Transcript: TWIS.ORG June 9, 2009

Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!

What you’re about to encounter over the next hour is an elimination of information. You will hear tales of current discoveries in science. These implications will then be pondered aloud in what may appear to be an effort to add endless amounts of information to your brain.

But do not be fooled, dear Minions, science is a reductive art. Boiling off extreme news info, laser focusing beams of investigative interest spinning the center fuse of potential inferences until only the applicable data points remain — reducing reality to its most basic definitions so that it can be transmuted into useful knowledge, devoid of uninformed observation and human illusions.

And while boiling laser focused alchemist, much like the following hour of our programming, does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the University of California at Davis, KDVS or its sponsors when all information not worth knowing can be eliminated, what is left can be called fact, can be construed to scientific truth, can be viewed in context to the role of plays within the unfiltered, uninformed extreme misinformation world of human illusions. Only then can it be discussed here on This Week in Science, coming up next.

Good morning, Kirsten!

Kirsten: Good morning, Justin! How is it going this morning Mister…?

Justin: A little bit sprakity. A little bit sprakity this morning.

Kirsten: Sprakity insomniac.

Justin: Oh my goodness.

Kirsten: Yeah. Well, this is This Week in Science. We’re back again. You know, I was contemplating changing the show to like Skateboarder Weekly or something.

Justin: What?

Kirsten: Yeah. No, I’m kidding.

Justin: No. No, thank you.

Kirsten: No. It’s all about science. It’s all about science. And today, we have an interview with Douglas Richards after the half hour break about his science writing for kids and his series of science fiction books for, I guess, middle-aged children.

Justin: Yeah. That’s when you get them hooked.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Absolutely.

Kirsten: It’s when you get them hooked, “The Prometheus Projects”. And we’ve got science news because that’s what we love.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: I have stories about animal communication. I was going to just be like all animal behavior, animal biology, you know, psychology for animals. But then I was like, “Oh, we have to have some other stuff in here.” And so, I also have a prescription for clearing up that gamma-ray burst…

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: …that’s been troubling you and a little robot for your health.

Justin: I’ve got self-regulating children, Hypocritical Health Care, evidence that people once lived underwater. Evidence!

Kirsten: What?

Justin: Evidence of people once lived underwater. And maybe if there’s time, back here from the deep that can take care of all of our super fun sites which maybe I just did that story.

Kirsten: I love bacteria that…

Justin: Maybe that was the story.

Kirsten: I love bacteria that clean up the super fun sites for us these little bacteria.

Justin: Yeah, quit spending money on, you know, the whole moving dirt around thing and put cement bunkers over stuff. Forget it! Just fun science will figure it out.

Kirsten: That’s right. Science will figure it all out. So, to start it all out, in a fog.

Justin: Yeah, a little bit.

Kirsten: Yeah?

Justin: A little bit not to mention.

Kirsten: Well, get a telescope.

Justin: Huh?

Kirsten: Huh? What? A study coming out of the University of California, Berkeley that was just announced yesterday at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Pasadena, California concludes that “dark” gamma-ray burst are just regular gamma-ray bursts that are concealed by a haze of fog or dust or dirty galaxies. But you can’t really see the dirt for some reason but it’s got to be there. Yeah.

Anyway, this survey, they’ve got gamma-ray bursts.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Gamma-ray bursts are the brightest events in our universe. Super bright gamma-rays and they have – they’re like two…

Justin: I don’t know Kirsten. I always think of you as the brightest event in my universe.

Kirsten: Oh, Justin. I’m going to throw up.

Justin: Totally fell for it. Look at that. That easy gentlemen. Just one compliment, that’s all it takes.

Kirsten: That’s all it takes. Right. Anyway, so these gamma-ray bursts are super bright. They occur. They’re this, you know, like a big spotlight shooting out in two directions.

Justin: Say “cheese” everybody.

Kirsten: Flash bulbs in the night sky. And then afterwards, there’s kind of an afterglow because the light is radiating out. And so you have all these visible light. So you have the gamma-rays that come out and lots of visible light. “Dark” gamma-ray bursts are all the gamma-rays but none on the visible light.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: So, you know, maybe you’ll see a bright flash. But then there’s no afterglow. What happened? And so, people have been trying to figure out. “Okay. Is this an effect? Are these different events taking place? Is it an effect of this particular gamma-ray burst, this “dark” gamma-ray burst being really, really far away, and so the red shift being different? And because of the expansion of the universe, the light just doesn’t reaching us? Or, is it something else?”

And so, these researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have taken – they took the Keck Telescope in Hawaii and aimed it at, you know, a bunch of gamma-ray bursts or places in the – or detected a bunch of gamma-ray burst. And they’ve pretty much figured out that these bursts are really similar to normal burst.

But they’ve been able to correlate the data from the Keck telescope observations with data from the Swift X-ray telescope — gamma-ray and X-ray telescope and observations that that satellite has made to be able to determine that they’re probably not really, really, really far away because they found some regular gamma-ray bursts that were really, really far away and looked normal and these other dark ones that were really far away and looked like dark ones.

So, they’re saying, “Oh, it’s probably not the redshift issue. It’s not an issue of the expanding universe taking these things past a certain horizon.” It’s probably dusty galaxies. And that these galaxies somehow are obscuring because these gamma-ray bursts are taking place in areas where there’s lots of stars formation and there’s lot of activity going on. And so, when stars form, they’re spraying junk all over the place, shooting it out. It’s a mess, you know, dirty young galaxies.

Justin: Don’t know how to clean up after themselves.

Kirsten: Don’t know how to clean up after themselves.

Justin: Not been raised properly.

Kirsten: And so possibly, we’re dealing with this “dark” gamma-ray burst just being obscured by a haze of the debris of young galaxies but – or young star formation. But that still hasn’t been confirmed. But it seems like the most likely possibility at this point in time. And that’s what these researchers are saying.

Justin: Right, cool.

Kirsten: They’ve got a very limited sample. They’ve looked at 14 “dark” gamma-ray bursts out of a total of something like 29 bursts overall. So, the sample set is still…

Justin: Pretty small.

Kirsten: …really small. So, compared to the entire universe and all the gamma-ray bursts they could look at, maybe there’s a lot more observation that needs to be done to determine whether or not it is actually some kind of dust. And if it is dust, how come we can’t detect the dust? You know, why can’t we see it? Why is it just, “Oh, there’s a dust there.” But we don’t know it’s there and that kind of…

Justin: It should be there some light. I mean something needs to be getting thru that.

Kirsten: Right. You think that there would be some kind of reflectance. There would be something happening to allow the light to be seen, but no it’s not. So, I don’t know. I think there is still a big question as to what these “dark” gamma-ray bursts, you know, what’s really happening.

Justin: It could be that the light isn’t just in the spectrum that’s making it this far. I mean, if it’s all – if somehow it’s all like emitting, you know, radar, it’s going to take, “Oh, radar should get here.” Maybe not, radio waves. Maybe this is as low as radio is. It’s not going to make it here.

Kirsten: Maybe. Yeah, maybe they’re going to and look at that. So they’re proposing to look for radio and kind of have some millimeter.

Justin: Oh, yeah even radar, we wouldn’t see it. Probably we wouldn’t get it ping. It wouldn’t be pinging us either.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: I don’t think.

Kirsten: We’ll figure it out. We’ll figure it out.

Justin: Other dark matters afflict in the world. Newly discovered trend in bankruptcies makes mockery of the Hippocratic Oath and is wake up calling for all middle-class American families. From an article published in the August 2009 issue of the American Journal of Medicine.

Using identical definitions in 2001 and 2007, the share of bankruptcies attributable to medical problems rose 49.6% as a percentage of the overall. It went up to 49%, meaning that the odds of a bankruptcy having a medical cause to them has increased 2.38 fold from 2001 to 2007, a 238% rise. Things are looking up.

Most people caught in this mess, the story points out as if it matters, are middle-class, well educated and have health insurance, apparently making poverty more than just a problem for those uneducated, uninsured people who would normally be deserving of such things.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: It’s not really the inference of this, the paper or the article but it does seem to be there in the text somewhere.

In 2007, 60% of all bankruptcies in the United States were caused by medical issues. Sixty percent! An American family filed for illness-related bankruptcy every 90 seconds. Wow! Their fault for being uninsured, right? No. Three quarters of them were fully insured. Well, or thought they were.

Kirsten: They thought they were fully insured, yeah.

Justin: Yeah. So, this is researchers from Cambridge Hospital Harvard Medical School, Harvard Law School, and Ohio University surveyed random national sample of 2,300 bankruptcy filers in 2007, abstracted their court records and interviewed a thousand of them. And they designated the bankruptcies as medical based on debtors state – the debtors stated reasons for filing, income lost due to illness and the magnitude of their medical bills.

According to that study, 92% of medically bankrupted had high medical bills directly contribute to that bankruptcy. Many families with continuous coverage found themselves underinsured and so responsible for thousands of dollars of medical bills there.

Out-of-pocket medical cost averaged $17,943 for all the medically bankrupt families. It was $27,000 for the uninsured patients, $17,700 for those with private insurance — wow, private insurance huh — $14,600 for those with Medicaid and $12,000 for those with Medicare, and all the way down to $6,500 for those with the Veterans coverage.

The patients who initially have private coverage but lost it, the family’s out-of-pocket expense averaged to $22,000 because almost all insurance is linked to work, right?

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: And this I didn’t realize was – I didn’t know it worked this way. But a medical event like an illness can trigger that loss of coverage.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: So, why was – what’s the…

Kirsten: Yeah. Suddenly you become uninsurable.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Nationally – nationwide, quarter of firms, 25% of firms cancelled coverage immediately when an employee suffers a disabling illness, immediately. And another 25% do so within the year. What?

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Really?

Kirsten: They’re willing to pay for, you know, “Oh, you have to go to the doctor to get a prescription or whatever.” But when it becomes a much larger bills it’s…

Justin: So, I’ve got a new here and here. Writing in the American Journal of Medicine article, David Himmelstein, M.D., states that, “The US health care financing system is broken — and again points out as if it should matter to us — not only for the poor and uninsured. Not just for them.

Rephrasing that statement, not only for the poor and the uninsured, does that sound to you sort of like an ugly admission that we fully expect and willingly accept medical needs to financially devour some of our citizens? We just – that’s absolutely – we expect that to happen. That’s part of our system. Some people must be devoured.

Anyway, next year I think Himmelstein is going to capture in a single sentence the hypocrisy of the Hippocratic Oath in action when he writes, “Middle class families frequently collapse under the strain of a health care system that treats physical wounds, but often inflicts fiscal ones.” That’s – right there. That’s it, right?

Kirsten: Yup.

Justin: Ladies and gentlemen, my new hero in health care perspective, Dr. David Himmelstein. He did it even with the little like physical-fiscal alliteration in there, makes me like even more, right?

So, according to James Dalen, M.D., M.P.H. — I have no idea what MPH could stand for — University of Arizona College of Medicine, Tucson, “Medical bankruptcy is almost a unique American phenomenon, which does not occur in countries that have national health insurance.” So, you know, maybe there’s a cure to this.

Kirsten: Yeah, as if that’s ever going to happen. I’m a little…

Justin: (Let’s go).

Kirsten: Yeah, coming from a family who has been highly affected by the American Health Care System, I have absolutely no hope.

Justin: Well, you’re in good company.

Kirsten: No.

Justin: I mean, according to that article, you’re in very good company.

Kirsten: Yup, yup.

Justin: This is…

Kirsten: Oh, yeah. Oh, don’t get – I’m just not going to start. That will be the Dr. Kiki rant that takes…

Justin: Come on, bring it. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid, Kiki.

Kirsten: It will take – it will go for the rest of the hour and we’ll miss our interview. I’d rather talk about laughing? Yeah.

Justin: Like, okay.

Kirsten: Do apes really laugh. They make noises. You know, they have noises that they make…(chimp noises)

Justin: That sounds pretty funny.

Kirsten: That’s noises, is it laughing? Do apes laugh when they’re tickled?

Justin: I think so. I will think they would laugh.

Kirsten: Do they?

Justin: I think they would, guess so.

Kirsten: And our wonderful Minion Ed who wrote in and sent the story. He says, “What a great job being paid to tickle apes, as long as it isn’t one of the 800 pound variety.”

And so this paper came out in current biology just last week. Apes are known to make these laughing-type noises when they’re tickled. Young apes, little baby apes, if you’re to tickle them, you know, they make noises and it sounds like laughter. It’s very similar to human babies. But is it really laughing? And can we really call it laughing?

Researchers decided it was time to put it to the test. And so, they compared the recorded sounds of tickle-induced vocalizations of five primate species — orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas, banobos and humans.

So they tickled a bunch of baby primates and then recorded the sounds they made and then compared them.

Justin: I’m picturing like, you know, the anti research – anti animal research people, happening to show up at that lab and just not buying it. No, seriously. We’re just tickling them. No, really. That’s all we’re doing. We’re just tickling them.

Kirsten: As I sit here and laugh.

So, they didn’t just compare it. They did a quantitative phylogenetic analysis. So they basically looked at evolutionary – looked at this laugh sounds, these vocalizations from an evolutionary perspective to be able to see, “Okay, which one is probably the most basal and which ones are the most complex vocalizations and which – and how do they seem to compare to known genetic phylogenies of primate species.” ?

And they found that laughter is a gradual progression over 16 million years or so.

So, human laughter is very distinct from everybody else. It’s something that’s very different. But it came from exaggeration of some characteristics that were – that existed in other primate species earlier on in the lineage.

And so, they compared it and they looked at it, and they found that we have, you know – our laughter is usually only on exhale “ha-ha-ha-ha-ha”. Whereas, the apes they can go in-and-out and in-and-out and in-and-out. And the apes, they found, had extend – or chimps can have an extended flow of air similar to humans which is very important for human speech.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: And so, there are many aspects that I think – gorillas and banobos, it says in this article, can sustain exhalations. And that’s something that’s very interesting because it’s one of the…

Justin: It’s required for LOLing.

Kirsten: LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL if you want to say it over and over and over again.

And so, the researchers say the acoustic and phylogenetic results provide clear evidence of a common evolutionary origin for tickling-induced laughter in humans and tickling-induced vocalizations in great apes. While the most pronounced acoustic differences were found between humans and great apes inter-specific differences in vocal acoustics, nonetheless supported a quantitatively derived phylogenetic tree that coincides with the well-established genetically based relationship among the species.

At a minimum, one can conclude that it is appropriate to consider laughter to be a cross species phenomenon. And that it is therefore not anthropomorphic to use this term for tickling-induced vocalizations produced by great apes. Tickling is something we all share in common — or laughing is something we all share in common.

Justin: It’s kind of sweet, kind of heart-warming.

Kirsten: It is sweet. I know. Really, I like that story.

Justin: So, there’s evidence this week of humans having once lived underwater.

Kirsten: Blop, blop, blop, blop.

Justin: Archeologists have located what they believe to be caribou-hunting structures and camps used by the early hunters of North America some 9,000 years ago or so at the bottom of one of the Great Lakes.

So stunning is this revelation that people once lived underwater as to render a completely out of context in my telling. To put things in a proper perspective, we must include the fact to the way that the lake bottom was not always at the bottom of the lake and was in fact a land bridge. Yes.

Kirsten: That makes it all clear.

Justin: So, between 10,000 and 7,500 years ago water levels were much lower due to all the water being in ice, compacted and stored away in other places.

Kirsten: Then it melted.

Justin: And it melted and water went everywhere.

Kirsten: And then lakes.

Justin: Oceans rose too.

Kirsten: Oceans, lakes.

Justin: Yeah. And this is actually one of the interesting points in this is they believe because human populations tend to be very coastal, especially the early population. Well, even today. We’ve been always very coastal folk on the planet. Much of early settlements and early civilization is thought to be lost under tons of sediment in the shore lines around the world.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: So this is kind of an amazing find. They found something that’s…

Kirsten: I love the way they’re looking for this, I mean…

Justin: It’s brilliant, yeah.

Kirsten: It’s so brilliant, yeah.

Justin: Yeah. They basically just funk it through.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: I mean that’s…

Kirsten: Okay. So, how do we find these people? What do these people probably eat? Where would they have lived?

Justin: Where were caribou have traveled? And they figured out, there’s this ridge line…

Kirsten: How do they figure that out?

Justin: There’s this ridge line under the lake. It was probably above ground. So how they would have used it? Would they’ve used that? That would have been there? It was logical. And they track the migration patterns, animals in it. And so they went down. And they also had of course some underwater robots and some remote (controlly) things.

Kirsten: And sonar and…

Justin: All kinds of good stuff.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Which they do say that without of those technologies and tools, they would NOT have made this amazing find. But yeah, they found. There’s something called the — oh where is it, where is it, where is it — the drive lanes which are these long rows of rocks that they would channel a caribou down and then ambush them at the end of it.

Kirsten: Nice.

Justin: So they were – they have pretty sophisticated hunting methods back there. There’s a — what is it — 148-foot structure they believe is one of these drive lanes that they found under. And they also figured out that this was a hunting practice in the subarctic and that the practice is probably going to be similar in there. So they’re actually looking for these rows of rocks, these planted rows of rocks before they went down there.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: They weren’t – I mean they were so happy to find them very surprising, sure. But still they already knew what they were looking for before they went to the bottom of the lake and discovered it and into the air in which they went. So that’s pretty brilliant use of brain power.

Kirsten: Well, kind of reminds me of Neil Shubin when he went looking for Tiktaalik, the ancestral kind of transitional fish species. And he was like, “Okay. So, where would we think about finding, you know, this kind of a species?”

And he went back to like, you know, undergraduate geology books – textbooks and just started thinking about the characteristics of the landscape that would be where that animal would have lived at that point in time. And they went, “Okay. So, where would that be now and how can we find it now?”

So, I mean this is something that if you start thinking about putting yourself in the place of the people you’re studying or the animal you’re looking for or whatever, you know, you have to go back in time. But what are the characteristics of the habitat and how would you find it now? I mean, it’s just – I love that.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Looks like detective work for putting yourself – you know, by putting yourself in the place of that individual or that species and then going and hunting for it.

Justin: And really – a lot of that comes from geology too and climatology being able to sort of reverse age the Earth to what it looks like so you can figure out where the land bridges would have been. You can figure out where the coastal areas that didn’t go under might be.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: You know, I mean it can really help you narrow down this.

Kirsten: Mental time travel.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Can you differentiate between people’s voices fairly well, like when somebody calls you they say, “hello, hello,” and can you, on the base of a “hello”?

Justin: You know, they all sound like bats tripping in me. I don’t know why.

Kirsten: You don’t know why?

Justin: I don’t know why it is just tik-tik-tik. That’s all I hear. I just have to go – I read lips basically. That’s the only way I know what’s going on.

Kirsten: Yeah. Well, bats don’t have that chance to read lips. So, it’s really interesting that some researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel along with their colleagues in Germany were able to find out that bats can actually differentiate between individuals.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: They can tell the tsik-tsik-tsik call based on basically, you know, somebody’s yelling at you. “Hey!” Can you recognize a “hey” from one person, you know, versus a “hey” from another person?

Justin: Typically we can do this.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Yeah. This is not actually a big stretch for humanity.

Kirsten: It’s not a huge stretch for humanity. But we didn’t know whether or not it was a huge stretch for bats. And, you know, they live in these colonies. There are hundreds if not thousands.

Justin: Something like 10,000 at a time.

Kirsten: Ten thousand individuals.

Justin: Yeah, it’s a city.

Kirsten: And then, you know, they probably have groups that they’re more familiar with. If you have 10,000 individuals, you probably don’t know everyone in that colony. But…

Justin: Yeah. But what’s funny is 100% of bats are Goth. So the click, it’s not really, you know, it doesn’t have the subcultures that we have. This is just all Goth.

Kirsten: Just all Goth.

Justin: All the time.

Kirsten: That’s right. They trained these bats in a laboratory to learn certain individual’s calls and then have them differentiate between two individuals, where if they crawled over to the call of individual A they get fed of like nice, fatty meal worm. And if the call went to individual B who they weren’t supposed to learn, they didn’t get a meal worm. And then they had them, you know, differentiate – try it again.

So they had a training and a test, one with a meal worm, one without a meal worm to see if the food was affecting it at all. And then they took the response patterns of the bats and they stuck it into a computer model to try and determine how to mimic how the bats were comparing these frequency sounds and figure out what was going on.

And the researchers say that their analysis show that each bat has a typical distribution in the frequencies it emits probably a result of the differences in each animal’s vocal cords.

And the model takes all the calls of bats that were A and the calls that were B and tries to understand what differences it’s using to match them up. And that he thinks each individual bat has an internal prototype or, you know, a template for this is the sound of “me” or this is my personal sound and then compares every other individual against that but can use it to be able to figure out who’s who and to differentiate this very saddle vocal cord-based frequency differences between individual bats.

Justin: That’s awesome.

Kirsten: Yeah. It’s pretty amazing.

Justin: But then the question is why? I mean the question becomes…

Kirsten: So you don’t run into other bats?

Justin: No, no. But I mean…

Kirsten: You don’t steal another bat’s moth and start a blood war?

Justin: So you can avoid the stop and chat while you’re doing the fly around.

Kirsten: Maybe.

Justin: Like I don’t what – I don’t know like bats do they hunt in packs? (Unintelligible) I mean isn’t that one of the…?

Kirsten: Yeah, there are many bats, they’re out hunting to get. I mean, they don’t hunt as a pack but they hunt as a group.

Justin: In the proximity, you need to communicate dangers such as owls or – what are they…

Kirsten: They’re in the proximity of each other. Or maybe – yeah. Possibly but maybe it’s more efficient to just not — if you are going after something and you’re going chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp and sending out you’re little calls and somebody else is going chirp- chirp-chirp-chirp and sending out their little calls. And those sounds are bouncing off of everything in your environment.

You don’t want to think that – you want to know that this sound is coming from another bat over here.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: And it’s not your sound bouncing off of something else.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: So it’s good to be able to…

Justin: So not different to communicate for – I got you now. They’re not different to communicate necessarily with each other through this.

Kirsten: But just not to get confused in their environment.

Justin: But to self identify.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Does that make themselves aware?

Kirsten: No.

Justin: I mean that’s kind of a pretty strong case for it right there because they have to know themselves.

Kirsten: Know thy self bat.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: It’s 9 o’clock.

Justin: It’s a respective Gothy bats going on. It’s 9:00, oh that means we’re at the break. We’re at the bridge with the top of the bottom of the big show.

Kirsten: The top bottom of the – yes, we’re at the big show. And we are going to go to a break right now. We’ll be back with Douglas Richards to talk about teaching kids science through literature. We’ll be back in just one moment. Stay tuned for more This Week in Science.


Justin: And we’re back. You’re listening to This Week in Science.

Kirsten: That’s right. And on the line, we have Douglas E. Richards. He is the author of the critically acclaimed children’s science fiction thrillers, “The Prometheus Project:Trapped” and the “The Prometheus Project:Captured” books that have been enthusiastically praised by kid’s parents and educators alike.

Doug, welcome.

Douglas: Hey, thanks. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Kirsten: You’re welcome. It’s great to have you on. This is something that I’m excited to hear that you are writing science fiction like physics and science-based science fiction for kids.

Justin: For the little people.

Kirsten: For the little people.

Douglas: Exactly. You know, right now there’s a ton of fantasy out there as everybody knows. And, you know, most kids when they’re kind of teenagers would like science fiction or reading adult science fiction.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Douglas: But there really isn’t science fiction for middle graders for, you know, the 9 to 12 year olds. And, you know – and obviously, the thing that differentiates fantasy and science fiction is that in science fiction it’s driven by the accurate science.

Kirsten: Right. And this is something I’ve had several over the last few years coming up to summer vacation. I’ve had parents write to me and say, “You know, I have a child who’s, you know, they’re not really old enough for the adult science fiction-type books and they’re too old for like the kids science-based books. What is there that’s available for middle graders?”

And so it’s, you know, what – I mean, do you have middle graders yourself? Did you find this that you say, “Hey, there’s nothing out there.” And did you just write something?

Douglas: You know, that’s exactly right, yeah. In fact, the main characters of the books, the two kids are named Ryan and Reagan. And that I named them after my own two children. And I when I wrote the book, you know, both books, they were in the middle grades. Now, my son is just a freshman in high school.

But yeah, that was exactly right because when I was a child, I loved science fiction. I just couldn’t read – I mean I read every science fiction book there was.

And, you know, it really inspired me. I went on to get a Masters Degree in Molecular Biology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and go into Biotechnology and have a lifelong love of science. And, you know, it all started because of science fiction.

And so, you know, my thought was there really isn’t anything out there. And I love to write. I love science fiction. So I’ll do it myself.

Kirsten: Take it on. I’ll just do it myself. Nobody else is doing it.

Justin: Just out of curiosity….?

Douglas: Kirsten, (unintelligible) done well.

Justin: …what were you reading as a kid?

Douglas: I love Asimov as a kid. And in fact, you know, the American Association for the Advancement of Science did review of my second book, “Prometheus:Captured”.

And they actually had me and Asimov in the same sentence which totally was a thrill of my life. I mean, because he was my hero as a kid. And they actually said it was something like, “Like the late Asimov, Richards know that, you know, real science can enhance, you know, a compelling plot.” Or something like that. But I was just thrilled.

Kirsten: Just globs mocked.

Douglas: Yeah. I mean – and by the way, just to be on the record. Not that I can hold a candle to Asimov— just to be clear on that.

Kirsten: So tell us a little bit about – so you’ve got “The Prometheus Project:Trapped”, “The Prometheus Project:Captured”. What’s the basis for these books? What’s the, you know, plot?

Douglas: Right. I mean first, I wanted to just write to make the most difficult titles to pronounce that there could possibly be.

Kirsten: Right.

Douglas: No. Actually Prometheus, you know, as everyone knows is the kind of Greek mythology who gave fire to mankind. So, here’s some relevance to the title. But basically, you have these kids and their parents are both world class scientists.

And they get kind of transfer from San Diego to the backwoods of Pennsylvania in the middle of nowhere. And the kids were really upset about them. They have no idea why they moved.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Douglas: And they think they are going to die of boredom.

Kirsten: As any kid would.

Douglas: They very quickly and I really – I race in to this stuff. I mean, you know, and I think a lot of people think – have told me that reluctant readers are really enjoying these books because the pace is really fast. I end everything with a cliff hangers to kind of pull the reader along.

But in any event, they very quickly stumbled upon this buried underground city built by a race of aliens and it’s abandoned. So there are no aliens about. But it’s the huge vast city filled with technology or every kind. And their parents are studying this and they’re part of the team.

And so, in the first adventure, you know, something happens. All of the adults disappear from the city. So they’re trapped alone in the city, you know, without any food or water. And they’ve got to figure out a way. And meanwhile their mother was hit with an object and is probably going to die very soon if they don’t get help to her.

And so, they’ve got to figure out a way to save their mother’s life, figure out what’s going on and get out of the city.

Kirsten: I’m excited.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: I want to know more.

Douglas: Yeah. Well, you know, again the reaction has really blown me away. I mean, kids are really — seemed to love these books. And – I mean I am delighted because that’s really my primary goal. Because, you know, you can have all the accurate science you want and you’re never going to inspire kids in science if they don’t want to read the book.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Are you currently a married man?

Douglas: I am.

Justin: How was the mother feel about getting nearly knocked off? Is she like, you know…?

Douglas: Oh, the kids save her in the end. Yeah, you know, she was almost killed. That’s the key. They figured out a way to save her but then…

Justin: Just so you know, honey, I cut off you. Oh, I chose not to.

Douglas: Right. She was good to me the week I was writing that section. So I decided to keep her alive. But it’s been a lot of fun. And then, you know, a science editor – senior editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine read the first book, “Prometheus Project:Trapped” and really liked it and, you know, liked the plot.

And also thought I did a really good job of, you know, making science easy to understand for kids. And she asked me to write a piece for National Geographic Kids which I think is the largest children’s magazine in the country. It’s read by about 5 million readers per issue which is a little bit scary when you’re writing for it.

Kirsten: Right, and little daunting.

Douglas: Yeah. Yeah, you really want to get it right. But she asked me to write a piece. And so, since then I’ve done 13 pieces and I’m doing more all the time. So, in fact there’s one on space. It’s coming out on September that I wrote.

And if you go on my website you can, you know, basically my website is pretty awful. I think I’m a better writer than I am a web designer. But I took a shot at it. And it’s kind of my version 1 and it really needs improvement. But I mean – but on the webpage it’s

There’s, you know, links to all kinds of reviews, endorsements from the California Department of Education, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and, you know, numerous others that mostly it’s kind of a review fest. But there are also sample National Geographic Kids pieces that I’ve done.

Kirsten: When you’re writing, you know, “The Prometheus” books, I mean you said that the main driver is to make it fun, to make a plot that people really get involved in and want to follow. But what kind – what influences your choice of the science?

Douglas: Well, you know, that’s really great that you ask that because, you know, I really – I decided when I started out the science is going to organic to the plot. So, it wasn’t going to be kind of contrived. And I made sure that, you know, it’s only to drive the plot, not just for the sake of having science in there.

But, you know, that being said, it’s really amazing in science fiction, you know, you got this alien city with all this, you know, advanced technology, how easy it is to really – and in fact in the first book, the kids used a scientific method to figure out what’s going on and what’s happening to them.

And so, you know, I kind of have a flashback where his father is teaching him the scientific method. And I’ve done this at school. That’s really – it’s really fascinating that it’s just not intuitive that things fall at the same rate.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Oh, yeah.

Douglas: It’s absolutely counter intuitive.

Justin: Yeah.

Douglas: You go to a classroom and you say, “Can you hold up a paperclip and a book?” And you say, “I’m going to drop this. What’s going to land first?” You know, and everybody in the class says the book is going to land before the paperclip.

Kirsten: Where it’s heavier.

Douglas: Yup.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Douglas: And then you show them the demonstration and they land at the same time. And the kids are just – they laugh. They just can’t believe it.

Justin: Yeah. I’ve been doing that with actually my six-year old. A couple of weeks ago, I introduced him to that whole concept.

Douglas: Yeah. It’s really cool. So what I did was I lifted the book where…

Justin: The kids wanted to go higher and higher and drop things off of taller things.

Douglas: Yeah.

Justin: So it’s like, “What if we go on the roof?” I’m like, “No, no!” “It doesn’t matter.” “No, trust me, at any height.”

Douglas: Right. Right. Well – so what I did is I went through kind of a flashback where the father is going to outsmart him because he wants him to – so first he says, “I’m going to take a feather and a rock and drop them. Which is going to land first?” And he says, “The rock!” And he’s right because, you know, the wind resistance holds up the feather.

And so, the son thinks he’s right and he, you know – so, his father says, “Well, you know, should we do more than one experiment?” “Oh, it’s a ridiculous, Dad. We don’t need to. We’ve proven the hypothesis.”

You know, and so then he gets the paperclip, and then, you know, then the son is scratching his head saying, “Wait a minute. What’s going on? Why it doesn’t work with the paperclip?” And then, you know, quickly they lead to the whole wind resistance. You know, the wind holds something up. Then it goes slower. But, you know, barring wind resistance then it falls at the same rate.

And so, then they use the scientific methods throughout the book. And so I can introduce, you know, for example in the very end, they learn from the kind of the master computer of the city, how the city was constructed. And the idea that – when I was in graduate school in Molecular Biology I was fascinated by Developmental Biology.

And so I drew a parallel between – if you had nanorobots who could burrow into the ground and, you know, eat the raw material and convert that into other nanorobots. So exponentially, they create more nanorobots and a rich program for a different function to build the city.

And so just like, you know, you plant a seed – a single seed and you get a tree, you know, at the same to build a blade of grass. So that is the tree. Just plant a seed and you walk away. Well, if you have the nanorobot that will programmed properly and so the parallel to the Developmental Biology obviously as a fertilized egg becomes a multi-trillion celled human being.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Douglas: And so, how does that happen? I mean – and it happens the exact same way. You take the raw materials that you feed your body. And, you know, a kid, you know, the computer says, you know, like pizza and popcorn and broccoli. And then he makes a joke but, you know, I’m sensing the broccoli isn’t probably as important in building your building blocks as the pizza has been in your life.

But, you know, you take the food and you convert it into more cells. And then, you know, ultimately the cells are programmed. So some know how to become eye cells, some know how to become brain cells. And they kind of, you know, do different tasks at some point.

And so, in the same way that the human body was built, the city was built. And, you know – then I get to introduce the concept of exponential growth. And I do it in a very, you know, I mean very kind of superficial way. But I think a way that gets kids thinking like, “Wow. It never really occurred to me that I’m made out of the food that I eat. I mean, where else am I getting building materials?”

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Douglas: So, that’s sort of thing where I’m able to introduce science. You know, they need water to be on another planet. And they think that they’re looking at water or stream but it’s in another planet, so maybe at some bazaar liquid that they don’t know anything about.

And so, they’re discussing, “Well, how do we know it’s really water?” And then tried to think about properties of water and, you know, one of the main properties of water that are different in other liquids is that water expands when it freezes, where every other liquid contract. And, you know, every kid knows that because if you ever left, you know, a bottle of water in the freezer too long, it explodes or, you know, it grows out of the plastic container.

So that sort of thing, you know, in the second book, “Captured”, you know, it always fascinated me when I was in Biotechnology, we had a neuropathic pain drug. And we always make the point that, you know, one of the benefits of our drug was that, you know, while it works for neuropathic pain, it didn’t affect (nerve perception) so that you could feel normal pain.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Douglas: And that was really important because pain has a purpose.

Kirsten: Right.

Douglas: If you have your hand on a stove and you don’t have any pain, and you’re watching your kid talking and your hand sitting on the stove, it burns off without pain, without, you know – but with pain you immediately jerk your hand away from the stove.

And so that’s something I think kids really don’t appreciate. And it always I thought was fascinating. So I worked it in to the book in, you know, this is a way they use to defeat a villain.

There is a super medical device that the aliens have, you know, that they discover that can take away all pain. And they’re able to take away all pain from this villain. And then, you know, in a way to defeat him only because he doesn’t know that he’s being attacked.

Kirsten: That he’s hurting.

Douglas: Yeah. And so…

Kirsten: Oh dear.

Douglas: …that sort of thin. I think I ramble for a while.

Kirsten: I think those are some – yeah, I think those are really great examples of how, you know – not just that they can be – these concepts can be introduced to children and through a book which is how, you know, people or children can realize that these kinds of things are all around them all the time. It’s not just science fiction. This is reality.

Justin: Yeah, and they will notice too. And they will notice now once they have that seed of that concept in there. They will notice when that thing – when they’re re-interacting with that scientific concept the second time at their time to look for.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Douglas: Yeah. I mean, that was the idea. And I have to tell you the reception I’ve gotten from kids is that, you know, that was the most important thing to me. But from scientists and kids across the country has just been phenomenal. I mean, right now I’ve been reviewed in six different states science teacher – no, seven.

Kirsten: Great.

Douglas: Maybe more. So the California Science Teachers Association which is, you know, like 25,000 or 30,000, you know, every science teachers in the State of California, they have a journal and they’ve done reviews on both the books that were very positive reviews.

You know, they are on my webpage if anybody is interested to read the whole thing. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, as I mentioned the California Department of Education has someone recommended literature for Math and Science list, University of Missouri has a list of, you know, best books to engage students in Math and Science.

And so, you know, it’s kind of – it’s really – it’s just been phenomenal. I really never thought it would, you know, be appreciated in this way. And now, I written about five or six pieces for State Science Teacher Publications on using science fiction to teach science.

Kirsten: Yeah. I thought it would be – that this is an idea I thought would be really interesting using science fiction in schools at the appropriate grade levels, getting kids interested in the stories, introducing them to the science, maybe getting the kids once they understand science fiction concepts to, you know, play to interweave the science and creative writing and maybe try their hand at their own science fiction writing.

Douglas: Yeah.

Kirsten: You know, maybe, you know, get the kids involved in the process. You know, you can read. You can learn the science. But then can you accurately put the science back into your own story?

Douglas: Right, right. And then, you know, I think all of that – I mean, you know, it’s another interesting thing that just happened was that there’s an outfit called Science NetLinks. And they’re just really prestigious group. They’re like a partnership between, you know, like the National Geographic Society, the International Reading Association, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Smithsonian.

Kirsten: Wow.

Douglas: You know, all of these, you know, literacy network, all of these groups they banded together and their goal is to create science content for educators. And they did the rare – they made a rare choice of writing a lesson for these books even though they’re fiction.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Douglas: And so, you know, 99% of the time they’re going to be doing non-fiction.

Kirsten: Right.

Douglas: And they’re going to be – so, they actually – there are lesson plans available as of just last month for both books, and which I’m, you know, tickled by.

Kirsten: What was the name of the organization again, NetLink?

Douglas: It’s called Science NetLinks.

Kirsten: Science NetLinks.

Justin: Very cool.

Kirsten: Great.

Douglas: Yeah.

Kirsten: Do you have any other books coming out or you’re writing a third?

Douglas: I’m working on the third book in the series. So – but I wish I could tell you, you know, if and when that’s going to eventually emerge. But I’m excited about it. You know, each one gets longer and a little bit more complicated and, you know, a little bit older.

Kirsten: Right.

Douglas: The fist one, “Trapped” is, you know, the shortest one and it’s the simplest one. And this third one is a lot – you know, it’s more sophisticated than – I introduced, you know, evolution plays a big role in the third one.

Kirsten: Right. Maybe the kids are learning along with you as they read those. So, you know, having the advancing sophistication of the concepts, you know, the length of the book, you know, maybe the kids are getting older as well within the book, you know.

Justin: Very cool, yeah.

Kirsten: I can see it working very nicely.

Justin: And next thing you know you’ll have the Harry Potter 789-page volume that nobody can lift let alone read.

Douglas: No. No, I’m never going to do that. You know, I tell you the reason that the first one was so short, I’ve got to be honest because it was like twice as long and I cut it to that.

Justin: Amazing what editing will do.

Douglas: No, it wasn’t edited. It was me.

Justin: Yeah.

Douglas: And the reason I did it was because I was an unknown author. And I’m still largely unknown. And it was a really teeny publisher. And so, I’m thinking myself, you know, if you’re Steven King, you can get away with writing 1,000 pages.

Justin: Yeah, yeah.

Douglas: And even if the first 200 is kind of boring, people will put up with it. But if you’re me, you know, if the kids read the first paragraph and aren’t interested, you know, you’re done.

And so, you know, my thought on the first one was, “Well, I really want to streamline this. I want to make it impossible for them for to put down.” And so, as the series goes along and as it had some success, and I figured, you know, the people reading the third one…

Kirsten: They’re invested.

Douglas: Yeah. And it’s still not like it’s slower or anything.

Kirsten: Right.

Douglas: It’s just – I feel like I have a little bit more luxury, you know, I would love to have the luxury to, you know, do a little bit more character development. And – you know, but at this point, you know, I’ve got this formula that kids just seem to love.

Kirsten: I think that’s great.

Douglas: And so I’m little bit hesitant to thinker too much with the formula at the moment.

Kirsten: Right. Well, thank you so much for joining us this morning. We’re going to have to…

Justin: And for doing what you’re doing.

Douglas: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Yeah, for doing what you’re doing, getting kids not losing those middle grade kids.

Douglas: Right.

Kirsten: You know, keeping them interested in science when maybe their hormones are starting to get them interested in more social pursuits.

Douglas: Yeah, there are a lot of progressions I guess.

Kirsten: Yeah, thank you.

Douglas: I really appreciate you having me on the program.

Kirsten: You’re welcome.

Douglas: And, you know, what you’re doing is also incredibly important.

Justin: Oh, (pusha).

Douglas: Yeah. No, no really. So thank you very much.

Kirsten: You’re welcome. And people can find you at We’ll put the link on our website. And again, your books are “The Prometheus Project” books. Thank you again.

Douglas: Thank you very much.

Kirsten: Bye.

Douglas: Bye-bye.

Justin: What we do is not important.

Kirsten: Yeah, (pusha). Oh, we have a few minutes left but we’re getting down to the end of the hour. I just wanted to – there was a huge correction glut of emails that people wrote in after the statistics…

Justin: I’m standing – I’m sticking to my guns. I don’t know what – stick into it.

Kirsten: …the statistics that were presented regarding scientists fabricating data. Minion Erin wrote in, Minion Karen, and Minion Ian. And I don’t know if there were any other ones. But those were three of the people that I saw. And all of them say that there’s something wrong with the statistics.

Erin says, “I am a scientist and I work with nine other scientists. Take as a fact that I have fabricated data and none of my colleagues do. But they all know I do. In this case, if people don’t lie, 10% of scientists would admit having fabricated data and 90% of scientists would know a colleague who had fabricated data. Ten percent isn’t close to 90%, but no one lied.”

So, Karen also says that using her critical thinking that was discussed the week before, “I figured that given a group of ten scientists, two of whom have fudged data it is actually quite possible that each has seven other scientists who know about their acts. This could account for the 2% to 14% discrepancy.

Expand that further, 14 lying scientists, times 7 who know one of them, equal 84 who are aware of someone cheating. The larger numbers, it is conceivable that there is some cross-knowledge of each other which can account for fewer people saying they know at least cheating scientist.”

And again, Ian says, “Even though — he loves our show, his greetings from Englandshire — he thought of another reason why 2% admit fraud but 14 know that someone who had it’s because each scientist who commits fraud is known by several people. So, of two out of every hundred have committed fraud and they tell seven other scientists about it. And then there goes your 14%.

Justin: So, I just do not go around telling each other, “You know, I created fraud in my last project. I got away with it.”

Kirsten: Regardless. Regardless I think it’s interesting…

Justin: Here’s the key statistic.

Kirsten: …that the statistics come out this way when looked at in this alternative way.

Justin: Woo Suk Hwang, I mean there’s a plenty of people who’ve done this. The fact, that only 14% know of a scientist who has fudged in it means that 86% need to start listening to our show. That’s all. That’s all that means.

Kirsten: Yeah. And a listener comment very briefly, Minion Bookbinder says, “I immediately recognized an answer to the question of ‘What kind of information would you need to store for 1 billion years?’

In the previous episode, you remarked that because of the expansion of the universe accelerating to do the dark energy, we are living in a special time when we can see stars and galaxies created near the beginning of the universe.

As more and more of the universe is expanded beyond the horizon of what we can see about 14 billion years we will lose that information about the great beginning.

So, store the most important observational data in some kind of very long-term media, put it inside an asteroid out in the Kuiper belt, set to pulse a beacon once a century after the first billion years.

Then future astronomers are descendants or of other species which maybe the same thing can find the record and examine this data for themselves and reach conclusions which they would otherwise be unable to reach.”

I thought that was a fascinating…

Justin: It is. It is.

Kirsten: …fascinating use for this 1 billion-year long data storage format.

Justin: Although in that timeframe, the only thing that’s going to look and find that is going to be robots. And I don’t know if they’re really the stargazing-type. I don’t know if they really reflect on themselves and care how they got here.

Kirsten: Maybe reflection will be.

Justin: I think they just want to go around eat titanium asteroids. I think that’s going to be their mission.

Kirsten: Chump. Oh, a big in an asteroid. Chump. And there goes the data.

Justin: Yum. Yum, yum, yum.

Kirsten: On next week show, Greg Gibson, author of “It Takes a Genome”, about the interplay between our genes, environment and illness.

I’d like to give some big shoutouts to people who wrote in to us: Ian Rickard, Jeffrey Johnson, Karen Meiner, (Art Artium) from Ukraine, (Odessa Paula), (Thomanson Logan), Ed Dyer, Tony Steal.

Justin: Massively overdue shoutout to (Logan).

Kirsten: Yeah. Tony came up with the art for our CD.

Justin: Okay, cool.

Kirsten: I got to give him a copy of that. And (Logan) sent us a great CD full of science music. It was so great.

Justin: Science-y music. So now, my six-year old is demanding Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto and the LHC song.

Kirsten: Yup.

Justin: Those are button that he wants to hear those back to back, over and over.

Kirsten: Over and over again.

Justin: So thank you Minion (Logan). Very cool CD.

Kirsten: Yeah. (Jater Pen), (Hannah Privolta). Everyone who wrote in, thank you, thank you very much for your comments.

Justin: Yes. We’ve hoped you’ve enjoyed listening to the show. We’re also available via podcast. If you want to check us out later, you can go to Click on Subscribe to the Podcast or just look for This Week in Science in the iTunes.

Kirsten: And for more information you’ve heard here today, show notes are going to be available at our website, And we also want to hear from you. So email us at or

Justin: Put TWIS somewhere in the subject line or you’ll be spam filtered. You can also find us at Twitter land, the Twittersphere…

Kirsten: That’s right.

Justin: …@jacksonfly or @drkiki.

Kirsten: @drkiki, that’s right. And so, we’ll talk to you on the Twitter. We’ll be back here on KDVS next Tuesday at 8:30am Pacific Time. And we hope you’ll join us again for more great science news. Stay tuned on KDVS for more great programming.

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

Kirsten: …it’s all in your head.

Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!

Getting it wrong is one of the most important things you can do in the pursuit of science. The more things you get wrong, the less places truth has to hide. More than simply a process of elimination, getting it wrong can actually produce new facts.

For instance, if we go back in time to the days of early men, we can imagine an early attempt to reach the moon by throwing a rock while it is directly overhead. Not only does this attempt illustrate the wrong way to reach the moon, it also produces facts about gravity, acceleration, and potentially head injuries that could be later study.

And while throwing rocks at the moon, much like the following hour of our programming, does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the University of California at Davis, KDVS or its sponsors.

We should all feel like great liberty to get things wrong on a daily basis. For every wrong answer is a step towards the truth. Every damn question, one less that needed to be asked. Every failed experiment eliminates the need for it to be done that way again. And every intuitive false belief refuted finds us a more objective understanding upon which to stand. In fact, wrong thinking makes the impossible possible.

If only by learning new ways of not going about attempting it, it could be said and therefore is about to be that getting things wrong is the easiest way to learn new things.

And while you pondered the possible wrong things you can think today, we will eliminate a few facts so as not to make your efforts in vain. You’re on This Week in Science, coming up next.

Synopsis: A Dirty Galactic Secret, Hippocratic Hypocrisy, Your Laughing Ape, People Underwater, Batty Buddy Beacons, and Interview w/ Douglas Richards, author of the Prometheus Project books

Tags: KDVS, animals, anthropology, archeology, astrophysics, bioethics, biology, deep space, evolution, geology, mammals, medicine, podcast, science, science and politics, space, stars



One thought on “Transcript: TWIS.ORG June 9, 2009”

Comments are closed.