I see…

Kirsten: I don’t know if they’re talking about transfer…

Justin: That’s not what the…

Kirsten: You’re just making things up here.

Justin: No, no, no. They can actually – I’ve least seen it in – gosh, what was it? Episode of Barnaby Jones or Hawaii Five-O.

Kirsten: At least I saw it on the television.

Justin: I’ve seen it on TV from the 70’s which means…

Kirsten: Researchers also think that there might be ice volcanoes on Charon, the neighboring satellite of ex-planet Pluto.

Justin: That sounds like a party spot right there.

Kirsten: Published in Astro-Physical Journal by Jason Cook, at Arizona State University Tempe, he thinks that liquid water might be mixed with ammonia deep in the core of Charon and be spewed out by giant ice volcanoes on to the surface of the planet.

Although other researchers think that there might be other explanations for it, who knows? We might find out when the New Horizons mission from – that’s being sent out to the Kuiper Belt to investigate those Pluto extra – those meteor like – or not meteor – asteroid like planets out in the Kuiper Belt.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yes. It’s very exciting. That’s very cool stuff. And it’s 9 o’clock. So, we will take a break.

Justin: And we’ll be back in a few minutes with the second half hour of This Week in Science.

Kirsten: Interviewing Dr. Hope Jahren, geobiologist.


Justin: That is of course more of Agent Ribbons, my new band obsession of the month.

Kirsten: That’s right. A local Sacramento band that Justin has fallen in love with. We have Dr. Hope Jahren, a geobiologist on the line. So, why don’t we bring her on?

You’ve got to hit the button.

Justin: Oh, I’ve got to hit – oh, I have button-pushing duties over here.

Kirsten: That’s right, you do. Dr. Jahren, it’s wonderful to have you on the line today.

Justin: Welcome to This Week in Science.

Hope: Oh, thank you very much.

Kirsten: You’re welcome. Now, you are a geobiologist working – a lot of the work of that you’ve done is looking at the past of our planet. Can you just give us a snap shot view of what a day in a geobiologist’s life is like?

Hope: Okay. Let me think. But the thing that I think is special about the field that I’m in is that we think about the interface between biology and geology. And that’s something that sort of should have been talked about a long time ago.

Although for some reason, those two field, geology and biology took their separate courses and became fields of their own as opposed to obvious discussions like the planet depends on the organisms and the organisms depend on the planet.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Hope: So, a lot of what we do or think about linkages. So, if the biota changes, what does that mean about the Earth changing. If the Earth changes, well, how do we expect the biota to change. If we can think about that in the modern context, then we can think about that for a long time ago. The Earth has been around for quite a long time…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Hope: …and many different Earths have existed over that time. So, there’s — some of ways to look at it. What I do in my laboratory is make measurements. And we do chemical analysis and we use fossil materials.

So, we use what’s left of these organisms that live and thrive and fell in love and performed various activities. Always got left of them are little bit of their remains in the form of fossils and then the challenges based on working out the chemistry of those tissues, what good guesses can we make about how those organisms operated?

Kirsten: So, talking about the tools that you possibly use to investigate these relationships, what kind of leftovers are you looking at? What kind of chemical signatures are you investigating?

Hope: Okay, so we look for remnants of the actual tissue itself. Probably everybody is familiar with the kind of fossils where very slowly fluids in the rock replace what used to be a living organism and preserved the morphology with different kinds of crystals and that’s the petrified fossil.

But we actually look for fossils that are the remains of the organisms that existed. Now, obviously those compounds or those remains aren’t going to be identical to a living thing.

But if we do our chemistry right, we can piece out pieces, the odd lipid here and there, the odd piece of cuticle from a (lease) surface, the odd wax that existed at a (lease) surface.

Or even something as simple as a carbon atom that we know was part of an organic entity. And if we can get at those compounds, we can start to make spot models as to what those molecules imply or at least rule out with respect to the metabolism that these organisms had. Or the way they made their living or whether they were symbiotic organisms or single organisms that…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Hope: …that sort of basic questions like that that are lost from the past.

Justin: Now, what sort of condition is required to get at some of these ancient gooeyness as it were?

Hope: Right, right. So, if we think about everything that’s ever existed on the planet, the vast majority of what exists dies, rots away and is cycled back into pools that become new organisms or stay in the atmosphere or get locked into rocks, et cetera.

So, the vast minority of everything that ever existed is somehow retrievable from the fossil record. So, the first thing to remember is that a huge amount of serendipity is involved in why things get preserved.

And in fact, there’s a whole field called taphonomy because it’s not the usual conditions that preserve things, it’s the unusual conditions that preserve things which is why we have so little.

So, when I look at these things, the first thing to remember is that the vast subset of what existed. And the second thing to remember is that, it probably is some kind of special chemical, we call preservational environment that brought remnant of the past to us.

The particular types of environments that I’m interested in are environments where organic matter doesn’t tend to decay. So, if you’ve ever been to a wetland and walk around and seen this stark, black…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Hope: …mud on your feet, that’s all organic matter that isn’t going anywhere compare to that dry stuff that’s cycling in your yard or your garden, the areas, water logged areas, et cetera.

Kirsten: Yeah. So, one of the interesting things about your research is that you have been doing a lot of research up near the North Pole. And logically, the connection for most people between a wetland in the North Pole, it probably doesn’t make much sense.

So, can you talk a little bit about what you’ve learned through your research site up there.

Hope: Okay. So, the basic thing – and this is what’s fun about my field is that the more we learn about the Earths that have existed and let’s remember that land has been colonized for, you know, somewhere between 400 million years and 500 million years.

When we think about the Earths that have existed, it really stretches our imagination to the point of ripping them open.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Hope: When we think about the types of Earths that have existed. So, you know, dragonfly as big as grizzly bears. And sloth that are bigger than elephants.

Justin: Yeah.

Hope: And there are these great examples of organisms that are fantastically different than anything we know today. But we can also think about worlds with no ocean at the middle of the equator or all the continents coming together in one land mass or no ice at the poles which is the periods that I’m interested in.

So, one fabulous example of a really different Earth and an example of all the Earth – of how just different the Earth can be is a period of ice free poles with vast forest growing far above the Arctic Circle. And that’s the time period that this portion of my work that you’re talking about centers on.

Kirsten: So, how long ago was that? Is that the Eocene? Is that the time period that you’re talking about? And what was –other than there being this vast forest that the poles – what are the kind of life – what are types of life were found there? Or even, what was the planet like at that time?

Hope: Okay. So, 45 million years ago…

Kirsten: Forty-five, okay.

Hope: Right. Forty-five million years ago, so this is quite long after the dinosaurs went extinct. So, that was somewhere around 65 million years ago and quite a long time, before the Ice Ages started. And the Ice Age have a great deal to do with determining the ecosystems in biology and things…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Hope: …we know today. So, in a long period, we believe of more or less climatic stability, maybe 5 million years or 10 million years, right in the middle of the Eocene

Let’s see, we know that the continents were not significantly different than they are today. So, you know, that the continents move around. If you look at North America…

Kirsten: Right.

Hope: …Europe, Africa, South America, it’s obvious that they used to be together like puzzle pieces. We can reconstruct based on the geology, the ocean, where the continents were.

So, we think of the continents being about at the same place. And there are multiple examples of fossils being recovered from places that are now far above the Arctic Circle and were far above the Arctic Circle that represents trees, huge pieces of trees. Some of them three meters in diameter.

Kirsten: Wow!

Hope: And it’s a real intriguing thing for us because right now, above the Arctic Circle, you’re hard pressed to even find something that grows a centimeter high, let alone a tree. Certainly, nothing that really makes wood.

Kirsten: Right. So, it was a vast difference in the basic, the environment…

Hope: Yeah. We’re only…

Kirsten: …at that time.

Hope: …beginning to, you know, through these methods, we’re beginning to wrap our minds around just how different the Earth was at this time.

Justin: So then, I’m guessing the greatest find would be to uncover an area above the Arctic Circle that’s been frozen for quite a long time that at one point was one of these wetlands?

Hope: Right. Well, the word “wetland” might bring up, you know, something near the ocean, you know, maybe flamingos or cranes or, you know, grasses and things like that. We think about wet soil.

But what I’m talking about is really forest, vast forest with a brush under story and ferns growing at the bottom and trees, you know, 10, 20, 30 meter tall trees…

Justin: Wow!

Hope: …blocking, you know, in a huge canopy for thousands and thousands of miles in every direction.

Kirsten: So, you basically are able to look at the chemical record of these fossils and have been able to get a picture of what kind of chemicals were being incorporated into the tissues from the air and the water underneath and be able to reconstruct what the environment was like at that point in time?

Hope: Mm hmm. Well, a big question for us is how in the world can you get a forest at those kinds of latitude? So, things might have been different. And we’re interested in trying to quantify what those things were.

Kirsten: Right.

Hope: So, perhaps CO2 levels were different. Perhaps, daily temperatures were different. Perhaps, rainfall patterns or the amount of rainfall was different. Those things almost certainly were all different.

One thing hasn’t changed and that’s that, it’s three months of total darkness at the…

Kirsten: Right.

Hope: …latitudes…

Kirsten: Right.

Hope: …and three months of continuous light. And both of those conditions are very stressful for a photosynthetic organism. So, you can try that at home with your house plant.

Kirsten: Put it in a closet.

Hope: They’ll die, you know, it’s an easy experiment to do. So, the idea of having something that makes its living by photosynthesis, let alone a huge thriving forest living above the Arctic Circle is really puzzling to us given what we know about biological organisms today.

So, there is an element of reconstructing the external world, you know…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Hope: …the climate parameters. But we’ve been looking at the tissues at the fossils themselves trying to get at what did these periods of light and darkness mean to the plants? Were they stressful periods? Could they somehow accommodate these periods without evidencing stress? Ideas along those lines.

Kirsten: So, do you think that the plants went dormant or, you know, went into a maybe a period of hibernation for a plant for those three months of darkness?

Hope: One thing that’s very intriguing is that these are conifers.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Hope: So, they are conifers in the sense of related to the conifers you know today. But they were deciduous. So, they lost their leaves at least on an annual basis. And we don’t have forest of deciduous conifers today at least, not widespread forest.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Hope: So, this is an approach to making a living that isn’t utilized today. So, these plants obviously had capabilities that plants either no longer have or plants either no longer use.

Kirsten: Right.

Hope: Paleontologists have believed that these plants are deciduous based on their descendants of which there are only a few that still live today and their deciduous strategies. But we’ve been able to confirm a strong deciduous pattern in the tissues themselves.

So, that’s an interesting approach. Just letting go of your leaf material and then regrowing it once a year is an extremely…

Kirsten: It seems like it would…

Hope: …(expensive) way to live, right?

Kirsten: Right. There would be a lot of energy involve in that new growth year after year.

Hope: Exactly, right, exactly. So, you sort of cutting your losses, you don’t have to hang on and – once you grow tissue, you have to maintain it, right? So, if you drop the leaves, if you (unintelligible) them then, you don’t have to maintain them…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Hope: …in the darkness.

Kirsten: Right.

Hope: But you do have, as you were saying, that start up cost of getting things going again.

Justin: But then, if you’ve got the sun, 24 hours a day for three months…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …maybe you got the resources.

Hope: Right. Although, it doesn’t exactly work that way with plants. In that it’s not a great analogy. But having light 24 hours a day is also very stressful. It’s not a great analogy. But it’s a little bit like asking you to work 24 hours a day for three months at a certain point your efficiency is going to go away.

Justin: I don’t know.

Kirsten: Yeah. You got a little tired.

Justin: I happened to have tried the experiment where you put plants in the closet and keep a light on them 24 hours and it did quite well.

Hope: Yeah. You probably should go and record talking too much about that.

Justin: I’ve got glaucoma or I’m going to get it soon.

Hope: So, what kind of data did you retrieve from…

Justin: Surprisingly, I kept no records.

Hope: Okay, okay.

Kirsten: It slipped your mind, right?

Justin: Yeah.

Hope: But they didn’t die.

Justin: No, no. They didn’t die.

Hope: Right. But you don’t know if they did better than then they would have with a normal life.

Justin: Within normal cycle.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: And I’m supposed…

Hope: And you’re probably also supply them with luxury, what we call luxury consumption of nutrients. You probably gave them as much water as they wanted them.

Justin: Oh, yeah. As much water and the miracle grow and all those other things that you can get at any legal hardware store or nursery.

Hope: Mm hmm.

Justin: But when these plants have been like programmed to take full advantage, like I would assume that they had designed themselves around the idea that we’re going to get three months of sun and then it’s going to be dark for three months or even longer than that. It can it be like six-month period or that region not inhabited by trees.

Hope: So, it’s very easy to calculate how much light gets to a certain latitude. And you know, the position of the sun in the planet haven’t change over long periods of time. So, we can make a good estimate of light.

So, we’re talking about somewhere between 40 and 60 days of spring and fall on either side and then the rest, evenly split between continuous light summer and continuous light winter.

Justin: Wow!

Hope: And when you say, well they have – I can’t remember the word you use, but haven’t they, you know, sort of figured this out, haven’t they adapted, et cetera.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Hope: There are certainly strategies that are flexible and adapt to the world if the world changes. But there are also strategies that are rather innate. And the fundamental biochemistry of photosynthesis is something that we expect, you know, since that’s been conserved, sort of so many different life forms…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Hope: …and is so ubiquitous across photosynthetic organisms today. We still feel like they must had at some level to play according to the ground rules that everything that uses chlorophyll today has to adhere to.

Kirsten: Right. So, there’s a certain set of boundaries that they have to play within and be able to get their energy, use their energy and, you know, create leaves, drop leaves, et cetera, for them to be able to survive well up there.

Hope: You’re exactly right. So, no matter what kind of living organisms you are, you’re always renegotiating and renegotiating energy in, energy out and then, all the activities you need to do to be successful, grow, reproduce, et cetera.

Kirsten: Right. So, what were some of the – I would assume that if there were forests at that latitude, there’s no ice caps at the poles during that time period, that would mean that the planet was much warmer.

And that possibly, you might have found that or be assuming that there would be more water vapor in the air allowing for maybe more of a greenhouse effect during that period of time.

Hope: Mm hmm.

Justin: Or (unintelligible).

Hope: I think…

Kirsten: More humidity.

Hope: …you’re right on track with that. One thing to remember is you can get it warmer at the poles without necessarily having it warmer everywhere else.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Hope: So, we think about an Earth that’s certainly warmer at the poles just as you say, no ice. We don’t believe that there’s reason for, you know, huge ice build up. And all the things that go along with it being green as opposed to being barren.

Such as you’re saying, we’ve got to get the moisture up there for those plants. We’ve got to have sufficient organisms in the soil to produce the nitrogen that these plants need, et cetera.

Kirsten: Right.

Hope: But we think about relatively warm poles, relatively well, very biologically active poles, so methanes like (unintelligible) and water cycles et cetera. But that’s very different than just saying warmer, right?

Kirsten: Right, right, exactly. There are different amounts of various molecules that have different effects on the cycles on the planet at play.

Hope: Sure. And one thing we’re learning today is that the Arctic is incredibly sensitive.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Hope: So, we can have conditions more or less stable at the equator and big changes latitude by latitude in the Arctic.

Kirsten: Is there evidence by other researchers in your field that the equator at that time or that the temperate zones, say, where we live currently — that they were similar to how they are now or whether they were much different where there are rainforests at the equator. Is there evidence to that one way or another?

Hope: The whole Earth was not covered in rainforests that’s for sure.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Hope: This was the time at which mammals were somewhat getting going. We think about the beginning of the Eocene as this – you probably heard about the Paleocene-Eocene boundary or the PETM. So, a large methane release people believe in a very sharp warming period.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Hope: The end of the Eocene – and that’s, you know, somewhere around 58 million years ago, the end of Eocene is in Oligocene and that’s in 30 million years that’s associated with the big cooling.

Kirsten: Right.

Hope: And that’s known from ocean sort of shell communities and how they change. So, I’m talking about the period of, you know, relative stability in between there.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Hope: Mammals are coming on the line. But this is before the Grassland evolved, et cetera.

Kirsten: Okay.

Hope: I’m not an expert at low latitude…

Kirsten: Okay.

Hope: …climate during the time. But certainly these deciduous conifer polar forests are unusual feature but they have staying power. So, they were dominant, you know, across Siberia, what is now Northern Canada, what is now Northern Greenland, what is now Northern Alaska.

Justin: Oh, it happened to Northern Greenland? Really?

Hope: Right. So, the field site where I work is actually a thousand kilometers north of the north coast of Alaska.

Justin: Wow!

Hope: We can reconstruct the position of the continents especially for a relatively recent times, like 45 million years ago. And at that time that these trees were growing, it was actually 82° north latitude, a little to the north of where it is today. Yeah.

Kirsten: So, there’s been movement.

Justin: I’ve been up into that Northern Greenland territory.

Hope: Really?

Justin: There is nothing, it’s rocks and ice.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Hope: It’s true. It’s hard — rather disadvantage because you’re stuck with my voice here. But if I could show you pictures, it’s incredible.

Justin: Yeah.

Hope: You can hardly see moss growing. I mean, lichens are about as dense, you know, like a vegetation (that you’re going to find) today.

Kirsten: And that’s not very dense. So, I think the hardest thing is imagining these giant forests in a place where today there are absolutely none…

Justin: Where there is hardly any soil.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: I mean…

Hope: Exactly.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Hope: Exactly.

Kirsten: Well, we’re running out of time here. So, unfortunately, we’re going to have to go.

Hope: No problem.

Kirsten: But thank you so much for joining us…

Hope: You bet.

Kirsten: …and describing your work and our world’s past.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: It’s really fascinating.

Justin: Very exciting.

Kirsten: Thank you for doing this work and being able to open up a chapter in the history books of the planet for us.

Hope: Oh, you bet.

Kirsten: Thank you so much. Bye.

Hope: Bye.

Kirsten: That’s Dr. Hope Jahren. She’s from John-Hopkins University. She’s also doing some other really interesting research that I didn’t get a chance to question her about. She’s using geochemical investigative techniques, looking at stable isotopes of carbon atoms to investigate blood sugar…

Justin: Huh?

Kirsten: Yeah. And be able to track the way our food gets in to our tissues. So, not looking at dead tissue but looking at live tissue. Yeah. So, it’s very interesting. Right now, she’s looking at blood sugar but she’s hoping that she’s be able to take the technique and look into how food, corn syrups specifically right now, high fructose corn syrup, how it moves more to our food into our bodies.

So, it’s really interesting. She’s looking at the past.

Justin: It’s a (fork).

Kirsten: And she’s also looking at the present and our health. She’s a very interesting researcher. And I’m so happy that she was on the show today.

I’d like to give a couple of shout outs here. (Craig Foster) in Cookeville, Tennessee, thank you for listening. (Richard Hubbard), (Jacob Norwood) from Austin, Texas, (Greg) from Columbus, Ohio and (Ed Dyer), thanks for the comments on our videos. We really appreciate them. That’s it. That’s right. We have videos on our website now.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: www.thisweekinscience…

Justin: I’m a movie star. Yes!

Kirsten: We’re making videos, World Robot Domination and My Science World video.

Justin: Which is — the weirdest thing about the video is that I park my hair on the opposite side that I thought I did. Because you look in the mirror when you comb, and then you assume that’s what you look like going to the day and I saw the video and I’m like, “What’s with the – it’s on the other side.” You made no sense.

Kirsten: You’re hilarious. I’d like to thank Jon Luton for writing in. He is working on a play called, “Universal Robots”. That’s not the “Universal Robots” that we talked about last week. So, there’s robots in place, all over the place.

And on the final serious note here, (George Icking-Connert) from – he has a request for the TWIS community. He’s father has come down with cancer that’s been diagnosed as adenocarcinoma.

And he’s looking for new drugs that are being tested. They’re looking for anything that’s out there that might help his father to battle the disease. And he knows that the TWIS community is far reaching and there are lots of researchers and people who have maybe gone through the same thing.

So, if there’s anyone out there, in the TWIS community that can help him and his father, please email, And if you didn’t get this email address, you can always email me, and request the address and I’ll get it for you.

Also, is on line. And the who has answers in Genesis Group who built the Creation Museum, they’re on to us already.

Justin: Oh, no.

Kirsten: I’ve note about it on my blog. And their blog, they like copied my text from my blog and they’re like, “Ha! Ha! Silly evolutionist – blah, blah, blah.”

Justin: They believe in unicorn. Unicorns are in the Bible now.

Kirsten: “We believe in unicorns. They’re in the Bible.”

Justin: There’s a passage in the Bible that said, “God hath the power of a unicorn.”

Kirsten: I know.

Justin: Which makes me like, then you’re comparing God to a unicorn? Does that mean unicorns like predated God or strong ass like you use the unicorn as the symbol of (this thing).

Kirsten: That’s it for us.

Justin: Anyway, if you learn anything from today’s show, remember, its all in your head.