Justin: Good morning Kirsten.
Kirsten: Good morning Justin. We are back. It’s This Week in Science. It’s Tuesday morning, second week of October.
Justin: In the year of the 2007.
Kirsten: Yeah, the year of the 2007. What is that in the Chinese calendar? I don’t know. Three thousand, four thousand.
Justin: A cat, mouse, elephant.
Kirsten: Rat, something.
Kirsten: Yeah. Anyway, what a week. Last week, we didn’t get to share any stories with you. So, this week, I’ve brought everything that I had last week plus everything that I’ve got this week.
Kirsten: Oh, my goodness. We’ve got a lot science ahead. New pain killer using hot peppers. Well, I’m teasing a little bit.
Justin: I know that one. That’s ancient history.
Kirsten: Well, I don’t know about that.
Justin: Pain threshold changed by eating lots of hot peppers.
Justin: Now, it’s different.
Kirsten: Totally, totally new and different.
Kirsten: Totally new and different. You have no idea what I’m talking about and I love it. That’s my favorite.
Justin: It’s not that hard, is it?
Kirsten: That’s no good on you.
Justin: Really, you’re patting yourself on the back, Kirsten. But I don’t know. That’s really an accomplishment.
Kirsten: That was ours.
Justin: So, here’s the thing, we’ve got…
Kirsten: That’s cool.
Justin: …we do have lots and lots of stories. I did bring some extra stuff. I keep wanting to read a passage out of a book of a guest that we’re going to have in a little while. But I keep thinking I should wait until that guest is actually going to be on that day because that would be more soon. I’m going to hold off on that one.
Kirsten: You’re going to hold off on that one?
Kirsten: What else do we have? I also have a story about the appendix. I bet you always wanted to know what the appendix is for.
Justin: Yes, I have the story. That’s my favorite story. Lots of other stuff is going on in the world but I like the fact that the appendix now has a definable function in the human body.
Kirsten: Well, it’s still theoretical. Still very theoretical…
Justin: It’s definable though.
Kirsten: …but it’s a good idea.
Kirsten: Some great stuff on new plastic, strong as steel and relativity could have been defined without Einstein hundreds of years ago. It’s very true. So let’s get started, right? We’ve got Mike Stebbins at the top of the hour and I’ve got three TWIStributors for the second half.
We’ve got people who’ve been submitting real and made-up, fun…
Justin: Oh, good.
Kirsten: …of science. Yes. So, we’ve got both, good and – it runs the gamut from serious to, you know, kind of making fun and about real stories and then completely made up story.
So, we’ve got a lot of good TWIStributions in the second half.
If you’d like to join us here in the first half hour, 530-752-2777 is our phone number. And our website is www.thisweekinscience.com, twis.org for those of you who don’t like typing that much.
And the forums are there. You can talk about any of the stories that we bring up today.
Justin: So, if you’ve been a listener to the show for any period of time…
Justin: …you know that the human intestines is made up of a huge population of beneficial bacteria. They allow us to basically digest most of the food that we eat. And they break down the things into the better compounds, stuff that we can use.
Without them, we couldn’t break down sugar for instance. We require bacteria in our gut to help us break down sugar so we can actually use it, very, very positive.
What I didn’t know is that when you have a bad case of the diarrhea, that you actually remove from your intestines almost all the bacteria, I mean it really is…
Kirsten: Well, water is basically flushing out of you.
Justin: Carries it all out, yeah.
Kirsten: And carrying everything out and so, yeah.
Justin: It’s like you put a hose down one end and just flush the system through.
Kirsten: Exactly! And it’s not a good thing for you and the digestion, no.
Justin: No, because along with it, all your beneficial bacteria exits. So, how is it that body is able to re-grow or rebuild that population so that the next couple of days you’re digesting food properly again?
Well, there’s a theory.
Kirsten: Yes, there is a theory and it’s kind of exciting. It was published by some doctors from Duke University Medical School in the Journal of Theoretical Biology.
So, I’m going to emphasize the point that this is theory and they haven’t actually, you know, the tests – there’s not really much of a way. They haven’t done a lot of tests.
Justin: Are you emphasizing that it’s hypothesis?
Kirsten: It’s a hypothesis. It’s theoretical, theoretical.
Justin: But it makes sense. There’s a correlation.
Kirsten: It does make sense. Yes.
Justin: And what is – the correction is?
Kirsten: The correlation is that the appendix is actually a little store house for your good bacteria. And that it holds bacteria in there, allows them to breed and be happy and when – it provides a nice, safe environment for them so that when negative experiences within the gut occurs such as diarrhea, flushing of the system, you can have population that can get out and repopulate the gut without you having to take the time or as much time as it would take to eat food.
Justin: It’s safe house.
Kirsten: Yeah, it’s a safe house, a bacterial safe house in your digestive system.
Justin: And I know nature came up with this a really long time ago. And so, I can’t really take credit for it. But I do recall (Pasteur), in fact, like maybe we should either add an organ to the human body, that created beneficial bacteria or maybe we’ve even talked about revamping the appendix for that very purpose since it was sitting there doing nothing.
Justin: It turns out nature is way ahead of me.
Kirsten: They already did it. And the researchers also suggest that the tonsils – or a different researcher, I don’t know – a different researcher is wondering about another part of the body, the tonsils, that also often gets inflamed and taken out.
It’s a different research and not the ones involved in the study. But he thinks the same thing.
Justin: Preserving the strep.
Kirsten: Right, the streptococci.
Justin: Very important.
Justin: Safe harbor for that.
Kirsten: Yeah, but…
Justin: I’m actually kind of laughing at the back of your page. I can see your printer malfunction. It looks like a…
Kirsten: Oh, yeah. I went through printer malfunction yesterday.
Justin: The tiniest print – I don’t even think my printer goes that small. It’s this page that takes up the size of about a half a tissue.
Kirsten: About a quarter, yeah.
Kirsten: Yeah. It’s like a quarter size of normal – I got a new printer and I tried…
Justin: That’s hilarious.
Kirsten: …to print my stories. And yeah, I went through some trouble shooting to get it to normal size.
Justin: But you actually did it. You’ve figured out. You know what side your paper is going to print on?
Justin: So, the misprint you can actually somehow flip that paper, put it back in your printer…
Kirsten: Yeah, got it.
Justin: …and use the other. I can’t do that. No matter how many times I put it back in and think I finally figured out. It’s a 50/50 chance every time but I think myself into 100% wrong every time I end up printing over the printing.
Kirsten: Somehow, you know, women are supposed to be bad at like turning objects in three dimensions and not getting – I’m good at that. I can do that, no problem.
Justin: You got that down. Me, I just – it’s every time I’m printing over the misprinting from before and then I have a double misprint. And if I try the third time and really concentrate, then it’s a third printing over the double printing.
Kirsten: Yeah. If anyone out there is on twitter.com, it’s this way you can keep track of people. I twitter. And I twittered about my printer trouble shooting yesterday.
Kirsten: So, if anyone out there is interested in finding out about the things in my life on a daily basis that I go through, twitter.com, look for Dr. Kiki and that will be me. You can find out all about my cat malfunctions and my printer malfunctions and all that kind of stuff.
The really cool thing about this is that the appendix though even though it does seem to have this beneficial function in our gut — going back to the story — it can be taken out without any negative effects so that even if you have your appendix removed, it’s not going to affect you negatively during the rest of your life.
Justin: Oh, maybe. But now we can look at that.
Kirsten: People can survive. So many people.
Justin: Oh, no they don’t. People don’t drop dead.
Kirsten: People survive all the time without their appendix.
Justin: People don’t drop dead but maybe there’s a correlation, maybe there’s gastrointestinal problems with those people that hasn’t been correlated to the appendix yet because they thought it was useless and nobody looked at it.
Kirsten: Because nobody has really been looking for it.
Justin: And now it’s a whole new thing that’s opened up (unintelligible).
Kirsten: A whole new thing.
Justin: Speaking about websites you should go to – actually, I don’t know what the website is because it was really long and it has to be like (semicolon backslash) more words.
Justin: So here, go do this. Go Google “NASA sightings”. Just put that into your Google browser, whatever type of – it doesn’t have to be Google whatever your Google browser is though. I don’t know anything else. I’ve been conditioned.
Kirsten: Whatever it is. Yeah, you know, I get mad.
Justin: Put in “NASA sightings” and what it is it will track the space station.
Kirsten: Yeah. That was fun.
Justin: The international space station because it flies around the world every 90 minutes or something.
Justin: And because it takes a sort of strange – it’s not always over our head. We can’t always see it. But there are certain times each month, you know, three, four five, six really good sightings usually a month at night when you can look up and see the international space station…
Kirsten: Zooming overhead.
Justin: … zooming across the sky.
Kirsten: Yeah. Justin, you called me over the weekend and, “Go outside in about two minutes” and I was like, “All right” running outside, tripped over something in my driveway, twisted my ankle, got out to the street and like, “There, you see it?”
And I was looking up at the sky and I just saw this glint, this obvious – something reflecting off of something very shiny. And I was like, “That’s an airplane. That’s got to be an airplane.” But the longer you look at it, you realize it’s going too fast…
Justin: Way too high.
Kirsten: …and it’s way too high.
Justin: Two hundred miles up there.
Kirsten: Yeah. It was really neat.
Justin: Yeah, it was…
Kirsten: The idea that it’s so big I mean you have this idea of, “Oh, the international space station” but what does that really mean?
Justin: Well, it’s the size of like a three-storey building or something I mean it’s pretty big.
Justin: It’s actually a pretty large thing we’ve put together up there.
Kirsten: It’s amazing.
Justin: And what’s cool today, it’s very visible like the first time I saw it, it was a guy at work, (Carl) who said, “Okay, in, you know, ten minutes we got to go outside and watch the space station.” I’m like, “What?” And we’re – I mean I’m in a – right, a car dealership.
Justin: So I’m like, “We’re not going to see anything.” We have more light pollution than you can possibly put on one little area of land and it was totally visible I mean it’s that obvious.
But it’ll give you – if you go to that site, you can print out – you can put in your town, where you’re at and it will give you a schedule for the rest of the month where you’ll see it, how many degrees, how long the duration will be, where to look in the sky — all that stuff. It’s pretty cool.
Kirsten: That’s really neat. I love it.
Justin: And you can have party space around it.
Kirsten: Space station parties.
Justin: So you can go – get together, do a lot of the, you know, socializing and drinking or whatever you do when you have one.
Kirsten: And then everybody look up.
Justin: Everybody look up. All right. Four minutes of, “Oh, look. That’s okay” and then, “Night. Good night everybody.”
But now the cool thing is if you time it, if you get lucky and you’re tracking this properly, you can actually also not just see the space station but you can see the shuttle as it’s either trying to catch up with it to dock or escaping because that’s actually the guy at work.
You’ve seen that one. So you’ve seen…
Kirsten: Yeah, the shuttle come up to it.
Justin: …the station cruising across the sky with the smaller blip of the space shuttle slowly catching up to it.
Kirsten: It’s so neat.
Kirsten: Well, you know, everything is relative up there. They don’t feel like they’re going quite as fast maybe as when we look up at them. Who knows? But it’s all relative, right?
Justin: Yeah, isn’t it?
Kirsten: Yeah. It’s all relative.
And it was Einstein who developed the theories of special and general relativity. However, people since then have been working on the math and there’s a new study out in the European Journal of Physics called “Nothing But Relativity” by a researcher named Joel Gannett. And he is a senior scientist in the Applied Research Area of Telcordia Technologies in Red Bank, New Jersey.
And he has worked on this mathematical problem to figure out whether or not relativity could have been discovered mathematically before Einstein used calculus to figure it out.
And it turns out that you don’t need calculus and any high schooler who knew the correct assumptions which would be about the same level of math as scientists, you know, hundreds of years ago – that they were using – what maybe Galileo during the 17th century actually did come across relativity in his calculations but it wouldn’t have made any sense…
Justin: Right. Because it wasn’t…
Kirsten: …at the time.
Justin: …it wasn’t just – you can’t just have the mathematics in a vacuum and have things make sense.
Justin: You need the paradigm shifts which once we start getting rid of the ideas of absolute space and ether. That’s kind of freed up the thinking that Einstein followed to come up with relativity, although Einstein went back to ether towards the end of his life.
Kirsten: Right. I think it’s fascinating that since the time of Einstein, people are able to go backwards. And there’s this rule of simplicity, Occam’s razor. There’s always a simpler solution.
And it’s so neat to me that people have continued to work at this problem to figure out whether or not relativity could be described in a simpler manner and it has. The math that they’re using is I think using algebra, linear homogenous functions which is a matrix algebra, and to be able to connect coordinate frames from two reference points.
And what he uses is the assumption of reciprocity as what he calls it. And reciprocity is basically if I’m moving away from you at 30 miles an hour. And you’re still standing still then, to me, you look like you’re moving at 30 miles an hour.
Kirsten: And to you, I look like I’m moving at 30 miles an hour approximately. So, there’s this reciprocity in the middle of it.
And so, because of that, he was able to do transformations that describe relativity without calculus. It’s totally cool.
Justin: So, it’s kind of also like a technology gap, like we didn’t need this advance mathematics to figure it out.
Justin: It’s one of the things that always puzzled me is like how come we had gone up in to space, put satellites in there, fired television at the satellite back down to Earth before anybody came up with the idea of cable, like just run it down a tube to everybody’s house and that way everybody – no, the only way they did it before we had cable TV, we were throwing stuff…
Kirsten: Radio signals. It’s radio signals.
Justin: Yeah, yeah, yeah but we were throwing stuff up at the satellite and bouncing it back down to Earth and catching it in a dish. That’s…
Justin: …you know, kind of a technology gap when you get ahead of yourself a little bit.
Kirsten: Well, I think that happens. Sometimes you got to do it, you figure it out, you got to do it…
Justin: Yeah, yeah.
Kirsten: …and sometimes it’s more complex. But then, once you know what the answer is and how it works, then you can kind of work backwards and you go, “Hey, we can do it a little more simpler.”
Justin: Fill in some technology.
Justin: So what else is going on? Speaking of space and we also spoke of bacteria, here’s a…
Kirsten: Oh, dear.
Kirsten: The (ferial) into bacteria from outer space?
Justin: This is really kind of cool. It’s…
Kirsten: It’s totally cool.
Justin: You know, because we’re talking before we might be going to Mars soon, right? Well, if you go to Mars don’t eat the chicken because they sent some salmonella up in the space and let it hang out there for a while, brought it back down to Earth.
And it took a third less — wait hang on — yeah, third less of the space germ, the salmonella gone up into space and back to kill mice than it did previously.
Kirsten: And they died faster.
Kirsten: So, it made the…
Justin: Died quick.
Kirsten: …it made the salmonella extremely virulent. What they’re thinking is that it has to do with like the stress that these bacteria feel from not being in their normal environment, just up regulated a bunch of these things and said, “I’m not going to die.”
Justin: I’m not going down.
Kirsten: “I’m not going down, I’m going to take you with me.”
Justin: This is stuff that I don’t know. I don’t know half of what I think I do in this planet. But researchers found that 167 genes had changed in the salmonella that went to space.
Kirsten: Really, that’s a lot.
Justin: Huh? Genetic alterations from zero grav on salmonella? There’s something very interesting and strange there that kind of frightens me now.
Kirsten: Right. So, it’s the actual genes that changed not just expression.
Justin: I’m only reading what is written by an AP science writer, Randolph E. Schmid. I think he calls it “Germs taken to space come back deadlier” is maybe the title the…
Justin: That’s what it says.
Kirsten: Actually, I know…
Justin: And I believe him because he is a good writer.
Kirsten: I didn’t bring the study with me but I read it but I’m not remembering that specific detail whether or not it was the genes or not.
Justin: Researchers found 167 genes that had changed in the salmonella.
Kirsten: Genes that had changed. Well, I hope he is being accurate. That’s crazy.
Justin: And they don’t know why. Scientists don’t know why. What does that mean?
Kirsten: But they’re all related. They’re all related to the virulence though and like most of them are. Crazy.
Justin: So, maybe we should be quarantining our astronauts a little harder.
Kirsten: When they come back.
Kirsten: It’s a good thing to think about.
Justin: You know? Maybe we shouldn’t let them back into society at all. It might be, you know, if they come back with…
Kirsten: I don’t know about that one.
Justin: …more killing power.
Kirsten: How about strong as steel?
Kirsten: But it’s plastic.
Kirsten: Yeah. Researchers…
Justin: Wow! Really? This could be the biggest thing then because…
Kirsten: Yup. Published in Science by engineers from University of Minnesota? Massachusetts? U of M, University of Michigan. There we go, U of M.
Engineers from University of Michigan have created a nanosheet polymer mixture that is as strong as steel and totally transparent. They used…
Justin: Trans – wait, what?
Kirsten: It’s transparent like plastic wrap, yeah.
Justin: Wait, wait, wait. You know what this is. This is the Star Trek movie when they returned to Earth and they’re like, “Oh, what? You don’t have see-through metal yet? Here, let me show you how to make it.”
Kirsten: Oh, exactly.
Kirsten: Yeah. So, the problem to date is that nanomaterials, nanotubes, nanosheets –they haven’t been able to transfer the strength of these nanomaterials to larger structures. So, when they put nanotubes together, it’s not like the strength of one nanotube gets multiplied by the strength of all the nanotubes together. It’s actually a pretty brittle and not very strong structure.
But these researchers at University of Michigan have mixed their nanosheets with a polymer which is like a glue. And they’re laying it down layer by layer and it just gets painted down.
And 300 layers of this nanosheet polymer mixture is about the thickness of a piece of plastic wrap.
Kirsten: Yeah. But the structure for something of that size is…
Kirsten: Yeah, the strength is incredibly intense and strong. So, it will be neat to see what they are able to actually build up. It’s kind of like a brick-and-mortar system so that the layers are kind of offset from one another the way that bricks are in a brick wall and there’s the glue between them that adds a bit of flexibility and also maintains the strength of the structure.
So, I don’t know. I think it’s going to be very neat if they can develop on this idea. And we’ll see what kind of things come out of it.
Kirsten: What they are able to actually build – is this like the sheet going to be like some kind of a wrapping or some kind of, you know, something that goes over things? Is it going to be by itself as a thin, strong sheet? How are they going to use it? What are they going to do with the material? That will be very cool.
Yeah. We’ll have buildings that their walls are as thin as plastic wrap.
Justin: That had to be great. And then you can hear your neighbors like talking in their sleep because…
Kirsten: Oh, that would be one negative.
Justin: … of sound qualities.
Kirsten: That would be a drawback.
Justin: All right. One thing we haven’t talked about for a while is the global warming-ness, the climatia of the planet.
Kirsten: Oh, we have not talked about climatia for a while. I’m excited though.
Justin: The (climitosis) of planet Earth.
Kirsten: We just got a book in the mail — I’m very excited — from the International Panel on Climate Congress. It’s the IPCC. They have this textbook basically, it’s the physical science behind global warming.
Justin: So we finally get our talking points…
Kirsten: I just got my talking points.
Justin: …two years in.
Kirsten: I know.
Justin: Oh, great.
Kirsten: Fine. I’m excited. I’m going to sit down and read that book this weekend.
Justin: Wow. Well, when Roald Amundsen began his first successful navigation of the Northwest Passage through the straits of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago basically, if you went from like New York to Alaska over Canada.
Justin: It took a hardy group of sailing folk two and a half years leapfrogging through narrow passages of open water, ships getting locked in the frozen ice, spent two cold, dark winters out there on the ice, which must have been fun.
Now, at the end of year 2007, standard ocean-going vessel sails smoothly through. It’s open to…
Kirsten: I know. The Northwest Passage is open for the first time in…
Justin: …brand new shipping route between New York and Japan…
Justin: …foretelling the end of the world and the (degrees). Arctic sea ice starting in the 2007 melt season plummeted to the lowest level since satellite measurements began in 1979…
Justin: …according to researchers at Colorado – at Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center. The average sea ice extent for the month of September was 1.65 million square miles, the lowest on record, shattering previous records for the month by 23% which was only set in 2005.
So, here’s the thing, people. We’re going to hell in a hand basket with the whole climate thing.
Justin: What do you mean, no?
Kirsten: I mean it’s changing but we’re an adaptable species.
Justin: Oh, we can adapt, blah, blah, blah.
Kirsten: But at the same time, we just need to like get to work on trying to survive, right?
Justin: It’s not about temperature though. That’s the thing. It’s not going to just be warmer everywhere. That’s not the…
Kirsten: Are you worried about the rise in the water?
Justin: No. I’m not even worried about that. I live in a giant valley that could well, become underwater. But I’m sure we’ll figure out a dike system or something.
And that’s not it. It’s not the water. It’s going to be when the weather changes…
Justin: …so that we are now living on a completely different planet as far as climate is concerned, then nothing goes the way it does. There isn’t – your four seasons? They stop necessarily coming when you think they are and they don’t necessarily have the intensity or have any of the attributes.
Kirsten: I know.
Justin: Plants stop growing because they don’t know what’s going on. Bugs start disappearing off the planet because their feeding and breeding seasons are all (done).
Justin: It’s like a domino effect that once the thing gets started, I think it’s pretty much downhill.
Kirsten: Well, there is, I mean downhill for people maybe. I mean it’s not the end of the world. The world is going to go on.
Justin: Who stops sports?
Kirsten: There will be new species that will make their way out of it. Some species will survive, some species won’t. It’s just the way of the planet and life. And if we’re going to go along this route that we’ve tracked out for ourselves, we might as well…
Justin: Tracked out?
Kirsten: Yeah, we’ve given ourselves these…
Justin: And blindly plunge into?
Kirsten: Yeah. Yeah. If we’re going to go down this route, then we might as well – well, we’re going to go extinct whatever. The planet will survive without us.
Justin: The planet I’m not worried about. It’s me. It’s the people.
Kirsten: Researchers at Georgia Tech University are trying to find out about climate change using stalagmites from caves throughout the Pacific.
Justin: That’s smart. Hide in the cave, you might last longer. You got to…
Kirsten: Instead of using ice cores, they’re using stalagmites because they’re formed over years and years and years and they have a great historical record.
Justin: Good morning TWIS minion, you’re on the air with This Week in Science.
Caller: Good morning. Well, if all the creatures are going extinct, I saw (now) a Bill Moyers Special on PBS…
Caller: …a few months ago. E.O. Wilson who was planning on doing an online encyclopedia of all…
Caller: …the living species. And I think only like a quarter of all species are known to be registered.
Caller: And yeah. So that’s pretty crazy. But I wanted to call you guys a few weeks ago and petition you guys for the MacArthur Award – and maybe that will help save the world.
Kirsten: No, we’ll take it.
Caller: Yeah, excellent. You guys keep on doing some good work. It’s great listening to you.
Justin: Thank you.
Kirsten: Thank you.
Thanks for calling. Yeah, the encyclopedia of organisms is going to be amazing. But like he said, we still don’t even know all the species that are on this planet that are going to go extinct.
Although the majority of species are microbes and from their insects, so there are a lot of…
Justin: Where is my bacteria survival (unintelligible)?
Kirsten: …things that are just so small that they are hard to see but they form the basis of everything.
Justin: The thing is, if you know me, I am one of the most optimistic people on this planet. And if I’m getting to the point where I’m like, “There’s nothing we can do. We’re all going to die” then that kind of means maybe people should be scared because I don’t scare easy. I don’t care easy even. And now, I’m kind of like, “Wow! It’s done. We’ve broken it.”
Kirsten: No, I don’t think we’ve broken it. I think…
Justin: We broke the planet. Hey!
Kirsten: How about some optimism on the front of people are creating new technologies, a lot of people are starting to run with the renewables and there is the possibility that we are going to create a bright new future for ourselves?
Justin: No, we are. We are.
Kirsten: And so, like we’re turning to new…
Justin: We’re turning all of our ag land into fuel land so that we’re going to compete against…
Kirsten: No, we’re not.
Justin: …ourselves for food. So then, what’s more profitable? Producing gasoline equivalent on your farmland or feeding people? So, so what if we’re paying more for milk than we pay for gasoline now? So what? Who cares? We can’t afford to eat? At least we’ll still be able to drive cheaply.
Kirsten: Okay, that’s enough. I’m done with it. I’m done with this conversation. It’s time for us to take a break. You’re listening to this…
Justin: Smoke them if you got them everybody.
Kirsten: You’re listening to This Week in Science. We’ll be back in just a few moments with Dr. Michael Stebbins.
Kirsten: We want the money. Yup, This Week in Science is looking for sponsors and advertisers. If you’re trying to reach a new audience, sell a product or support a good cause contact me, Kirsten, at thisweekinscience.com for information.
Justin: Kirsten via New York for the last time.
Kirsten: Right. This is the last phone call from New York City. I’ll be back in Little Davis yet again, full of culture shock maybe Tuesday. In the meantime, I’ve got lots of New York science going on.
Kirsten: And we are back, it’s This Week in Science. We have…
Justin: On the phone, on the line from Washington, Dr. Michael Stebbins. Good morning, Michael. Welcome to This Week in Science.
Michael: Good morning. How are you guys?
Justin: Doing good.
Kirsten: Great! How are you?
Michael: Doing fabulous.
Kirsten: How is Washington?
Michael: Weird as usual.
Michael: But warm.
Kirsten: Yeah, which is weird, right, or no?
Michael: Yeah. It’s a little strange at this time of year. Yesterday it was up in the 80s so it’s pretty crazy.
Kirsten: I think everyone’s got the Indian summer going on right now.
Michael: Mm hmm. (Not bad.)
Kirsten: It’s all good. I’ll take it. I’ll take it.
Michael: Yes, indeed.
Kirsten: So, give it to us.
Michael: So, there’s a whole bunch of stuff going on. But last week was the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik…
Michael: …which of course, none of us remember. But…
Justin: Never heard of it.
Michael: But people who are a little older than us actually say that was really cool. Anyhow, so to commemorate the occasion, Hilary Clinton, Senator Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for president, gave a speech outlining her stance on science issues.
Now, this was an extraordinary speech and it’s detailed. It’s probably the most detailed plan that we’ve seen for dealing with a lot of the science issues that we face and we’ve talked about here for quite some time.
And she started off saying, for six and a half years under this president, it’s been open season on open inquiry. She talked about establishing a $50 billion strategic energy fund and the development of NASA satellites to observe the Earth because what we’re going to see is actually a drop by 35% of the satellite that can actually observe global warming and these sorts of things…
Kirsten: Right. They’re starting to age.
Michael: …by 2010.
Justin: Sort of…
Kirsten: They’re starting to age and they’re getting ready to like let them deteriorate in their orbits, yeah.
Justin: Right, because the idea is as long as I don’t look at myself in the mirror, I’m still looking good.
Michael: I don’t know if you need a satellite for that I mean…
Kirsten: I’m pretty. I’m still pretty. I’m still pretty.
Michael: I’m still pretty. I’m a pretty, pretty princess.
Kirsten: That’s right.
Michael: So, what…
Justin: Let me use that as a sound bite in our promo, just going to take that out. And Michael Stebbins, “I’m a pretty, pretty princess.” Oh, anyway, that’s the future but yea.
Michael: Over and over and over again.
Michael: But the most interesting part of it was that she said that once she becomes president, that she’s going to sign an executive order that one, resumes President Bush’s ban on embryonic stem cell research.
Michael: Then, political appointees from altering or removing scientific conclusions in government publications.
Michael: Directs all department and agency heads to submit annual reports from the steps they’ve taken to safeguard against political pressure and threatening scientific integrity.
Justin: That was…
Michael: Reverses President Bush’s directive that dramatically extends the political appointees control over agency rule making.
Justin: About time.
Michael: Revives and expands the national assessment on climate change, which we have not seen once since this president took office, which is actually something that Congress said that they have to do. They just haven’t been following that law.
Justin: Bring it on.
Michael: And then, in addition, she’s going to restore the science adviser’s direct access to the president…
Michael: …which was cut off immediately in this administration. So, she’s going to have a science adviser that reports directly to her. She’s going to…
Kirsten: Well, what is it since Nixon or something that there hasn’t been like a science position on the cabinet?
Michael: Well, there’s been a couple of different changes in it.
Michael: But this one she’s going to bring right back.
Michael: I mean so Clinton had science advisers that reported directly to him but it wasn’t officially that way.
Michael: There’s a couple of different ways that it was twisted. But this is a real important step.
Kirsten: It’s huge.
Michael: She’s going to fully fund and staff the office of Science and Technology Policy for the White House. She’s going to work with Congress to reestablish the Office of Technology Assessment.
Michael: She’s going to protect the integrity and independence of federal science advisory committees, which we’ve reported quite a number of times have been politicized. And she’s going to strengthen whistle blower protections for those who will potentially disclose instances of political interference with science.
So that’s incredibly detailed, incredibly progressive and really gets to the heart of a lot of the problems that people have had with this administration.
Michael: So, after she gave that speech, I started trolling around some of the other candidates’ websites just to see what their stances on science issues were. And what we find is that a lot of them have stances on energy and some of them are very detailed. Edwards and Obama have very detailed energy plans on their websites.
Michael: But the only other one that makes any statement about eliminating political interference in science is Edwards who is going to protect the integrity of government science by prohibiting political appointees from overriding agencies’ scientific findings and eliminate political litmus test for government scientists.
Kirsten: Okay. Well, that’s good.
Michael: And of course, he’s going to – he said he was going to reverse the demolition of the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and restore that office to a central role…
Michael: …in assistance to the president so same thing. But when I went to some of the other sites, what is remarkable was a lot of the Republican sites really had almost nothing on science policy. And when they did, it was usually relating to energy and was very vague.
Of course, almost all of them have their stance on gay marriage and the second amendment. But it was remarkable in not a single one had a detailed energy plan up there that really got at the heart of the global warming issue.
Justin: Well, to be fair Michael, it’s been the lack of gay marriage in this country that has made this country strong and not science or technology.
Michael: No, of course not. Yeah, it’s the lack of gay marriage that’s responsible for more than half of the new positions in the last century so.
Kirsten: Yeah. I think it’s really good to hear that the, you know, on the Democratic side there are at least two potential candidates who are talking about it, you know, in more than a cursory manner. It’s kind of sad to see that the Republican party has not picked it up.
Kirsten: You know, have you looked all at any other, I mean more of the Independents or any Independents have anything?
Michael: No, I haven’t. I actually just looked at frontrunners for Republicans and Democrats. And it really was remarkable how little they were on almost all issues for the Republican’s side.
And the Democrats really to their credit are putting quite a bit up there. Now, we’ll see what happens with those plans and whether, you know, Romney and Giuliani and Thompson are going to actually put up a more…
Michael: …detailed plan for dealing with a lot of the issues that we’re facing.
Michael: But as of right now, they don’t have anything up. So, we’re left to wonder if they’re going to continue a lot of the policies that we’ve had in this administration or not. So.
Kirsten: Right. Priority is priority.
Kirsten: Different people with different priorities and what they see as problems and not problems so…
Michael: Well, for sure that war in Iraq is taking a central role on all of their…
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Michael: …websites and…
Michael: …on all of their positions. So…
Michael: …you know, these are secondary issues for a lot of them.
Michael: But global warming for example is certainly going to be a top issue for any incoming president. So…
Kirsten: If you believe in that.
Michael: Let me give you the really, really, really weird from Washington now. This one’s for you, Justin.
Michael: Washington Post had a story that discusses reports of small dragonfly-like machines hovering over crowds at political events and protests over the past couple of years…
Michael: …including three independent reports of three – of small spheres tailing these dragonfly like objects as they hovered over the crowd and reports of them flying in formation — something that dragonflies never do.
So, most experts (simply) that we have any technology that could actually create such an observation machine.
Kirsten: Sure we do.
Michael: But the participants probably saw the dragonflies. But to my knowledge, none of those people who actually reported the sightings had their blood alcohol level checked either.
Justin: Blood alcohol or any other tests done because…
Justin: …I’ve, you know, if you’ve ever been to one of these protests, everybody starts out there early in the morning with the coffee and the thing. And as the day draws on and people start to get a little bored, it becomes this little smoky haze that begins to settle over the crowd after a while.
Justin: And sure lots of things become visible that weren’t just under the influence of coffee early in the morning.
Michael: Indeed. But this one was fascinating because there were lots of independent reports of it and the Washington Post took it seriously. So…
Michael: …it was just really quite funny. So…
Kirsten: Well, if you have something that is, you know, you get enough independent reports of it…
Kirsten: …you know, over, you know, several different protests. You know, why on Earth would dragonflies be hanging out at protests? It doesn’t make sense.
Michael: Indeed. And you know, I mean…
Kirsten: It’s a correlation. We’ll see.
Michael: …the Washington Post is allowed to be interested in the weird Washington as well so.
Justin: It’s a little freaky.
Michael: Now, two weeks ago at the UN, dozens of world leaders got together to discuss creating a roadmap for reducing greenhouse gas emissions after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.
And the US president managed to miss that meeting but made up for it with a speech a few days later where he pushed for voluntary reductions in emissions again. The US is responsible for about 25% of the world’s CO2 output. So, again calling for the voluntary emissions is rather, you know, it’s rather thick-headed. It’s sticking to the old policy which is really not working.
And this is all in the backdrop of the administration now taking credit for the successes of environmental policies that they actually opposed. And those programs include gas mileage standards for vehicles, efficiency standards for home appliances and state laws requiring utilities to increase their use of renewable energy sources.
So, in many cases, the administration has actively fought against the implementation of these programs and now they’re actually turning around and touting them as their successes so.
Kirsten: Wouldn’t you though?
Kirsten: If you’re like, “Oh, that worked? Didn’t we do a good job there? Good job team.”
Michael: Yup. Yup. Currently, there’s…
Justin: It was our lack of dedication in destroying that policy that allowed it to exist.
Michael: Exactly. You know, because we were not efficient in destroying that policy, we’ve had the success.
Now at the G8 Summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed that countries adopt the 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, but had to settle for caramelized language after President Bush made it clear that the United States would not agree to it.
And earlier this month, Bush also convinced leaders of the Asia-Pacific – actually it was last month, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation to agree to a long-term aspirational goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions instead of any binding targets.
So the good news there because I always like giving you a little good news…
Kirsten: Aspirational goal, I know.
Michael: I know, aspirational goal.
Justin: Good news is we have 18 months more of this and then never again?
Michael: Well, I don’t know about never again. These things seem to be cyclical but…
Michael: …you know, but there’s some good news though in that there is currently a bill in front of Congress which is to increase fuel economy standards by 235 miles a gallon – we’ve talked about that once before, and a 15% renewable electricity standard which could cut greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 20% by 2030.
That bill is currently being held by Senator Domenici who actually announced last week that he was not going to run for office again. He’s going to be retiring. He is from New Mexico. And there are some rumblings that Mr. Richardson, the current governor, will be running for his senate seat.
So that will be kind of interesting. But that bill is being held. Senator Joe Lieberman though and John Warner of Virginia are putting together a bill with a market-based approach to reducing emissions by 70% by 2050.
Michael: Yup. That bill…
Kirsten: That’s substantial.
Michael: That’s going to be introduced coming up this week. And it’s already got some tentative support from members who have previously been opposed to measures mandating carbon limits.
The question is is there going to be a senator who is going to put a hold on this bill, sort of like what we saw with the genetic information on discrimination act which is being held at the desk and it will not come to a vote because of that.
So, that’s Senator Coburn’s interesting little take on civil rights.
Michael: So, do we have time for another quick one?
Kirsten: A quick one. A quick one, yeah.
Michael: Okay, quick one.
Kirsten: Quick one.
Michael: Okay. The Lancet just published two papers that have drawn fire not because of the content of the papers but because of the UN’s decision to undercut the finding of those papers before they were published.
So, in one example, scientists reported the effectiveness of programs to distributed insecticide-treated bed netting. They were scooped by the WHO’s announcement that the study ends the debate about how – deliver long and lasting insecticidal nets and how they work and how well they work.
However, the WHO statement did not mention any of the caution that the scientists have urged in paper and broke a promise with those scientists that they not reveal the results.
This is on a backdrop of a second report which detailed disappointing progress in the efforts to reduce childhood mortality worldwide.
Now, that was interesting because UNICEF which normally puts out its world children’s report which details the child mortality rate, they actually took this little bit of information and put it out before the publication of a paper that said – that was critical of the progress.
When the journal editors actually asked them about it and told them that this paper was going to come out, they actually sort of undercut the entire thing. Now, The Lancet put out an editorial on this and said that the UN was playing fast and loose with scientific findings in order to further their institutional interests.
Further, they said that the UN was appearing to manipulate science, breach trust, resist competition and reject accountability.
Michael: So, that’s really strong statement from The Lancet who seems, you know, the editors I guess are pretty peeved that two of the papers that were coming out in that journal…
Kirsten: Got scooped.
Michael: … seemed to be undercut by agencies within the UN, you know, making statements to the public beforehand and before the press had a chance to really receive scientific findings themselves so…
Kirsten: And if a paper is coming out also, there is always the possibility before it gets published that, you know, reviews of it or different things will come out that, you know, the paper shouldn’t get published or something about that, you know.
Kirsten: So that’s why you wait until something is totally in print to actually comment on that.
Michael: Now, they did wait on the second one which, you know, to hear that when the Lancet told them that they were going to publish the paper.
Kirsten: It was going to publish, yeah.
Michael: But then, they undercut the paper by – and just something that was highly unusual by taking – and they did not really send any of their data to the press. They simply said, “Childhood mortality has dropped below 10 million for the first time ever.”
And when there’s a paper that comes out that actually, you know, criticizes some of the efforts and says that, you know, perhaps though if they haven’t been as successful as they could be.
Michael: So, it’s a little bit weird. And certainly, you know, it really doesn’t actually – the UN didn’t have any good explanation for it, UNICEF or WHO. They simply said, “Well, that would have been obstructive because we would have been holding back a major news story.”
Kirsten: Right. And something like is…
Michael: And holding it back for what? The scientific process?
Michael: And the normal process of peer review? Very, very strange.
Kirsten: There is the question also when you come back with the insecticide nets. You know, that is something that’s been used for a while to defend against infections and you know, getting bug bites…
Kirsten: …that cause disease. But the results that it is actually a very effective program, I mean you might want to get that result out sooner rather than later, you know, to help save more lives if more people know that they can use these nets than, you know.
Justin: Yeah, but it’s like the whole circumcision thing. Then it hasn’t been peer reviewed then it goes out there, then they start…
Justin: …buying insecticide-covered nets and then they go, “Oh, well maybe there’s a neurological problem because in (sets) around small children” and then it’s too late. It’s already out there. I don’t know. I think it’s right to go through the process.
Kirsten: It is right to go through the process.
Michael: Did your circumcision cause neurological problems?
Justin: No, it was (tangent) in…
Kirsten: Yes, it did.
Justin: …cross-referencing other – because they’re out there circumcising people with UN and World Health Organization dollars and it’s…
Justin: …just absolute garbage.
Kirsten: All right. Well, that’s…
Justin: But we digress and we’ve got…
Kirsten: We’ve got to move on. You are totally tangent…
Michael: Thank you very much.
Justin: Thank you Dr. Michael Stebbins.
Kirsten: Thank you Dr. Michael Stebbins. We will talk to you in two weeks.
Justin: Author of “Sex, Drugs and DNA” in paperback now.
Kirsten: And we have three TWIStributors today. So, I’m going to get to those right away.
Synaesthesia is a rare condition in which the senses are linked within the brain. Hearing, reading or just thinking about a word can bring on the sensation of a color or even more rarely one of taste.
A word may cause different taste to different people but there are almost always tastes that are established early in life.
Dr. Julia Simner studies synaesthesia. “A large proportion of synaesthetes taste are things like chocolates and candy and fish fingers, say. They’re the kind of things the kids tend to have in their diet as a youngster. What you don’t often see are adult tastes like olives or alcohol or curry — all of these taste experiences that we acquire in later life.”
Dr. Simner has recently done research to establish if it is the sound of the word that triggers the taste sensation or the meaning. To do that, she must put the synaesthete into a tip of tongue state by showing them an uncommon object.
“Tip of tongue is that experience that we all have when you’re grasping for a word but you can’t quite say it. And what we found is that when synaesthetes are in tip of tongue states, they can indeed taste the word before they can say it. So, their experience would be something like, ‘Yes, I’m tasting Dutch chocolate but I don’t know why. Oh, it’s a platypus. Oh, platypus tastes like Dutch chocolate.’”
Of course, it’s not all chocolate and candies. Kids put everything into their mouths and those tastes can stay with them for the rest of their lives.
“Our participant (J.I.W) has an acquaintance called (Derek) and every time he hears (Derek’s) names, his mouth is flooded with sensation of having earwax in it. So, I can’t see that that can make you feel good about bumping into (Derek).”
I wonder what taste goes along with this tag line? For This Week in Science, I’m (Jessica Spalding). Blackberry pie. Science is yummy.
(Ranta Monica) here. I had the good news, bad news day with the science. On one hand, scientists in Utah has discovered a new species of duck-billed dinosaur and we love duck-billed dinos. This one had a big mouth like 800 teeth but he is a veggie so it’s okay.
And then, I find out that science has just (saw) the DNA evidence from 500 year old mummified children that not only were these poor Inca kids sacrificed to the gods, okay, can I just (unintelligible) now that that is not cool, okay? What is wrong with you? But they were fattened up for like months in advance – these peasant kids, I mean not like the rich people had to worry about this happening to their kids, giving corn and meat instead of the usual potatoes.
Apparently corn like Inca caviar or something. Well, that makes it all just fine. There’s only one way I picked up to make this all okay. We have to combine them. We have to get a time machine, we send gryposaurus monumentensis back to the Incas and we have them eat all the corn.
And then, we tell them to cut it out with the whole child sacrifice thing or (Grypy) will it them. Eat them. Eat them. Eat them. Yeah, I know he’s an herbivore. Hey, I’m a vegetarian too. I’d make an exception for a good cause just saying, ranting off.
An infusion of funding in dissolving the problem of global warming came from an unexpected source yesterday as scientists from (Big Smoke Science Foundation) announced a multi-billion dollar research in education campaign intended to “make climate change history.”
Scientists remained skeptical however, pointing out that the funding for (Big Smoke Science) comes from the petroleum and tobacco industries. ‘Well, not directly,” said spokesman (Richard Grubber) when pressed on the matter.
Scientist working for (Big Smoke) reacted strongly to accusations that their source of funding might make the research suspect. According to chief research director, (Larry Nethercleft) who spoke at a public conference yesterday, ‘Where our funding comes from does not affect our science. We want to set the records straight on climate change. Fossil fuels don’t cause global warming, people do.’
According to a series of reports published in the Foundation’s peer reviewed journal (Smoke and Mirrors), global warming whatever its causes is not all bad news. It will result in a global reduction in cancer deaths.
Asked about that report, (Nethercleft) stated that, “Well, the results were preliminary and subject to refinement and statistical correction. They were based on differential mortality rates and demographic trends predicted in various climate models.” Translated into simple terms, that means people who die from famine, drought and flooding can’t very well die of cancer, can they?
(Nethercleft) also announced the institute’s own public education program to alleviate climate change called “Smoking our Way to a Better Future”. The goal is to get everyone on the plant aged 13 to 70 to smoke a “healthy half a pack a day.”
According to (Big Smoke’s) own climate simulations, the resulting cloud of smoke would help cool the planet by reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface just like nuclear winter, only good for you.
I’m (Morgan Sterling) signing out. And remember, fossil fuels don’t cause global warming, people do.
Kirsten: And those…
Justin: Those were all excellent.
Kirsten: Yeah. Those were our TWIStributors for today (Jessica Spalding), (Ranta Monica) and (Morgan Sterling).
Justin: What great TWIStributions for today.
Kirsten: Yup, great, great TWIStributions. Thank you so much. Anyone else who is interested in TWIStributing to TWIS, send me a minute and a half – try make it a minute and a half, no longer.
If it’s amazing and awesome, then maybe I might let you slide. No, a minute and a half wav or mp3 file. And I will listen to it. No vulgarity because we are a public radio show primarily and I have to blip you out, if that happens.
I just don’t want to deal with that.
Kirsten: And just send it to email@example.com. One minute left to do a really quick rundown of stories that I was excited about but didn’t get to in the last two weeks.
Migratory birds, they have been shown to have a neurological link between their cryptochromes which are an area in their eyes, in their eyes, so from their visual thalamus, the visual area. Cryptochormes – let me start over, cryptochromes give birds potentially magnetic sense.
Kirsten: So, these are basically little magnetic particles in the bird’s eye and also in the beak area that are…
Justin: So they’ve got like the trip computer that tells them if they’re going north, northwest…
Kirsten: Yeah. And it’s been kind of thought that because it’s in their visual system that maybe they can see…
Justin: Landmarks, maybe it was landmarks and then they – not.
Kirsten: …magnetic information. Yeah, so that maybe there’s like a glow of the magnetic field of the Earth…
Kirsten: …in their visual field. And now, for the first time they’ve shown a link between a neuronal connection between retinal neurons and an area called Cluster N in the visual thalamus.
So, retinal neurons from the eye going back to this area that’s been linked up with magnetic reference back in the visual area of the brain. So, it is – maybe they do actually see the magnetic field. Very cool.
Chili pepper cocktail…
Justin: Oh, yeah.
Kirsten: …for pain.
Justin: That’s what you started off the show, mumbling about this.
Kirsten: That’s what I started off with and I’m going to end it really fast.
A report in nature came out about capsaicin, which is the compound in chili peppers that makes it burn, and combining that with a drug compound called QX314 which is derived from the numbing compound called lidocaine that you often get if you go to the dentist or something like that.
Lidocaines are good for…
Justin: Gum numb.
Kirsten: Gum numb. One of the problems with this QX314 is that it’s difficult to get into the nerve. It works really great once you get it in but it’s hard to get it in. So, they’ve been trying to figure out how to put it in.
And so, they found that capsaicin opens up temperature-sensing ion channels in pain nerves in the mouth and they thought, “Oh, maybe it opens up big enough for this little ingredient, other compound to get in.”
They tried it out. It worked great. The only problem is that if they put the capsaicin in first, you have to feel the burn of the capsaicin before everything goes numb.
So, they are trying to work on a way to get rid of the pain that’s induced from the capsaicin itself.
Justin: They’re a bunch whoozies. You know what? You want to get rid of the pain? You’re already in pain? Take a little…
Justin: …mouth burn along with it. That makes – like seriously, toughen up, people.
Kirsten: And I think that’s it for us. Next week we have an interview with – I’m going to find it very quickly so that I can tell you – Ian…
Kirsten: No, Ian Ayres.
Kirsten: Ian Ayres.
Justin: Yes. And then I get to bring…
Kirsten: He has written a book called “Supercrunchers”. We’re going to talk about economics and statistics and data.
Justin: My favorite book. You should go get that book and read it so that you’ll be like prepped to listen to the interview next week. No really, it’s just like a…
Kirsten: It will be lot of fun. We’ll be talking about numbers next week with Ian Ayres. So stay tuned for more great programming here on KDVS.
Justin: And if you learned anything from this show, remember…
Kirsten: It’s all in your head.
Listen to the Podcast here: http://www.twis.org/audio/2007/10/09/151/