Synopsis: Remote Control Brains, Making Blood Crawl, Birdsong Basics, This Week in Science History, Drink To Your Sanity, and an Interview with Dr. Leonard Mlodinow re: The Drunkard’s Walk.
Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!
In the wake of the H1N1 worry, the world has a new wave of statistical woe on the way. As the number of confirmed deaths continued to drop, from hundreds, to dozens down to only ten within a single week.
The latest statistical projections of the un-die-ing situation now suggest that we are trending towards a potential population explosion!
If people continue to un-die at this rate, we may soon be looking at a human transmittable in fallopian pregno-demic that could grow exponentially over the next nine months.
And while this exponential growth oddly mirrors the rate of natural human reproduction it, much like the following hour of programming, does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the University of California at Davis, KDVS or its Sponsors.
Listeners should be wary, as face masks will not be enough to protect you from the probability of procreation. Staying indoors with loved ones might actually contribute to the further spread of parental syndromes.
While the CDC sits idly by and does nothing to slow the rapid rate of confirmed un-deadenings, you can be comforted to know that we will be dedicating the next hour to keeping you reasonably safe by offering you something else to do, here on This Week In Science coming up next.
Good morning, Kirsten!
Kirsten: Good morning, Justin! Welcome to another happy Tuesday on This Week In Science. And we’ve got lots of science ahead.
Kirsten: Let’s see we’ve got an interview with Dr. Leonard Mlodinow.
Justin: Hopefully he’s sobered up for the show.
Kirsten: Sobered up?
Justin: Yeah, I think, doesn’t he write about his alcoholism?
Kirsten: I don’t think so.
Kirsten: Yeah, “The Drunkard’s Walk” is not an autobiography.
Justin: Oh, okay.
Kirsten: It’s a story of randomness and probability.
Justin: Oh, fun stuff.
Kirsten: Yeah. So, we’re going to talk all about random things at the half hour.
Justin: As if we don’t already.
Kirsten: Already, yes. And I brought stories about the domination of people and nature versus nurture, and crazy things making you kind of mellow when you’re drinking water.
Justin: It might be good. What did I bring? I got a blood crawling discovery.
Justin: This Week In Science History.
Kirsten: It’s not Halloween, Justin.
Justin: Yeah, I know but this is too good.
Justin: This Week In Science History…
Justin: …we’re debuting. Another beneficial parasite – maybe I probably won’t get to that one. Some minion mail and instant on computer stuff.
Kirsten: Yeah, I thought it was really – speaking of parasites, I thought it was interesting this last week I got three emails from separate people about toxoplasma gondii with the story that came out about a researcher named Lafferty…
Justin: Yeah, Lafferty.
Kirsten: …from 2006 – that we reported on in 2006. Three separate people sent me the story this week…
Kirsten: …and we’re like, “This is Justin’s favorite topic, you have to report on it.”
Kirsten: And I was just wondering where – like if there was a link or if something came up to dig this story up, you know, from three years ago.
Justin: Well, I mean…
Kirsten: And it’s like, wow!
Justin: …the problem hasn’t gone away.
Kirsten: It’s toxoplasma gondii back from the dead.
Justin: The more you know. The problem hasn’t gone away yet, Kirsten. The problem is still there.
Kirsten: I don’t know if it’s necessary.
Justin: It’s still persistent. It’s still blinding babies in Brazil. It’s still causing women to avoid cats by the dozens.
Kirsten: It’s still changing cultural behavior.
Kirsten: Yes. Yeah, that’s an interesting – it’s an interesting parasite. So, hopefully we’ll get to your parasite story today.
This Week in Robot Domination – it’s you.
Kirsten: Yeah, you, you, you, oh yeah and you. Yes.
Justin: I always expected you.
Kirsten: Well, what’s going to happen someday, you know, is it ray-robots that are going – ray-bots, I was going to say. It’s not ray-bots it’s robots. Are robots going to be controlling us as our masters? Will we be remote controlled humans?
Justin: Yes, and I want to go on the record now because they record everything. I want to go on the record now in saying that will be a bright and glorious day for all humanity when finally our freewill is handed over to the robot overlords. I just wanted to…
Kirsten: Okay, you’ve been recorded, duly noted.
Justin: …say that.
Kirsten: Well we’ve got research so far that has turned rats, mice into little remote controlled animals. They open a little window to their brain and they’ve been controlling their neurons using light.
Kirsten: But it’s never been done with primates before. Now, MIT Media Lab has been able to activate a very specific set of neurons within a monkey brain. So, it’s not people yet but…
Justin: Close enough.
Kirsten: …you know, it’s almost there. And the story that was on Wired Science suggests that it — you know, it’s just down the road. We’ve already looked at it in fish, flies and rodents, so why – and now little monkey brains. So, why not people?
What they’re hoping to do with this technology is to be able to target psychiatric disorders. To be able to use this optogenetic technique to be able to isolate specific neurons that are causing problems within your brain and be able to modulate them using light.
What they’ve been doing – this technique, it was started in 2005, pioneered says the article, by the Deisseroth Lab at Stanford University, they basically, insert, they used genetic techniques to insert an algae, blue-green algae, you see, I think we got to shut the door here. There’s some noise already.
Justin: Yeah, I go get it.
Kirsten: Get the door, Justin.
They’re using blue-green algae and inserting it into the neurons creating these (activatable) channels. The blue-green algae protein fluoresces and gets activated under blue light.
And so they are able to insert the specific protein that’s sensitive to light, the light shines on the neurons that they have stuck the protein into. And the protein from the algae opens up a channel that allows ions to flow into the neuron, sodium ions, that then activates the neuron making it fire an action potential.
Justin: That’s awesome.
Kirsten: Yeah, so basically, stimulated activation of neurons via light…
Justin: And algae.
Kirsten: …and algae. Yeah, algae-controlled monkey brains.
Justin: As long he has no big head gear, that goes along with it.
Kirsten: Well, there would be a bit of head gear especially…
Justin: Because I can picture like – well I’ve gotten over my paranoia that people were looking at me. Of course now, it’s man (what to do) – is I’ve got this giant mechanically contraption on my head and people are actually always looking at me now. Well, at least it’s confirmed.
Justin: Not in my head anymore, it’s like the outside.
Kirsten: So, they basically used a fiber optic cables, little tiny fiber optics to be able to shine this light into areas of the brain. And so they can, this way, be able to insert this tiny fiber optic…
Kirsten: …little tubes really deep into the brain so they can get deep brain area stimulation.
Kirsten: Or that it can be, you know, they place the cable, it was not really a cable, I think the cable is huge. These little fibers, fiber optic fibers.
Kirsten: Filaments, that’s a good word, wherever they want in the brain and then activate the neuron in a specific brain region using this light technique. So, it’s pretty neat.
The research was published Neuron and we’ll see where it can go. They’re hoping that they’re really going to be able to use this to be able to understand and treat different disorders, like your favorite, what you possibly have self-diagnosed yourself as having, ADD.
Justin: No, no, no, it’s ADHD- AD something.
Justin: I don’t know.
Kirsten: Yeah. Depression, compulsive disorders, you know, all kind of stuff.
Justin: I started to read the description of it — the symptoms of ADHD. I got about halfway through….
Kirsten: And you got distracted.
Justin: …and I was like, yeah it’s probably right. I have a story that’s sure to make everyone’s blood crawl. In fact, according to the study, it already is.
Justin: Yes, white blood cells travel to the body, fighting off disease.
Justin: But how they travel has been somewhat of a mystery, until now. What was known was that seeking out damaged or infiltrated areas to defend, they move along the lining of the blood vessel to avoid being swept along with the rest of the red blood cells and hemoglobin zipping through the veins.
It had been thought that they do this by folding and extending to push themselves forward like a little inchworm with sticky ends. So, it can adhere to the wall and then the other end goes out and sticks to the wall and the other one side releases and it’s kind of…
Kirsten: Inchworm, inchworm.
Justin: As much as tiny cells inch worming their way through your veins may seem strange, Professor Ronen Alon and his research student Ziv Shulman of the Weizmann Institute have found that reality is stranger still.
Kirsten: Always is, isn’t it?
Justin: Instead of the inchworm model, white blood cells create numerous tiny legs, no more than a micron in length that allow rapid movement. And they travel much more like tiny millipedes.
Kirsten: So, they scurry.
Justin: Yeah. They scurry with these many little feet. Tens of these legs attach and can detach in sequence within seconds allowing them to move rapidly and keep a good grip of the vessel’s sides while actually – when they’re attaching, they’re actually, the white blood cell legs dig themselves in to the vein lining.
Kirsten: The muscle. Mm hmm.
Justin: To get a better grip.
Justin: They kind of dig in because otherwise they would just get…
Kirsten: They grab it.
Justin: Yeah, because they are trying to get…
Kirsten: They grab a handful…
Justin: And they also believed that these little legs that are formed there also – they’re used for gripping and moving but also for sensing added distress signals. These little molecules get put out when tissue is under stress and they’re searching for this as they’re going along the veins. And they find these little markers that tell them, “Oops, turn left. Oops, this way. Oops!” And that’s how they find.
So it also – they believed it’s the way that they sense this.
Justin: Future studies plan to investigate whether cancerous blood cells metastasize through the blood stream using similar mechanisms. Interesting.
Kirsten: Oh, that’s fascinating. Yeah, it would – I mean, yeah if they use a similar mechanism to be able to sense the environment that’s going to be most suitable…
Justin: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: …to their growth and…
Justin: It’s almost as though they are tiny organisms living within this sort of large shell-y, (shusky), husky, thirsty…
Kirsten: Oh! Yeah, all mega fauna…
Kirsten: …old, big organisms were seriously Meta.
Justin: Yeah. We’re just big spaceships for germs…
Kirsten: I don’t know.
Justin: …and small cells (that functions.)
Kirsten: You think you’re a person with your own freewill. You’re just doing the bidding of those little tiny things inside of you. The things that make you up.
Kirsten: You’re just a collective.
Justin: You’re a hive.
Kirsten: You are a hive, that is all. So, the question, which came first, the song or the tutor?
Justin: The what? Huh?
Kirsten: Does that make any sense? It actually does. A study published in the Journal of Nature this past week is looking at zebra finch song and how – where the song came from?
So, we know that these birds have a very simple – they have a simple song that is repeated along generations based on learning.
So, it’s passed on and there is a certain aspect of these little tiny songs that is templated within the brain so that the young male birds and female birds have some aspect of — they know inherently, genetically.
Justin: So, raised in isolation away the rest of the birds, they can still do part of the song.
Kirsten: They have some of the components.
Kirsten: Right, they have some of the components but their song is really screwy. They call it, cacophonous.
Kirsten: And female birds don’t really like it that much. So, you know, male birds that grew up all by themselves without any father to learn from, you know, they’re not so good at getting the chicks.
Justin: Without voice lessons.
Kirsten: Without voice lessons, yeah.
Kirsten: They need that role model.
Kirsten: The tutor. But which can’t – when did the song first arise? I mean, how did it arise? What were the forces that made the song what it is?
Some researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York were trying to figure this out. And so, what they did is they took young male birds, and I’m assuming female birds. I haven’t actually been able to read the study because I don’t have a subscription to Nature, unfortunately.
But they say that they controlled for the females as well. So, I’m assuming that they put all sorts of birds in isolation so, that they did not have a tutor as they were developing.
The young male birds, their songs were all messed up. And then they started new colonies with all male birds who…
Kirsten: … had never heard a good song before. So, they had a colony of individuals, males and females, in the laboratory and then just kind of let them go, you know, okay do your thing, reproduce, move on, et cetera.
They took some other birds and they kept them in isolation with just – and allowed them to tutor their offspring along successive generations.
What they found is that even though the founder males of these groups had a really messed up song, over three to four generations, the males slowly took the song and it formed itself back to what the song sounds like in a normal population.
Kirsten: So, four generation…
Justin: That’s amazing.
Justin: That’s really amazing.
Kirsten: So, four generations later. Right, four generations later the song was back to where it should be.
Justin: So, basically, the song itself is genetic.
Justin: And it takes a couple of generations to work out what your genetic song is. That’s incredible.
Kirsten: Yeah, so they think this is, you know, there are many aspects of the avian song system. They are very similar to the human speech system. And there are other – and this COULD have implications along cultural lines for aspects of other primate behaviors, other different organisms and how they communicate.
Maybe there is a genetic template that has certain aspects of syntax or syllables or some aspect of language that is inherently genetic.
Justin: Mm hmm.
Justin: That’s interesting.
Kirsten: So – and it seems as though they say they controlled for female influence. So, the influence have like, what the girls found sexy. And if they did, that means that it doesn’t have, this song in particular, this zebra finch song might not be based exactly on what the females find interesting, although the females do find the perfect finch song the most sexy. The girls know what they like.
Justin: It’s about always the same song though.
Kirsten: Yeah. This is really interesting. The researchers, you know, are really interested in seeing how this is – what implications this has for culture in general.
And they say that there are resemblances, culture is just learned behaviors, the motivating scenario is if you isolate human babies from culture, put them on an island and come back after a few generations, what would their culture be like, what sort of language would they have, what sort of politics would evolve?
And even though that’s probably not going to happen, there is social learning that shared between this human culture and songbirds. And songbirds are really well understood and experimentally tractable.
So, these kinds of studies are going to give us insight into nature versus nurture, biology versus culture and those things that many social scientists are interested in now.
Justin: Somehow, I think the human culture left on its own would end badly. I just – I think it’s too late to start over. Try to do a clean slate and reinvent the whole wheel.
Kirsten: Too late.
Justin: It’s done.
Kirsten: Yeah, too late.
Justin: Speaking of invention, This Week In Science History!
Kirsten: Oh, I like history.
Justin: Not necessarily something that occurred This Week in History but it’s the name of the show and its history. Who, small cap, not WHO, all cap, could have saved the world from pandemic-y flu?
Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, that’s who. In 1844, he was appointed assistant professor of a university maternity ward in Vienna. In the years previous to his appointment, the ward had a terrible problem with what was called childbed fever.
More than 5% of the women giving birth at the clinic contracted the disease and mortality rate was as high as 16%. Sixteen percent making it five times more lethal than the 1918 flu pandemic that hadn’t happened yet.
Semmelweis, being a mindful person, which is much rarer than you might think, noticed that the death rate at his clinic was twice that of a local midwifery. Midwifery?
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: Twice that. And you know, doctors versus the women giving (unintelligible), that can’t be right.
Justin: Not in 1844. More alarming still, the death rate for women who did not give birth at either clinic but gave birth at home or even on the street was FIVE TIMES lower than the death rate at his hospital.
Kirsten: Ah, that’s got to give somebody pause to stop and think.
Justin: Yeah, five times lower than the death rate at hospital or about equal to that of 1918 flu pandemic that hadn’t happened yet. He also noticed that a fellow professor died from a similar type of infection after being lightly punctured with a scalpel during an autopsy.
Kirsten: Lightly punctured.
Justin: Yeah, I guess it was a student accidentally stuck him with a scalpel when they were doing autopsy class.
Justin: So, Dr. Semmelweis made a connection between the student autopsies during anatomy class that took place BEFORE their rounds in the maternity ward and the subsequent death rate amongst these patients. So, they were in there cutting up cadavers before going around and helping women give birth.
He instituted a hand washing policy in the clinic, a solution of chlorinated lime water. Within two years, the mortality rate dropped from around 16% to under 1.7%! Half of that of the 1918 pandemic that was still 70 years away.
While this discovery should have made him a hero of his day, it did not. His idea was heavily disputed by doctors who did not like being told what to do. Germs were invisible.
The germ theory hadn’t even come around yet. So germs were still a suspect, they weren’t really believed in. Doctors who later referred him to commitment in an insane asylum…
Justin: …in 1865, a little help with his wife.
Kirsten: Just because they didn’t like his ideas.
Justin: They thought he was nuts because he would not release the idea. And he was beginning to speak very publicly. I think he even wrote some letter about doctors being murderers if they didn’t wash their hands.
Justin: So he was becoming – he was troublesome.
Kirsten: He was becoming a bit of a problem.
Justin: So, they institutionalized him. Two weeks after his being handed over to the attendants of the asylum, he died brutally at their hands.
Kirsten: My gosh!
Justin: Apparently beaten to death probably from arguing with them.
Kirsten: Oh my goodness!
Justin: Fifty-three years ahead of the flu thing-y that might not have killed 50 million people worldwide had the world been as mindful as Dr. Semmelweis, the forefather of infection control.
Kirsten: That’s amazing. I’ve never heard that story before. Wow!
Kirsten: Thanks for a little bit of history learning, Justin.
Justin: That was This Week In Science History.
Kirsten: That was the Science Way Back machine. We have a phone call.
Justin: Good morning TWIS minion. You’re on the air with This Week In Science.
Kirsten: Oh, did I not get…?
Justin: Oh, hey, we can’t hear you.
Kirsten: Hold on.
Justin: Don’t go anywhere. Don’t. No.
Kirsten: We’re having a phone difficulty.
Justin: The phone is not coming through -the thing where its – are you there?
Kirsten: Are you there? Hello?
Kirsten: We’ve got you. We’ve got you.
Justin: No! So close.
Kirsten: We were so close. What happened with the air button?
Justin: I don’t know.
Kirsten: Our little – I think our telephone…
Justin: Pushing buttons.
Kirsten: …is getting old. So what else is in the water?
Kirsten: Huh? Huh? Yes, there is a story out – we keep you having these, you know, often on the stories of people actually studying what is in our water and how it affects population.
You know, there’s some Italian study showed there was really high amount of cocaine being washed out of the river in some city in Italy or something and then there’s you know, pharmaceutical products in our waterways.
Justin: Oh, yeah.
Kirsten: And all sorts of hormones that are affecting the fish and…
Justin: Yeah, run off – yeah, run off in pharmaceutical companies something like that.
Kirsten: Lots of run offs.
Justin: Stuffed we flushed that’s been filtered by our body.
Kirsten: Yeah, that’s been filtered by our body.
Researchers were looking at an area in Japan, they were looking at suicides rates in the prefecture of Oita, it’s a population of more than a million. Studies published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, and they actually found that there are really high levels of lithium in the water and this area has lower levels of suicide rates than other areas in Japan that have lower levels of lithium…
Kirsten: …naturally occurring in the water.
Justin: Okay. Here we…
Kirsten: We’re going to try again.
Justin: Good morning TWIS minion. You’re on the air with This Week In Science.
Man: Just wanted to make an announcement…
Kirsten: An announcement?
Man: …to everyone to go to the forums.
Kirsten: Go to the forum, the TWIS Forums?
Man: Yes, twis.org, it’s on the left.
Kirsten: Thank you! Yeah, people aren’t going to the Forums that much right now, are they?
Man: Whether you donated last week or not.
Justin: Yeah, you know, it’s kind of…
Justin: The problem with…
Man: …in the conversation.
Kirsten: Participate. Be a part of the conversation. That’s, yeah, good idea.
Justin: Here’s the problem now. Here’s the problem with the Forums. I love the Forums. I love going visiting your Forums. But here’s a problem with it.
Justin: We’re also on Facebook. There’s a TWIS Facebook and then there’s our own personal Facebook (for where we do our thing), and then there’s Twittering now too!
There gets to be a point where there’s so many places where the conversation is taking place that’s it is not being (focalicized).
Kirsten: But we have some pretty neat…
Man: That’s why everybody has to go to the Forum.
Justin: You’re right. That’s exactly the right…
Justin: That’s the right answer.
Kirsten: Yes. That is the right answer.
Man: It’s beautiful, brand new.
Kirsten: Thank you.
Man: And (probably new) since how many months? Six months?
Kirsten: Yeah, they’re about six months new and we have our section, the Question of the Month which, this last question haven’t gotten a lot of answers so I was waiting to get people’s answers. Get people answering it to read those answers on the air. Yeah! Forums.
Man: So, everybody stop what you’re doing right now, whether it’s podcast or radio that you’re watching. Okay, thanks a lot.
Kirsten: Thanks for calling.
Justin: Thank you.
Justin: A shout out for the Forums.
Kirsten: A shout out for the Forums.
Kirsten: That’s right. Our Forums, it’s a great place for you to interact and discuss stories and just talk about scientific ideas and, you know, throw stuff around.
Justin: I think for sure…
Kirsten: It’s nice.
Justin: …lithium. I’m all for it. Whatever makes people like, you know…
Justin: …just stop behaving insane. At this point, I’ve given up the whole, “Well, we need right to freewill. And you know if you don’t want to (meds), then you should be heavily medicated.” No, I think we all should be heavily medicated.
Kirsten: This is just amazing though that, even relatively low levels of lithium in the water appeared to have a positive impact on suicide rate. The study is published, like I said, British Journal of Psychiatry. You can find a story linked to it on in our show notes from our website.
It’s just that it’s amazing, I mean, I don’t know whether or not it will be right to actually implement a large scale study where they actually do put lithium in the water to see what happens, but this kind of a natural experiment where you just checked to see how high the levels are and then correlate it, you know, that’s interesting but it’s not actually showing any kind of causality.
The researcher says large scale trials involving the addition of lithium to drinking water supplies MAY then be feasible although this would undoubtedly be subject to considerable debate.
Following up on this findings will not be straight forward or inexpensive but the eventual benefits for community mental health maybe considerable. And we know, lithium is used in bipolar – to treat bipolar disorder. Yeah.
Justin: I’d just, you know, what…
Kirsten: It is very, very interesting.
Justin: I’d just say, do it.
Kirsten: Yeah, just put it in the water.
Justin: Well, you know, it’s like vaccines, right? There’s people who are, you know, don’t want to do vaccines and there’s debates about that. But in (the long..), it’s actually it’s very good and it doesn’t cause autism. It’s not related and all these other things.
For the benefit of all mankind, because it’s not just that, you know, if you don’t get the vaccine, it’s not just you’re personal choice. Now you can get that disease and carry it and spread it to people.
Kirsten: And spread it.
Justin: I’d say, you know, those who’ve spreading mental illness or whatever.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: I think we should just get all lithiumed-up especially right now. Especially with the economy the way it is, you know, throw some Prozac and a little bit of, you know, whatever else we need. A little kicker in there to, you know, gets us through the hard times.
Kirsten: Get us through the hard times.
Justin: I know where to – but I’ve got…
Kirsten: You’ve got a really…
Justin: I want to shout this one out.
Kirsten: You’ve got a wonderful perspective, Justin.
Justin: Instant on computing. Okay. It’s another material, researchers says that rebooting may soon be a thing of the past. They’re using some materials that are used currently in like ATM cards or ATM in fuel station – fuel cards that sort of thing.
Basically, the idea is, they say we’re getting closer to the point where you can throw on your computer, it’s there, it’s working, it’s operating. If the power goes out, you turn if off, all the memory is still there, captures it real time.
Justin: It sounds like a time-saver but here’s what it really is. It’s the most amazing energy saver of all time.
Justin: The amount of energy, if we – whenever our computer just sort of went to sleep, you know, the screen darkens and it has this screen saver, we haven’t used it for 20 minutes, it goes off. If it can come right back on, all the memory still there…
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: …it can automatically shut off. That’s the most important…
Kirsten: It doesn’t have to go through the boot up or ramp down processes.
Justin: Right. What that means is just in United States, if we had that going on, we would be taking out about five or six million cars worth of emissions from the energy that’s used.
Justin: It would add about $3 or $4 billion to the, you know, the national economy. And it would be like taking several, several power plants completely offline each year.
Kirsten: It’s amazing.
Justin: I mean it would have a major impact. It’s something.
Kirsten: Yeah, there’s a lot to be saved in terms of like, information technology, computer system efficiency. With all the corporations, all the computers everywhere around the world, all of these, you know, the systems that people use at home, the efficiency that can be managed is really significant.
Justin: And we can actually do it now.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: We can already do this.
Justin: The thing is that people don’t do things in their own best interest even when the whole planet is at stake, they would rather not wait the, you know, minute and a half to have their computer on.
So, something like this. Something like this that they can effortlessly make it so the people don’t have to change their ways and continue to be as – well, anyway.
Kirsten: I’m thinking – anyway, on that note, we will go to the break. And when we return, we will be speaking with Dr. Leonard Mlodinow. Stay tuned.
Justin: And we’re back.
Kirsten: That’s right with smooth jazz.
Justin: Smooth jazz radio.
Kirsten: This is This Week In Science. And on the line we have Dr. Leonard Mlodinow. He’s the author of “The Drunkard’s Walk” and he is professor at Caltech University. He’s written several books. He’s currently working with Dr. Steven Hawking on a new book. Are you there?
Justin: Good morning! Welcome to This Week In Science!
Leonard: Good morning. How are you?
Justin: We’re good.
Kirsten: We’re doing great this morning. We’re caffeinated. Everything seems to be working.
Leonard: Yeah, I’m just still (caffeining) myself so, you keep that in mind when you ask me questions.
Kirsten: Okay, we’ll keep the tough ones until you’ve, you know, the end of the interview.
Kirsten: That’s when we’ll know the caffeine has kicked in. So, you’re book, “The Drunkard’s Walk” is a – it’s some kind of a really entertaining introduction to the idea of probability and statistics. What gave you, you know, why did you decide this was a book that needed to be written?
Leonard: Well, I kind of took a drunkard’s walk to that decision…
Leonard: …and it doesn’t mean I was drunk but a drunk (adjudge) may have been. “Drunkard’s Walk” is actually mathematical term for what – sometimes also called a random walk which is a process where an object takes random meandering. So, if you imagine something, say I’m a flat plain that just changes directions and moves in different directions at random.
And that’s kind of the way I got to this idea because I was thinking about what I want to write about. And I have the idea to write off (entropy) which is somewhat more technical idea.
Kirsten: Yeah, quite.
Justin: That’s what my autobiography is going to be called.
Leonard: Yeah, that’s what my (house’s called).
Leonard: It means a kind of a way of measuring disorder. And as I was looking into that I start trying to apply it to the world around me — everyday of the world so, I didn’t want to write a technical book.
And I realized that I needed to broaden it, just look at randomness, the idea of randomness in general. And everywhere I looked, I mean, I saw other people were misinterpreting what were really random events.
And in the book I talked about one particular incident that happened many years ago that got me thinking in that direction which was the home run record that — where Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record and had only one good year and has never hit more than 39 home runs in the other year but he hit 61 in 1961.
Leonard: And so I did a random model saying, what if you had baseball players over all the years who really have a talent of about 39 home runs and you model them with coins and you held a lot of them every – well I actually went through the statistics to see how many of them there were each year on average and it took that many and so over all the years these coins are trying to – that average –will flip heads 39 times a year and how often will they hit – one of them gets 61?
That’s basically the model that I used. I’m in direct technical details and I try to be very true where the actual statistics. And I found that the chances are – were greater than half that one of them would have broken the record just by one of the coins broke records just by chance alone and then called you know, the Home Run King…
Justin: Mm hmm.
Leonard: …at least, ‘till steroids kicked in.
Leonard: (And the highest points) on steroids.
Justin: Yeah. That was…
Kirsten: The points on steroids is different.
Justin: …some kind of funny little bump in the statistic of baseball there.
Leonard: Well, it’s like noise. I think of it as noise. You might be listening to the radio and through some static in the background and you hear a loud crackle. That’s the Roger Maris home run here.
Leonard: So people, you know, criticize them very much where they got angry because they didn’t like him, they like Ruth. Ruth is kind of an icon. They thought that Maris cracked up. He wasn’t nice to the press and he took a lot of crap for his record.
But in my view, it was just a random fluctuation, we would say. Now, I have to point out because this always comes up. I don’t mean he didn’t have talent. He had 39 home run a year talent. But he hit 61 later. That’s what I’m talking about. I’m not saying that I could just go out and do it.
Leonard: Although I did play college baseball. But it might take me a million years, you know, to break that record rather than a few decades it took for a real hitter to do it.
Kirsten: Right and it’s just interesting to think of this here as – that there’s a probability of the average player being able to be seen as a superstar. Just…
Leonard: Well there’s a probability of average player – right, there’s a probability of the of average business person…
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Leonard: …the average physicists. The better you are the higher the probability, but…
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Leonard: …you know, that’s probability theory. If you flip it around, look at statistics, it also tells you things. It tells you that that one who did it isn’t necessarily looking backwards, the one who had the best talent or if you fail, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It just means that that, you know, you still have a good or at least a reasonable chance of success.
Justin: I like that one.
Leonard: But that’s a comfort in that because as a writer…
Leonard: …I look at John Grisham’s, you know, first book being rejected, “The Firm” was rejected many times, “Harry Potter” was rejected many times.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Leonard: So, I know that, you know, if people criticize your work or reject you, it doesn’t or if you have try a new business venture and it fails, it doesn’t mean the idea was bad or you’re bad, it just means, keep trying.
Kirsten: Right. So, the probability of success is higher, the more times you make that effort.
Leonard: Yeah. So, that’s one. Yeah, that’s right. If you continue, as long as you have a positive probability, non-zero…
Leonard: …probability of success, just keep trying. And, you know, it will happen. And, you know, again, statistically looking back just because something happen, it didn’t work out doesn’t mean that you don’t have what it takes.
Or if it works out really well, like Bill Gates, it doesn’t mean that you’re the smartest guy in the world or the best businessman in the world, it doesn’t mean that either.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Leonard: And as I talk in detail about, you know, his career and other people and what role randomness displayed in that.
Kirsten: I think it’s fascinating also you’ve – there’s a really interesting story here. You’ve spent a lot of time in Hollywood. And you have a neat story in the beginning about a Hollywood executive who – she ends up loosing, basically, like her career ends up, she loses her job because she has bad a streak of movies.
Leonard: Yeah. That was Sherry Lansing. And no need to feel bad for her because she had a great, you know, I’m thinking about 10 or 12 years…
Leonard: …running Paramount. In fact, including I think when I was – no, I think she came on just after I was working on some other shows, but she was lauded as one of the geniuses of Hollywood based on her track record.
But having work in Hollywood, I know that, you know, first of all you can’t tell in advance what’s going to be a great hit movie and eat moreover. You can’t tell years in advance when the green light decision was made by the studio just based on say, a script and maybe a director (attached) that this is going to be a great big hit.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Leonard: And that’s of course, what she would have to do at picking the hits is not only foresee what the good movie, what’s going to appeal to public and what’s not, but what’s going to appeal to them in a couple of years and depending on, of course, all the vicissitudes of who you get for casting, what’s the chemistry, what’s the climate of the country going to be what others movies are coming up to compete with it and all the other factors.
So, it’s basically a joke to think that that someone like that could actually have a good “track record”. It’s really the coin flipping. What the studio used to be able to do is to run the studio well to, you know, keep movies on budget, on schedule, have a good marketing campaigns or whatever.
But a lot of economic research has shown that they can’t predict what’s going to be a hit. Yet they’re rewarded by that. She was considered a genius and then, she had three bad years in a row and was, you know, rather unceremoniously fired.
And I have some funny headlines that I’ve quote from variety about — she’s losing her touch, and what’s going to happen to her.
Justin: Mm hmm.
Leonard: And you know I say, well, first of all, it’s a sign that this is all an illusion anyway. When someone could be a genius one day and then, the next day, they’ve lost it, I mean…
Leonard: …unless something happens to her that theoretically said, she, you know, something, she had a car accident that hit her head. I mean, why was she suddenly lose it from one year to the next? That’s one sign.
But the real good sign, this is all an illusion is what happens is because of this lack of time in making of movies that the year after she’s gone, the movies that come out are really her movies even though she hasn’t been there.
And if you look at what happen, so, she get fired of the three bad years, the next year, when Brad Grey took over, they have a banner year. And Variety had its headlines about the great come back. Well, those are her movies. And I look back and I found other cases of that.
You know, when you’re flipping a coin – she’ll have a certain probability of success in any given year of a certain market share. And she happened to have good years and then bad years and sometimes they rotate.
I talked about a case of Mark Hanson who ran Columbia for a while in the 90’s and he had the bad years first upfront which is bad for his career.
Leonard: He got fired after, I forgot, two or three years. But then again, if you look at the next year, it was a great year. And he was a sponsor with some mega movies that he was no longer there to enjoy. But so, it is just a funny way that works out there in Hollywood.
But in tends to work in similar ways in other businesses where people tend to attribute, you know, someone’s track record to them, much more than they ought to. They really need to look deeper.
Leonard: You need to look at the person. What’s really important to your business? Do they know how to run it? And if they do have successes, you need to not just look at the statistics of the success, but what do they really do to make that a success.
I’m not saying that if you’re a chocolate chip manufacturer and you have a great taste for that chocolate, that can’t cause the success of your chocolate chips, you know. Maybe, it’s not like Hollywood.
But if you have an idea for the chocolate and it seems like some random idea and they get to change ten times, it doesn’t come out for five years. And it’s being – it has other chocolate chip competitors coming out at the same time, you might look at and go, I’m not sure if that initial idea really is the one that you credit, you know, so.
Kirsten: Right. There’s also the – I think the way that humans think, the way that our brain is set up, you know, we recognize patterns, we pull the patterns out of information.
I just find it interesting that there seems to be a focus on, you know, either the successes or the failures and not both of them taken evenly together. And that kind of biases the way that we actually see the world.
Leonard: Well, there are – this is one thing that came on into “The Drunkard’s Walk”, the book that wouldn’t have come on to entropy to buy which is…
Leonard: …all these psychological factors that make us miss randomness and that’s one. I mean, there are the human need to control things is one big one that I talked about the human tendency to find meaning and patterns even when the random, you know, when the really random pattern is very strong.
I mean, you can know that something is random and still make the same mistakes. It’s amazing. For instance, well, I’m going to mix up, I’m going back for different effects.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Leonard: In terms of the effect of success and failure or expectations, there are studies where, they have people, two people say, (Bill and Tom) are playing an anagram game and you have to judge which is doing better. In reality, everyone was seeing a tape of the same thing. So, there was no variance in that.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Leonard: And it wasn’t really (Bill and Tom), the (player) was (Bill and Tom) actors who were following a script. So, the script was assigned that they had equal ability in the anagram and yet, in one group of subjects were told that (Bill) was being paid because – $50 for doing this because they only had money to pay one guy. And (Tom) was randomly chosen not to.
In another group was told that (Tom) was being paid because they only have pay one and they picked (Tom). So, someone told that (Bill) was being paid but it was at random and someone told (Tom).
And later when they evaluated them to see, they asked people to analyze what they have just seen and the main question was, you know, “Who did better?” Well, when (Bill) got paid at random, 90% people thought he did better. When (Tom) got paid 70% thought he did better.
Leonard: So, when Sherry Lansing does well, there’s a tendency and she’s getting paid very well and being lauded to think…
Leonard: …that she really (cast) decisions and she really can.
There’s a study with Yale students flipping coins and after – they asked the Yale student, can you predict or control the coin flip? Of course, they’re going to say, “No”.
But if you ask them in more subtle questions like, will you get better with practice? Forty percent said, yes. So, (unintelligible) you really have (to have a gut feel)…
Leonard: …that they really can.
Justin: That’s interesting.
Leonard: And the other is human factor that when you start looking at them are just, you know, their mind is boggling.
Leonard: Let me tell on one more study, if I can.
Leonard: There’s a game called the probability matching where they flash you red and green lights. And one of them that come, let’s say, 60% of the time green and 40% red. They don’t tell you this. And after a while, they let you start watch them. And after a while, they want you to guess what’s going to come next.
Well, the mathematically optimal thing is to say, “Well, I’ve seen that that green is coming more often. And I guess, green every time. And rats will do that if you do it.
But a person won’t do that. A person will have realized by then that there are like 60% green and 40% red. And they’ll guess 60% green and 40% of the time, they’ll guess red and they try and figuring that they can guess the pattern.
I mean, I’m not saying intellectually they’re saying, “I can guess the pattern” but that’s through your gut instinct is to try and guess the pattern. And by doing that, they let themselves get out performed by a rat!
Leonard: I’m sure there’s a, you know, in our evolution, we’ve gone further than rats and we have science and we have TV shows like Star Trek and what I’ve heard that rats don’t enjoy. But at some basic level, that leads to some cognitive illusions or biases at sometimes work against us.
Kirsten: I think that’s amazing. Do you have a question?
Justin: Yeah. You worked on Star Trek, didn’t you?
Leonard: I guess so – if you have the last Newsweek, in May 4th issue, I wrote a cover story about my days in Star Trek and how it was for a physicist working on Star Trek.
Justin: Well, that’s a quick…
Leonard: I wrote for the show.
Justin: Yeah. “The Next Generation” was the one you were writing for. And now, it does slip in more little science-y words and science-y references. And I think, any of the others, was there a concerted effort to get science somewhere involved in the ship?
Leonard: There was by me.
Justin: Yeah, okay.
Leonard: But if you look at the article, they actually didn’t care – they wanted to sound scientific. And they want…
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Leonard: …you know, if you come up with cool ideas, that was good, it didn’t matter whether they were real or not. It’s almost backward, like science is looking at their ideas rather than they’re taking scientific ideas, which is actually a tradition in science fiction that…
Justin: Oh, yeah.
Leonard: …you know, flying machines were thought of before they were invented. And teleportation was thought up on Star Trek (unintelligible).
Justin: The cell phone came from Star Trek. Yeah.
Leonard: And expect to use it anytime soon though to get to work.
Justin: Although there was something – I just remember from like the transporter, there was like, they were working on like the Heisenberg and certainty filter or compensator or something.
Leonard: Yeah. There was a lot of that.
Kirsten: That’s funny.
Leonard: How do you get that stuff – we’ve taken that as a background for grand proposal but…
Kirsten: No. Do you think that there is, you know, like this book that you’ve written and there’s – do you think there’s some kind of a balance that can be made between the way that science is portrayed in maybe science fiction, fiction programming and also, there’s the way, it’s portrayed just in the media in general for people to be able to understand it as opposed to, I don’t know, the kind of blown-out just like way out there kind of crazy stuff.
Leonard: I’m not sure what do you mean by a balance. I mean, I think that it can be made understandable. And I think that any scientists who understands what they’re doing should be able to explain it to somebody, in a non-technical way.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Leonard: I think that when I’m working on something that I still foggy on or studying an error that I might not totally understand, that’s when I have trouble explaining it.
Leonard: It doesn’t mean that everyone knows how to explain something in an entertaining and funny and, you know, captivating way, but they should be able to make it understandable.
Kirsten: Yeah. There was that part – I mean, were you bored of science when you made your way into writing in Hollywood or…
Leonard: No, not at all. I still do. I still occasionally publish a paper. I try to keep my hand in there. I love doing research.
Leonard: I think, personality wise, I’ve also love to – since I was kid, I love writing and I love Math and Science. So, I’ve always had those two sides. And I don’t know, you know, I kind of got the Hollywood bug which how I got into actually writing as a business.
Leonard: You know, for me, it’s theoretical physicist – I have to say, I had a hard time with being alone all the time and sitting in the office to test, you know, ten hours a day without even talking. I mean, it’s not that you don’t talk to people but, out of those ten hours, nine are sitting at the desk and one is talking to people.
Justin: Wait a sec, is that as a writer? Is that a theoretical physicist? I’m not sure…
Leonard: That was a physicist. But as writer in Hollywood, you talk to too many people.
Justin: Oh, gosh.
Leonard: They won’t let you not, you know, there was once when I doing a TV movie. And I was getting calls from the studio, the producer and I think the network, it was going to be on all, “Don’t tell the other guys, but we’ll do it this way.”
Leonard: So, that was bad about that business, you know, you’re going to find something in between.
Kirsten: Yeah. There was something I was reading just recently about “Numb3rs” where somebody’s a producer or writer for the TV show “Numb3rs”, went to see an epidemiologist and she gave her very simple equations to explain, the spread of a disease in a population. It was a very simple equation and the Hollywood producer said, “No, no, no. We need something more complicated.”
Kirsten: That’s not a Hollywood enough equation.
Leonard: Not a Hollywood equation.
Kirsten: You know, I mean, there is definitely, I mean, even though, I think, there’s a push for more science, like real science in Hollywood and in the television and movies, I mean, there’s definitely always going to be that entertainment factor there where they wanted to look bigger than life, right?
Leonard: Oh, sure. I’m not saying that you can’t have impossible things like, you know happen in science fiction, I wouldn’t say that.
Leonard: But it would be nice for real science to come in and, you know, or have some shows that have, (Kip Thorn) at Caltech now is working with Steven Spielberg on developing a movie.
Leonard: And I think that the idea there is all the science fiction in that would be based on real science. And that’s for me, that’s very attractive and whether, you know, or not, you know, will that make the audience more excited? I don’t know. But it’s definitely nice when you can do that.
Leonard: And it’s also nice if actually if there’s enough – if there’s some science on the show whether that’s all that is real, some real scientists or actually people learn something.
Like you might want to show where they send you back in time and you’re watching, you know, and you’re learning something about some historical period but why not, you know, incorporate some science in the show where you come like knowing how epidemics really spread.
Leonard: Except throwing out (dependency) to the equation.
Justin: And other things have been sort in the news little bit lately. Is it in “Drunkard’s Walk” the statistics of the false positives?
Leonard: Oh, yeah.
Justin: Okay. Can you explain that because that…
Leonard: You know, the explanation – I start with the Monty Hall story which is conditional, called conditional probability which bothers people’s mind. And then, I have a better story which I thought would, you know, would make a big splash.
But people still are calling me about the Monty Hall story (unintelligible) about the story, it was called, “The Girl Named Florida” story which shows you that, if you have two – if you know that someone has two children, you know, that least one of them is a girl, you remember, “Oh, yeah, Uncle Tommy has two kids” or whatever and I remember there come a distant –, you know, about that, at least one was a girl, what are the chance they are both girls? That’s question number one.
Now, what if you know that one of them is a girl and you remember her name, say, Florida, it’s a rare name. Now, what are the chances they’re both girls? Well, actually that changes the chances, if you remember that there was a girl named Florida…
Leonard: …boggles the mind but I talked about that in the book. And that’s — believe it or not is connected to (Base theory) and conditional probability, false positives which, you know, tragically, doctors often – very often, I talked about some studies misinterpret — they give you the wrong interpretation of your test…
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Leonard: …(false positive). It happens to me. It’s very scary. I know, one couple that, you know, they were told that there’s a certain chance of down syndrome. They did — the first step was to take is ultra sound and it looked like it maybe down syndrome.
They want to do an amnio, and so the 1% of chance of causing a spontaneous abortion. And they said “we don’t want to take the chance.” And you know what?
They were totally right because the woman was in her late 20’s and a very low chance of Down syndrome even though, it seems to be in the ultra sound. But, you have to wait the false-positive against incidence. And doctors don’t realize that. And this doctor actually, wouldn’t treat her any longer. She had to change doctor.
Kirsten: Well, I know, there’s a…
Leonard: That’s very important to understand.
Kirsten: It’s very important to understand. And I think, that’s something that, you know, statistics when it’s taught is often very – there aren’t a lot of the real world examples of how to use, like really use the stuff in your life and how to understand it. And it seems…
Leonard: That’s one reason I thought that the book would be worthwhile, because that’s all that’s in there.
Kirsten: Right. Yeah. Give people real examples and how they can really understand how the statistics and probability affects them every day.
Leonard: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: Now, you’re – we’re about done with our show here. But you’re working on a book right now with Steven Hawking. Is that correct?
Leonard: Well, a new book to be called, “The Grand Design.”
Justin: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: That’s very exciting. Do you know how his health is progressing since he was in the hospital a couple of weeks ago?
Leonard: Well, he’s fighting and we’re all, you know, have our hopes up for a full recovery.
Leonard: And, you know, we’ll see.
Leonard: He’s a real fighter and a very brave man.
Kirsten: Yeah. He seems like an amazing person. I hope that your writing goes well. And that “The Grand Design” is, you know, I’m sure it’s going to be a fascinating read when…
Leonard: It’s a great book.
Leonard: I can’t wait to get it done. It’s almost done. And it’s a, you know, it’s a mind boggling too to overuse that word – I’ve been writing for over four years.
Justin: Don’t let it go to your head though, because, you know, the chances of somebody who’s a theoretical physicist who also work in Hollywood writing a good book, it’s just coin flipping, man.
Leonard: Yeah. Also, there’s a chance it would be a flop too. So, let’s not (unintelligible).
Kirsten: Well, thank you so much for joining us this morning. It’s been wonderful talking with you. And, you know, “The Drunkard’s Walk”, I think it’s got wonderful examples in it.
Kirsten: And it’s a clear read which, you know, so many people go, “Statistics, probability, math and scary.” But this is not a scary book, so.
Leonard: Well, thank you.
Kirsten: You’re welcome. I quite enjoy it.
Justin: I think you should dedicate the next book to Florida.
Kirsten: To Florida.
Justin: I think it might…
Leonard: A girl named Florida.
Justin: A girl named Florida.
Kirsten: That’s right.
Justin: Because it might increase…
Leonard: By the way, that was a real name. I went back – you know, it’s amazing. I’ve spent too much time researching. But that was a name that was popular early in the 20th century and up until the 1930.
And it had an incidence of about one in a million; I think when it was last seen. I think in the forties or something. But the government actually keeps data on this. So, it’s your tax dollars at work…
Leonard: …this pre-stimulus package.
Leonard: All right, thanks guys.
Kirsten: Thank you very much.
Justin: Thank you.
Kirsten: Have a great day.
Leonard: You too. Bye- bye.
Kirsten: Bye. That was Dr. Leonard Mlodinow. He has written “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives” What a randomly wondering conversation. That was fun.
I’d like to thank everyone for listening. And those of you who wrote in, I’ve got some great emails. (Tony Steel), he wrote in to say, thanks for us putting his artwork on the cover of our 2009 CD. It’s really – I love it. It’s very cartoon-y and fun, robots on the warpath, I love it.
(Alessandra Triono), who wrote one of our theme songs. He has also written “Unbalanced Wheel” from last year’s compilation. I’ve have some emails form (Yan), form (Michael), from (Jonathan), (Martin), (Art), (Brian), (David), (James), (Craig), Kalidasa. (Ilyich), we didn’t get to your question. We’ll get to it next week, hopefully.
(Cybertarian), (Glen), Ed Dyre, (Robert Marsh), (Sanjen), (Dave and Betsy), (Robert), so many people, thank you so much for writing in this last week. I loved all of the stories that you sent in.
Justin: We hope you enjoyed the show. TWIS is also available via podcast. Go to our website, www.twis.org and click on Subscribe to the TWIS Science Podcast for information on how to subscribe. Or just search us on the iTunes Directory for, yeah.
Kirsten: And for more information on anything you’ve heard here today, show notes will be available on our website, twis.org. The Forums are also there too. We also want to hear from you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Justin: And we love getting your feedback. So put TWIS somewhere in the Subject, otherwise you’ll be blasted to the spam-o-filter.
Kirsten: Spam-o-filtered. And we’ll be back here on KDVS next Tuesday at 8:30 am Pacific time. Stay tuned for more programming, wonderful programming here on KDVS. 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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