Transcript:TWIS.ORG April 21, 2009

Kirsten: Hey there minions, this is Kirsten. Before we start the show I just want to let people know that this week’s show occurred during our home radio station’s fundraising drive.

KDVS is fabulous example of how great freeform community non-commercial radio can be. But it does have to pay bills just like any business and fundraising has become a major part of the station’s income.

KDVS has been home to TWIS for ten years. And both TWIS and KDVS have matured quite a bit in that time. I hope that you will consider donating to the place that has supported and continues to support a unique brand of science reporting.

And even if you don’t care for supporting a radio station you barely know, consider supporting the show. Regardless, thank you for being a part of our exploration of science and journey of discovery. With that note, on with the show!

Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!

You are a scientist. As a report of 11% of our audience already have a PhD. And the majority of the remainder are pursuing some form of science-y degree. This statement may not come as much as of a surprise. But for those of you who are not so academically inclined, let me assure again so as not to be mistaken, you are a scientist. In fact most people are.

If you have balanced the checkbook, compared prices, or placed the winning bet you have mastered a mode of Mathematics. If you have mixed ingredients and applied heat to them in a kitchen, you have conducted Chemistry. If you have ever noticed in unspoken communication between strangers, you have made an observation in Psychology.

If you’ve ever examined an insect close up, you have engaged in Entomology. If you ever looked up into star-filled sky and speculated about the size of the universe, Astronomy is in your blood.

If you’ve ever noticed that the moon looks larger at the horizon, wondered why rainbows formed, used a spoon to open a stubborn jar, later experienced gravity, you have participated in Physics.

And while recognizing everyone is a scientist much like the following hour just did, that does not necessarily represent, abuse, or opinions in the University of California at Davis, KDVS, or its sponsors.

Science though remains inherent in all of us. The field of science in its most purified form is nothing more than a conversation about these acts and observations. A great conversation that reveals the universe by degrees, each observation building on the one before until our picture is more complete. Our understanding made more whole.

And while most of us may add little to the conversation at large, our own casual interaction of science-y thinking can be said to represent the entirety of that conversation in our own private universe of mind.

Making this show about things that happened this week in, you! So welcome to your week! Welcome to your show! Welcome to, This Week In Science, fundraiser edition, coming up next.

Is that a new intro song?

Kirsten: That is one of our new intro songs. Yes, and it is also on the 2009 TWIS compilation CD that we’ve made. A little bit special, loving care just for this KDVS fundraiser.

Justin: Brilliant.

Kirsten: Yeah, the song I played just a little bit earlier before the disclaimer is Roundy Round by Monty Harper. He’s a children’s song writer who submitted Roundy Round for the 2009 compilation.

So that’s another fun song that you’ll get as part of the gift that This Week In Science is giving to all people who donated the $25 student or $40 community level…

Justin: Nice.

Kirsten: …pledge levels during our show. And maybe if there are, you know, copies of this limited edition left over after our show is over but I don’t know if that’s going to happen.

Justin: That – sometimes it doesn’t happen.

Kirsten: Sometimes it doesn’t happen. If there are copies of it left over then, you know, and you’re listening to the podcast, you can donate online. You can even donate online right now or – and the website is And if you want to donate specifically and have it go to TWIS, it’s…

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: …/special…

Justin: And we don’t have…

Kirsten: /show/twis.

Justin: Oh my God. Is there anywhere I can go that…

Kirsten: There is so many forward slashes.

Justin: …I can find a link where I can just push the button and make it go.

Kirsten: Yeah. I’ve linked to it on my blog at So you can find the link there. If you also go to the KDVS website, that’s


Kirsten: Yeah, our show is up right and it has a link where you should be able to click on that and get to the specific donation location. However, if you’re not into the online thing and you just want to call in right now and donate to KDVS and support free form community radio and science on the radio, call 1-877-399-KDVS.

Justin: Or for those of you who don’t do letters…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: …that will be 1-877-399-5387. And just to point out that the 877 numbers are toll-free.

Kirsten: They’re toll-free. So it’s going…

Justin: Because if you work as if you’re my age, 877 sounds suspiciously like one of those they charge you every time you call a number, but it’s not.

Kirsten: Suspiciously.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Now we’ve got a show goal of $2,000. And for all those people out there who listen to this program, I am asking you to help us reach that goal. Two thousand dollars, it’s not that much overall. The program – not the program, the station has a total goal of $60,000. That was realizing, you know, that’s less than the median income for average household in the San Francisco Bay area. Sixty thousand dollars, so, I mean, what the station is asking for here?

Justin: So you’re saying that we’re making a family homeless? That’s so horrible, Kirsten!

Kirsten: That’s not what I…

Justin: That’s the terrible way to put it. Now, there’s because you donated to us, there’s a homeless family in San Francisco out on the street. That’s not going to help.

Kirsten: That’s not what I was saying. But anyway, $25 Student Level, $40 Community Member Level, donate and we will bring you science news which we have some today. I’ve got some science news about PCBs and, you know, little chemicals in the environment. Got some other news, we also have an interview at the half hour with Charles Langmuir…

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: And he is a Geochemist. We’re going to talk with him about planetary evolution. These are the things that you get when you listen to TWIS and donating will help maintain the station and maintain that support of science on the radio. Remember, 877-399-KDVS or

Justin: Blah, blah, blah. Bring us some science, Kirsten.

Kirsten: All right, let’s bring the science. Yeah, so some studies appeared today. Not today, this last week in the Public Library of Science. Three studies, in fact one of them, is in the PLOS Biology Journal, UC Davis Researchers have brought up evidence of Polychlorinated Biphenyls or PCBs in the way they alter brain cell development.

So, Isaac Pessah, Professor of Molecular Biosciences and the Director of the UC-Davis Center for Children’s Environmental Health and the co-author these three studies says, “We never really understood the mechanism by which PCBs produce neurobehavioral problems in children.”

So over the last 30 years, we’ve been seeing associations, these links between exposure to PCBs and problems in the development of the nervous system which relate to behavioral deficits.

And now, these studies have put together a very compelling link between exact – that explains how these PCBs are actually causing neurodevelopmental problems.

Justin: Whoa!

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: That’s so frightening.

Kirsten: It is frightening. But it’s exciting that they’re starting to put together the pieces of how it works, you know. So – and if we understand how the damage takes place, how the development is dis-railed, we might be able to, if there is exposure to PCBs, be able to mediate it. Be able to get the nerve cells back on the right track.

So, this is understanding the mechanism of how this works, might help us deal with the problem. Because I mean, the PCBs – one of the problems, they exist for a long time in the environment.

PCBs were used in transformers, in compositors, electronic components, pesticides, flame retardants. These chemicals were banned in the 1970’s due to the high toxicity but they don’t break down in the environment…

Justin: So they’re still there.

Kirsten: …and they accumulate so that when they end up in plants, and then animals eat the plants, and all of the chemicals accumulate, then you eat meat or you drink milk, that you know, or whatever that has high levels of these compounds, these PCBs in them it can be passed on to your developing baby or, you know, even if it’s in milk, your milk, it can, you know —this gets passed on it can cause a lot of problems.

So the studies of, see, whatever they’ve implicated in epidemiological studies as an environmental cause of neurodevelopmental disorders including ADHD, learning disabilities, sensory deficits, developmental delays, and mental retardation.

And there’s literature all over the place that points the finger at PCBs as Pamela Lein, the lead author the Environmental Health Perspectives Animal and UC Davis Associate Professor of Molecular Biosciences.

So, let’s see, what have they found. The result show that PCB binds directly to the ryanodine receptors and locks the channel in an open state causing mayhem in the calcium signaling, says Pessah.

He added that this accounts for the effects seen in the first two studies. The channels are a target for PCBs and they are contributing to brain cell dysfunction even at the behavioral level.

He said that as early as 1995 they suspected the ryanodine receptors were one of the principal targets but they couldn’t find a way to block the effects of PCBs unless they block those receptors.

And so the brain has ways of dealing with high level of toxicities, says Pessah. And they think that one of the major reasons why haven’t seen effects in previous studies is that at higher doses PCBs become toxic to cells and the brain has a defense mechanism to deal with disposing of the damaged cells.

Justin: Interesting, low level.

Kirsten: But at, like the low levels, the brain’s emergency system doesn’t kick in and so there’s just this changed calcium signaling which affects all sorts of pathways within the nerve cells.

Justin: That’s really interesting. They’ve noticed some sort of trend like that with Bisphenol-A as well, that at higher levels that it wasn’t as much of a problem as at the low level.

Kirsten: Right. So maybe that has something to do with it. Maybe this threshold effect of when the bodies or the cell’s natural systems to shut things off when they kick in.

Justin: Yeah. It’s probably a though one because these are man-made chemicals. These are not things that the brain has seen in nature before. It doesn’t have a history with.

Kirsten: Right. And so – what they’re going to be looking at, they’re not done yet. And they’re going to be looking at PCBs and related compounds at lower doses that are really relevant to human exposures.

They’re going to be looking at PCB effects on mice carries some of these same genetic variations of the ryanodine receptors as humans to be able to determine if some people are more susceptible to the PCB toxicity than others.

And they’re going to be looking at areas of the brain that control behavior. Pessah says, they believe that PCB-like compounds in use today are also capable of changing the structure of protein targets that are contributing to neurobiological problems in humans and they hope to identify those and get them off the market.

So there’s some really neat research happening here at UC Davis and there’s great results coming out. There are more we can learn to deal with these environmental contaminants that we have put in the environment the better off we’re going to be.

And if you just tuned in, you’re listening to This Week In Science with Dr. Kiki and…

Justin: Doctor? What?

Kirsten: What? Kirsten Stanford — yes, and Justin Jackson. And you can donate. Donate, donate, donate and support science on free form community non-commercial radio at 1-877-399-KDVS. That’s toll-free folks.

Justin: Time to break down the numbers. Little bit of what I’d like to call reduction to the ridiculous.

So KDVS is required to raise $60,000 this week in order to maintain the station for the whole rest of the year?

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Sixty thousand dollars does sound like a lot of money. Like you said, it’s a median rich San Francisco family- that’s now on the street. In sales, when you come up against a large looking number, the most important thing to do is to put that number in perspective.

Make it seem smaller. Make it seem manageable. That’s why advertising things is always monthly. When you go to buy anything now, it’s like on a monthly thing or, I think like life insurance, they even give you like, “for only so much a day”.

So why not apply that to KDVS which means that the monthly listener donations needed to keep KDVS on the air, a mere $5,000 a month! That’s totally – that’s manageable, right? That’s not bad.

Yeah, $5,000 a month! But if we held a fundraiser each month for $5,000, it will be – we’d probably get to the goal each month, but it will be very annoying. It means that you’ll be hearing us talk about money every month at some point.

So – and even $5,000 is too big a number! Let’s go with the daily figure. So that $60,000, 365 carried to 1 – oh look, less than $165 a day. That’s more than a cup of coffee but it’s still pretty darn cheap in terms of operating expenses. And don’t think – I don’t think you could run like a proper hotdog cart with a $165 a day and overhead.

So a lot can happen in a day though. Hour by hour each piece of equipment gets constant used here. Chairs, headphones, microphones, computers, control boards, all these things break.

Even in industrial string CD players working 24 hours a day. Then you got the whole tower tubes, radio signal transformer among other things, all the big heavy duty 1950s equipment. Twenty-four-hour station on the air means 24-hour use of all the equipment. So, that $165 a day goes down to – it’s $6.88 an hour.

Kirsten: An hour!

Justin: That’s what it takes to run this place.

Kirsten: That’s…

Justin: That’s below minimum wage, you know. For a station that believes that the minimum is never enough. For the station that strives to give you only that you can not get anywhere else packed into each and every minute. Minutes! Yeah, let’s get minutes. Eleven and a half cents! Its $0.115 a minute!

Now that’s less than a cup of coffee even in like 1950 when most of this equipment was brought here. So, that’s what it takes KDVS on the air, $0.115 a minute which would be a lot for any one of us to come up with $0.115 each minute.

So, every – once a year we reach out to the community at large and ask you to help us out to invest in your own radio station. So pledging today, think about how often you’d listen to the show and enjoy radio from KDVS. A $25 investment, $2 a month, keeps KDVS on the air for 217 minutes. So that $25 level gives KDVS 3.5 hours of broadcasting time per year.

Kirsten: Oh!

Justin: Three and a half hours, that’s quite a bit. A $14 investment is less than 11 cents a day on your part. And it gets six hours of your favorite shows on the air. Ten dollars even pays for 1.5 hour of KDVS.

So our goal for today for this show, for This Week In Science, $2,000 will be enough to keep our home station up and running for an amazing 290 hours. It is less than $40 an episode of TWIS which is under $20 per host, if you break it down by host.

Kirsten: That’s right. We are working at minimum here.

Justin: It’s a manageable $2 per host a story and a very modest $ 0.66 per disclaimer.

Kirsten: Ah that’s pretty reasonable.

Justin: That’s almost nothing. And even better, only $0.7 a shoutout.

Kirsten: Seven cents a shoutout.

Justin: Seven cents a shoutout that’s all it takes to keep us on air. So, it’s an incredible deal, please donate to help keep the freeform radio station KDVS on the air.

Kirsten: Please donate. The phone number is 877-399-KDVS. That’s KDVS. And you can donate online at, specifically to TWIS, at

Justin: I don’t believe it.

Kirsten: But you can find this online. And we have got – oh we have received so many. We have bunch of donation so far. And I’m going to give you a big shoutout all of you at the end show to say thank you. And so far, we have a show total of $180 donated, according to the board. I think they’re having a hard time keeping up with us here.

Our show goal though is $2,000. So we’re not quite there yet. Help us get there folks. Call in and donate. And let us keep reporting the science news on KDVS. Specifically, how does our brain let us form sentences?

Justin: Oh, sometimes it doesn’t. I have noticed.

Kirsten: Sometimes. Sometimes it just doesn’t work.

Justin: Say coffee, I think coffee is the main ingredient to sentence start forming.

Kirsten: Well it turns out, some research out of UC San Diego has uncovered the fact that it’s not necessarily- it’s not a specific areas of brain that is so much, you know, like our grammar center or whatever.

But we have two types of memory. Procedural memory which is remembering how to do something like writing, it’s like using tools, and declarative memory, just memory for facts. Where you’ve been, what you’ve done, how you did it, George Washington, our first president. These are – I can declare these things. I know these things. I’ve learned this information.

Justin: These things are self evident.

Kirsten: These things I know. Right, that’s right. And so the question is, are either of these systems, and if so which one working when we’re trying to form sentences.

Looking at healthy individuals versus and amnesiacs…

Justin: Can I guess- wait. Can I guess before you get there?

Kirsten: Yes, yes you can guess.

Justin: I want to guess it’s procedural.

Kirsten: Okay, that’s your guess. Well, they tested regular healthy volunteers versus people with amnesia. The people with amnesia have perfect procedural memory, you know, they remember how to walk, they remember how to do all sorts of stuff but their declarative memory is impaired. So they can’t remember any new information that they’re learning.

So they had these individuals look at – they had them hear and repeat a sentence, all the people. Then they saw a picture that wasn’t related to the sentence that they had heard and repeated but they had to describe that picture.

And then, the participants had to hear another sentence that was either the same or changed somehow in the grammar structure of the sentence or its meaning or even both, but it was changed somehow. T

hey found that both groups used the grammatical rules of the first sentence when they described the picture. So, the sentence that they had heard and had to repeat influenced the way that they structured the sentence.

Justin: Interesting.

Kirsten: The sentence that they used to describe the picture they saw. The people with amnesia didn’t remember seeing the picture. So that they saw it they couldn’t remember that at all. So what that means is that they were using they’re procedural memory to be able to describe the picture even though they didn’t remember seeing it.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: So they have seen it. And so, this suggests that you are right, your vote procedural memory. Procedural memory is one of the systems that, is highly involved in allowing us to create sentences.

It’s rules that we actually learn. So like learning to ride a bike as we’re learning to speak as when we’re children, that procedural working memory in the frontal lobes of our brain is very active.

Justin: Yeah, and I was pretty confident on that one because I haven’t formed a new memory in some 20 years. So all my conversations are just following a pattern of what it’s like to interact with humans.

Kirsten: That, I’ve noticed that. You can donate toll-free at 877-399-KDVS. Help us reach our $2,000 show goal. You can also donate online at

And you can go to the show page and you can find us specifically on the KDVS website, There’s a link to donate specifically to our show, This Week In Science. Dr. Kirsten Stanford and Justin Jackson, we’re working it, trying to help KDVS reach its goal, such a small goal of $60,000. That’s so many people out there. You can all be a part of the station. You can be a part of the community that is KDVS.

And you’ll get a limited edition 2009 This Week In Science Music Compilation CD. I know people don’t listen to CDs as much as they used to but…

Justin: What?

Kirsten: …you’ll still get it as our thank-you gift.

Justin: There’s a new thing?

Kirsten: No. It’s our thank-you gift. It’s solid and the art work on the cover – the cover art was donated to us by a cartoonist named Tony Steele. He made the cover art specifically for This Week In Science.

Justin: Yeah. Its (big really).

Kirsten: So it’s really, really great cover art. The music that was donated by the bands is fantastic and it’s our gift to you for donating at the $25 Student Level or the $40 Community Level.

Justin: Hot!

Kirsten: Give us some science. We have a few minutes…

Justin: Oh!

Kirsten: …before we go out to the break.

Justin: Well, I guess we could do this one before our guest comes on. Below one of Earth’s most extreme environments, the frozen Antarctic valley that receives only desert-like precipitation. A landscape devoid of life has been hiding a secret deep below its icy glacial surface. That secret, what do you think it is? What do you think it’s going to be?

Kirsten: Secret under Antarctic ice?

Justin: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Special life. There’s going to be something alive.

Justin: Life! It’s alive! Briny, frozen, liquid chemical similar to seawater appears to be teeming with microbial life. You know, teeming-ish anyway, in a cold, dark, oxygen-poor environment.

A study lead by Jill Mikucki of Dartmouth College suggests that over past 1.5 million years, the microbes have adopted to manipulate sulfur and iron compounds to survive. The idea being about 1.5 million years ago, there’s a fjord or sort of an inland sea in Antarctica. And as things froze and froze over and glacially froze over, they were trapped there.

Ah! Things went dark. The microbes had to learn how to survive. Most, they think, probably died off. But these ones have adapted. These ones are still there. These ones have survived.

The microbes are similar in nature to species found in marine environments, which is part of why they figured out how they got there. Mikucki obtained a sample of an extremely salty, clear liquid for analysis. And says here that, “When I started running the chemical analysis on it, there was no oxygen,” she said. And that’s when this got really interesting. It was a real eureka moment.

So the majority of these organisms, she says, are from marine lineages. One point five million years ago, this is kind of neat thing – well first of all, it’s kind of a neat way that they discovered the site.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Because the compounds that have been leaking up reacting with the air because these microbes have been digesting irons, reacted with the air and basically created rust in the ice.

Kirsten: Yeah. The picture is amazing.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: You know there’s a pure white glacial ice and then just red.

Justin: Like a red river.

Kirsten: Yeah. There’s this dark intense burgundy, coppery, red river.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah, a very intense picture. And it’s a very – I think it’s neat that they saw that like this is something important we need to investigate and see what is down there.

Justin: So the implications for this, first of all, I can study, a little bit of the snowball or they can get some indication I guess of what was ongoing back when the Earth was all frozen over.

But also, you know, looking for life in froth frozenly places because there’s a lot of ice in space. Ices are cold place. Yeah, I mean the Earth can be cold enough, but gosh, I mean Mars, Europa, these are places that have ice covered areas. Could have – in fact the Jupiter’s moon, Europa has – is known to have some liquid beneath the icy surface, even.

Although it seems like, you know, we must — this probably came from a nice, warm, you know, nutrient-rich environment first and then had to scale down.

Kirsten: A little sub-glacial, hot spring.

Justin: Scaling that might be a little hard but what’s the difference then.

Kirsten: Well we are at 9 o’clock at it’s time to go to our break. But before we go, I just want to remind everybody that you’re listening to This Week In Science. It’s KDVS’…

Justin: Fundraiser!

Kirsten: …fundraiser. Yeah. We do this once a year for a week and that’s it. And we’d love to hear from you, pledge your support for freeform community non-commercial radio, 1-877-399-KDVS is the toll-free number. And you can donate online at Donate. Support us.

Thank you so much for listening and we’ll be back after these messages. Here’s another song from the 2009…

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: …Compilation CD that is our special gift to you donate at $25 or $40 level.

James Randi: Hello, this is James Randi if you haven’t guessed already. I’m very pleased to announce that registration is now officially open for The Amazing Meeting 7. The biggest and best critical thinking conference in the world to be held from July 9th through the 12th 2009 at the beautiful South Point Casino, Hotel & Spa in Las Vegas, Nevada. This is a change in venue that will better accommodate the size of crowd we got last year. Just short of 900 skeptics of all sizes, ages, shapes, ethnicity, homelands and degrees of enthusiasm.

This July our speakers will include the ubiquitous Michael Shermer from the Skeptic Society, our good friend Adam Savage of the MythBusters, our President, Phil Plait from the Bad Astronomy Blog, of course, Jennifer Ouellette, from the Science and Entertainment Exchange, and the Penn & Teller duo, and of course, moa.

Our keynote speaker this year will be Bill Prady, Executive Producer of the hit television show, The Big Bang Theory and he’ll tell us how his help make it cool to be an accredited, official nerd.

We’ll also have our usual stellar panels, workshops at after hour’s entertainment including a (mendelism) act by a whole known, bearded, and cranky skeptic you may know and love. He’ll be offering his audience a couple of brand new mental of wonders that have not been shown before even to the magicians of the world.

Those who attend TAM 7 will also witness an actual real time test for our world famous challenge prize, an actual scientific, statistically correct, carefully controlled test which may lead to the awarding of the million dollar prize.

This is just not to be missed. For more information, go to, that’s to get all the information on this amazing event.

As always, this is James Randi, still amazing and I hope to see you there in Las Vegas at The Amazing Meeting 7.

Justin: I think that song might be ripped off because it sounds…

Kirsten: It sounds kind of familiar, right?

Justin: The lyrics sound familiar, yeah.

Kirsten: That song is a remake of a song, first assumptions were correct by Jake Mann that was on the 2007 Compilation album. He’s remixed it, re-mastered it in a rock and roll fashion with Max Hart who is another local Davis musician…

Justin: Oh yeah.

Kirsten: …or he came from Davis. Now he’s been all over the world. He’s played with We Are Scientists and all sorts of other people.

Justin: He’s an international rock star.

Kirsten: He’s an international man of mystery. Man of music. But, first assumptions were correct. It’s their new version of the song on the 2000 Jake Mann’s new version on the 2009 Compilation CD.

Before we went to the break, Warp11, a local Sacramento band allowed us to use My Electric Man.

Justin: A track band.

Kirsten: They are track-y band.

Justin: Track and roll.

Kirsten: That’s right. We’re so very excited to have those songs on the compilation this year and they are your gift from us when you donate at the $25 or $40 levels to the KDVS fundraiser. You can donate now toll-free at 877-399-KDVS or online at

Help us reach our $2,000 goal. Help KDVS reach its $60,000 goal. If you don’t want to remember that big, long thing, you just go to Donate now.

On the line we have Dr. Charles Langmuir. He’s a Harvard Geochemist and he’s going to be speaking with us today about planetary evolution. Dr. Langmuir, are you there?

Charles: I’m right here.

Kirsten: It’s wonderful to have you on the show with us today.

Justin: Yes, welcome to This Week In Science.

Charles: Nice to be here.

Kirsten: Yeah, thanks for joining us. So, I’m interested in this idea of planetary evolution. I saw some stories about it over – I’ve seen some stories about it over the last couple of years and I’m glad we’re finally able to get you on the show to talk about it.

But this – you studied Geochemistry, and can you tell us a little bit about what that is before we get into the other complicated stuff.

Charles: Well, Geochemistry is really the tool that I use to study the Earth. So, I’m more interested in studying volcanoes and how the rocks of volcanoes tell us the story of the Earth and what’s happened to it over time.

Kirsten: When you were planning a long time ago to maybe specifically study volcanism but you’ve become a little bit broader in your interests. How did that happen?

Charles: Well it turns out when you start looking at volcanism you see that volcanoes are related to everything else. So, the volcanoes relate to the climate, they relate the chemistry of chemical composition of the seawater.

I have gone to see a lot in my career, studying ocean ridges. And when you study ocean ridges, you need to work with geophysicists, oceanographers, and you discover this deep sea vent fields deep in the ocean that are associated with volcanoes, so you start working with biologists. And then you start wondering how all of these different things relate to one another.

And a couple of years ago, I started teaching a course at Harvard called How to Build a Habitable Planet. And in that course, it was sort of the scientific creation story of the universe from the Big Bang to human kind. And then you start thinking about how all the rest of the universe is related to what’s happening on the Earth. So the field gradually expanded as you think about it.

Kirsten: Right. So it starts at one small – of what might be considered one very narrow focus but once you start looking it really expands. What is required to build a habitable planet? I think that’s a really interesting question. And I’m sure it’s complicated but…

Charles: Yeah. So the star probably needs to be at certain distance from the center of the galaxy because the center of galaxy has too much radiation. And then the planet needs to be at certain distance from the star and if you have the star on the right place, and the planet on the right place, under the conditions where life has a chance.

Kirsten: So, what aspects of the planet, you know, itself of the make up of the rock, of the – are there specific considerations that you need to think of there?

Charles: Well it’s one of the things that, of course, we’re all very curious about. And the difficulty is that currently we only have one example. Though we can speculate on what sort planetary conditions would be necessary for life to evolve to create a living planet like ours.

Justin: So then, does Mars fit? Does Mars fit that?

Charles: Mars is a little bit too far away and a little bit too small. And Venus is the right size but a little bit too close to the Sun.

Justin: (Gotcha!)

Charles: So if Mars have been 10 or 20 times bigger, maybe it would have had a chance, as well.

Kirsten: That’s really interesting. Do you think that there is – when we think about these different possibilities and there’s this idea of, you know, the zone is habitable zone. The region of space from, maybe, where Mars is, I mean into Venus and with Earth…

Charles: In the middle.

Kirsten: In the middle, yeah. Well, I’m just thinking of this region of space where it’s not too cold and not too hot, you know, it’s like the three bears story. Do you think there are other possibly other solar systems out there where maybe there are multiple planets where the planets have worked out with the atmosphere has maintained, where the gravity…

Justin: Yeah, good question.

Kirsten: …is appropriate?

Justin: Would we fit orbitally?

Charles: Yes, I think it’s very likely that there maybe solar systems with multiple planets with life on them. And there is a sort of a hunch that many people have now that life is really is what planets like to do.

So life is a way that planets like to expand the energy by creating order. And if that’s true, then life is a very common phenomenon throughout the universe. And we’ll know whether that’s true or not as soon as we find it one other place because if we find it in one other place, then that means life is everywhere.

Kirsten: So that’s why the Cassini Mission, looking at as Enceladus and other moons of Saturn and looking at Mars for the potential for even microbial life to be there…

Charles: Yes.

Kirsten: …it has greater implications.

Charles: That’s right, if we find that Mars even at some time in its ancient past had a little bit of some kind of primitive life, then we know life is not this unique event associated only with planet Earth. That life is something that just happens on planets all over the place.

Kirsten: And this really gets in like your previous comment really gets into the idea of the planetary evolution that life is just a step in that.

Charles: That’s right. If you could sort of – again if you look at the comparison between Mars and the Earth, it maybe that Mars and the Earth both started out with the possibility of having life. Earth developed life, maybe Mars developed life. And then Mars died and stopped evolving and it’s a dead and lifeless planet today as far as we know.

But on the Earth, the Earth kept evolving over 4.5 billion years ultimately leading in very recent times to us.

Kirsten: Do you think that – I mean this is a completely, a stretching question but the idea of increasing complexity of organisms that is also just a byproduct of this step-by-step evolutionary progress?

Charles: Yes. I think an important aspect – two important aspects of the step-by-step evolution, one is increasing relationship so that ecosystems get more complicated.

Animals get made up of more cells. Animals get more capable. And at the same time, the atmosphere changes so that we start out with no oxygen in the atmosphere. And oxygen builds up a little bit. When it builds up a little bit, the animals can get a little bit more complicated. And then about 600 million years ago, oxygen probably rises to about its present values, and at that point, big plants and animals are able to exist.

Kirsten: Do you think that looking at this kind of an idea are – do you find that there are more and more scientists from different disciplines starting to work together to really look at this idea from an incorporated – kind of, you know, as working together kind of angle?

Charles: Yes, that’s one of the things I love about Earth Science, is that all of us working in Earth Science realized that we’re working from different angles on the same problem.

So, we’re not isolating fields in trying to work out this little detail or that little detail but there’s just a wide spread of interests and mystery in how all these things are related to one another to form a whole that’s greater than the sum of the parts.

Kirsten: Yeah. Can you talk about some of the – either studies or some of the big ideas that kind of helped you bring about this idea of planetary evolution?

Charles: Well, I think one of the things, is this recognition of the co-evolution of the atmosphere in Biology. So, it’s really in the last ten years that we’ve been able to quantify more accurately how oxygen has changed in composition in the atmosphere starting out to be completely absent and then, rising possibly in discrete steps over time.

And the important aspect of that for life is that in the absence of oxygen, life only has low energy reactions available to it. Things like fermentation.

So you have these reactions that produce, you know, a certain amount of energy, call it X. Once you have enough oxygen around and you can start to burn things in a controlled way as our in a way burns sugar, then you get 20 times as much energy available to you.

And so the increasing complexity is associated with an increased in energy usage. And I think one can view actually a lot of evolution as being a progressive change in access and ability to make use of energy.

You can even look at human beings from that point of view that, you know, we don’t have the strongest arms, we don’t have the sharpest teeth. What do we have that other animals don’t have?

And that is first through tools, and through fire and through technology we have access to more and more energy. And that allows us to dominate all the ecosystems. You can even apply it Economics. So why is United States a dominant country in the world, it’s because we have access to more energy and make use of it than other countries do.

Kirsten: That’s a fascinating idea especially now that energy is becoming such an issue around the globe. I mean, do you see – do you have any predictions that you can make? I don’t know if that’s stretching too much.

Charles: Well, I think, it’s important to realize that use of energy is not a bad thing. So it’s not that as human beings we should not be using energy. It’s just that we shouldn’t destroy the planet in the process.

So if we can use energy in a way that makes use of the sun or the wind or ultimately fusion, I think that is a completely natural consequence of biological evolution to be able to have access to more energy which allows greater connectivity.

So, we’re now able to have a global relationship among human beings on the surface of the planet. That’s something that no specie has ever had access to before and that has to do with the fact that we have access to the energy that makes it possible.

Justin: It’s sort of annoying that you do have to also point out to people not to destroy their planet. It just seems like that we’d come having been born on the planet that you’d have some affinity for it! It’s amazing that we don’t in general.

Charles: Yeah, I know, it is amazing. And – I mean I was trying to think of what would be an analogy and the only thing I could think of at the moment, which is not a very good one, is what if we viewed our family members as potential profit sources or something like that.

Kirsten: Well.

Charles: And so we had a kid and we’ve wondered how we can make the most money from them. And we realize, well gee, they only need one eye and one kidney, so we could harvest the kidney and sell it for $2 million.

Harvest the eyes and sell to somebody else and we would have no feelings for it. And yet we treat the Earth a little bit like that. We’re using, you know, 4.5 billion years of accumulation of energy in the form of oil and gas. And we’re using it up in a few hundred years.

Justin: Yeah.

Charles: With no feelings for it.

Kirsten: Well, that’s a fantastic analogy.

Justin: That’s a great analogy.

Kirsten: Yeah, very vivid. Wow! Can you talk a little bit – you’d had some amazing adventures yourself as you’ve travelled the planet, exploring the planet, studying the planet. Can you – what is, to you, the most fantastic adventure that you’ve had in the pursuit of science?

Charles: For me it would be the trip to Arctic Ocean that we had in 2001 and we went on a US icebreaker called the US Coast Guard Cutter HEALY, the mighty HEALY 25,000 tons of icebreaking steel.

It was the first time that it had been to the Arctic on a scientific voyage and we went up there with a German icebreaker called the Polarstern. And then we were able to explore and map and sample and look for life on the spreading ridge that’s in the Arctic that is slowest spreading of all the ridges.

So being in that environment where you’re in 24 hours of daylight. You have the ice everywhere as the ship breaks through it. And you’re investigating and exploring a part of the Earth that has never been seen before, is a tremendous thrill.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: That would be – that kind of exploration and the finding of something absolute new and unique, just seeing something that hasn’t been seen, it’s rare. Not very many individuals get to do that.

Charles: It’s true. And it’s also I think what is the primary driver of science, every science is new observations. So, as we learn more and more and are able to get more and more information and data about the earth, then we get all these amazing surprises.

That our imaginations are so limited that we can not really imagine what these will be. So I think that, you know, the words we always say we want scientific discovery.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Charles: What does that mean? It means we don’t know in advance. So a discovery is always a surprise and – so you can’t exactly plan it. You have to be asking the right questions and be open to the surprise of seeing something new that you didn’t expect.

Justin: What – I can’t remember who has the saying but it’s something along with the lines of, “you can’t discover a new land without losing sight of the shore”. Is that…?

Charles: That’s a beautiful analogy. Of being out in the unknown, you need to be willing to be in the unknown in order to find something new.

Kirsten: Well, we are coming to the end of our show here but what are you working on right now that – I’d love to know what you’re working on where are your adventures are taking you next before we go?

Charles: Well, the project I’m currently most excited on about is the relationship between volcanism and glacial cycles. So, the carbon dioxide content is going up and down with glacial cycles. And it’s not really clear why that happens. You have the ice melting and freezing. Why should that change the CO2 content of the atmosphere?

Well it turns out that when the ice melts, it depressurizes the volcanoes in the inside of earth and we found that the volcanoes go off about five times more often while the ice is melting than they do otherwise.

Kirsten: So, is it maybe like the weight of the ice on the surface of the Earth?

Charles: Yes, yeah you can think of the ice as being like a big stopper on top of the volcano and you release the stopper and the volcano pops. And when the volcano pops, it sends CO2 up into the atmosphere that causes the atmosphere to warm, that causes more ice to melt and that maybe the reason for the rapid exit from the ice ages.

So, we’re very excited about that possible discovery.

Kirsten: And what – go ahead.

Charles: And there’s one other interesting aspect of it that this change that helps to take us out of the ice ages is – and I’ll give a number, I’m sorry but it’s 0.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year. Human emissions currently are 30 gigatons per year. So the human emissions today are 100 times higher than the volcanic emissions…

Justin: Wow.

Charles: …that maybe an important contributor to ice ages. It puts what we’re doing in perspective.

Kirsten: I just love it.

Justin: Too much! Too much! Too much perspective! Too much!

Kirsten: Well I appreciate very much the fact that you are out there pushing the envelope and discovering these wonderful secrets to our planet and figuring out how things work. And, you know, I hope that you continue to have great adventures and that you continue to bring us, you know, great information in the process.

Charles: Thanks very much, it’s been very nice talking.

Kirsten: It’s been wonderful.

Justin: Thank you.

Kirsten: Have a great day.

Charles: You, too.

Kirsten: Bye.

Charles: Bye.

Justin: And one doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time is…

Kirsten: Very long time.

Justin: …André Gide.

Kirsten: And that was Dr. Charles Langmuir from Harvard University. He is a Geochemist and he studies the planet and…

Justin: Our planet.

Kirsten: Our planet.

Justin: This one. The one you’re standing on right this moment.

Kirsten: That’s right. My feet are firmly on the ground. I don’t know if he’s been looking at this ground here in Davis but we are here stomping the ground – or stomping the imaginary sidewalks, the pavement of radio looking for your support.

Great interviews like the one we just had with Dr. Langmuir. And you’re on This Week In Science which is on KDVS, which is having its once yearly fundraising drive. This is the only time we ask in a year for your help to support freeform community radio.

We have a show goal of $2,000 and we are about a little over, I guess, 10% of the way there. And it’s almost the end of the hour. Come on, people. Step it up. You can donate at 877-399-KDVS or online at

And we have a great compilation CD that we have put together just for you, full of fantastic science-y music that’s our gift to you if you donate at the $25 Student Level or the $40 Community Level. But we’re looking for any kind of donation that you want to give. You don’t have to…

Justin: Ten dollars…

Kirsten: Ten dollars.

Justin: …gets an 1.5 hour of programming put on the air each year. That’s awesome.

Kirsten: Yeah. Yeah, you’re helping to pay for at least one hour of TWIS with a $10 donation. Yeah, that’s fantastic!

Our station is looking for $60,000 this year. So you know, a very, very modest goal that we’re looking for. They took away the board so I know that we’re not quite, we’re…

Justin: What did we do last year?

Kirsten: …somewhere over $8,000 but I don’t know exactly where we are right now. What did we do last year? I don’t know. Where are we? Eight thousand four hundred ninety one dollars.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: We are just under – just over $500 away from $9,000 which is just $1,000 away from $10,000. And from there, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to our $60,000 goal. Our show now has brought in $280. You can donate at 877-399-KDVS or online at

Justin: Do we have time for underage sex?

Kirsten: I don’t know. I don’t know if you can…

Justin: Excuses story.

Kirsten: Yeah, go ahead.

Justin: From University of (Lakester, Lachester), Leicester.

Kirsten: Leicester.

Justin: Leicester. I always – and I just learned that this weekend. From the University of Leicester comes breaking news and bear goggles. Recent studies demonstrated that consuming alcohol did NOT affect how men judge the age of women. Did not affect.

Research in the University of Leicester, School of Psychology is Vince Egan and Giray Cordan of the University of Exeter finds that young females are typically viewed as being older than they actually are, by about 2.5 years. But having consumed having consumed even large amounts of alcohol does not lead a man to think that they look even older.

Their study concludes: “Our study suggests that even heavy alcohol consumption does not interfere with age-perception tasks in men, so does not excuse apparent mistaken age-sex cases where people have unlawful sex with minors.”

Kirsten: Yeah, there you go.

Justin: Not an excuse.

Kirsten: Not an excuse.

Justin: Science has taken it away. What is interesting is, attractiveness ratings were not affected by the alcohol or make-up compared to more mature faces. So alcohol hadn’t significant impact on making older faces with lots of make-up appear more attractive.

Kirsten: That’s…

Justin: Not younger, mind you.

Kirsten: …on me.

Justin: They didn’t look younger but it affected their attractiveness level.

Kirsten: Go, Justin.

Justin: They were still judging the ages correctly but at the more they drink, the more attractive the…

Kirsten: Older make-up wearing…

Justin: …the heavily make-up…

Kirsten: …women.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Interesting. Very interesting! And stories like this brought to you on This Week In Science. We come to you every Tuesday on KDVS. And this week we’re asking for your support. We’ve brought in $330 for our show total. I know we did – there was a donation last night, in the middle of the night, for our show for $200. So, you know, our show total maybe if we count that one, went up $530.

Justin: I think $330 is what was done overnight. I don’t think any of that was from on the air right now. I think that was all.

Kirsten: Help us reach our goal. We are at the end of show. Great programming is continually brought to you on KDVS, a freeform station where people put together amazing music programming, public affairs programming that is developed here at the station by people who really love the station. I mean it’s all volunteers down here. There’s a student staff who are modestly paid through the university. But really, it’s all volunteers.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Everything down here is volunteer.

Justin: The largest community tower outside of New York City.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: (Unintelligible) station started. What was it? How many years ago? Fifteen years ago? Twenty years ago? What was it? It’s a while ago.

Kirsten: The 1970’s.

Justin: Nineteen seventy’s as a radio club. Where…

Kirsten: Yeah. As an AM, low power AM station…

Justin: Yeah, we’re located like…

Kirsten: …that was only heard on campus.

Justin: …near the cafeteria.

Kirsten: And now we are at over 10,000 watts and we can be heard all over the Sacramento Metropolitan area up to Truckee…

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: …Fairfield, (unintelligible).

Justin: Yeah. I’ve heard of some in the mountains of Reno.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: We are everywhere.

Justin: Or Tahoe.

Kirsten: And I want to give shoutouts to a few people before we go. (Karl) from Downieville, he said, “Great show.” Thank you, (Karl). (Logan Waterman), you’re in Sacramento. You’ve been with us for several years. Thank you for supporting This Week In Science. I really appreciate it.

(Erik) in Bakersfield, I recognize your name, too. Thank you for donating this morning. It’s fabulous to have your support. We really appreciate the money that you have given to KDVS to keep it going and keep it running in the, you know, freeform, independent way that it runs.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: We are out of time.

Justin: And it’s…

Kirsten: And I’m sure the next DJ…

Justin: We were a little bit…

Kirsten: …is chomping at the back.

Justin: Yeah. We were a little short this year. So what I’m going to- I think I’m going to have to take the money and go up to Tahoe. I have a system.

Kirsten: You have system.

Justin: I got a system. I think I can turn this into – I think I can work it up to $2,000.

Kirsten: I’m not trusting you.

Justin: I don’t know, (which is it).

Kirsten: On next week’s show, we’re going to be speaking with Physicist and Science Communicator Michio Kaku about the Physics of the Impossible.

Justin: Awesome!

Kirsten: Yeah, so exciting. This is what we bring you on This Week In Science. So continue to donate. Call 877-399-KDVS. Or go to to donate now.

Thanks for listening. If you want any information, we’re going to put show notes up on our website at You can email us at ,

Justin: Put TWIS in the Subject or it will get SPAM filtered.

Kirsten: That’s right. We’ll be back here next Tuesday and don’t forget that you can continue to donate even after we’re done here.

Justin: Yes, by going to that gosh, awful, long link which is – no, I’ll post it on our website…

Kirsten: It’s going to be posted on our website…

Justin: …

Kirsten: …, that’s right and you’ll be able to donate all the week and after. The website will be up and you can continue to donate.

Justin: And remember that 2009 CD is part of this. We got request all year long for the CDs but we’re usually done pretty quick after the fundraiser because it’ll get eaten up.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: So, yes, donate. Call in. If you’ve learned anything from today’s show remember…

Kirsten: It’s all in your head.

Tags: KDVS, astrobiology, biology, chemistry, cognitive science, conservationism, ecology, emergent behavior, end of the world, endangered animals, energy, evolution, geology, global warming, medicine, microbiology, neuroscience, podcast, science, science and politics


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