Justin: Heading through the Large Hadron Collider, the Physics world buzzes with excitement about the many potential discoveries, confirmations and unexpected revelations, the media and the general public are scrambling to learn the basics of the Physics at play.
Why – what is a Hadron? What is a Higgs? How did they accelerate one? Is it safe to do so? Are Proton beans colliding going to cause a big bang? What is a Big Bang anyway? And I heard they want to make a big black hole and it’s going to swallow the whole Earth. Is that true? Have they gone mad? Should we stop them? And where, oh where on earth is the country of CERN I keep hearing about anyway?
While the location of CERN much like the following hour of our programming, does not represent the views or opinions of the University of California, Davis KDVS or its sponsors. The real benefit of the LHC may lay as much in the minds and imaginations of the curious public as it does in the 17 miles of buried tunnel.
As fears of impending doom circulate, like rumors in a mill, the incredible need for the man on the street to know his Higgs from a Hadron Collider in the ground becomes clear. And so, too the solution to such dire need also becomes clear. For where else can the public turn to for on the fly science learning but This Week in Science, coming up next.
Good morning, Kirsten!
Kirsten: Good morning, Justin! We’re back again, aren’t we?
Justin: Yes! Yes!
Kirsten: Yes! We are back again. You look as though you almost didn’t make it.
Justin: Yeah, Yeah. I just made it just fine. I’m a little nervous though because I think I may have angered the coffee gods.
Kirsten: Angered the coffee gods?
Justin: Yeah because like – I know we don’t – like I…
Justin: I was kind of hungry this morning. Now, I don’t like – I’m not a big breakfast person. So, (Wen) and I order like a couple of muffins and stuff on top of my coffee.
Justin: And then the change came out different. And then I got instead of the regular change I got handed back, it goes right to the tip jar.
Justin: I got like a nickel. And I just put it in my pocket and didn’t tip.
Kirsten: Didn’t tip.
Justin: So, now I’m really nervous that…
Kirsten: You can always go back.
Justin: Yeah, I will actually, you know what, right after the show.
Kirsten: And just give a tip. That’s right.
Justin: It means the show maybe cursed today. However, I’ll fix my life as soon as right here (unintelligible).
Kirsten: I don’t even want to think about that. Well, we have a great show ahead. I do believe that we have a guest, Dr. Douglas Erwin talking about the Permian-Triassic extinction. He’s written in a book called “Extinction”. And it should be an interesting interview but I am not sure if I really – I think he’s on the show.
Kirsten: I went to a conference in Idaho this last week and as a result I kind of forgot to confirm until this morning and now – we’re going to call him. We’ll call him. Hope he answers the phone and then maybe we’ll have a good conversation.
Justin: Yeah, or maybe we’ll crank call him.
Kirsten: Let’s hope he’s still on our – we’re still on his calendar. Yeah. But regardless, there is always science news to fill the entire hour. I’ve got some news about dinosaurs, stem cells, what else, gamma rays, our brains.
Kirsten: Lots of fun, fun, fun science news, and robots as always.
Justin: I got a super bug that’s bugging me for a…
Kirsten: That was a super bug attacking my nose.
Justin: Yeah, I wasn’t sneezing on cue.
Kirsten: I know.
Justin: I don’t know how to do that. I got some marketing news. It’s going to – I love marketing news. Just for some reason I always seems to say more about us as a people. Then, you know, then it’s just always fun. They are always trying to go for the lizard brain as it were?
Justin: And they sometimes get to bring out some kind of interesting qualities. And my top story, which isn’t really a story.
Justin: But it’s still my top story.
Kirsten: But it’s still your top story.
Justin: Like – okay. For a while now I keep…
Kirsten: But you’re getting to it. You’re not just going to like tease people with it?
Justin: No. I’m going to roll into it.
Kirsten: Let me get some other stuff to do it for you to get to the top story.
Justin: All right, go ahead. Go ahead.
Kirsten: You never pay attention to my schedule, Mister?
Justin: You haven’t – No, I haven’t seen it for a while.
Kirsten: No, you haven’t. Okay. Last week show we talked about the Large Hadron Collider which successfully threw protons all the way around its circumference. Last week very excited about this thing. I got to hang out with a bunch of physicists and have some drinks last Wednesday night in celebration.
Kirsten: Yeah. It was great. There were physicists around. They were visiting this place called Swissnex in San Francisco. And they had a party and invited physicists from all over to come. And they were there from all over.
Kirsten: And it was neat. They had a video screen. So they were watching what was going on at CERN while they were having the party. So they were kind of having a party at CERN and that in San Francisco at the same time.
Kirsten: Yeah. So, it was fun and – but we got a couple of letters. Minion (Gary Quintana) wrote in to say that he watched the special on PBS about the Large Hadron Collider. And found out that the reason that they have to wait until spring to fire it up completely is that the power consumption is so high that with cold weathers starting really soon in Switzerland, the city of Geneva would be adversely affected. The LHC actually consumes more power than Geneva when it’s running full power.
Justin: It seems like at that point you build your own power plant.
Kirsten: You would think.
Justin: I’m out of couple of billion dollars, like why not.
Kirsten: Just build the power plant. Power the Hadron Collider. Everything’s great. Also, I believe that TWIS is gathering a minion army of children. Yes.
Kirsten: Our child minion army.
Justin: Have to start watching our languages.
Kirsten: I know. Minion Xis, X-I-S. How do you pronounce that? Xis? Xis? Xix? I’m sorry. I’m totally not doing that well, am I? He wrote in to say — I think you will like the story — “My wife and I just came from a trip to Thailand where we adopted a four-year old boy. He hardly speaks any English.
He can say hello, bye-bye, thanks and please. Last week we got him a little bike and he liked to ride around waving at the neighbors and screaming ‘Hello!’ to each of them.
This week he started school. And while I drove him there, we listened together to the podcasts of TWIS that are accumulated in our absence. I notice that he perk up every time Justin raised his voice.
Yesterday, while he was riding his bike, he again waved at the neighbors. But this time instead of ‘hello’, he screamed ‘Good Morning, Kirsten!’ to each of them.” I loved that.
Justin: That’s awesome.
Kirsten: That’s so great. And Minion (Shannon) wrote in and said, “Our family is a big fan of your show. My son, (Luke), who is 23 months old, shares your interest in world robot domination. The other day I caught him singing ‘Robots are Great’ and I thought you might get a kick out of what is quite possibly your youngest TWIS-minion.”
Kirsten: Yeah. And she actually sent an mp3 file of her son singing the song and I just didn’t get it together to put it on a CD to play it. Maybe I can play it through my speaker. That might do feedback. That would be weird. Okay. Next week I will play (Shannon’s) son, (Luke), singing the song because it’s just incredibly cute.
Kirsten: It’s one of the cutest things. ‘Robots are great’. He sings. That’s so great.
Justin: Yeah. My son like, I think – I guess I was starting on 3.5, 4.
Justin: That was the song that was on the endless loop in the car.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: I actually don’t ever want to hear the song again. As much as I love the song, I never want to hear it. It was on anytime we’re driving anywhere.
Kirsten: Yeah, let’s sing it.
Justin: The trip to Disneyland…
Kirsten: It’s catchy.
Justin: …four plus hour to five hours of driving. I had to be on the hallway.
Kirsten: That’s a catchy song. It’s off of the 2007 music compilation CD which is sold out. There are none left. The 2008 CD actually I think the amount that we have left from the fund raiser, I’m going to make them available probably sometime in the next month, we’ll see. Yes. Yes. So, big story, Justin.
Justin: Not big story, (unintelligible).
Kirsten: Oh, you’re such a baby.
Justin: Big story.
Kirsten: Big story.
Justin: Well, I don’t know. I have been predicting there would be no Higgs boson on particle found by the Large Hadron Collider. Even though all the leading physicists have said 95% chance, even some have guaranteed that’s discovered.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: But as I have said no, they will not find it. Partly because I don’t really understand Quantum Physics very much, so it’s easy for me to disagree with it.
Justin: Partly because of my Physics crack pot and have my other idea, I believe in more which is not really science founded and partly because I thought it would just be more fun. If the thing that we were so certain of turned out not to be true, then we have all sorts of other possibilities to run into.
But now, now, now, now, one of the greatest minds in all popular Science is joining my ranks. Yes, the high priest to a cosmic physics, Steven Hawkins has bet $100 that the large hady smasher will not find the illusive Higgs particle.
Justin: Yeah. The LHC, this is quote from – I’m not going to do the fake robot voice because…
Kirsten: That’s okay.
Justin: …it would take too long.
Justin: The LHC will increase the energy at which we can study particle interaction by a factor of four. “According to present thinking there should be enough to discover the Higgs particle. I think you will be much more exciting if we don’t find the Higgs. That will show something is wrong and we need to think again. I have a bet of $100 that we won’t find the Higgs,” he says.
So this is kind of, you know, they’ve been trying to figure out how this – I didn’t actually understand too well how the Higgs work. But it’s through this field that it’s supposed to go through that is described as a molasses and that it causes the mass of things.
It was discovered first in 1964 by Peter Higgs. He proposed — not discovered — but proposed that there might exist a background field that would act rather like maple syrup on particles.
Kirsten: Maple syrup.
Justin: Well, he used some other word for it because he is British, some sort of British word for syrup. I actually put in maple syrup because I understand what that is.
Kirsten: Got it.
Justin: His word was like I’d never seen that before. I had to go Google it. I don’t even write it down and like that word’s banished. So he’s totally like, you know, because then it’s like I have to write her like oh, maybe some scientific jargon I have not come across before.
Justin: Say I go look it up and it’s the British way of saying “syrup”.
Kirsten: Something thick and sticky.
Justin: Something thick and sticky that particles interactive.
Kirsten: That slow – it interacts with the particles. Slows them down and makes them…
Justin: Give them mass.
Kirsten: …gives them mass somehow makes them heavier.
Justin: Yeah. So the Higgs should be everywhere – would be everywhere. But everywhere has remained frustratingly illusive. So while question of likelihood to finding Higgs boson talking so the experiment could discover super partners, particles that would be super symmetrical partners, particles that are already known.
But also, the existence of them will be a key – the existence of the super particles be the key confirmation string theory. It could make up a mysterious dark matter on the universe, galaxy together.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: Whatever the LHC finds or fails to find, the results will tell us a lot about structure of the universe…
Justin: …says Steven Hawkins.
Kirsten: That I agree with. Yeah, I mean – the thing is I mean you can make any number of predictions as to what is going to be found by the Large Hadron Collider.
And we don’t know what’s going to come of it. We can predict, predict, predict and the Math, you know, that we say the Math predicts that we should have this come out and this should come out but because things are so strange in our universe, things that are beyond us.
Justin: It’s my favorite point of Carroll’s prediction – Sean Carrolll’s predictions.
Justin: The 50% chance of something that we didn’t predict.
Kirsten: That’s pretty good.
Justin: That’s pretty good chance, pretty good odds.
Kirsten: That’s pretty good ads.
Justin: Finding something we didn’t predict we could find or would find.
Kirsten: Yeah. Well, something that we did find is a giant gamma ray burst that was directed right at our planet, 100 billion suns worth of brightness. If you took our sun and multiply it by 100 billion.
Justin: One hundred billion? That’s no. That can’t be possible.
Kirsten: That’s pretty bright.
Justin: Does that work right? What? Wow.
Kirsten: From the halfway across the universe, the death of a star. They believe this burst, it was bright enough. Even though it’s so far away, it was bright enough it could be witnessed with the naked eye.
Justin: How is that that one star could put off as much energy as 100 billion stars? Like how to say, I don’t.
Kirsten: Well, what’s going on is like you have a big giant star that collapses on. It’s used up all its fuel and it just collapses on itself. And the collapse is so massive and you have so many particles. So whatever makes up that stars, just, you know, all smash, smash, smash, smash.
Justin: Crush, crush, crush.
Kirsten: Boom! Crush, crush!
Justin: Crunch! Crunch!
Kirsten: Yes. And as a result there’s a release – a giant release of energy. And depending on the mass of the star, that will determine how much energy has released. And if the star’s big enough, then you can maybe – the contraction can become a black hole. But it can also rebound outwards creating this gamma-ray burst. Yeah?
Kirsten: (Yavol). So even if mass make a black hole. But anyway, it could be still a gamma ray.
Justin: Highly energized particles.
Kirsten: This jet! The jet! It mix dust and gas in it. More energy is released in the interactions of these gamma-rays that are released in burst in this jet. And so they’re usually fairly directional. And this time around…
Justin: They were looking right at us.
Kirsten: …seven – it was looking right at us. It was reported in nature that this galaxy about 7.5 billion light years away and the direction of a constellation bootes – B-O-O-T-E-S.
And NASA Swift spacecraft picked it up as well as several other monitoring systems around the planet. And it was something that a lot of people noticed, a lot of scientists took note of and now they are taking a look at it and going wow! This was really big.
Justin: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: This is really big and it was aimed directly at us. And was it…
Justin: It’s too bad our high energy gamma ray, like we have this new gamma ray detector. I don’t know if it’s going. I don’t know if it’s operational yet. It’s in space one. Is the aim (unintelligible) another one (unintelligible).
Kirsten: I don’t know. Not remembering. Not remembering.
Justin: This is the one that scares me, this story here. I was hanging out with my friend who doesn’t actually work for the CDC, but he works in that field. Right?
Justin: And I was up writing this book thing, right? So I’ve been like do any of the research trying to figure out. And I was looking for a new super bug, something really good.
Justin: So we busted out his, you know, manual.
Kirsten: His book of bugs.
Justin: His book of bugs.
Justin: And he was like this is really – this is the one. This is perfect. This is a great Clostridium, Clostridium.
Justin: Yeah. And then with a specific kind of Clostridium, we wanted to Clostridium with a spore because it’s going to get past all the antibiotics by just hiding from. Physicians now are warning about the little known bacteria, Clostridium difficile. That’s the one we were going to use.
Kirsten: In your book?
Kirsten: In your story?
Justin: That’s the one. So, the next emerging disease threat killing thousands in the US. I almost – I don’t even ever look at the story. The really scary thing about this one is that it creates a spore.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: That’s how it sort of – it goes into a spore form or like you can picture low pod or seed.
Kirsten: Right. Is Clostridium a fungus or a bacterium?
Justin: It’s not – yeah. So, not all of them do this. There are only certain varieties that do this.
Justin: Like they call the spore – I think they should just call it a “sea pod” because that’s more like what it is. So that it creates this thing that just can’t be reached. The antibiotics go in.
Kirsten: Yeah. It has like a hard shell around it.
Justin: Yeah. It’s done in some (permule). So it goes through. You do antibiotics, thinking knockout, you know, anything that wasn’t in that form. And then it can kill off other stuff that’s in there too. So what it does is it creates an area of a region of no competition within your body for this. When the spore releases, Hey, a land, land as far as the eyes can see and it’s really debilitating.
We have a caller calling in.
Kirsten: We do.
Justin: Good morning, TWIS Minion. You’re on the air with This Week in Science.
Man: Yes! Hello.
Man: Hey, I wanted to ask a special favor.
Man: Can you guys possibly stop crumpling up the paper into the microphone? Please?
Kirsten: Maybe away from the microphone?
Man: Yes. It’s painful.
Kirsten: All right.
Man: I’m trying to figure out how to listen to you.
Justin: I’ll turn – I think my mic on my angle is off today. I think that’s what it is.
Man: Well, you’ve been doing it since the beginning of 2006.
Justin: Yeah. Yeah. I’ve been working on the angle. See it’s…
Justin: From a home here I realize. There are a lot of different angles. It’s very fine tuning that you have to do to the microphone.
Justin: So, I got to keep working on it.
Man: It’s kind of like listening to somebody smack their gum and then having it compressed into three seconds and then thrown at you. Anyway…
Justin: That’s – I will try it next time. I’m not a big gum right now.
Man: I appreciate it.
Man: I’m trying to figure it how to listen the 2006 and 2007 archives and avoiding that.
Justin: All right. All right.
Kirsten: All right.
Justin: From this day on.
Kirsten: Thanks a lot.
Man: Have a good day. Thanks for calling. I appreciate it.
Justin: Thanks for calling.
Man: I appreciate it.
Justin: From this day on there will be no more paper crumpling.
Kirsten: I like the paper crumpling, actually.
Justin: I think in a way a little bit.
Kirsten: I like the – maybe crumple it up way further away from the microphone. I know. You’re tempted, aren’t you?
Justin: Okay. No, no, no. Not with me. So yeah, this is a – what they are looking at too is that’s a leap by 28% in 2007. I mean, this is between the years of 2003, it looks like in 2007. In 2000, there is about 2,000 death were directly attributable to the sea death.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: In 2007, it’s 8,000 deaths.
Kirsten: So it’s rising. Do they have any…?
Justin: Wow! That’s even like 300% (bonanza).
Kirsten: So it creates a spore which is probably long lasting in the environment or you can’t attack it with…
Justin: In the intestines. It’s in your intestines. Yeah.
Kirsten: In your intestines. You can attack it with antibiotics.
Justin: And in fact, they use antibiotics and they knock out most of it. That’s not in that form but it knocks up a lot of other stuff, right?
Kirsten: Mm hmm, right. Yeah.
Justin: Same way in that (unintelligible).
Kirsten: So any good bacteria that you have in there.
Justin: Anything that was doing a natural competition.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: Yeah, gone. And then this one wakes up and it’s like “Go, nice.”
Kirsten: Look at all the space in here. I’m going to play.
Justin: Place to play. Place to play.
Justin: So yeah, they are starting to see that this is perhaps going to overtake MRSA as the infection that is mainly acquired in hospital and nursing home.
Kirsten: We’ll keep an eye on that one.
Justin: And just so creepy that this is – I mean, I say I take. I didn’t take it but my CDC friend was like “Yeah. If I was going to, you know, find an outbreak, this is what I’d use.” And that was it.
Kirsten: And that was the one?
Kirsten: Well, there you go. Your friend’s got his…
Justin: Because he also has books that I’m not allowed to read. No there is. He’s book…
Kirsten: He knows a little bit more than you do.
Justin: Yeah. There are books out there that are like the general publics are not allowed to read this. And I say, “Why would the general public not allowed to read it? But it’s because there’s too much. It’s ignorance as bliss. The less we know the better we are.
Kirsten: Yeah, absolutely.
Justin: What you don’t know can hurt you?
Kirsten: Can hurt you?
Justin: No. What you don’t know is hurting you, isn’t that correct?
Kirsten: Right. Well, dinosaurs probably didn’t realize that they were going to survive their competition. And that’s what happened during the Triassic period. About 230 million years ago, dinosaurs showed up on the scene and they had to compete for all the environmental resources with the already – the organisms that were already in existence. And one of those groups was called the crurotarsans and they are reptiles, cousins of today’s crocodiles.
Kirsten: And they were big and they looked, you know, like dinosaurs. They’re very similar.
Justin: Pretty dinosaur. Yeah.
Kirsten: Yeah. All of these organisms very dinosaury.
Justin: But not dinosaurs.
Kirsten: But not dinosaurs because the crurotarsans ended up – mostly dying out. You know, we have the Crocodilians that have survived. But, you know, why did the dinosaurs end up faring better?
Researchers Steve Brusatte of Columbia University and American Museum of Natural History looked at a review of – he reviewed a bunch of fossils and found that the crurotarsans were actually more diverse than dinosaurs. They had greater variety in their bodies, in their shapes, in their lifestyles. So, you know, what is going on?
Why were the dinosaurs able to become so dominant? And he thinks it might have been just a matter of luck. The timing of the asteroid striking the Earth, 65 million years ago is the luck that killed the dinosaurs, right?
Justin: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: So maybe, there was some kind of event 200 million years ago that destroyed the luck of the crurotarsans. Maybe, maybe. What is it? What it could it have been?
Justin: Scan, scan, scan, read, read, read. Where did they go?
Kirsten: I don’t know. I don’t think they know.
Justin: Well, yeah.
Kirsten: It’s still one of those questions. That is the question. We know that all they’re sayings is that they have reviewed the fossils and…
Justin: So there is a period where there is a marked drop off them, where the dinosaurs suddenly rise up and become the dominant.
Kirsten: About 200 million years ago.
Justin: About 200 million years ago.
Justin: Can we have a climate change here? I think – it seems to me like reptiles are going to be more affected by climate than the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs had some internal combustion going on.
Kirsten: Right. I mean, it could be, you know, a matter of endotherm, exotherm of body metabolism changes like…
Justin: Be my first guess. That would be, okay.
Kirsten: Yeah. It could also be the care for young? Maybe there are more dinosaurs more caring for their young than the crurotarsans.
Justin: Oh I don’t know about that.
Kirsten: I know. I’m just speculating their origin.
Justin: Crurotarsans have very careful. They were very good parents.
Kirsten: They were?
Justin: No, really. Yeah.
Justin: I’m pretty sure.
Kirsten: Maybe, maybe.
Justin: Have you ever seen an alligator swallow its young?
Kirsten: I have. Yes.
Justin: That’s pretty awesome.
Kirsten: That’s pretty awesome. It’s great.
Justin: Not – but not eating it. They don’t eat them. They carry them around in their mouth.
Kirsten: Yeah. Big giant planet is found around a star, another star. There are researchers…
Justin: The star that is – the most sun-like star that we found so far.
Kirsten: Right. Yeah. Not a big giant, you know, not a brown dwarf, not that are dim but very large stars.
Justin: Okay. So this is the…
Kirsten: This is very a sun-like star. Yes.
Justin: Identical to our own sun. Very nice! Very beautiful! Except…
Kirsten: Not identical but pretty close.
Justin: Oh, yeah. It’s not in the same place.
Kirsten: It’s a little younger than our own sun. Yeah. They think it’s a younger system than our own.
Justin: Is it better looking? I mean is that…
Kirsten: Probably not as many wrinkles. And what they found a Jupiter-like planet orbiting a star that’s like our own. However…
Justin: An eight Jupiter’s. It’s like eight Jupiter’s.
Kirsten: Yeah, it’s huge.
Justin: I was thinking about trying to figure out like Jupiter is the biggest planet I can think of. And then I’ve heard descriptions of what happens to you based on the gravity there if you were there, right? Eight of those, like we’re just been – we’re all going to be crushed.
Kirsten: Crushed, yeah.
Justin: (Quite tall).
Kirsten: And one of the things about this star however is that the Jupiter is maybe about – is much farther out in its orbit from the star than any of our planets are. So it’s about 330 times the distance between the Earth and the sun.
Kirsten: Whereas, I think let me do – there’s 30 times. So Neptune with most distant is 30 times the distance between the Earth and the sun. So it’s really far away from the star.
Kirsten: And they’re quite there actually. They are going to have to keep studying it because they can’t actually tell if this Jupiter-like planet is actually orbiting the star because it is so far away. It could just be there crossing path.
Justin: They could just be passing but wow.
Kirsten: Yeah. It could just be passing. So they have to take a closer look at this for a while, check out the wobble a little bit more, look at this planet and see if it is actually in a trajectory that would indicate some kind of an orbit.
Justin: It will make sense that it would be. It will make sense there will be an orbit but I like the fact that scientist like, we have one piece of data. They don’t have a piece of data that says the next thing. Even though it’s pretty much obvious, we wait until the next piece of data. That makes sense.
Kirsten: Yes. We wait. We wait for the next. Yes. They’re surveying more than 85 stars in the Upper scorpios Association which is a group of stars that form about 5 million years ago. Yeah, very young.
Justin: Let’s see where we go from that. I got stories. I got stories. I want to get to some of the stories here.
Kirsten: Yeah. You’re being very calm today though.
Justin: I know, I know. Coffee had just not kicking in.
Kirsten: You’re like, you’re not pushing forward.
Justin: Okay. So on the web, you’re about to make a (Rooster) change that reinvents your fantasies sports team? Or you’re about to place a bid on that must covered three-handled family credendo that you saw in Ebay? When? The phone rings. By the time you get back to making your decision, to bid, to not to bid, to trade to not to trade, it might be with the completely different mind set. Completely different decision-making might take place and would have taken place had you not been interrupted.
According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, study’s author, Wendy Liu of UCLA, examined the effects of interruption on purchased decisions and the preferences of decision-makers. She found that even brief interruptions cause startling changes.
Kirsten: This is probably a pretty interesting to you as a sales person.
Justin: Maybe this is only what only – is it only to me because like…
Kirsten: Or maybe to you as somebody who interrupts or to me as somebody who interrupts.
Justin: Well, I guess the thing is like – this is also – this goes back to the thing I’ve been writing. But what if there was a parallel of – or like if you could take your day side by side and you run your day side by side and have it just like a slight thing. Maybe the interruption happens to one you but not to the other you? How much does that affect the end of your day?
Justin: Like how many differences? This one, it sounds like it’s immediate. As soon as you’re interrupted you go back. And that what it does it changes your perception so you start looking at quality over price.
You become less concern with the cost of the thing or some of the other implications and the overall feel of it or the overall – what you perceive as its quality becomes much higher in your estimation, much higher in your rating system.
Kirsten: Rather than, “Oh this is going to cost too much.”
Justin: Right. Yeah. You become less fickle. After just, you know, sort of being destructed and put back to the task, you go more for the gut level, reactions of the product than you do considering price and the other thing.
Justin: Yeah. Yeah.
Kirsten: Yeah. So I guess salesman out there maybe walk up and interrupt people during the buying process a few times and then like.
Justin: It does take a commerce I think, to fund these sorts of studies to find out our behavior and sort of. But if you also think if it not just in terms of purchases but in any decisions you make in life, you know. Give yourself time. Give yourself a little half hour meditation, you know.
Kirsten: Interrupt the process.
Justin: Like before you figure out where you’re going to move or whether or not to do something of even non-financial servicing. Life changes, yeah.
Kirsten: Let your brain process.
Justin: On the other hand, you know, if you’re trying to get somebody to agree with you. Hey look over there! Oh, what was that? Did you hear that? No, I thought I heard somebody in there. What were you saying? Okay. What’s behind you? I never seen that before? Is that yours? Is that new? Wow!
Kirsten: Wow. All right we got to take a break. This is This Week in Science. We’ll be back in just a few moments.
And that’s what we are talking about, layers and fossils today.
Justin: Yeah. We’re going down in it.
Kirsten: We’re going get down in the dirt, down in the Earth.
Justin: Let’s go digging.
Kirsten: That’s right. We have – this is This Week in Science you are listening to. And we have Douglas Erwin on the line. He is the Senior Scientist and Curator in the Department of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and an external faculty member of the Sta. Fe Institute.
He began researching the end-Permian mass extinction in the early 1980’s and has traveled many times in China, South Africa and Europe to see its causes. He’s been all over.
So without any more jibber jabber, let’s bring him on the line. Dr. Erwin, are you – Mr. Erwin press the button.
Justin: You got me scared of buttons because the last time I hang up on someone. Dr. Erwin, good morning!
Justin: Welcome to This Week in Science.
Kirsten: Hello. How are you today?
Douglas: I’m fine.
Kirsten: Great. It’s a wonderful to have you on the show with us. You researched some of the old, old, old history of our planet, And your book is about extinction. Could you tell us a little bit about the particular time period of the Earth that you discussed in your book and why you find it so fascinating?
Douglas: The book is mostly about the end-Permian mass extinction, which is the greatest bio-diversity crisis that we know about basically within last 600 million years or so. And it’s the end of the time that the (cyber gel), this is the (paleo shark), the time of the ancient life.
To me it’s a much more interesting time than the last, say 200 million years. Well, things are sure to be going downhill exponentially for the last 200 million years.
Douglas: It was (unintelligible) by very different groups of the animals than we have today. We had in the ocean many of the things that we are used to familiar with some tide poles are going to the ocean. Either it didn’t exist at all or they were relatively insignificance. The things like clams and snails or minor parts they found out back then, crabs didn’t exist. And Fish, the existed were much different than they are today.
So, the oceans were a very different place and life on land is very different as well. Mammals hadn’t evolved yet. Dinosaurs hadn’t evolved yet. There were no flowering plants. So, those in the oceans and on land, life looked very different than it did – it does today. And apart of these and a lot of things work so different is because of this big mass extinction event.
Justin: Now how big is this extinction? What are we talking about?
Douglas: Well, it’s hard to tell. We’d like to know how many species died but it’s actually hard for Paleontologist to count species.
Douglas: Because they are sort of more ephemeral things. So we count slightly large units of things like families and genera which are accumulations of species.
And we think that about a little over half of all the families of organisms in the oceans disappeared, so about maybe 80% of the genera. And that means that there are even larger percentage of the species would have disappeared, perhaps 90% but it’s much smaller than any of the other mass extinction of that.
Justin: Ninety percent. That’s probably got a plus or minus of about 10% accuracy, right?
Douglas: At least if not more.
Justin: So there is a chance that all life has been wiped out.
Justin: You know, we’re not actually here having this conversation – I mean statistically, it’s possible, right?
Douglas: Yeah. Unfortunately then you would have to talked to the physicists because the some parallel universe with all of the things they thought.
Justin: I’ll tell you, like just – I love their answer though. Yeah, it’s both.
Justin: Yeah, it’s both.
Justin: Yeah, both work that’s fine. Go out. Go ahead.
Kirsten: So most of the extinction that occurred was in the oceans. And do we know if as much occurred on land or was – I mean, how – do we know really how much life was existent – existing on land at that point in time?
Douglas: Oh yeah. I mean, they figured out. I have spent some time with colleagues down in South Africa in the middle of the Karoo Desert at South Africa where there’s a beautiful record of most invertebrate fossils, things that are called mammal-like reptiles. And many of them go extinct at the same time.
The fossil-like of land is never quite as good as it is in the ocean. So, totally hard to tell but certainly a substantial extinction. There was some debate about how big an extinction that was among plants because plants are actually kind of hard to kill. We have roots and seeds, and stuff like that.
Douglas: So many plants can get through. I think primary crisis in ways that animals can’t. It was, however, the only mass extinction that insects ever suffered…
Douglas: …where there’s a tremendous extinction of a various species of insects. And cockroaches almost disappeared.
Kirsten: That’s unheard of.
Kirsten: I thought cockroaches were supposed to survive everything.
Douglas: Well, they did. They survived the end-Permian mass extinction but at least as close as they’ve overcome to being wiped out.
Kirsten: Wow. So what are the – in the book you bring up like several different and an interrelated hypothesis as to what may have led to this extinction. Can you go over a few of those?
Douglas: Well, there is no or probably as many hypothesize causes for this event as there are for the end of the dinosaurs including the collision of the extraterrestrial object, although we don’t think that really has anything to do with it.
The different ideas source from the gamut, from the collision of the continents, this one is a large supercontinent called Pangea, which we know happened about that that time. And that could have reduced diversity by homogenizing — just the way we’re doing today by moving things from one continent to another.
Others have suggested that the oceans got very sick and turned what’s called they turned anoxia which means they had little oxygen in them and that led to extinction.
There are also suggestions about a variety of other things including impact. The one that my colleagues and I particularly savor on has to do with the eruption that erodes flood basalt in Siberia.
Flood basalt is a massive outpouring of volcanic material that closest thing we have near us is the Columbia River Basalt up in Oregon and Washington. The flood basalt in Siberia erupted over period of less than a million years and it covers an area about the size of the continent of the United States with about a mile thickness of lava.
Justin: What? Wow.
Kirsten: That’s massive
Douglas: So, it’s a huge outpouring of material. And it occurred in about a million years.
Justin: I didn’t even know our planet could do that. I didn’t even know our planet could do that.
Douglas: It’s burped like that a number of times in the past. There’s another big infusion of basalt like that called the “Central Atlantic Magmatic Province” that you find in North Africa, in the Eastern US and Brazil and in parts of Europe that they will all switch together. And that’s another similar burp of basalt. So it does happen periodically.
Douglas: And we think that this, the climatic and environmental effects or something like this may have led to the extinction.
Kirsten: Yes. So, at the same time is there’s the outpouring of the lava. What other things would be, you know, put into the atmosphere? What other stuff would be going on at the time of such an eruption?
Douglas: These eruptions are probably not like anything that we’ve ever experienced. We’ve actually did kind of like Will Durant in one of his books on History. He wrote that civilization exist subject to geological consent.
Douglas: And we’ve kind of liking it. We haven’t suffered yet any of those massive volcanic eruptions. But the eruption in Siberia went truly massive. And it would have put of course a lot of particularly matter up in to the atmosphere.
But along with that, they also put up a lot of CO2 and a lot of sulfur. We think going to sulfur turns to acid rain. So when it washes out of the atmosphere, the acid rain causes a lot of damage to both the oceans and the land — sort of like you see downwind of a badly filtered coal plant today.
Kirsten: Right. Now would that also lead to say the anoxia in the oceans that you were talking about?
Douglas: Well, that’s what a lot of my colleagues are trying to understand right now. We know that this – the pre-anoxia actually that begins before the extinction. It seems they got worse about the time of the extinction. It’s also possible as the volcanic material came up to Siberia, we know that it came out through mass coal bed. In fact, Siberia is one the world’s largest coal beds.
Douglas: And the heating of the volcanism may have also turned some of the – may have cooked the coal turning some of it into CO2 and some of them in the methane. So you may have gotten a whole lot of things in the atmosphere and that may have reduced the amount oxygen that you could put in the ocean.
It is also possible that if we had a period of global warming, one of the things that we know is that the warmer the oceans are the less oxygen they can hold. And that may have been another factor in the anoxia in the ocean.
Kirsten: And so you are – there is experimental or observational evidence of an anoxic period during this time?
Douglas: Yes. Yeah, both visit. We have some geochemical waste in looking at that. We then also look at the kind of sediment and that tells us something about what the oceans were like when the sediments were laid down.
Kirsten: Now, when you’re looking, like talking about the sediments and these layers that you’re investigating, when you’re looking at them, do you just find – is it just like fossil, fossil, fossil, and then like nothing? Or was it like to – in the observation of these different layers?
Douglas: It depends a lot on whether you’re looking at marine rocks or on the land? If we’re on land in South Africa, it means wiping out a large box to find any fossil at all. It’s just a lot of exposure.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Douglas: But for in China, for example, working with my colleagues, at Nanjing the rocks leading up to the extinction or incredibly fossil (effects). So every time you practice wide it open, it’s covered with rocky pods and say fossils and a variety of other things.
Douglas: And then if you approach the extinction of horizon, its pack full of fossils until this volcanic ash beds that helps to find the extinction. And then they go on.
And the rocks, immediately above the extinction, either had nothing in them at all or they’re covered with maybe fossils all of the same species. So we have sort of this weedy opportunist to take over after the extinction. But the diversity is very low.
Kirsten: Right. So there are a lot of different lifestyles and body styles that just didn’t make it that for whatever reason they couldn’t hack the – they couldn’t take the change.
Justin: They couldn’t get to the new world and then whoever is left, oh it’s a bounty of, well… It’s a bounty but then they even can’t really hang on that one. How long is this period of time – how long does it take us to get out of the extinction before we start getting some more diversity back?
Douglas: Well, it depends on sort of what you mean by some diversity or about recovery. And that oddly enough, scientists haven’t really defined that term terribly well.
Justin: There are two different things, yeah.
Douglas: Yeah. So basically, the world is a totally lousy place for another 5 million years. There are – there’s an increase in diversity and increase in species in some groups during that 5 million years. But it comes and goes –diversity goes up and then it crashes and there it goes up again.
But after that at 5 million years, species come back in a variety of these species begin to appear. Life sort of pulls itself together again and goes on. But we don’t really get back to the same diversity as we had before the extinction, the same number of species until maybe 20 million years after that.
Justin: And we have like a billion years or so to get up, you know, I mean we had lots of billions years maybe even, right, to get up to the first round.
Douglas: Well, we had about 400 million years from the origin animals. Yeah.
Justin: Okay. Four hundred million years from the origin animals.
Justin: And that – so we’ve only had 20 millions. You know, we are doing fine.
Douglas: That’s right.
Kirsten: If we have half that. What’s the comparison now, like when you look at – I mean we’re talking now about global warming and climate change maybe and human activities causing a large extinction event now. But what is the difference in, you know, diversity?
Douglas: Well, many of my colleagues like to call this the sixth great mass extinction.
Douglas: And I hope they are wrong.
Kirsten: I hope so too.
Douglas: Because if they’re right, if we are actually along the middle of a mass extinction it’s too late to do anything. And we’re history– pretty much.
Douglas: So, you know, get a good bottle of scotch and enjoy yourself. One of those things that I think people failed to understand is how bad these events really are.
Douglas: And our survival as a species probably depends upon or not yet being in one of these great mass extinctions. And there is reason to think that maybe true. Most of the species that we have managed to kill off in those blasts 100 years or so, or a couple of 100 years are the things that don’t have or not likely to have a particularly good fossil record.
What we see as fossils. What’s documented in this mass extinction was species that are widespread. They’re very abundant. And they have very durable skeleton.
Douglas: They show up in the fossil record. Most of what we peeled off, not all of it, but most of it, are things that don’t show up in the fossil record show very well.
Douglas: So, some of the comparisons that you see between what’s going on today and what’s happened in the past were actually comparing apples and oranges. And that’s actually a reason for hope because we may not yet be at the threshold of a great mass extinction. And so, there may still be some chance for us to fix things.
Kirsten: Hopefully, there’s a chance for us to fix things. Yeah, because I do think that there is – I agree there is certain amount of inter-dependence of our survival and the survival of the other species on this planet.
When we’re talking about the diversity of species, it seems as though those species that are generalists do really well. And do you find that they’re some kind of – I mean, there’s no way of actually looking at the behavior or the lifestyles of these ancient species but can you infer their lifestyles and whether or not they were something of a specialists or a generalists and whether or not that affected their survival?
Douglas: This is one of the things that I’m looking at with some colleagues now. It turns out that there are two ways to doing that. The first is that we can look at what we can understand that the ecology or particular species through what we call functional (morpohology) that kind of adaptation is that we can see in the fossil and that sometimes can tell us whether it’s specialist or generalist. Obviously, something like saber tooth tiger which we didn’t have in the permean.
We had – oh, an analogue event called Gorgonopsid. Those are pretty specialized predators. But there are a lot of those other organisms that it’s a little bit hard to tell. But there is another way that we can use food webs studies to try and understand the network of interactions. And that can also give us some clues sometimes into whether the things are specialists or generalists.
Another thing is that there were awful lot of generalists that went extinct this time too –close to killing off maybe 80% to 90% of everything in the oceans. They kind of go kill a lot of everything.
Douglas: The generalists do seem to do better during the recovery. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they survived the extinction better. There is difference between surviving the extinction and surviving the recovery.
Justin: And I wonder, if it too or especially for the meat eaters, does it comes down too how affected, you know, your down the food chain was? So if you’re down the food chain, it may come down to some very small little creature that manages to survive.
So the creature that fed on that, it was a little bigger manages to survive? So the one that fed on that, above that, I mean it could come down to some small like sort of crab-like creature that they managed to survive enough and reproduce enough for everything else to eat it.
Douglas: Yeah. And of course some things that can survive the best in those circumstances were actually the things that are eating to try this. So rather than actually be predators of whom they are relatively few as you go up the food chain, that they try to avoid sort of alternative food chain that access the undertakers can do a better job and though they are that more likely to survive than anything else.
Kirsten: Because everything is dying.
Douglas: Yeah. The thing that really wipes out a lot of species is that primary productivity appears to have just gone to zero for a while.
Douglas: And that means that, you know, the photosynthetic plankton is gone which means it’s all plankton is gone which means that all of the things that filters all plankton out of the waters then disappear. And that causes a collapse in the food chain.
Kirsten: Now, photosynthetic organisms don’t really last really well in the fossil record. How do you know that those organisms didn’t survive or that there was a time of their productivity?
Douglas: That’s a great question. The best metric we have of that is actually looking at the ratios of carbonized hoops. And that can tell us what’s happening to the health of the oceans and also the balance between different reservoirs of carbon.
And one of the things that that seems to suggest although the data isn’t yet conclusive, I should emphasized that, is that primary productivity in the surface of oceans. This seems to collapse at extinction.
Kirsten: That’s amazing. So there is just – there’s something like – and then that would – from there you can probably — if the data does come back conclusively, you can probably infer that there was some event that either toxically killed those organisms or that there was no sunlight, that there was some kind of cover that they want to go through.
Douglas: Well, yeah there is no sunlight although that’s likely to reduce abundance. Unless it goes on for a one period of time. It’s more likely to reduce abundance and really completely wipe things out. But it may also been telling us something that the geochemistry of the ocean and how they’ve changed.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Douglas: One of the interesting things about this event is that it – as you said at the beginning, it seems to be a relatively complicated kind of sudden interacting causes.
Douglas: That makes a lot of people uncomfortable. In fact, one of my colleagues once called this Erwin’s kitchen sink hypothesis. He was not being complimentary.
Douglas: The scientists want to have single things that they can test. But that’s not the way history often works. If I ask you the cause of the First World War, yeah, Austin Fermin got shot in Sarajevo. But that wasn’t really the cause for example. So, it is fine
Justin: That’s how I heard it. That’s all I learned in school. That was the one fact to it. This right here, this one assassination caused the World War?
Douglas: Yeah. But most historical events, the cause were a lot more complicated than that. I think that’s probably true of this event as well.
Justin: Well, you’re investigating the powder keg itself?
Kirsten: Yeah. So we’re running out of time here in our program but…
Justin: And apparently on the planet so we better start talking faster.
Kirsten: Go faster! Go faster! So what is your next move here? You’ve written this wonderful book “Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago.” The story is not over yet. What are you doing?
Douglas: Well, I’m continuing to work on this event with some colleagues both at MIT at Nanjing in China. But most of my interest is actually turned to evolution and innovation of how things get better actually after mass extinctions and how you – the origins of animals for that 560 million years ago. So, a lot of my work now is looking at evolution and innovation and how those happen and how you build bio-diversity.
Kirsten: That sounds like fascinating work. And also, you know, positive thinking maybe at all time.
Justin: I would speak. I thought you’d go on to another extinction.
Douglas: No because they kind of wear on your soul after a while. You can (kill stuff) all the time
Kirsten: Everything’s dying. Let’s talk about how things are living.
Kirsten: All right. Well, thank you so much for joining us this morning. It’s been wonderful. It’s been great talking with you. Again “Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago”. I’m glad our ancestors survived so that you could come on the show today.
Douglas: Oh, thanks very much.
Kirsten: Thank you very much. Have a great day. Bye.
Kirsten: That was Douglas Erwin. And it sounds like he has a lot of fun with the science he studies that he is just…
Kirsten: …great. And, you know, maybe if you’re at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, go say hi sometime if he’s not in China, in Nanjing.
Justin: Check out the – what is the book called again?
Kirsten: For the third time, “Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago.”
Justin: It’s amazing that that title wasn’t taken. Extinction, it’s a one word title. Not as this is going to be really hard in the book world at this point to have a one word title of anything because this has been so many books written, you know.
Kirsten: That’s a good point. That’s a very good point. We are at the end of our hour. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to talk about robots. What’s going on in the robot world? Robots are getting better and better.
Research recently, a few stories out this week just really quick that may lead to the power of sight and touch for robots as well as complex facial expressions and making sure that the robots that work with humans follow Asimov’s laws.
Justin: Yeah, for now. You fill the paradoxes gap.
Kirsten: So no death by robots even though they’re interacting with you can see you and, yeah.
Justin: Oh there’s ways. There’s ways to trick that logic.
Justin: Also there’s a discovery that they thinking now that there isn’t upper limit to the size of the black hole once the gravity while reaches the 10 billion times the mass of a sun. It seems to stop growing.
Justin: Top – weight. There are…
Kirsten: The heavy weight limit.
Justin: Top mass for the black holes.
Kirsten: Yeah. So, on next week show, hopefully we will have Dr. Michael Stebbins. There’s been so much in the science and politics news recently. Maybe he can tell us a little bit about McCain and Obama’s answers to the Science Debate 2008 question?
Kirsten: That’s what I’m hoping for. I’m going to make sure we get him on. And shoutouts go to (Ed Dyer), to (Kalidasa), (Jonathan Wise), (Caroll) and (David Eckerd), (James Kaye), (Kyle Angstrom), (David Highlandwood), (Ortegeira), who else, Fly Trap minion, (Andrew) of mid-Michigan, (Michael Jackson) and to (Glenn) from Vancouver. Thank You.
The bugs are attacking! The bugs are attacking! The bugs are attacking!
We hope you enjoyed the show. We’re also available as a podcast. You can find us online at TWIS.org. Subscribe to us online. If you like, you can email us at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org or both.
Justin: But put TWIS, T-W-I-S somewhere in the subject line otherwise you get spam filtered into oblivion.
Kirsten: And will be here on next week, 8:30am Pacific time.
Justin: Every Tuesday.
Kirsten: Join us again for more science news. Thanks a lot.
Justin: And if you learned anything from today’s show remember…
Kirsten: It’s all in your head.
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