Transcript-TWIS.ORG March 24, 2009

Synopsis: Brains, brains, brains! Cold Fusion, Bad For Baby, Kiki needs to drink less, and lots more

Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer! The Earth is facing an immediate global threat of self-annihilation. And while the vast majority of Earth’s inhabitants do nothing to fight the threat of global warming, this is likely because most of its habitants are non-sentient life forms.

Yet even among these sentient thinking reasoning informational adaptive earthlings, there seems to be a little initiative taken. Either from a lack of knowledge, absence or of awareness or worse, a sense that the trouble ahead is too terrible.

The challenge is too great and so they ignore the issue resolving the Earth to a coward’s fate. And though terribly troubled earthlings much like the following hour of our programming do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of University of California at DAVIS, KDVS or its sponsors.

The fate of the world is NOT so predetermined. There are some human principles that do not back down from the challenge. Science ever thinking, never blinking, innovating answers instead of hesitating the question, inventing the tools needed to face the future instead of pretending that tomorrow will never come.

With science, a new energy portfolio is being designed. Roof tiles integrated with solar cells, algae and hydrogen fuel sources, emission-free vehicles backed up by better battery technology, rooftop, wind turbines and water turbines and ocean currents, geothermal power plants tap in deep into the Earth below and pursuit of perhaps the greatest of potential prices. Even fusion is on the table still.

Nothing is impossible. No challenge too great, no question too tricky for the brave-minded modern scientist. And speaking of brave minds, hello! Welcome to another episode of This Week in Science, coming up next.

Good morning, Kirsten!

Kirsten: Good morning, Justin! Welcome back. I don’t know where you went.

Justin: I’ve been here. I didn’t go anywhere.

Kirsten: It is This Week in Science. The show that you look forward to, to bring you all that science-y goodness once a week. We do it.

Justin: I even brought my raspy whiskey voice today. Yeah.

Kirsten: Oh that’s pretty fancy. I brought my raspy-allergy voice today. Welcome, spring sprung. We have passed the vernal equinox.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yes. I mean — I don’t know. I feel like there should be a Lewis Carol poem.

Justin: Oh, I can write a haiku.

Kirsten: That involves the vernal equinox.

Justin: I can write a haiku. I have a spring haiku by the end of the show.

Kirsten: Yeah?

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Is that your goal? He’s working on it. He’s…

Justin: One, two, (unintelligible).

Kirsten: Buckle my shoe. I promised last week that we would have an interview at the — today with Dr. Charles Langmuir.

Justin: Which I’m looking forward to. So glad that’s it’s going to happen because…

Kirsten: It’s not.

Justin: I’m all prepared to get notes. What?

Kirsten: Not going to happen. He emailed me yesterday and he has a family emergency and he has to fly across the country. Yes. So, I’m hoping that everything is alright with his family and…

Justin: Lots of prayers.

Kirsten: Yeah. And hopefully — he said, he’ll get back to us as soon as he’s, you know, gone through this. And we will get him on the show because I want to talk about planetary evolution, people.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: I do, really. So, it will happen eventually. But instead and additionally, we have science news. I have brains, black holes and the reasons why I should not drink so much on the weekends. What did you bring?

Justin: I’m looking for it. I can’t find it.

Kirsten: I brought something. But I can’t see it because my computer screen no longer functions.

Justin: It’s getting so bad, yeah. I don’t know. I have a teenage brain. I have gills.

Kirsten: You have a teenage brain?

Justin: I have a teenage brain. Yes, I do apparently.

Kirsten: Your teenage brain and gills. This is good. This is good.

Justin: According to the study, I have both gills and a teenage brain.

Kirsten: He was a teenage merman.

Justin: I have like the…

Kirsten: His name was Justin.

Justin: I have a top story from last week. It somehow didn’t end up going out. That I think is too important.

Kirsten: Whoa!

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Top story.

Justin: I have a top story from last week. It was about bad things for babies.

Kirsten: Okay.

Justin: Warning for parents who are still in control.

Kirsten: How about we get to do that after we discuss cold fusion?

Justin: Yes. This is an amazing story.

Kirsten: This is a very, very cool story. It was reported at the American Chemical Society’s 237th National Meeting. That’s a lot of meetings they have had talking about chemicals and chemistry.

However, some researchers brought forward evidence of cold fusion. And one — let’s see so, cold fusion — what they’re working on now, low energy nuclear reactions. So, it’s suppose to boom — lots of radiation, you know, this low energy. Low energy, cold not hot, cold.

And there’s a great fusion reactor going in that’s almost going to be active and the Lawrence Livermore National Labs. And they’re going to be using fusion with powered by something like 190 lasers. A lot of laser beams to create a situation that’s very similar to the interior of the sun.

Justin: Whoa!

Kirsten: Yeah. And that’s going to be going online here in a little bit. But opposite of that is the idea of cold fusion. And back in the 80’s, there was this whole, hubbub “I’ve done cold fusion.”

Justin: I made bubbles in the bathtub.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Starts with “f” but it’s not fusion.

Kirsten: Yeah. And a device called an electrolytic cell. Pons and Fleishmann were the — Martin Fleishmann and Stanley Pons were the researchers in the 1989 who presented the first report on cold fusion. However, nobody could replicate the findings. And so this made…

Justin: And that’s where we got the term “ponzi scheme”.

Kirsten: No.

Justin: It’s not.

Kirsten: It’s not.

Justin: It’s not.

Kirsten: It’s not where we got it. But people since — it’s kind of lost funding and lost interest. Everyone just kind of went, “Oh, well.”

Justin: “You didn’t get the science right on the first pass. Okay, that’s it for you.”

Kirsten: Too bad.

Justin: Great.

Kirsten: Right. And ever since, every once in a while, a story comes back up and people say, “We’ve done it. We’ve got cold fusion evidence.” And then, people can’t replicate the study again.

But then, I think last year or two years ago, this group came forward and they were like, “We think, we’ve got cold fusion. We’re going to keep working on it.” And they’d still don’t have cold fusion necessarily, something that is replicatable and scalable, just to the powers of using it for electrical production, electricity production for mankind.

However, they have found tracks of neutrons that were emitted during a fusion reaction in an experiment. So, one of the things that’s been hard to do is to be able to prove that there are neutrons released.

So, when you have deuterium atoms as heavy water, there are neutrons that should be released. And you should be able to see evidence of that as evidence of the fusion taking place.

No one has been able to do that yet. So now, these people, Pamela Mosier-Boss of the US Navy Space and Naval Warfare System Center in San Diego California.

Justin: So helpful.

Kirsten: Yeah. She’s a co-author on the paper. She says, “This is the first scientific anniversary of the very first description of cold fusion. And this is the first scientific report of the production of highly energetic neutrons from a low energy nuclear device.”

Justin: And what they did is kind of — it’s like — I don’t know if anybody out there other than myself and a couple of kids I grew up with—have ever played with matches and Styrofoam together. But if you drop a match into Styrofoam, it burns a sort of a hole into it. It just sort of drops down into it…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …like — melts as it goes in. And that’s basically how they discovered these neutrons, is they had a little piece of some sort of a plastic in there…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …during the experiment. And when these neutrons escaped, they went microscopically searching and found little holes that they made in the plastic as they worked their way end.

Kirsten: Yeah. And they — so, they looked at it with a microscope and they found what they call triple tracks. And these little clusters of three pits kind of all clustered together adjacent to each other. And they appear to split from a single point. So, they start as a single point in the plastic…

Justin: Subdirectories.

Kirsten: …and then they go off in three different directions. And so, as if single particles split into three and then those three particles are so high-energy, they melted through the plastic.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah. And so…

Justin: So, if it melts army men over the Styrofoam have the same sort of a — well.

Kirsten: Right, political army men.

Justin: (Difficult to explain.)

Kirsten: So, this is very exciting. There’s this potentially is the way to start, you know, looking at maybe showing evidence that this is a fruitful area of research still. And that maybe funding will end up going in the direction of cold fusion. Maybe cold fusion is not as far off and a crazy scheme as people think it is. Who knows?

Justin: Yeah. And I guess — I think that the trouble to it has always been the claim that it existed already, the claim that it was found. I think that claim kind of — that’s something a word of caution for research right there is to say, “This is a step forward.” It’s always a great, you know. It’s like…

Kirsten: Right. But we have found that it’s at, you know…

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: “We just made a huge step towards…” “Okay, great.” Now, further funding. “Oh, we’ve just found it. It’s done.” And then, it’s not done, people are like, “Oh, well…” Credibility is everything, sometimes.

Kirsten: Yeah. I don’t know. I think, you know, maybe cold fusion is not — it might not end up being the incredible power source that’s going to be the solution to all our energy needs.

But it might end up that it works in a different scale. And there are, you know, potentially going to be practical applications for it. But maybe not to the extent that people hoped.

Justin: I think — and in future though, we’re going to have energy needs well beyond the individual needs now. I think, mostly in our using — most of our energy in, you know, residential and some sort of manufacturing industrial purposes, in the future, if we get serious colonizing other planets and things like this, we’re going to need tremendous amounts of energy, much beyond what we need to actually consume ourselves for, you know, just surviving on the planet.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: So, yeah. You know, cold fusion, you keep the research dollars going into something that can have that big of a payoff because it maybe 50 years before we have something really — that we can play with. But then, 50 years is tomorrow. It’s coming really quick.

Kirsten: I want my personal reactor. Like, you know, in my basement. I want my cell phone powered off, you know, a little tiny fuel cell, which — those are coming.

Justin: Yeah, yeah.

Kirsten: There are lots of interesting energy research directions out there.

Justin: And there’s going to be — the biggest obstacle to this isn’t actually, I don’t even think it’s the research. I don’t even think, science has got the obstacles in front you, (I mean). The biggest obstacles in this is, is money.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: There’s money for production, money for development and money that’s currently in the hands of parties that might be opposed to the money going somewhere else. Free energy, this is like Nicola Tesla’s dream. And you can do financing to try to develop it. It probably would not work the way he was trying to do it.

But Nicola Tesla wanted to create tower stations that would just emit power so that people could turn on appliances and stuff in the house as completely wireless.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Nobody would finance it. Why? There’s no metering. There’s no way to charge money for this stuff. So, if we get to the point where everybody has, you know, whatever fusion reactor in the basement, the hydrogen generator in the backyard or the solar panels with a little, you know, rooftop wind collectors, whatever it is, where we are off the grid and just the house is paying for its own electricity. It’s even charging up our cars from not filling up. There’s a lot…

Kirsten: And nobody’s making money off it. Well, there’s a lot of stuff out there that they would, you know, make (money).

Justin: There’s a lot of things to sell along the way. But once we’re not on the grid, once we’re not connected to that, think about the utilities, the oil companies, this is hugely influential in every hall of power in, you know, government.

Kirsten: Sounds like you’re going a little conspiracy theorist (over) there.

Justin: No, no. It’s not conspiracy theory. No, no, it’s business. That’s where business is. Business is competition. But speaking of…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: I’m going to skip my — I should do the “bad for baby” story. Except we just jumped into this. So, I’m going to blurb it out here. The Energy Department awarded its first alternative energy loan to $535 million to a solar power panel manufacturer here in California.

This money has been set-up. They’ve set up this money for this alternative, you know, energy program…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …in ’95. Some $40 billion in loans, they set aside for this. This is the first one…

Kirsten: Wow!

Justin: …to go through.

Kirsten: Over ten years.

Justin: No, no, four years. We’re not…

Kirsten: I though you said ’95.

Justin: 2005.

Kirsten: Oh, okay. I thought you said ’95. I was like, “that’s a long time.”

Justin: No, no, no, 2005. And this is the first money that’s been, you know, got into through the system for basically by my new hero, Steven Chu, new, you know, Energy Department, Secretary of the DOE. Right? The former physicist researcher.

Kirsten: Nobel Prize winner.

Justin: Nobel. No, but I said, “Oh, there’s money here that we’re supposed to be given to alternative energy programs…” Pushed the button, signed the paper work, did whatever– made the phone call, boom! Money is now being released.

So, it’s part of this program where it’s both going to create jobs and be investing in the new energy program at the same time.

It just amazes me, you know, that the money is for things like these are getting slowed up in the holes of this government. I don’t think it’s conspiracy. Again, I think we have a problem.

Kirsten: It’s just the way things happen.

Justin: I think we have a problem.

Kirsten: Yeah. I was a reading in the article in the New York Times that somebody sent me yesterday about Steve Chu and he’s — one of his interesting quotes is, “Thing that I’ve learned about government that’s different from Physics, in Physics, if you apply force to something, an object in motion stays in motion. But in government, you have to keep applying force or else it stops.”

Justin: I love that. I love that.

Kirsten: Yeah. So, he’s learning his lessons.

Justin: Physics of politics.

Kirsten: The Physics of politics, exactly.

A study out of the journal of Neuroscience, a group out of UCLA have taken some beautiful pictures of the brain using a new style of brain imaging which is in effect looking at — it’s a type of magnetic resonance imaging. But it is called HARDI, High Angular Resolution Diffusion Imaging and it measures water diffusion.

The lead researcher Thompson says if the water diffuses rapidly in a specific direction, it tells us that the brain has very fast connections. If it diffuses more broadly, that’s an indication of slower signaling and lower intelligence.

So, they are using this mapping technique to check out people’s brains and see how smart are they? Maybe are there genes that are associated with the type of intelligence that the people have.

So, they had the brains of 23 sets of identical twins and 23 sets of fraternal twins. And since identical twins share the same genes and fraternal twins have about half of their genes in common, they’re able to compare things like myelin integrity which is the fatty coating that insulates the nerves that allows signals to be sent more quickly to see whether or not that’s determined genetically in parts of the brain that are crucial for intelligence.

Justin: And they didn’t have to cut anybody open to do this.

Kirsten: They didn’t cut a single person open.

Justin: No.

Kirsten: No. And so, they were looking at the parietal lobes which — oops, I smack the microphone around. They are looking at the visual centers of the brain and the corpus callosum which takes information and shunts it back and forth between the two sides of the brain. The corpus callosum is the big axonal connector between the two hemispheres of your brain.

Justin: Everybody is missing out on your hands (unintelligible). Kirsten is doing like this tai-chi in the in the middle of the room. Arms swinging, pointing fingers interlocking locking — it’s all being lost. We need like a little window in the middle. Like, we need a little like, live handy cam that just focus on her hands.

Kirsten: We’re going to have, I think like the live webcam.

Justin: Just doing…

Kirsten: Just for — Kiki handy cam.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Anyway so, they have — there’s beautiful pictures of the wiring and the signals that were sent through the brain because they are able to basically color code. So, like red is really fast. Blue is maybe, you know, the hue of the color in this mapping technology corresponds to how fast a signal is moving in the brain. And then, you can see where the signal is moving in the brain.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: You know, look at the brain and see these tracks of information flow…

Justin: That’s amazing.

Kirsten: …through the brain. And they are actually able to — through the study suggest that genes are highly, highly, highly related to how intelligent you are. So, the twins that had faster neuronal signal transmission that corresponds to higher intelligence because the signals moving faster from place to place.

And basically, in effect the person is thinking faster. So, if your signals move faster that means you’re thinking faster. And there are areas that are definitely enhanced, you know, and have certain — a higher probability of being genetically determined than others.

But there are some things like memory and your retention of information that you can train and those are things that, you know, you can do mental gymnastics to, you know, calisthenics for your brain, mental push-ups to make yourself able to remember things better, to be able to pick up on stuff to enhance your attention. And not everything is determined by your genetics. You can affect it during your life.

Justin: For some folks, I’ve tried those memory things that where you associate a memory with something else and I always get stuck with the association and not the actual memory.

Like I know that stove top fish calisthenics mean something. I was supposed to be remembering something with that; I have no idea what the memory is. I got stuck with this weird…

Kirsten: And now you have…

Justin: …collaboration and collage in my head.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: I wonder if coffee — see, like I’m drinking coffee, right now. And I think, I’m thinking much faster than I was thinking like an hour ago.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: So, this coffee like, is that a leveler?

Kirsten: Possible.

Justin: Like say, genetically my brain is slower than the next guy. But I have had three cups of coffee and the next guy hasn’t.

Kirsten: And your metabolism is racing.

Justin: I think I’m way ahead of him right now. So, coffee makes you smart. That’s what I’m taking from all of this. Coffee actually increases intelligence.

Kirsten: If it can increase your ability to pay attention to multiple things, right?

Justin: What are we talking about?

Kirsten: Right. Because if you can pay attention and then hold things in your memory and then also be able to make connections faster between disparate different concepts then, yes, it can increase your intelligence.

Justin: I think it does.

Kirsten: And there’s another drug out — speaking of drugs that enhance your intelligence. Oh, and you were talking about narcolepsy earlier, modafinil, that’s a narcolepsy drug…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: They didn’t think that it affects the dopaminergic system and people have been starting to use it for cognitive accentuation so, like helping their cognitive task and also for treating — it’s for narcolepsy but they’ve started using it to treat ADHD and some other…

Justin: Can you write me a prescription, doctor? Yeah, doc. Are you a prescription writer?

Kirsten: No, I’m not a prescription writer?

Justin: How do you get that? You should like — because I need that. I have all those problems right now.

Kirsten: Yeah. But they did find just recently that it does affect to the dopaminergic system which means that does have the potential for addiction which means that probably won’t be the most common drug used to boost your brain.

Justin: Why? Who wouldn’t be addicted to being smarter?

Kirsten: I know. Right?

Justin: Come on.

Kirsten: I know. That’s the same thing I was thinking.

Justin: The narcolepsy conversation off the air…

Kirsten: I feel smart. I like feeling good. I like feeling happy and smart.

Justin: Why would I want to ever go back?

Kirsten: Give me more pills.

Justin: We were talking about narcolepsy off the air. This is a reference to the fact that I’ve been — I’ve taken to napping for the last — half of this last week. I’ve taken the napping in the afternoon, like four hours which means I’m up all night. And then, I have to get up pretty early and then I’m tired the next day. So, it’s not quite — I’m not quite narcoleptic yet.

But it feels that way. Because I’m just falling asleep. Like in the afternoons, just like bam!

Kirsten: You might not be narcoleptic. But you definitely are ADD.

Justin: And I’m a little worried. I’m a little worried now. Because we did a report a couple of weeks ago about how napping increases your mortality rate.

Kirsten: That’s right.

Justin: So now, I’m like, it’s making me nervous. And I’m up all night worrying about the napping thing and I don’t get to sleep. And so, I got to wake up early and then, I’m like, “Oh, no. I got to take a nap.”

Kirsten: Hey, take you an advice, disclaimer, disclaimer, disclaimer.

Justin: Disclaimer, disclaimer, disclaimer. Okay, here’s the things that’s bad for babies, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. All parents listen up. This is important. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics commissioned an independent laboratory test of 48 top-selling children’s products for a dioxin and 28 of them for formaldehyde. Formaldehyde in our baby products, these are cosmetics — what?

Kirsten: Things break down.

Justin: So, formaldehyde, we’re all familiar with, that’s used for embalming corpses.

Kirsten: It’s one of its uses, yeah.

Justin: It’s actually banned — I think banned in the rest of Europe.

Kirsten: It’s carcinogenic.

Justin: It’s a carcinogenic.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: It’s used as a glue in chipboard which sounds like, you know, (unintelligible) glue. But the problem was that chipboard then ended up in trailers as counters for the FEMA trailers…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …and that was the problem with the formaldehyde when the FEMA trailers got so hot, formaldehyde was leaking out.

Kirsten: That it started — yes. Aerosolizing.

Justin: Okay, just use glue — what’s wrong with a wood glue? Okay. So, 23 of the products — 23 of the 28 products tested for formaldehyde was shown to contain the chemical. What?

Twenty three of the 28 products tested for formaldehyde was shown to contain the chemical. And 17 of those products contained both formaldehyde and the dioxin. Among these — this is disclaimer, disclaimer, disclaimer. I’m just reading, it ain’t me, alright — highly popular Johnson’s Baby Shampoo…

Kirsten: What?

Justin: …L’Oreal Kid’s Extra Gentle 2-in-1 Shampoo — with now with extra formaldehyde and dioxin, Pampers Kandoo Foaming Hand soap which contained enough formaldehyde to trigger skin reaction…

Kirsten: Oil.

Justin: …in highly sensitive people. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics said in its report, “According to the to the US National Cancer Institute” — excuse me — “US National Cancer Institute studies of workers exposed to formaldehyde have linked the chemical to cancers…”

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: “…he nasal sinuses and possibly even brain and possibly leukemia.” So, this is really disturbing. They’re saying there’s no need for these chemicals to be present in this. You can go look for the — okay; the Consumer Product Safety Commission has said that, even trace amounts give cause for concern.

And the EPA and Department of Health and Human Services both identified dioxin as causing cancer in animals and as a probable human carcinogen. Why is it in baby’s shampoo?

Kirsten: That’s probably a breakdown product. That’s probably what’s happening is it’s not something they’re putting into the shampoo or into the product. But as the product sits as it reacts with oxygen and the environment or, you know, maybe just as it sits there and breaks down over time, it probably has these compounds as of its breakdown.

Justin: Possibly.

Kirsten: Yeah, it’s possible.

Justin: It may help — maybe with the foaming ability.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: So, it’s more bubbly.

Kirsten: Yeah. But it — I don’t understand why they would put it in. They have other surfactant agents for that.

Justin: Yeah. So anyway, but it’s completely unregulated. Formaldehyde, it’s completely — the two chemicals are completely unregulated in the United States.

Kirsten: That’s not true.

Justin: That’s what it says.

Kirsten: Interesting.

Justin: That’s what it says.

Kirsten: Interesting. That’s kind of scary.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: That’s kind of scary.

Justin: Yeah. Carcinogens in our baby’s shampoo. Please, people.

Kirsten: Somehow I’m not surprised though. I’m just…

Justin: I am extremely surprised.

Kirsten: I’m not surprised.

Justin: I’m like — organic. Get organic stuff. They don’t put it in organic stuff; it’s not in the organics.

Kirsten: It’s not in the organics.

Justin: It’s not in the organics.

Kirsten: That’s what you think.

Justin: Go with the organics.

Kirsten: Okay, okay. UC Davis is in the news this week for a cool brain study. If you notice my trend so far this morning, I like brains.

Justin: It’s your life-long trend. It’s your Ph.D. What are you talking about?

Kirsten: Researchers working at the UC Davis Center for mind and brain, Ali Mazaheri has been looking at the state that the brain is in — nice sunglasses, Justin — the state at the brain is in right before a mistake is made. Because he wants to find out what’s going on in the brain when we make mistakes.

When we drop a cup of coffee, when we do, you know whenever you make a mistake of some kind. The physical error, mental error, what is happening in the brain it allows you to do that. So, he used magnetoencephalography.

It’s a brain wave recording technique that uses the magnetic signals — electromagnetic signals from the brain. It’s more sensitive than electro-encephalography. And they were looking at what happen during a sustained attention response task.

And this task gets people to sit at a computer for an hour and then, a random number from one to nine flashes on to the screen every two seconds and the object is for the subject to tap a button as soon as any number except five appears.

So, at first maybe you’re into it. But it’s totally monotonous. So, your attention waivers, you know, you’re probably after an hour of staring…

Justin: Oh, gosh.

Kirsten: …and trying to press the button every time five does not appear. I mean, you’re going to make mistakes, right? But what is it? What’s going on in the brain when that happens?

And so, Mazaheri says that this test is so monotonous that even when a five showed up, this subject spontaneously hit the button an average of 40% of the time.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: This task is made to make you make a mistake.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: And so, what they found looking at the brain waves, the MEG data, they found that the brain waves in two regions of the brain were stronger about a second before errors were committed than when the subjects correctly kept from hitting the button.

And so, the areas — let’s see, in the back of the head, the occipital region, the alpha wave activity was about 25% stronger. And that in the sensory motor cortex, there’s also a corresponding increase in the brain’s mu wave activity.

Justin: So, there’s a registerable signal in the brain that your attention is slipping.

Kirsten: Is sleeping, exactly. And so, Mazaheri says the alpha mu rhythms are what happen when the brain runs on idle. So, you’re sitting in a room, you close your eyes, you’re meditating, meditation that happens a lot.

But a huge alpha rhythm will rev up in the back of your head when you’re just relaxing. But the second you open your eyes, it drops because now you’re looking at things and your neurons have visual input to process.

So, your brain is like running. When you’re going to make mistake, it’s because your brain is dropping into idle.

Justin: Wow! It does makes sense.

Kirsten: Attention is slipping. Yeah, yeah. So, it’s pretty interesting that the wave activity in the front region — the frontal lobe of the brain is where attention is usually kept. That’s the area of the brain that deals with keeping attention and that had a significant change in its wave of activity.

And so, what Mazaheri says is that, it looks as if the brain is saying, “Pay attention!” and then reducing the likelihood of another mistake. And it’s possible, you know, understanding and how attention works…

Justin: So, wait. Making one mistake will decrease your potential from making the next one?

Kirsten: Very possibly. Yeah.

Justin: Interesting.

Kirsten: It’s kind of interesting.

Justin: We have a wild call.

Kirsten: Yeah, we have to go to break.

Justin: Oh, we have to go to break.

Kirsten: Should we take the wild call?

Justin: We’ll answer it really quick.

Kirsten: Wild call.

Justin: Good morning, TWIS minion, you’re on the air with This Week in Science.

Woman: Yes. The attention study is fascinating. I’m wondering if it could be used for like long distance truck drivers to check what their attention ability is before hitting the road.

Kirsten: Absolutely. That’s the kind of behavioral — the hopes that they have for behavioral monitoring. So, air traffic controllers…

Justin: Air traffic controllers.

Kirsten: …truck drivers, anybody who has some kind of a long monotonous job that, you know, their attention probably will wane eventually, absolutely.

Justin: Teenager while you’re trying to describe, what it is they did wrong and what you should you do next time.

Woman: We’ll take the rest of it off.

Kirsten: Thanks for calling.

Justin: Thank you.

Kirsten: Yeah. That’s an absolutely where this research is going to go. If we understand how attention works and the different signals that change in the brain and how we can maybe, you know, maybe not have little skullcap measuring.

You know, maybe the truck driver doesn’t have to have to put on a little skullcap to measure his attention. But maybe there’s some other factor of attention that can be monitored by let’s say, a camera or something in the truck that can then wake them up with a, “Hey!”

Justin: With like an electric shock.

Kirsten: An electric shock therapy.

Justin: Small one, you know.

Kirsten: Absolutely, yeah. I think it’s fascinating and hopefully, it will design lots of neat potential therapies and monitoring devices.

Justin: This sounds like fun. I think, you know, I wish we were on a big budget show right now. They could send us out on a, like a tour of this brain wave measuring things. So, we could bring it back and have like a competition…

Kirsten: A competition?

Justin: …or comparable. We can compare our brains.

Kirsten: Why do you — I don’t want to compare.

Justin: It would be — you’re so afraid. You won’t even — she even won’t take the IQ test with me. She’s bailed out of the IQ test, just like, “Oh yeah. We’ll do it. We’ll find some…” Nothing, nowhere — it’s been like a year now.

She’s like, “I don’t want to know.” I think she’s mostly doing it to protect me from myself.

Kirsten: Oh, dear.

Justin: (Probably) to keep my illusion.

Kirsten: It’s my own fears, Justin.

Justin: No. It’s compassion.

Kirsten: We need to go to a break. Thank you very much for listening to this first half, this long half of This Week in Science. We will back in just a few moments. Please stay tuned. You’re listening to KDVS, Davis.

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Everyone starts rocking back and forth. Yehey!

Justin: Such a good campfire song.

Kirsten: It is. Welcome back to This Week in Science. We were here for about another 20 minutes before we make way for the music. The music for the masses.

Justin: More music is coming up on the radio station after we leave, huh?

Kirsten: Did you know a scientist that San Diego State University and the Weizmann Institute actually saw the birth of a black hole?

Justin: Yeah? It did. I didn’t know that.

Kirsten: Well, you’re…

Justin: No, I didn’t. I have no idea.

Kirsten: It is casual.

Justin: I was just kidding. I didn’t hear anything about it.

Kirsten: Yes. Anyway, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of the Physics and the San Diego State University were observing a supernova. They observed a star. They looked for stars that looked on the verge of going supernova. They found one.

And let’s see — how many masses? They calculated its mass to be equal to 50 to 100 of our suns.

Justin: It’s still a pretty small sun — star.

Kirsten: Pretty big, big enough.

Justin: Big (enough).

Kirsten: They observed using the Keck telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and the Hubble Space Telescope. They were able to identify this about-to-explode-star, calculate its mass and then watch it explode.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: They saw that only a small part of the star’s mass was flung off during the explosion. The majority of the material was actually drawn into the collapsing core of the star and then, that area of space went dark.

The star seems to have disappeared in subsequent images using the telescopes. Yeah, it’s now become a black hole, so dense that light cannot escape. Isn’t that exciting?

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: Yes. Then, why do you seem very (klempt)?

Justin: I’m not — no, I can’t say.

Kirsten: Okay.

Justin: I don’t understand how — I don’t understand.

Kirsten: I don’t understand.

Justin: It seems like it would be too small still of a solar body to create a black hole that traps light. I thought there has to be the super massive black holes that could overcome…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …because the light — I mean, if it’s just not emanating, that’s one — I just — but — I thought it had to be a super massive black hole for it to be big enough, for it to be able to overcome the escape velocity of light and be able to pull it back in. It just seems like a 50 solar thing was too small but…

Kirsten: You look like you’re in pain.

Justin: I am, I am. My brain is basically tortured by this now.

Kirsten: Alright, we’re going to have to ask — we will have to ask somebody.

Justin: Yes. Let’s ask a physicist.

Kirsten: We’ll ask a physicist.

Justin: Because I know a lot of people like me are asking.

Kirsten: We’ll save this story up and we’ll ask a physicist, yes. Yeah, I do not know the answer to that question.

Justin: I thought it had to be like…

Kirsten: I don’t know how big…

Justin: …many, many more solar masses before it was of the light trapping ray. Maybe I’ve got my solar masses mixed up. I don’t know. Yeah, it seems like, there’s something wrong with it.

Kirsten: I don’t how large a supernova has to actually be. I don’t know how large this star has to actually be to go into that — I mean there’s supernovas and then there’s super massive. I mean — I don’t know.

Justin: I don’t know.

Kirsten: This is something that we have to ask.

Justin: No, this is where we got find out because I’m bothered by this. It’s different than I thought it should be.

Kirsten: If anyone has the answer, 530-752-2777 is our phone number.

Justin: Continuing on the brain and on the UC Davis front as well.

Kirsten: Yehey!

Justin: This is I found actually via I don’t know why UC Davis doesn’t send this stuff, like it would take very short time for it to get to my email. It’s very close by.

Kirsten: It would. What?

Justin: Between the ages of 11 and 17, children’s brain waves significantly reduced while they sleep. Scientists think this change reflects a trimming down process going on inside teenage brains during these years. Where extraneous mental connections that were made during childhood are lost. Meaning…

Kirsten: Pruning.

Justin: …coming of age means leaving the past behind.

Kirsten: Interesting.

Justin: “When a child is born, their brain is not fully formed and over the first few years is a great proliferation of connections going on.” says physiologist Ian Campbell of the University of California at Davis. “Over adolescence, there is a pruning back of these connections. The brain decides which connections are important to keep and which can be let go.” Very interesting.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: So, yeah. But it seemed — I mean, I’m a little curious on this. Because I’ve already noticed in my — about to turn to six — tomorrow he turns six years old. I’ve already sort of noticed like he’s forgotten three-year old stuff.

He’s forgotten things we’ve done at three — where he was, you know, completely cognizant little guy running around and remembering it, you know, months and weeks and the year after.

But now, some of those three-year old memories have disappeared. And I wonder if it’s something that continually goes on in those first few years because there’s so much information coming in.

Anyway, once we get to teenagers, scientists are calling this process, synaptic pruning.

Kirsten: Yes, synaptic pruning.

Justin: Sounds brutal. Sounds like you’re actually cutting off synapses. But…

Kirsten: Well, you are. You’re getting rid of them.

Justin: What?

Kirsten: Because during development, like you said, the nerves and synopsis are growing and there’s a massive proliferation of connections and connectivity within the brain. It’s as if, it was kind of out of control. Everything is connecting to everything else. And it’s like, visual stimuli…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …acoustic stimuli, you know all sorts of stimuli. And then…

Justin: Giant yellow birds can talk and they know the alphabet. (This has) got to go at some time.

Kirsten: But then, as you get older, it becomes more important to be able to prune that. You get to a point where the brain doesn’t need to make as many connections. It’s made a maximum amount of connections. And so, which ones are actually strong connections? Which ones are used most often? Which ones are survival-based?

And so, things are pruned back. It’s like taking a bonsai tree. Take the tree, let it grow and then you prune it back and make it into a beautiful showpiece.

Justin: Very excellent. Yeah. And one of the examples I give here too, is a child receives brain injury before the age of ten.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Another area of the brain can take over the functions of the damage region. If the same injury would occur at a 20-year old individual, a person may lose the abilities that were tied up in that portion of the brain because the flexibility to switch gears and reform connections is lost by that age.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: So, very interesting. Yeah, another thing, it’s also 2006 study sort of related. They found that teenage medial prefrontal cortex, part of brain’s associated with higher-level thinking, empathy and guilt is underused compared to adults.

Kirsten: Yeah. I’ve heard that.

Justin: So, if your teenager doesn’t look too guilty for having broken the rules, it’s not their fault. It’s because the brain doesn’t allow it. Their brains just like doesn’t have that capacity quite yet.

But as they mature, they begin to use this region more. And this maybe also somehow linked to the pruning because we are reorganizing priorities and things of that nature when we’re doing the pruning.

So, does this mean though that the more strange connections you can make in the brain of a child, the more capacity they will have to reform different connections later?

Kirsten: I don’t know.

Justin: Does that mean — could you create a super intelligent being just by like taking a seven-year old and sitting them down and making abstract connections for them?

Kirsten: No.

Justin: Like, we’re to do word association for the next four hours, working on your brain power.

Kirsten: Well, you know, thinking of language, if you expose a child to multiple languages, it’s easier for them to learn — for children to learn languages than adults. And so…

Justin: It’s very true.

Kirsten: And that, language ability has also been associated with intelligence.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: So, maybe you just expose your child to many languages.

Justin: They also mentioned somewhere in the paper I was reading now that — yeah, children have the ability to learn foreign language correctly whereas adults have a hard time learning it without having an accent, which I thought was interesting.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Children — now they can — are quicker to pick up a foreign language. But they actually can pick it up in dialect…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …as opposed to even when we’re, you know, as an adult learning a foreign language…

Kirsten: You’re always going to sound like a foreigner.

Justin: …even if you pick it up, you got some sort of, you know, hold over from your primary language.

Kirsten: Yes. Let’s see. Oh, why should I drink less on the weekend?

Well, according to a couple of different studies, it’s not so good. Addiction — the journal Addiction has an article within its beautiful covers showing that drinking alcohol is actually the greatest risk factor for acetaldehyde related cancer.

So, acetaldehyde has been shown to be a risk for cancer. But normally, where it’s the sources that it’s thought to come from where they’ve been considered risky are more environmental. So, things in the air — acetaldehyde that’s somehow is in the air or released from buildings or from the environment.

Now, the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization and the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and the Chemical and Veterinary Investigation Laboratory Karlsruhe in Germany have provided a methodology for calculating the risk for the ingestion of alcoholic beverages.

It found that the average exposure to acetaldehyde from alcoholic beverages results in a lifetime cancer risk of 7.6 out of 10,000 with higher risk scenarios as well. And so, how does this happen? Well, alcohol is turned into a byproduct of alcohol consumption — is acetaldehyde within your blood.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Yes. So, basically, you drink alcohol that eventually gets turned into acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde has a cancerous risk factor. Anyway, so they are recommending that the classification of acetaldehyde with respect to cancer be reexamined and that we look at this as additional risk to humans.

Additionally, this is also in the journal Addiction, long-term daily drinking rather than binge drinking on a weekly basis is the biggest risk factor for serious liver disease.

Justin: So, binge drinking is still allowed. So…

Kirsten: Somehow, we can drink.

Justin: Yeah. We’re good.

Kirsten: Alright. It’s good. Yes. So, they find long-term drinking. So, they looked at 234 subjects with liver disease and 106 of these people had alcohol-related liver disease. They found that 71% of ALD patients drink on a daily basis. So, they’re correlating this daily moderate drinking to a higher risk of liver disease.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: You just can’t get it right.

Justin: Well…

Kirsten: I mean when you feel like you’ve abused yourself, you probably have.

Justin: Yeah. That’s probably a pretty decent indication you’ve done something wrong.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Although, yeah. I don’t know. This is a new research find here. This is actually two stories here that kind of fit together very naturally in a strange way.

Kirsten: I like things like that.

Justin: Yeah. And they came out both sort of this week-ish. One is they’ve discovered from the University of Chicago, they discovered that there is a connection between gills and appendages, limbs.

Kirsten: Which seems very odd.

Justin: Limbs and fins, right?

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: And it’s basically the genetic tool kit that animals used to build fins and limbs are the same tool kit that controls the development of gills. And they believe that the gill pre-existed the limbs by quite a bunch. And basically, the genetics involved in creating limbs stem from that which was already creating the gill.

Kirsten: Interesting.

Justin: Yeah. So, there’s that story that they’re sort of being talked about and they found some evidence of this in sharks. And basically, the pattern for the skeleton was co-opted from the gills is there.

And then, they find this fossil actually in 1912 in Canada and there are 505 million year old Shale sites, really, really old.

Kirsten: Really old.

Justin: And it’s this very large — well, first of all, they thought it was little pieces of jellyfish and sea cucumbers and other arthropods.

Kirsten: Which will be neat because they’re soft bodied creatures, if they found little bits and pieces of them.

Justin: Yeah. They thought they had all these little, sort of parts and pieces of these little creatures. And it turns out back in the 90’s, they realized, this was all part of actually one large creature…

Kirsten: Wow!

Justin: …that just hadn’t been put together. So, they started, you know, putting the puzzle piece together. And it turns out they found this very large, very strange looking sort of pre-anthropods. I can’t remember the — what is it called?

Kirsten: Arthropod.

Justin: Yeah, arthropod, yeah. But it’s anomalocaris.

Kirsten: I can’t help you.

Justin: It’s a predecessor to the (anthropods).

Kirsten: Arthropods.

Justin: Arthropods. So, basically, what this is, it’s a long — has this long — has this crazy giant shell cap head around mouth. It was predator definitely, carnivorous, big sea predator monster thing. And it has sectionalized body that had gills all the way down the body.

Kirsten: Wow!

Justin: So, what’s interesting about this, is this gilled creature which is a predecessor of arthropod particles. Arthropods basically — that’s the group that became spiders, crustaceans, insects of millipedes, centipedes.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: You know, these things have many, many legs down these sectioned portions.

Kirsten: And also breathe throughout there bodies. They have very — not gills but…

Justin: Oh, I did not…

Kirsten: I think — I’m pretty — I think.

Justin: Like the air tube set-up?

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Yeah, oh yeah. Well, a lot of insects — like the bees have that. They’ve got like these sort of areas in the body, in the abdomen where oxygen can get enough.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: So, this is a creature that predated, that’s definitely their ancestor and they’re shown having gills in these sections all the way down its body. So, from that one, you could say, oh yeah, gills are already there on the side all the way down these section portions. This evolves later down the road and they’re creatures that have many, many legs.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Pretty neat finds to becoming both (unintelligible).

Kirsten: I think it’s neat that they thought that it was a bunch of little tiny creatures and then, finally realized that it was one giant creature.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: I think that’s pretty fun.

Justin: And it’s one of these things — this has been in the Smithsonian basement in Washington. And it’s one of the…

Kirsten: Found in a basement, (Perfect).

Justin: You know, it’s one of these like, we have so many — it’s like the ending of the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with all those crates, right? There’s still lots of crates of finds that — because we’re really good at finding stuff, you know. But we’ve gotten better at identifying stuff now than we’ve ever been so.

Kirsten: Yeah. I’ve got a few headlines really fast before we get to the end of the show. Cambridge-based researchers have computer modeled the human brain and determined that it lives on the edge of chaos.

Justin: What?

Kirsten: And this what they call self-organized criticality where systems spontaneously organize in cells to operate critical point between order and randomness is actually good for our ability to able to switch quickly between mental states to respond to changing environmental conditions. Sounds might be very good.

Another group of researchers have been looking at dietary specialization in insects. So, why do some like– why do aphids only eat one certain kind of plant? Why do some — why is there dietary specialization when there are multiple food sources to choose from?

They have again used computer modeling to examine the evolution of specialization. And they found that it all comes down to information overload. Like when you go to a restaurant that has a huge menu and you just can’t decide what to get, you go with what you know.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: You pick the one thing all the time. And Mt. Redoubt has gone, boom!

Justin: Like five or six times.

Kirsten: I know…

Justin: (Oh, no).

Kirsten: …and it just keeps going. And they’re expecting that maybe this will keep going for a few months. And finally, the…

Justin: Put so much ash in the air, that the governor can no longer see Russia from her house.

Kirsten: No, dear. And Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientists have shown that water in hottest environments like the interior of the sun can actually play a catalyzing role in explosive reactions. Water might help explosions go!

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Yeah. So anyway, those are my headlines for the end of the show. Did you have any headlines?

Justin: I could throw out the –This is the one I keep wanting to get to this about batteries. They created — is this it? Yeah, a spin battery that it can be charge by applying a large magnetic field to nanomagnets.

So, this is kind of an interesting idea. It’s got some good potential for storing tremendous amounts of energy in very small places and being charged like that. I mean, when you’re just…

Kirsten: Nice.

Justin: … exposing to it to a magnetic field. That’s incredible…

Kirsten: And starting…

Justin: …to charge a battery that way, right?

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Future, you go into the tunnel in your, you know, future car and it charges itself, because there’s a magnetic field that they create in the tunnel. So, everybody…

Kirsten: Nice.

Justin: …driving to the tunnel, fills up there car and on you go.

Kirsten: Nice. I guess until next week’s show. I have an announcement from the Echoes of Apollo World Moon Bounce which is going to be beginning in June. And it will be — starting June 1st and finishing around August. But celebrating the Apollo Space Missions.

And on the 40th anniversary of man’s moon landing which is July 20th, 1969, there will be all of — maybe not all but a whole bunch of radio dishes turned to face the moon on the same day allowing people to bounce communicating radio signals off of the surface of the moon to talk with each other all around the planet.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: It’s going to be a very exciting thing. And they’re looking — they’re going to have a whole bunch of different cultural events going along with it as, you know, mission, school clubs, space mission fans, science fiction associations, 3D photo competitions, science fiction writing competitions, music creation, video creation, poetry writing.

They’re all looking for all sorts of stuff. They are looking space themed music for the event. So, if you are musician and you want to get involved, email

And this month also, Book of the Month for the TWIS Book Club is, “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives” by Leonard Mlodinow. And it should be lots of fun and information. You can get involved in the TWIS Book Club Community by visiting

Big thanks to everyone who emailed during the week with questions, comments, stories, et cetera, et cetera.

Justin: Yes. Thank you for listening. TWIS is available via the podcast on internets there. If you go to our website, you can click on some information on how to do that. Or you can just go to iTunes and look for This Week in Science in the iTunes Podcast Directory.

Kirsten: And for any more information on anything you’ve heard here today, show notes with links to source articles will be available on the website, We also want to hear from you so, email us at or

Justin: Put TWIS somewhere in the subject line because we want to hear your feedback and we don’t want to search for you in our Spam filter. It’s very crowded in there.

Kirsten: Very crowded.

Justin: Voices are much easier to be heard if you put TWIS in the subject line. If you have any suggestions for stories, interviews, anything of that nature, please let us know.

Kirsten: And we’ll be back here on KDVS next Tuesday at 8:30 am, Pacific Time. In the meantime, stay tuned for more. We hope you’ll join us again for more great science news.

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

Kirsten: It’s all in your head.

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