Sept 4, 2007

Justin: Good morning Kirsten.

Kirsten: Good morning Justin.

Justin: I can’t hear any…

Kirsten: Hold on.

Justin: Where is the – ouch!

Kirsten: I got it.

Justin: What’s going on around here? What’s happening?

Kirsten: Oh, it’s me. I’m back. I…

Justin: Welcome back Kirsten.

Kirsten: I take a break and then what happens? I forgot to work the board.

Justin: Wow. So, this is the reuniting of the – Justin and Kirsten on This Week in Science. It’s been a long – so how long has it been?

Kirsten: Two weeks.

Justin: It’s that long?

Kirsten: Yes. Only two weeks.

Justin: Felt like forever.

Kirsten: Last week, you got to hang out with a couple of 19 year olds. That made you pretty happy didn’t it?

Justin: They’re so cute.

Kirsten: I know. Yes. I’m sorry I missed it. But I was off in the world of the Burning Man.

Justin: Burning of the man.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: So, did they burn the man?

Kirsten: Twice.

Justin: What? Wow!

Kirsten: Yes, some fellow with the B in his bonnet decided that he was going to have some kind of artistic statement which really just turned to be arson which is kind of ironic in the sense of things out at Burning Man if you look unto it.

Justin: No, I don’t know anything about this event. So, is it really like it’s – what I picture is a bunch of people camping in the desert waiting for it to get dark so they can do stuff and flashy lights. Is that…

Kirsten: You know, flashing? Flashing lights have a lot to do with it. Yes, it’s a week long art festival that has a lot of large art sculptures. One of the art sculptures out there consisted of two big rig trucks placed on end so that one was one a tail to the ground and twisted around and they’re both nosed to nosed and the other was nosed up with its tail going. And the inside of it was built like a jungle gym so you could climb through it.

Justin: Huh?

Kirsten: Yes. So that was…

Justin: Sounds dangerous but fun.

Kirsten: But very fun.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: And there was another – that was called big rig jig. There was another piece by some artists out of Oakland called Dan das Mann that was called crude awakenings which was a giant oil derrick with these larger than life sculptures made out of scrap metal that were in various positions of worship in front of the oil derrick. You know, a statement of…

Justin: Oh, that’s pretty. Party.

Kirsten: Yes. I don’t have to explain what is the statement very much but it’s so much…

Justin: Yes. Somebody is in love with somebody named (Derrick) that’s for sure.

Kirsten: That’s for sure. And on Saturday night after the man burned, they had this amazing fireworks display with fireworks like I’ve never seen before that went on for like probably ten minutes.

And then, this giant explosion that – this fireball that probably went over 1,000 feet into the air and then a jet of flame that shot through the middle of the oil derrick and the whole burned down.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: Yes. It was great. A lot of it is a statement on the ephemeral nature of life and art and you know, what exactly is art. And it gives people a chance to go out and experience difficult conditions. And it’s a dry, difficult place to exist for a week. And which makes the art that much more incredible. The placement of it in this harsh environment is in itself pretty amazing.

And the fact that this year there was somewhere around 46 to 48 maybe even 50,000 people.

Justin: Fifty thousand people camping together in this.

Kirsten: Yes, camping together. And you know, there’s art projects everywhere that people bring out. The camps that people put together to share with other people are just amazing. You know, there’s so much music and celebration. And there’s yoga. There’s meditation. There’s foot washing. There’s…

Justin: Foot? All right, I know.

Kirsten: Yes. There’s all sorts of stuff. You have to experience it to really understand. This year…

Justin: It kind of sounds like the hippie version of the fair (unintelligible) going on.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Because there you can go through and somebody will claim your sneakers.

Kirsten: It’s not really hippie, not at all hippie.

Justin: Right. Let’s see, no really, no?

Kirsten: No, no, not hippie.

Justin: What is this? What’s…

Kirsten: People always call it, “Oh, it’s that hippie folks doing in the desert?” It has nothing to do with hippies.

Justin: You just hate hippies that’s why.

Kirsten: Yes, pretty much.

Justin: You’re just – is it yuppies? Is it…

Kirsten: Shave your armpits people, you know?

Justin: I want to label these people.

Kirsten: No, there’s…

Justin: Give me a label for them.

Kirsten: (Unintelligible) burners.

Justin: Burners. That ones already taken.

Kirsten: There’s no label for these people.

Justin: Burners is already taken.

Kirsten: There are anarchists. There are hippies. There are technophiles. There are Silicon Valley geeks. I mean you name it, there are so many different kinds of people out there.

Justin: Neoconservatives.

Kirsten: Sergey – what’s his name? The owner of Google, the president of Google actually came out.

Justin: Did he fly in?

Kirsten: Yes, of course.

Justin: Yes. They have their own landing strip out there, right?

Kirsten: There’s an airport. There’s an airport.

Justin: In the desert, it’s all flat. It’s all – wow.

Kirsten: Yes. It’s pretty amazing. This year’s theme was greening the man. So, there was a lot of information out there on alternative technologies and…

Justin: And let’s not have too many carbon emissions. Well, except for this week.

Kirsten: Except for the joy of explosions.

Justin: Burn stuff.

Kirsten: Yes. The carbon footprint out there…

Justin: (Ions) about to fire – yes because everybody is…

Kirsten: It’s almost impossible to be able to negate the carbon footprint of burning man, yes.

Justin: Really?

Kirsten: It’s so huge.

Justin: I would think it would be because of all those people not running an air conditioner – on account, I’m not having one – out there?

Kirsten: Oh, but people bring their RVs out there. There is like…

Justin: Oh.

Kirsten: …so many people drive RVs. They use the air conditioners in their RVs. You know, they have diesel trucks that bring up art pieces. There are these giant fires that are out there to burn the pieces of art. You know, but they did have a few things – the Burning Man infrastructure, they did use biodiesel to run all of their infrastructure this year.

And they also had a 30k solar installation to run the lighting of the man and a lot of the structures actually out on the playa. And that 30k solar array is going to be donated to the Gerlach area high school.

Justin: Oh, that’s pretty cool.

Kirsten: And so, it will be giving back to the local community.

Justin: That’s hot.

Kirsten: And it will be giving back for several more years. And it’s going to be several million dollars worth of electrical alleviation so…

Justin: That’s awesome.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: And I heard they recycled all of the gas cans.

Kirsten: Probably. I hope so. But we have a great show for you today. Enough about Burning Man. It’s…

Justin: Oh, let’s not say it’s a great show. We’ll just forward hoping that it’s so.

Kirsten: We’re going to hope that there’s a show. We have an interview at the half hour with Dr. Lawrence Krauss from Case Western Reserve University. He is a theoretical physicist, author.

Justin: Reserve University like in cases of emergency they could teach people stuff?

Kirsten: Maybe. He’s a defender of science and all-around interesting guy so.

Justin: Defender of science? Oh, that’s excellent.

Kirsten: Yes. I love saying stuff like defender of science. Yes, so we’re looking forward to talking with him at the half hour. Let’s just hope he gets back from his seminar in time to be able to answer the phone when we call him.

We’ve also got what’s – my first story off the top of the bat is that scientists have discovered a gene controlling height.

Justin: Huh?

Kirsten: Yes. For many, many years, people have considered height a genetically related trait. However, there has been no evidence to date to actually prove it.

Justin: What else would it be?

Kirsten: Exactly.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: What they call it is a polygenetic trait in that height is controlled by a variety of genes. But they haven’t actually been able to pinpoint any one gene until recently.

Published in Nature Genetics, a research group that is a collaboration between Harvard University and Children’s Hospital Boston, Oxford University and the Peninsula Medical School in Exeter have discovered a gene called HMGA2 that has a tall version and a short version. And which versions people have controls some small aspect of how tall they are.

So, if you have…

Justin: Like your left leg?

Kirsten: No.

Justin: When I say small portion it has to do with I guess a centimeter in total height.

Justin: What?

Kirsten: Yes. So, it’s not a huge…

Justin: That’s no good.

Kirsten: Yes. But it…

Justin: You are depending on where you put that type.

Kirsten: Right. Okay. So, there’s a tall version of gene and a short version of the gene. And if you have one copy of the tall – no, sorry. I’m getting confused here.

Justin: It’s okay. You’re among friends here.

Kirsten: Hello friends. If you have two copies of the tall version of HMGA2, you are going to be tall. If you have…

Justin: A centimeter taller.

Kirsten: One centimeter taller and about 25% of white Europeans. Oh, I (wrote) that this morning.

Justin: All right. That’s a centimeter tall.

Kirsten: Yes. You’re going to be a centimeter taller. If you have two copies of the short version, you’ll be that centimeter shorter. And then, if you have one copy of the short and one copy of the tall, then you’re a half a centimeter in between.

Justin: Wow! I think that gene – I got both the tall ones but it was placed right at the tip of my nose giving me this little hook thing.

Kirsten: Giving you a hook nose.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: So, people are interested in this gene and in looking for other genes because there is a possibility tall genes and short genes themselves can be related to other genetic disorders.

So, if you’re short, you have a higher probability of getting heart disease. If you’re tall, you have a higher probability of getting other diseases. Oh, let me see if I have them down here. Yes, I can’t find them right now. But there are other disorders that are related to being tall.

So, if you can figure out what genes you have at birth, doctors at some point might be able to tell parents, “Okay. So, he is within the normal range for height with his normal distribution of genes. So the probability of these disorders is fairly small.” You know, so there are some kind of aspect to that at some point.

Justin: Okay. Here’s the problem with the height. Here’s the problem. I used to work construction which – and anybody who knows (mistroninessosity) knows how funny that sounds. But I did work construction for a while and I got hit by a forklift towards the dorsal muscle in my back, totally painful.

Kirsten: Oh.

Justin: So, it was back pain injury all that stuff. They have to send me to a physical therapist. The physical therapist lady, a very cute lady who pointed out like, “You know, wow Justin. You have an unusually long abdomen.”

So then I’m like floating around like I got some I have an unusually long abdomen. A physical therapist told me I have an unusually long abdomen.

Kirsten: You’re very excited about it.

Justin: Yes. And then my friend (Roy) points out, “Isn’t it that just a nice way of saying you got short legs?” So, there’s a thing with proportionality and height too because I figured it out. I figured out why it’s so hard for me to shop for clothes and all kinds of other stuff.

I have the upper body like from abdomen, shoulders and all that of somebody who’s 6’4’’ and I have the legs of somebody who’s 5’3’’ okay? And somehow in between I am an average-heighted but it’s the proportionality which just doest make – so, I don’t know if you can really judge too much by height.

I might have tall guy diseases from the waist up and then like short people problems in my feet. I don’t know. I don’t know. My boy is the same way. My boy is all abdomen. Who is all like short legs, long torso.

Kirsten: Genetics.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: You got another story let’s move on.

Justin: Yes. Oh, this is awesome, nanomagnetic sponges.

Kirsten: Yes. This one’s cool. I like the story.

Justin: Chemists in Italy are reporting – and I don’t why in this story they put this in parentheses, a real breakthrough – that’s what it makes it – how it rates me, a real breakthrough in technology for cleaning and conserving priceless oil paintings, marble sculptures and other works of art.

And they published this is in August 14th issue of ACS Langmuir, a biweekly journal. In the report Piero Baglioni and his colleagues describe development in the successful testing on artworks using these nanomagnetic sponges.

So right now, like when they’re cleaning art, it’s such a delicate process. They have – first of all, I mean these are like sometimes hundreds maybe even longer, older, several hundreds, maybe even 1000 year old work of art.

And stuff gets dirty. And stuff deteriorates and so they have this whole class of alchemist artists whose job it is to restore it carefully and not put their initials on it which is so tempting, you know.

So instead of using solvents and other cleaning gels, stuff that they normally use that they can take the dirt and the muck of the years and the ages off the surface which always…

Kirsten: That sometimes takes away the paint or whatever else.

Justin: …takes away the paint or leaves residues or…

Kirsten: Yup. Yes.

Justin: …or it can have other nasty side effects. These new nanomagnetic sponges made from nanoparticles so small that about 10,000 of these little particle things used would fit across the diameter of the human hair. What?

Kirsten: That’s a lot.

Justin: That’s – I didn’t know small got that little. So, they’ve overcome that problem as sponges can be loaded with solvents and other cleaning agents and they can cut them. So, they can cut these sponges so they can make them any shape and they can just apply them to the soiled areas of a painting. And they can remove all the gel with this magnet so that no residue or anything stays.

Super awesome, extra clever.

Kirsten: Yey for nanotechnology preserving art of ages.

Justin: Yeey for Italian chemists.

Kirsten: I love it. Oh, water, water everywhere. What if one day, we’re traveling throughout the stars and your spaceship is short of water? What are you going to do?

Justin: Huh?

Kirsten: Ha? Well maybe you can find it in a young star system.

Justin: Oh, that’s better than my idea. I had this idea of these plastic bags and then pee into the cup. But you let it evaporate and then what comes back down should be purified water. But I like your idea better. Just go to the star system.

Kirsten: I like the idea of harvesting it from young star systems.

Justin: It sounds better, yes.

Kirsten: Yes. Okay.

Justin: No, if it comes down to it. Did you do any desert survival training out there then they put you through like a course on how to…

Kirsten: Oh no.

Justin: No?

Kirsten: No, no, no. But I got it down by now. Looking through NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, researchers published in Nature that they have found ice pouring down out of a young forming star into the dusty disk of protoplanets that are forming along its edge.

The young star system called NGC 1333-IRAS 4B…

Justin: Huh? All right, say it again now.

Kirsten: Yes. It’s in a star-forming region about 1,000 light-years away in the constellation Perseus. They focused the space telescope on this particular young star. And it’s a very young star. It’s still forming. They don’t even really know how large the star is going to become at this point.

But what they found is evidence that water in the form of ice does form and exist in these young planetary systems. And that as it falls into the disk of outlying material around the forming star, it can coalesce on to and into meteors and comets.

From there, those meteors and comets will fall into the center and impact young planets and seed them with water. And they are thinking that this is possibly what might have happened in our solar system.

Justin: Hmm?

Kirsten: Yes. So, as for water being out there in the universe – oh, it is.

Justin: You know, it has to do with like something strange that just always boggled my mind above the temperature range in space from the super, super cold and the cold, cold, darkest space to the crazy overheated, getting too close to a sun.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: That water is only water for such a brief, brief, brief, brief moment.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: In between being evaporated gas and a frozen solid.

Kirsten: And an ice crystal.

Justin: We live in a cusp of this little, tiny, sliver of temperature region in which…

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: …it’s even possible.

Kirsten: Yes, for us to use it as liquid.

Justin: Water never looks like water anywhere in the universe. It just doesn’t.

Kirsten: So, the researchers have figured out by calculating that the disk has a radius bigger than the average distance between Earth and Pluto. Its temperature is minus 154 degrees Fahrenheit or 170 Kelvin.

What else do they know about it? That’s pretty much all they figured out so far. There’s a lot more to be learned about this young star.

They are trying to decide – there are two different models. There’s a core accretion model and a disc instability model of planetary formation. So, they’re trying to figure out maybe by looking at this young planet and other young star system and others like it whether or not they can gain evidence for how star systems and planets actually do form.

The core accretion model takes millions of years and the disc instability model takes only thousands. So we look at it long enough we might figure somehow.

Justin: This is somewhat interesting. New viruses to treat bacterial diseases, which I think we’ve talked about this sort of thing in the past. But there’s a virus that – I just like the way they found this.

It’s in the River Cam in Cambridge. A place where like students hang out, go boating, drink beer and throw up over the side, I guess whatever college students do in a river.

Kirsten: Yup. Yup.

Justin: But yes, they found this virus in that river that they think may have a use for – being used against multiple strain-resistant Staphylococcus.

Kirsten: Really?

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: That’s very interesting.

Justin: Yes. Using a virus that only attacks a bacteria called a phage – and some phages only attack specific types of bacteria, we can treat infections by targeting the exact strain of bacteria causing the disease.

That’s just too clever.

So, yes. Now, you’re going to get these little virus like lotions and be able to apply them or be able to get your virus shots and ingest it — whatever it is you need to do to overcome your bacterial infections.

But they’re going to use – yes, for the gut, for the skin applications, for everything else, viruses in the future will be our friends. And vice versa, bacteria which attack viruses also our friends.

Kirsten: Right. So, it’s a matter of getting the exact strain for whatever our purposes happen to be.

Justin: Yes. It’s kind of like – I’m kind of thinking of a good example. It’s sort of like what we’ve been doing in the Middle East for the last 50 years. Basically, arming one side then, we’ll arm the other side now. And then, you keep going back and forth until, you know.

At some point, we’re hoping both go away but it’s sort of evil. But this is for good because this will…

Kirsten: He’s crazy.

Justin: …we’re helping instead of hurting people.

Kirsten: Oh, my goodness. So you think you know what you like?

Justin: Yes, I do.

Kirsten: Yes, you do.

Justin: I know what I like. I know what I like Kirsten.

Kirsten: Researchers publishing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from Germany. Actually, they studied men and women in Munich, Germany in a speed dating situation.

They got men and women to fill out questionnaires about their personal preferences in mates. You know, what they like, you know.

Justin: All right.

Kirsten: Oh, I like that he’s funny and has pretty eyes. You know, makes me laugh as good. I like it when they’re smart, you know.

Justin: Yes, right. That wasn’t in – and this is Germany don’t forget.

Kirsten: Anyway, so they got all these information. They figured out what it was that people said, stated that their preferences were. Then, they stuck them through this speed dating situation.

At the end of it, they’ve found that by comparing the preferences with what actually happened, men’s choices don’t reflect their stated preferences at all.

Justin: Oh no, because on the stated preference you’re like, this is bait. This is trying to set yourself up as somebody you’re not. This is saying, this is who I think would attract a woman…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …even though it has nothing to do with me, I’m putting this on paper.

Kirsten: Well, the men appeared to based their decisions only on…

Justin: Oh, let me guess. Let me guess.

Kirsten: …on…

Justin: Looks? Could it be?

Kirsten: …on looks, yes.

Justin: Oh, I’m right. Who would know?

Kirsten: And it seemed as though all the men had – there was a minimum attractiveness threshold. Above that level, all women who happened to be above that threshold were deemed attractive and men wanted to date them.

Women on the other hand, while their choices didn’t reflect their preferences, their choices were more discriminating. So, the old adage about women being the choosy sex was supported by this study.

Justin: Hmm. More selective.

Kirsten: More selective. Now, listen here.

Justin: Maybe there is a few more parameters but I’m still…

Kirsten: Listen here. Okay. So women were aware of their attractiveness to men and how attractive they are to men and so they…

Justin: Some women are.

Kirsten: …they adjusted their expectations to select the more desirable guys. This is a quote from the researcher, “Women made offers to men who had overall qualities that were on par with the women’s self-rated attractiveness. They…”

Justin: Self-rated attractiveness. That’s interesting.

Kirsten: Yes. “They didn’t greatly overshoot their attractiveness…”

Justin: Their self-rated attractiveness.

Kirsten: “…because part of the goal for women is to choose men who would stay with them. They didn’t go lower. They knew what they could get and aimed for that level.”

Justin: Yes. That’s why every guy is looking for the hottie with low self-esteem.

Kirsten: Oh, no.

Justin: Seriously. Yes, it’s like a jackpot, yes. Wow!

Kirsten: Yes. It’s really, really fascinating. So, in a sense, the attractiveness of women, how attractive they feel they are is also influencing…

Justin: Who they select.

Kirsten: …who they select and who the men select because the men will see if you’re attractive, you’re not attractive or you don’t think you’re attractive or you know, whatever.

Justin: In speed dating it may be harder to get the self-esteem, like because that’s the other thing though. Attractiveness is so much – personality is so much part of it. I don’t know if you get to see that in speed dating.

But on the other end I would throw out all that data that they collected there because it’s in Germany. I just, you know…

Kirsten: And…

Justin: …I wouldn’t date a German.

Kirsten: Oh, my gosh.

Justin: Like who would? Come on. That’s just ridiculous.

Kirsten: How do I date a German? Why not?

Justin: Go some place where there’s friendly people and then do that speed dating thing and then find out how humans beings interact, you know? I don’t know why I’m bitter about Germans.

Kirsten: Yes, human behavior. I don’t know why.

Justin: I just don’t think they’re the most – I don’t even think they date.

Kirsten: Oh, my gosh.

Justin: I don’t know how they (unintelligible)…

Kirsten: Okay. Move on to the next before you just end up with so many emails.

Justin: Psychiatrists – there’s no Germans out there anymore. What?

Kirsten: Read!

Justin: Psychiatrists as it turns out surprisingly are the least religious of all physicians. Wow! Who knew that people who study the mind would stop believing in the “God” thing. Although among psychiatrists who have religion more than twice as many are Jewish and far fewer are Protestant or Catholic.

And then there’s like another side of this. Something that’s sort of interesting is if you have a physician, like a primary care doctor and you’re experiencing mental problems of some sort or something that would perhaps a psychiatrist could be useful, the religion of your doctor determines heavily whether or not they would recommend you to a psychiatrist.

So, if you have one of these very – for instance, in this one they’re pointing out to Catholic and Protestant, they’ll most likely tell you to go get your counseling at your church, through a religious organization. If on the other hand they are not, there’s much more likelihood they’ll send you to a psychiatrist.

So it’s very interesting how religion is playing into even – not just who becomes a psychiatrist, but as your regular doctor are telling you where to go to seek the help that you might need.

It’s just kind of amazing how – well, not really amazing, but still very amazing to me how religion dictates even medical care.

Kirsten: Sure.

Justin: That’s just…

Kirsten: Sure it does. Your beliefs, they permeate all aspects of your life so why wouldn’t it?

Justin: Not mine.

Kirsten: Well, because you don’t have those beliefs.

Justin: No, I have lots of beliefs but I don’t let them contradict like – oh, I let them contradict. I can believe one thing and then just totally ignore it to do the right thing. If that makes any sense. I don’t know.

Kirsten: Oh, once upon a time, bivalves.

Justin: Bivalves?

Kirsten: Yes, two-shelled little organisms, mollusks, clams, those kinds of little creatures dominated the oceans.

A researcher named Margaret Fraiser, a paleontologist at UWM wherever that is. She has been studying the worst mass extinction in life’s history 252 million years ago.

And she’s been doing it by looking at the fossil records of bivalves underneath the oceans surface.

She has found that the changes in CO2 and oxygen levels over our planet’s history have lead to which have lead to extinctions over and over again have also changed the fauna within the oceans.

CO2 levels during the Permian-Triassic extinction also, at various other times were much higher than they are now. The first thing to go were the coral reefs, which we are seeing go right now.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: And then the CO2 levels increased changing the waters of the ocean and the oxygen levels in the oceans leading to a change in which animals could survive.

Bivalves were able to survive because of their ecology. The way that they’re small. They are flat. They are able to inhabit tidal regions and maybe be able to take advantage of below oxygen levels better than other organisms.

So, she’s looking at this rock record from the Triassic, looking at the changes in CO2, and she’s looking at comparing what happened 252 million years ago can inform us about what’s going on right now.

Justin: What’s coming now.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: And that is also by the way one of the most amazing archeological digs. When you’re sorting through and trying to clean and get specimens of million-year-old shells because they’re tiny. They’re this little tiny and you sit there with a little (unintelligible).

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: I think that’s some dedication, yes.

Kirsten: That’s some dedication to learn.

Justin: Some fragile, long-term, nitty-gritty kind of work. What do you got there?

Kirsten: Nitty-gritty. I’ve got a phone number for…

Justin: Oh, are we at the break?

Kirsten: We’re at the break. I’ve got a phone number for Dr. Lawrence Krauss. I’m going to give him a call over the break and see if we can get him on the line.

In the meantime, one last study, researchers from the University of California, San Diego, they have published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, for all you students out there cramming doesn’t work.

Justin: What?

Kirsten: Yes. If you’re interested in making your study time most efficient, you should spread material out over months. So, study something now and then take a break from it for a while and come back to it in a few weeks.

Spread your leaning out over time and integrate different concepts together so that you’re not just cramming on one topic at a time, your learning and your memory will be much stronger.

Justin: Hey! Or just listen to this show every week.

Kirsten: Or just listen to this show.

Justin: Yes, there you go.

Kirsten: That’s right.

Justin: And so, how come we designed it this way?

Kirsten: Study tips from This Week in Science, we will be back in just a few minutes with more science. Please stay tuned.


Kirsten: Welcome back. On the line we have Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss. He’s a professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Center for Education and Research at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

He is a theoretical physicist, author, defender of science and an all-around interesting guy. We’re very honored to have him on the phone today. And without further ado, let’s bring him on.

Dr. Krauss, thank you for joining us.

Dr Krauss: It’s a pleasure being here.

Justin: Welcome to This Week in Science.

Dr Krauss: Hi.

Kirsten: Hello. So, first off, I’m very interested. You are a theoretical physicist and I’d like to know what it is about the theoretical side of physics that catches your fancy as opposed to the more…

Justin: Actual physics.

Kirsten: Actual physics.

Dr Krauss: I like to think they’re the same I mean at their best they’re the same. Theoretical physics is really aimed to trying to understand about two things. First of all, to try and make predictions of things experimentalists can observe and then also to explain things we deal about the universe.

So, at its best, it’s really connected to our observations. It’s not some philosophical or metaphysical or spiritual discipline. And that’s really important because lately we talked about very exotic things like extra dimensions…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Dr Krauss: …and other things that are sometimes more exotic and people sometimes get the sense that we just hang around in our offices and have fun and then just invent universes.

Kirsten: Right.

Dr Krauss: And at its best, we’re actually constraint by the data. The reason I’m inched in theoretical physics is that it addresses the questions that really everyone thinks about at some point in their lives — how did we get here? Where are we going? How did the universe begin and what’s it made of? And those are the fundamental questions that have got me interested in science early on I think.

And as I said, at some level, we all think of these things and then we go on. And for more people do more practical things but some of us get paid to think about these wonderfully basic questions.

And it’s not easy. And if it were easy then, you know…

Kirsten: Everyone would do it.

Dr Krauss: …everyone would be doing it.

Justin: In physics, isn’t there certain amount of philosophy I mean isn’t there enough physics out there that you don’t have to take one stand or another on something. But like, I’m thinking back in the Einstein versus all the quantum folks.

How there was sort of philosophical differences about what the potentiality of the universe could be if certain things were even possible. And the arguments that took place there as far as the sort of cat in the room getting blown up whether or not…

Dr Krauss: Well there, I mean of course there are all these, I mean thesis of people much to against the dimension lived in there.

Kirsten: Right.

Dr Krauss: And therefore, we all have philosophical prejudices. But the important thing is what determines what ultimately wins out is in what isn’t in philosophy, it’s experiment.

So, people have biases and that’s what some people on. You can’t spend ten years thinking about a problem or trying to resolve it without some firm belief at some level that…

Justin: Yes.

Dr Krauss: …your view of reality might be right. What’s great about science and I really mean this however, is that once it’s showing to be wrong even if you spent 20 years of your life on it, you just move on and that’s what’s great.

Of course we have philosophical prejudices and Einstein had some which lead him in the right direction and some which clearly lead him in the wrong direction.

His forsaking quantum mechanism meant that for the last 30 years of his life or so, he was completely out of touch of what was going on in some sense in physics and really made no impact.

And then there are philosophical issues having to do with right now, things that I’ve written about the nature of string theory and extra dimensions and leave in the question of whether our universe – there’s one philosophical issue which is now discussed a lot unfortunately in theoretical physics and that’s the question of whether our universe is an environmental accident, whether all the fundamental constants of nature are really just an accident and there are really billions of different universe that each of which has different laws of physics.

And the reason we’re in this one is that life can survive in this one but nothing more fundamental. And that’s an awful thing if it’s true because it really flies in the face of 300 years of science where we’re actually trying to explain on fundamental principles of why the universe is the way it is.

To answer your question in a long way, there are lots of philosophical prejudices that drives people. But in the end, that’s not what resolves what – where progress is made (unintelligible) experiment.

Justin: Oh no, it never ends up standing in the realm of “makity-uped-ness”

Dr Krauss: And hopefully it doesn’t. If it does, then science is in sad shape.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Yes.

Dr Krauss: And in fact, that’s what you tend to see. You tend to see a lot of philosophical debate when people are confused before at some sense a breakthrough is made. And that’s often been the case. And we’ll see if it happens again.

Justin: Are we in that state now?

Kirsten: Yes, I was just going to ask if – you have published a bit on your disagreement with some aspects of string theory and…

Dr Krauss: No, just my question of whether progress have been in string theory.

Kirsten: Right.

Dr Krauss: And so, there’s no doubt we’re confused. There’s no doubt we’ve been confused about some fundamental issues for a long time. And unfortunately, at many basic levels, we haven’t yet got experimental data. We’re about to turn on a big, new particle accelerator next year in Geneva…

Kirsten: Yes.

Dr Krauss: …that may resolve some of these issues. But we’ve been unfortunately going around for the last 20 years without a lot of experimental direction and that tends to lead to sensory deprivation and lots of…

Justin: That’s great, right.

Dr Krauss: …hallucination perhaps.

Kirsten: Yes.

Dr Krauss: My point is that string theory was really developed to try and address some really fundamental and interesting questions. And it’s a fascinating idea. My only concern is that it really hasn’t made much progress.

In fact, some could say almost no progress in the last 25 years. And therefore, it’s not clear to me what all the hoopla is all about.

Kirsten: So do you think it’s just the fact that it has not made any progress and the fact that there has not been able to be any experimentation that’s lead us anywhere that is the basic problem with string theory?

Do you agree wit some of the tenets of string theory our universe is based on these vibrating strings, that there are brains of parallel universes?

Dr Krauss: Well, I mean yes. But all those are fascinating ideas. But question whether I agree or not, I think there’s no basis for agreeing or disagreeing.

Kirsten: Okay.

Dr Krauss: There’s no evidence whatsoever. They’re interesting theoretical ideas. They haven’t yet led anywhere. There are fascinating theoretical ideas and some people have been working on them.

But the key point is that there’s no physical evidence in any way that any of these ideas are actually applied to our universe. And until there is, they’re interesting theoretical speculations. They don’t even solve thought yet.

They will also dissolve fundamental, theoretical and mathematical problems.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Dr Krauss: And there are some mathematical issues that have been addressed in string theory, but really, I think the fundamental ones of great interest haven’t really been resolved in there.

And so, while these are fascinating ideas and I have no problem. I’ve had students on work on it. In fact, one of my students just want the people to help push originally the idea of extra dimensions.

Kirsten: Yes.

Dr Krauss: While these are interesting ideas, there’s just no evidence that any of them are right. And they’ve been floundering for sometime.

And the thing that most people don’t realize I think is that even if they’re good ideas – and some of them are really good and neat ideas and one of my last big party in the mirror, I spent a lot of time trying to give what I like to call a fair a balanced treatment of string theory in the non-Fox News sense.

And I try to indicate why people are interested in it but at the same time, the fact that there really have been no significantly new developments from these ideas. No new discoveries, no resolution of fundamental theoretical problem means that one should be skeptical at best.

And what most people have realized about physics is that most ideas including good ideas are wrong.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: And that’s helpful.

Dr Krauss: I mean if all ideas are right, anyone can do it. But most ideas are wrong.

Justin: And…

Dr Krauss: And so, if you have bet against any new idea, then why is being honest being wrong?

Justin: Is it money? And the great thing is to, I mean the difficult thing is they can’t be wrong I mean there are so many aspects of string theory that if they could be proven wrong or to be tested against the physical world, it could make it stronger.

It’s sort of Einstein’s doing the orbits of the planet and his gravity and then Mercury doesn’t fit. So, he got to work backwards from a physical observation and his theory forwards and find it in the middle somewhere.

Dr Krauss: In fact, you’re making an important point. And I think it’s really important to stress is when people think of sort of theoretical physics is working in closed rooms and solving the problems of the universe and Einstein came as close as anyone to sort of – and with his general theory of relativity to sort of a theory based on pure thoughts but it wasn’t really wasn’t based on pure thought, it was based on physical problems.

And indeed, he got most excited because he can address it once he even had a theory, he couldn’t address physical issues like the orbits of mercury and et cetera.

And so, he got really excited when he discovered he could explain the (peri hellion) in Mercury. That’s when he felt his theory was right.

There hadn’t yet been an experiment or observable that you can compare a spring theory to. But even more important and more worrisome as people have been working on string theory the uniqueness of the theory sort of has been going away.

Kirsten: Yes.

Dr Krauss: And in fact, it’s not clear that it makes any predictions at all in the sense that it might be able to predict anything namely…

Kirsten: Right.

Dr Krauss: And therefore, as I’ve written it, it’s really a theory of anything rather than the theory of something or a theory of everything. If you have a theory that’s in agreement with anything you could possibly measure, then does that make any predictions? Is that really science? That’s an interesting question.

Kirsten: Yes.

Dr Krauss: And it’s not clear to me. The answer is yes.

Kirsten: So, moving on to something that we can actually measure or we can use physical principles to start theorizing about dark energy…

Justin: Dark matter.

Kirsten: …and dark matter. Yes, that’s an area of interest I know that you’re involved in.

Dr Krauss: Yes, I’ve been involved with it for some time.

Kirsten: Right. Is there any best guess at this point? People have been trying to figure for a long time what is it that is this dark matter that you can’t see that fills space with something?

Dr Krauss: Well – I’m sorry. Do you want to continue or you just want me to jump in.

Kirsten: No, jump in please.

Justin: Then please jump in. We’re rambling. The gravity making invisible…

Dr Krauss: (Unintelligible) that makes all of us. The point is that there have been really a number of incredibly exciting observation or developments. And when I say there have been not much data – in fundamental particle physics, at accelerators, there hasn’t been a lot of (unintelligible) data.

But when we look at the universe, the picture of the universe has become revolutionized in the last 30 years and certainly in the last ten years.

The first big development and what got me into cosmology as a particle physicist was the observation that most of the mass in our galaxy and stars in all galaxies doesn’t shine.

You add up the mass of stars and everything we see including x-ray gas and everything else, it accounts for a very small fraction of the total mass binding galaxies together.

What’s really exciting about that and makes it much less speculative than some other things is it turns out from a particle physics perspective –every new idea in particle physics that addresses existing problems of fundamental structure matter predicts new kinds of elementary particles that are naturally produced in the early universe that might be the dark matter.

And not only that, there are possible experimental signatures. So, there are dozens of experiments ongoing around the world.

The neat thing is that the dark matter is made of some new type of elementary particles. It’s not just out there. It’s actually in this room, in your room. And as we’re talking, it’s going right through your body and right through mine. And that means we can do experiments here on Earth to detect it.

And so, dark matter is very exciting not just because the evidence that it’s made of some new type of elementary particle has increased over the last decade.

So, I’m pretty certain it probably is, but that there are ongoing experiments to look for it. So, that’s exciting.

Dark energy is stranger still.

Kirsten: Yes.

Dr Krauss: Dark energy appears to be the energy associated with empty space.

Kirsten: Yup.

Dr Krauss: And we don’t have the slightest idea why it’s there. We don’t know anything about it. There’s no good theoretical arguments that explain it. And it is the biggest mystery in physics. And it’s fair to say we understand absolutely nothing about it even though it appears to be the most important stuff in the universe.

And that as a theorist actually to me is exciting…

Kirsten: Yes.

Dr Krauss: …because being puzzled is much more fun than knowing stuff because if we’re puzzled there’s still work left to do.

Kirsten: Right. There’s still questions to be asked.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: In terms of dark matter, how do you think that it relates to gravity? Is there such a thing as the graviton?

Dr Krauss: Well, I mean the answer is most certainly yes. The graviton would be an elementary part that conveys the gravitational force just like it’s a particle that conveys the electric force called the proton and the particle that conveys the weak force called the w (boson), et cetera.

And so, there’s no reason to believe that graviton doesn’t exist. Gravity is the weakest force in nature however.

Kirsten: Yes.

Dr Krauss: And the only way to sort of get enough stuff to measure really a strong gravitational field is to put lot of matter together and that means right now the only way we can probe it is by looking at astrophysical objects where there’s lots of mass – like stars and neutrons or the big black holes or the whole universe.

Unfortunately on the fundamental scale, particle by particle, elementary particles interact so weakly with gravity that we can’t directly detect these individual particles called gravitons. But in my mind, there’s no reason to expect that they don’t exist (basically).

Justin: Here’s my hang up on the graviton.

Dr Krauss: What is that?

Justin: I have a hang up with the graviton I mean I understand…

Dr Krauss: You know what their name or what?

Justin: No, no, no. I don’t understand how it can affect either empty space or light particles to create the bending of light when it goes around a massive objects. That just boggles me that you can have a communication particle either catching light or effecting equally empty space.

Dr Krauss: Well, I mean it’s not – when you talk about bending of light on large scales you’re talking about not a single particle, you’re talking about a coherent superposition of lots of gravitons and that isn’t too different than when you feel an electric force when you put a balloon next to a wall and rub it and it gets (installed) to the wall.

Kirsten: Static.

Dr Krauss: The electric force and so they mean isn’t just a single proton, it’s a coherent superposition of lots of them that can connect to far distances.

So in fact – oh, let’s think of another one, a magnet. When you put only two magnets apart, you feel that force. Well, there’s empty space between them I mean forget the air but you’re…

Justin: Yes.

Dr Krauss: …feeling a force of a large scale that’s caused by this nice – the fact that all the protons exchanged on one magnet interact with another over and lots of them add up and you create some classical force.

And that’s exactly what happens with gravity. You know, when you talk abut the bending of – why don’t you talk about a ball falling from your hand, it’s not a single graviton being exchanged, it’s a coherent superposition exactly the same as a coherent superposition that produces that macroscopic force between magnets.

And so, the gravitons behave just like the protons. If you have a problem with gravitons, you should have the problem with protons. But you better not have the problem with protons if you understand protons.

Justin: No, the protons I understand. It just seems like the graviton then has to move the speed of light at least…

Dr Krauss: Yes, but it does.

Justin: …otherwise it’s going to get zipped by – or the proton would just zipped by it.

Dr Krauss: Well, if you add up graviton to the long way, it turns out they create a coherent background that the protons move. It’s like moving through a sea of, I mean here’s the way I think about it, right?

If you’re trying to cross a highway and there are a lot of cars moving, very fast, you may be lucky you have missed them all but if there are lots of them, then you’re going to likely to interact with them in a rather dramatic way.

Kirsten: And die like Frogger.

Justin: Yes. It’s just exactly what I was thinking.

Kirsten: That’s fantastic. Thinking of gravitons is the game of Frogger. It’s perfect.

Dr Krauss: Yes.

Kirsten: So…

Justin: Then every object in the universe would have its own – I’d be emanating gravitons right now, sending them out and having it communicate back to me.

Kirsten: You would have to be.

Dr Krauss: You are. In fact, you are. Every object that has mass produces a gravitational field until you’re bending space around you. But the point is you’re not very heavy I mean I’m not in the room with you but I think you’re not heavy enough to produce a bending of light that I would notice.

In fact, gravity is so weak that you don’t – the sun, even if our lightweight went right passed the sun and the sun is a million times the mass of the Earth, it only bends light by about 1/1000th of a degree or so.

And so, gravity is really weak to see big effects. You have to have lots of mass. And that’s why – as I say, it is amazing in fact that we’ve been able to measure the bending of light at all.

And the only way to do it is with the huge, massive objects like the sun or galaxy or clusters of galaxies.

Kirsten: Yes.

Dr Krauss: And then, we can see this stuff but – yes. So, you produce an effect but it’s so small that it’s unlikely now or ever that anyone would ever directly be able to measure you because of your gravitational influence on space.

Justin: Still intuitively does not sit well with.

Dr Krauss: Yup.

Kirsten: You’re a difficult one, Justin.

Dr Krauss: Okay. Actually, one of the things that we know that’s kind of amazing is we actually can measure the gravitational field being emitted by you. In fact, it was done about 100 years after Newton in 1798 or so.

We can actually measure directly the gravitational strength of attractions. They took cannon balls. It was done by a guy named Cavendish.

So, we can measure the gravitational attraction of objects about your mass and therefore prove that you’re actually producing a gravitational field.

Kirsten: Producing a field.

Justin: I don’t doubt that gravity exists. Wait a sec. I’m not doubting that there’s gravity.

Dr Krauss: Okay.

Justin: I believe that one.

Kirsten: Now in terms of…

Justin: If I didn’t I’d never leave the house. It’d be too frightening.

Kirsten: We’re getting to the end of our show here. In terms of dark energy, this huge mystery, who out there is doing top theoretical work that might lead us in the direction?

What is our best evidence at this point or our best guess at this point for moving forward to actually figure something out about dark energy?

Dr Krauss: Well, when people ask me questions like that I always say, “If I knew what the best…

Kirsten: You’d be doing it.

Dr Krauss: …I’d be doing it.”

Kirsten: Yes, okay.

Dr Krauss: And so, the point is there are lots of different approaches. And right now they’re all as far as I can see equally fruitless.

Kirsten: Yes.

Dr Krauss: And we’re just very confused. And it’s a very exciting time in that sense but it’s also a very frustrating time. But I hope it’s mysteries like that that mean that there’s a lot – and I really do believe this, that there’s a lot more of what we don’t understand about the universe than we do and that’s what makes science worth continuing to do.

Kirsten: Thank you. You’re also a staunch defender of science and I just want to say thanks for the time that you do spend getting out and being in front of the camera, behind the microphone, on the telephone in front of a podium speaking to people and trying to help spread the word that science is not such a bad thing.

Dr Krauss: Well, that’s vital for our future. And thank you. It’s sometimes seems like a thankless task so I appreciate your words.

Justin: And when the scientists finally do overthrow world governments, we’ll have a good position for you.

Dr Krauss: Well, there’s a physicist who’s head of Germany so maybe we’re (unintelligible).

Justin: There we go.

Kirsten: That was right.

Dr Krauss: And I don’t want to be a scientist, I would just like politicians to at least not be scientifically illiterate. That’s all I care about.

Justin: Oh, come on. Now, that’s just wishing.

Dr Krauss: No, well, no.

Justin: That’s just wishing on a star, buddy.

Dr Krauss: Yes, maybe, maybe.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: That’s why the scientists do have to overthrow the world governments because once they’re in there then you’ve got…

Dr Krauss: Well, I’ll tell you one thing, science is great because it works well with democracy. Science is based in the free exchange in information, open discussion, honesty, full disclosure…

Kirsten: Yes.

Dr Krauss: …all these things which if they existed in Washington would make it a better place.

Justin: Right. It’s a place when you’re wrong, it’s an actual noble thing to change your course.

Dr Krauss: Yes, exactly.

Justin: Yes.

Dr Krauss: You got it. And you hit the nail in the head. To me, it’s the best aspect of science is that…

Justin: Yes.

Dr Krauss: …you can throw out an idea no matter how cherished and beautiful it is…

Kirsten: Yes.

Dr Krauss: …like yesterday’s newspaper when something better comes along. And everyone, every student I teach, everyone should have that experience some time in their life to have some cherished notion be proved wrong and have to change their mind. It’s what produces an open mind.

Justin: Fascinating.

Kirsten: Absolutely. Well, thank you very much for joining us this morning. It’s been great. I’m glad that you were able to spend the time with us, talking with us. It’s been enlightening and I wish you all the best.

Dr Krauss: Well, thanks. Thank you.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: You’re welcome.

Justin: Much appreciated, yes.

Dr Krauss: Well, good luck with your own program and your own studies and everything.

Kirsten: Thank you. Have a great day.

Dr Krauss: Okay. Take care.

Justin: Bye-bye.

Kirsten: You too. Bye.

Dr Krauss: Bye-bye.

Kirsten: That was Dr. Lawrence Krauss from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. And he’s a really interesting guy.

Justin: And he’s sticking to his gravitons.

Kirsten: He’s sticking to his gravitons. And Justin, maybe you should stick around too.

Justin: What?

Kirsten: No. Maybe you just stick to him too.

Justin: No, see because I’m going to abandon – I think that gravitons are going the way of the dodo birds. So, I’m abandoning them now. And it’s sort of a bank, all right, a banking on the fact that they’re going to discover there weren’t any and then at that point, people will be like, “Who knew?” And I’ll be like, “Oh, I know all along, yes.”

Kirsten: Yes, all right.

Justin: I knew they weren’t going to stay together. It was totally obvious. All right, hey!

Kirsten: Oh, my goodness. We’re at the end of our hour. Thanks everyone for joining us. I’d like to thank (Ed Dyer) and darn it! I didn’t down any write anything else. He sent in a story today.

If you are interested in sending in stories, TWIStributors please send me your submissions – two minute and a half long in a mp3 or WAV file format to Otherwise, just send me stories you think would be interesting to talk about. We’ll get them on the air.

Next week, we’ve got Michael Stebbins back again for The Weird in Washington and many more of our usual segments.

I don’t believe there’s any more interesting tidbits to tell people about so.

Justin: If you’ve learned anything from today’s show, remember…

Kirsten: It’s all in your head.

Listen to the podcast here: