More Science Talk
Scientific American editor Mark Fischetti talks about Earth 3.0, a new Scientific American publication concerning energy, sustainability and the environment. And SciAm.com writer Larry Greenemeier discusses the interface between nanotech and biology. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites mentioned in this episode include www.sciamearth3.com
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting September 24th, 2008. I'm Steve Mirsky and you live on planet Earth, or Earth 1.0, which means that you will be interested in Earth 3.0, a new Scientific American offering. Mark Fischetti is the managing editor of Earth 3.0; we spoke in the Scientific American library.
Steve: Mark what is Scientific American Earth 3.0?
Fischetti: Earth 3.0 is a new special newsstand issue of a magazine from Scientific American which is all about the energy, environment sustainability of
a [our] planet.
Steve: Why did we decide it was important enough to do this?
Fischetti: Well, there
are a [is] lots and lots of action now in the news, virtually everyday, about global warming, pollution, scarcity of natural resources, oil, energy sources. All of these things, kind of, fall under the category of sustainability and we felt that the issues are so pressing and long-term and really are informed by science primarily that we needed to come out and address these topics, you know, in a special place.
Steve: There is some stuff you would expect to see in here; I mean, you can't have an issue like this without [a] James Hansen article.
Fischetti: Right, right.
Steve: James Hansen is of course the NASA climatologist who is always in the news, getting himself into hot water, if you will. But there's also some interesting other kind of features in here. Why don't we talk about the idea of bringing farms right into urban areas in skyscrapers?
Fischetti: Right. Yeah. Vertical farming is, sort of, a term that's growing, so to speak. The idea is there is so much energy and waste that goes into traditional farming; you know, out in Iowa, let's just pick an example. Tons of fertilizer, lots of energy to drive diesel tractors and all that and then the food, once it's grown, then it has to be harvested by machines and then transported mostly by truck, all over the country. So there's tremendous amount of energy and emissions involved. Why not grow the food where the people are? The plan is to have skyscrapers, perhaps 30 stories high and a full city block in footprint and on each floor, you're growing crops either hydroponically, I mean, in water or aeroponically, hanging in the air, where there's mists with nutrients that allow the plants to grow. Since you control the air conditions and the light conditions, you can grow crops all year around, so you've got four growing seasons that are one. There's no transportation, the people are right there. The food is fresher for everyone. So it's really an interesting concept that sounds nuts when you first hear about it, but if you start to think about it, it really makes a lot of sense.
Steve: And then you could sell, you could have your farm stand on the ground floor of the building.
Fischetti: Farm stand on level one and restaurants on level two.
Steve: Right, and then people from, you know, within a 10-block radius or whatever, do their shopping for produce at that farm stand.
Fischetti: Right, right.
Steve: And you have them all across the city, and, you know, it's kind of funny, in a way it's a return to a tradition rather than, it looks very different, but it is, rather than being this radical new thing, it's a return to an old thing; because when I growing up—and I'm talking about into the 1980s up in the Bronx, New York—there was full working farm on the interior of the city block, six blocks from my house.
Steve: And so if you wanted produce, that's where you went; you walked the six blocks. Let me say it again, in New York City, you walked about six blocks to the local farm, and you know how city blocks are laid out, the whole interior, would ordinarily be everybody's backyard, you know, [a] semi suburban street—it was a working farm. The guys would be there everyday, and if you wanted arugula, if you wanted lettuce, if you wanted whatever, tomatoes, you know, it came with dirt on them.
Fischetti: Right, right.
Steve: But you know, they finally closed up about 25 years
about[ago], but you know, so this is, sort of, a return to that. The catch-22 story in the issue—water versus energy, because you need water to make your energy, to harvest you[r] energy and you need energy to move your water around and, you know, somewhere there's a disequilibrium.
Fischetti: Yeah, it's an interesting issue that I think people aren't aware of. There's a lot of talk about peak oil, peak energy, but really we're in a very similar situation with the water. It's increasingly in demand, it's increasingly rare, and it's become increasingly costly; and the catch-22 is. just as you said, it takes lots of fresh water to produce energy and it takes lots of energy to produce clean, potable water and actually to clean used water. So, and a lot of the solutions for "clean energy" such as electric cars would actually impose a greater burden on fresh water because electric cars are basically running off
a power provided by power plants, and power plants are amongst the largest consumers of water in the country. So more electric cars means less gasoline, but it means more water, and there's this really tightly bound interplay between the two of these resources; and I think people are focusing mostly on the energy and not on the water to it's potential detriment, so that's what that piece is trying to get in.
Steve: Why do power plants consume so much water?
Fischetti: Mostly for cooling.
Steve: Well, nuclear power plants, yes, but even traditional...
Fischetti: Yeah, the turbines, to create electricity, which are just massive machines that get really hot, so there's huge volumes of water for cooling and you lose it to evaporation; and any time you draw off clean water at a river to cool a power plant, then you have to treat that before and actually let the water cool before you return it to the river. Right, people are not aware of that and that's an interesting dynamic.
Steve: There's section called Frontlines, which has a series of short, looks like opinion pieces. What is the other CO2 problem?', which is the title of the one of those Frontlines.
Fischetti: Yeah, these are commentaries by expert[s]; really short, you know, one page, maybe two pages, right to the heart of an issue. The other carbon dioxide issue is the ocean. Everyone is concerned with more carbon dioxide in the air from global warming, but a lot of that, a large portion of the emissions of carbon dioxide gets cycled through the ocean, the ocean absorbs it and it's making ocean water more acidic. And even a slight change in the acidity of the ocean water really impacts the entire ocean food chain and some scientists including the ones in this issue are saying if we don't watch it, it could start to take out essentially the large segment of the microbial populations, simple organisms, and will collapse the food chain in the ocean.
Steve: I was going to ask—this would be bad?
Fischetti: Yeah! (laughs)
Steve: I figured it was probably bad, which brings me to a question. It comes to my mind, how do we talk about these issues without just being, like, the total downer?
Fischetti: Yeah, yeah. I'm glad you asked that. I'm glad you asked that question because we're really trying to focus on solutions. So the catch-22 piece about water and energy is looking at where are the major trade-offs and what do we have to do to be smarter about that. The piece with James Hansen is where is that limit, that sort of crossover point, where carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can, kind of, take us on a runaway situation? And if once we know that point then we're better informed about what we can do about it? The ocean acidification commentary says, ""Now that we know that it is happening, here's the immediate steps we have take to try to slow that down."" Most of the articles in here are trying to either better inform us about an issue or give us solutions to these issues and you're exactly right. We hear [a] lot of complaining about what's going on. We need to try to solve it if we're going to change things.
Steve: We need to be able to, kind of, you know read about it or deal with it, without just glazing your eyes over, because it's all, you know, another doom and destruction story, but there's upbeat stuff in here too and others, you know, as you said, you have to understand what the problem is before you can even attempt to try to figure out what to do about it, but there's also fun stuff. I mean, there's ecotourism...
Steve: That gets discussed in the issue.
Fischetti: Ecotourism, there is a couple of sections one about being green, what you can do; there's buy in green sections, so it's cool products that are eco-friendly, so there's some of that personal consumer information, which is always interesting and fun; [an] ecotravel
ist [list]—trips you can take that are either kind of in harmony with the environment or even in this issue there's some trips you can take to take part in research about environmental issues; and still the trips are fun, so it's kind of cool to be doing something and be part of actually [actual] science while you're having fun on your vacation.
Steve: These are Earthwatch expeditions.
Fischetti: Earthwatch-like things. Yeah right, right.
Steve: There is a short piece in the issue on a global seed vault, which is just really an amazing thing. I mean it's like out of a sci-fi movie, this thing.
Fischetti: Yeah it's a cavernous basement, if you want to keep it that way, [a] cavernous concrete-and-steel vault, built deep into permanent glaciers north of Norway, way up in the North Sea.
Steve: Are we sure it's permanent?
Fischetti: Yeah, yeah. It's not an ice cap. And it's this massive wall, tens of thousands of square feet and [the] plan is to essentially store copies of all the seeds that are stored in small seed banks in research labs all around the Earth. So we would have a copy of every seed that we know we've got, up in this vault in the Arctic for safekeeping where, because it's entombed in the ice, the temperature is really low, it's very stable and that's the best conditions for keeping seeds for [a] very long term so that...
Steve: So that when aliens come...
Fischetti: ... they can regrow the Earth.
Steve: You have an article by Stephen Solomon, talking about former CIA director, [James] Woolsey, noting that energy independence or energy dependence is a really national security issue; and we had Tom Friedman on the podcast back on September 9th talking about a similar thing, but you know, he's a journalist. This guy was the director of the CIA.
Fischetti: Right, right and it's [an] interesting perspective from his point of view, which is even if we don't care about the Earth and all you care about is yourselves or the United States, our dependence on oil—and not just foreign oil, but oil—is the security issue. The obvious example is what's going on the Middle East, but the less obvious example is we're so dependent on oil that if prices change in any drastic way, which we're all seeing right now, the entire national economy could be wrecked because it's so driven by oil; so here's a person, you know, a hawk in his past, steeped in government and who has really made a change and said, we['ve] got to get out of this situation; we can get out of this situation. He has got his plan, which he presents; and we have to wake up, that
is [it's] not just about saving about the planet—or it should be and that's fine—but even if you don't care about that, there are huge issues involved with energy [and] environment.
Steve: Unfortunately, it still is for the most part treated like a liberal/conservative or Democratic or Republican issue, but it is way beyond that, you know—it is a national security issue which we keep getting told should be above politics. Well it should be.
Fischetti: Right, right. Now that's very true, right, and here's a good example of someone who has really changed his outlook. You know, there's another person; T. Boone Pickens is getting some press now, you know, traditional oil man all the way who is now investing heavily in wind farms and high-voltage direct transmission to send energy that would be created by wind farms and solar farms
other [over] long distances to people with little losses. So, even the so-called the traditionalist[s], if you want [to] use that term, are starting to really change their views on these issues.
Steve: Pickens stands to make a lot of money, no matter how our electricity is created, but that doesn't make him wrong about this.
Fischetti: Not exactly; that actually is a good point. You know, Hansen is, sort of, the traditional climatologist's view, but these guys like Woolsey say there's security reasons for all this and T. Boone Pickens will say, "Hey there's ways to make money from all of this," which is all sort of positive motivations to do what we "should be doing" anyway.
Steve: The Scientific American Earth 3.0 solutions for sustainable progress has got [on the cover] the lovely photo of the Earth
the cover being strangled by gasoline line and this goes on sale at newsstands ...
Fischetti: September 30th.
Steve: September 30th and the entire issue is also available on the Web site, and I see we have special Web, special URL, http://www.SciAmearth3.com. Thanks, Mark.
Fischetti: Thank you, Steve.
Steve: SciAm's Larry Greenemeier was at a conference last week at the University of Wisconsin‚ÄìMadison on the interface between nanotechnology and biology. We spoke in his office. I asked him about the topics under discussion, other than that "nano" is very very small.
Greenemeier: Yeah, that was where the conversation began. There were a series of workshops, and, in fact, the initial workshop was to try to get people the sense of what nano scale is. For example, by the time I finish
ed the [this] sentence your fingernails would have grown one nanometer.
Steve: But that's interesting, because I just came across a figure last week, almost completely unrelated, but your finger nails also grow at about the same rate as the continents drift. So stick that in your pipe.
Greenemeier: So right, so now we know the continents move in nanometers as well.
Steve: There you go.
Greenemeier: So, yeah, the other thing that came up, really, out in the conference that the word nanometer, the word nanotechnology is beginning to lose meaning because it's really just a measurement,
it[a] means to an end. It's not the fact that something as[is] nanotechnology that's important; it's what it does. So when we talk about carbon nanotubes—which people say are 500 times stronger than steel and a thousand times more conductive than copper—it's not really important that the other [they are the] size of a virus or the same size as, you know, smaller than a bacteria.
Steve: Well, that's not what people are interested in;
for they are interested in and for these properties that emerge.
Greenemeier: Right; for example, I had written a story a few months ago about a researcher who was looking at inserting carbon nanotubes into the knee of people who had torn cartilage with the hope that the cartilage would grow around the carbon nanotube and it would be stronger than it was previously. There is a little bit of controversy behind that because it is not clear whether having the carbon nanotubes in your knee would wear over time and would be worse, but the point is that they were small enough for the cartilage to grow around them and that's the idea behind what they are dealing [with].
Steve: And some of this is necessary because everybody was using nanotech in their grant proposals, their loan proposals at the bank, you know, because it would become
a very in vogue to say that you were developing nanotechnology without anybody really necessarily being all that concerned about just what['s] unique—they were working with really little things and that's going to change the world.
Greenemeier: Right. Yeah, this sort of [be]came a buzz word but I think that will probably, if the conference is any indication, people will stop using that word so much and talk about specifics. We will see how long that takes, and one of the reasons is that nanotech is getting a bad rap; people are concerned about the impact that it will have on people's health. Now, the[re]
y are going to be good impacts and bad impacts if you will continue to develop [this technology], and one of the concerns is that it could get in, if you get nanoparticles that are airborne, they can get into the lungs. There was a report that compared this to asbestos, although there was a lot of discussion at the conference that [the] report wasn't quite accurate. The way the report was done, they were injecting asbestos in nanoparticles into the abdominal cavity of rats or mice, but that's obviously not where it goes, it goes into the lung. So there were some flaws to that, but it is a concern. I mean you never know when something gets airborne the impact that it could have on your lungs and especially something that's small might not show up for a long time, but be a serious problem. Now on the other side, you've got hope that nanotech will help deliver drugs to the body. You can attach pharmaceuticals to a, like say, a gold nanoparticle, which is fairly neutral, and that would be able to deliver the medicine to a specific location.
Steve: You have the gold that is attached to an antibody usually and then the medication, the molecule of drug is attached to the gold on the other side, and you wind up using the gold as this vehicle with the antibody to specifically deliver the drug.
Greenemeier: Yeah, like a ferry boat.
Greenemeier: So it has got good and bad. The potential is good and bad. I don't know how much
creeds [credence] we can put in the bad at this point.
Steve: Was there anything that—in addition to the fingernail rate—anything that really jumped out at you at the conference?
Greenemeier: Well, there was a 17-year-old high school student who has been working research in one of the Wisconsin labs the past three years; he co-founded a company called Graphene Solutions and he and his mentor are studying the different uses of carbon nanotubes. One of the things that he brought up that I thought was interesting is that carbon nanotubes, when they are created generally
club [clump] together.
Greenemeier: So one of the important things that they are working on is the ability to remove them from clumps so that they can actually be used.
Steve: But if you have [a] single carbon nanotube, you have these really interesting electronic properties and tensile strength properties.
Greenemeier: Right, but if you have...
Steve: But if they are all clumped together, you have
Steve: The world record for the length of a carbon nanotube right now stands at about what?
Greenemeier: Well, what I was told was that it's about 1.5 centimeters. So there is talk of nanotubes being created, using [them] to create such
Steve: Incredibly lightweight bridge-supporting cable.
Greenemeier: Absolutely right
and but with the 1.5 centimeters today, we are going to have to probably wait for that a lit bit more.
Steve: Some ways to go, but the world record for the length of a nanotube probably 10 years ago was
odd as a magnitude smaller, so maybe there will be some significant progress on that front, you know, in the coming years; but it's a fascinating potential substance. It does all these really amazing thing[s], you know, as you said, stronger than steel but with really interesting electronic properties, you know, tiny little switches for circuits; it's really quite extraordinary with[what] the potential for the thing is. In the meantime, people are calling, you know, carbon nanotube applications things that are just as well, spraying paint at a very fine aerosol mist.
Steve: And it's not real, but it could be sometimes...
Greenemeier: Right. You bring up, with the point about
the nanotech and, people say that there are nanoparticles in cosmetics or suntan lotion, which is technically true, there are [particles] that on that scale of size but they are not doing the kinds of things that some of the more innovative ideas would have nanotech do.
Steve: Right, I mean a molecule of water you're talking about nano-size particles, but that's not what we hope to get out of investment in nanotech.
Greenemeier: Yeah; we hope we can do more, better than in cosmetics and suntan lotions.
Steve: Now its time to play TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: In the first days of operation, the Large Hadron Collider found the elusive Higgs Boson.
Story number 2: The group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has recommended that Ben & Jerry's discontinue using cow's milk in ice cream and replace it with human breast milk.
Story number 3: The Environmental Protection Agency is decided against limiting the levels of a rocket fuel ingredient that can be found in drinking water.
And story number 4: The Amish are using solar energy.
Story number 4 is true. The Amish are using solar energy and I am not talking about the letting sunlight grow their corn. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that many Amish families have installed solar panels to charge batteries for home use. Plugging into the grid would violate their religious practice, but using the sun to power some devices for some purposes is acceptable. One solar products company was getting 80 percent of its business from the Amish; with rising oil prices non-Amish are increasingly turning to solar and the company expects 60 percent of its sales to go to non-Amish next year.
Story number 3 is true. The EPA has decided not to put a limit on acceptable levels of rocket fuel ingredient in water. That's according to a draft of a regulatory document that the Associated Press reviewed. The particular toxic ingredient perchlorate can cause developmental risks for fetuses. So you can apparently be both against abortion and against healthy fetal development.
Story number 2 is true. PETA does want Ben & Jerry's to use human breast milk in ice cream. PETA claims that a Swiss restaurant too is going to be using human milk for cooking and it was such a good idea that B&J might go for it. But a Ben & Jerry's spokesman apparently turning down this suggestion said, "We applaud PETA's novel approach to bring the attention to an issue but we believe a mother's milk is best used for her child."
All of which means that story number 1, about the Large Hadron Collider finding the Higgs Boson is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS; because what is true is that the Large Hadron Collider went online and, well, let's let SciAm's George Musser explain.
Steve: George, on our last episode we talked about the wonders of the new Large Hadron Collider. This week we'll very briefly talk about why it has broken.
Musser: Now it's still a wonderful instrument isn't it? An amazing machine and they all have problems when they start up. So yeah, it's kind of a let down, but don't get it going.
Steve: So what is actually wrong with the LHC? I mean, they never even tried yet to actually collide particles with each other.
Musser: No, they are just at the stage where they are trying to control the beam[s] of particles that are circulating within the Collider.
Steve: Right, because if you can't control the beam, you can't smash two beams together, you have to—Ghostbusters notwithstanding—the idea here is to cross the beams.
Steve: And you can't do that unless you know exactly where the beams are going to be.
Steve: So in their original attempts to control the beam, some problems cropped up. And what's going on there?
Musser: Well, there are a couple of problems happening. The day of commissioning, the day that everyone had a big party for the start-up of the Collider, there was a problem actually with the transformer, one of the power transformers, that led to a couple of degree temperature rise and they had to replace the power transformer and cool the thing back down, but that was a pretty minor glitch actually. And then last Friday I got an e-mail in my box which said, "incident in sector 34".
Steve: That's a great name for a movie.
Musser: And I was just thinking God! It does sound like a novel. Might be I'll write that novel, but unfortunately it was a terse,
sink [succinct], somewhat sober e-mail about a much more serious problem, which was the detection of a helium leak within the tunnel. When I actually visited the Collider last year, we had to carry emergency breathing apparatus with us into the tunnel, just in case we were down there when they had a helium leak.
Steve: Right, because you can't breathe helium and you will suffocate.
Musser: You will suffocate like this (in a high-pitched voice).
Steve: But you will suffocate.
Musser: It will be funny for awhile but...
Steve: For awhile.
Musser: ... [a] short while, so they detected [a] leak; they attribute the leak to the some kind of electrical connection that melted, but the bottom line is that they have to raise that area of the Collider back up to room temperature so they can fix said electrical connection, and cool it back down, and it takes weeks to do that to run into the shutdown that has to happen over the winter, because of the energy prices.
Steve: Right, we talked about that on the last episode.
Steve: Your winter choices are either run the Collider or keep Geneva livable.
Musser: So I think Geneva takes priority in this case, and they'll start the Collider up now in spring time.
Steve: Okay, and in the grand scheme of things, is this a minor glitch, major glitch, medium glitch, catastrophe, or just, you know, at the price of doing business, you expect it?
Musser: It's stealing pains, I mean it's not pleasant. They all wish and we all wish that they had started the collisions now, yesterday. But you know they had been designing the thing for over a decade, a couple of months here, a couple of months there, and I think I guess it hurts the students who are really depending on the Collider for their PhD data for their thesis, so they have to spend another six months in graduate school, but as we all know another six months in graduate school [is] par
t for the course.
Steve: That's like another week. It's a week, six months.
Steve: All right, so you know the Higgs Boson, you have a reprieve here, on the loose for another six months or so.
Musser: Right, dark matter...
Steve: So we will track you down.
Musser: Supersymmetry, it's hidden yet,
more[for] a few more months.
Steve: Well, that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. Visit http://www.SciAm.com for all the latest science news, videos, and blogs. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.