More Science Talk
We look at the contents of the July issue of Scientific American magazine, the last under outgoing Editor in-Chief John Rennie, including an article by moon explorer Harrison Schmitt, a piece on the fight against superbugs, a report on the potential of biofuels such as grassoline, and a recollection of the pernicious effects of chess! Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news.
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly Podcast of Scientific American, posted on June 26th 2009. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week, we'll take a look at the contents of the July issue of Scientific American magazine with Editor in Chief John Rennie, which includes taking a look backward. We spoke in the offices at the magazine.
Steve: Hey John. How're you doing?
Rennie: Fine thanks.
Steve: July Scientific American.
Steve: Features a very interesting and nostalgic letter from—why ... you.
Rennie: Well, yes, exactly—me looking back, keying off our story of looking back at the Apollo program and what it is that some future astronauts going to Mars might learn from the experiences of the lunar astronauts. I comment on, reminisce back on my own memories 40 years ago to when, yeah, of course, to Apollo 11 and the first moon landing.
Steve: July 20th.
Steve: Is the anniversary coming up?
Rennie: That's right.
Steve: And you were just a child.
Rennie: Yes, exactly.
Steve: Minus 20 years old.
Rennie: Yeah, something like that—that's right and, you know, very exciting for me and for everyone else, of course, looking back and listening to Walter Cronkite, the most trusted newsman in America, telling us all about the Apollo Program and what it is the astronauts might be experiencing when they landed on the moon; you know,
in a tremendously exciting time overall. And this seemed like, it was looking at the 40th anniversary of that first moon landing, both to run this article about the astronauts' experiences by Harrison "Jack" Schmitt—the only really trained scientist who then also became an astronaut and went to the moon—so it was good time to run that article, and also for me to reminisce about all of this myself because of certain little experiences of my own.
Steve: Such as...
Rennie: Well, because this issue—the July 2009 issue—actually marks my last issue as editor in chief of the magazine. I am stepping down. I have been at Scientific American for 20 years at this point, and I have been editor in chief for almost 15 of those, and I think it's probably [a] pretty good time, for my sake and for the magazine, to let a lot of fresh air blow through. And happily, Mariette DiChristina, the executive editor for the past eight years, she is going to slide ride into the editor in chief slot and make sure that the quality of the magazine stays terrific.
Steve: And what are your plans coming up? Or you are just going to put your feet up and catch up with some of those Superman comics you've been [meaning to read]?
Rennie: You know, they've been stuck; I've been stacking them up for so many years. But, you know, I am going to be writing, editing, doing something for Scientific American and various other places in the future and, yes, taking a good long rest and looking forward to dropping my brain into a nice big glass of water for awhile.
Steve: Ice water.
Steve: It would be nice and cool.
Steve: But we know, I do know, you have some TV appearances coming up.
Rennie: Well, I guess that's right. Yeah, I am going to be appearing—there's a program that is going to be on the History Channel later this summer called Science: Impossible, and I'm in a number of episodes of that and lots of other different projects that are under works.
Steve: TV's John Rennie.
Rennie: Well ...
Steve: So you are back 40 years, and you are, you know, yet to be TV's John Rennie, and what I mean [is], I remember it, as well—sure it is, I'm much younger than you, but ...
Rennie: But you've heard—it was very exciting.
Steve: I heard it was really something when human beings actually set foot on the moon. And what do you remember as your primary reaction?
Rennie: You know, I think it was the thing that really stays with me so much was the wonderful sense of uncertainty about the whole thing. Now, at this point there is no question; scientists had certainly determined a lot about what the moon was like, we knew a lot about the structure, and we had pretty good ideas about these kinds of circumstances that the astronauts would find themselves [in] when they landed. But you still never quite knew. I think especially when you are looking at through the eyes of, a what then, 10-year-old boy, it's, you know, very exciting to imagine what all of that could possibly be like; you know, will the lunar module would somehow drop into giant pits of moon dust and vanish rather beneath the surface? Will something go technically wrong, and would the astronauts, who are on the surface of the moon, would they be unable to rejoin the command module orbiting? You know, what if Michael Collins got upset and decided he was going to come back to Earth early? Not always realistic questions, you know, but the kinds of things the 10-year-olds at the time spent a lot of time thinking about.
Steve: Michael Collins, of course, orbiting around the moon, he was the third member of the Apollo machine. He did not land on the moon, but he was up there, and, of course, when they got back up and knocked on the door, he is the one who said, "Who is it?"
Steve: But yeah, I remember, I was 11 and I remember worrying about the same things; and also, you know, it might be hard to believe now, but I distinctly remember some so-called experts being very concerned that the dust was going to be so fine.
Rennie: ... right...
Steve: ... that the astronauts would actually just sink right into it.
Steve: Well, the lunar module would sink right into it, you know, regardless of where they landed and it turned out, you know, the dust was, whatever, an inch or two of dust, and there —I was going to say "terra firma" but the dust was lunar...
Rennie: ...yes, that's right...
Steve: ...underneath it. So we have got this article by Harrison "Jack" Schmitt. You know, one of the great things I have had [was] the opportunity myself to talk to two guys who have actually been to the moon. And the stuff that you get from them when you ask, "What surprised you? What were the little things that maybe you did not expect?" And I remember, you know, the podcast listeners may remember Buzz Aldrin was surprised about the dust—the way that the dust, when you stepped down, floated up and then fell again.
Steve: In the one sixth gravity...
Rennie: ...under total vacuum.
Rennie: It's up and it drops right back down.
Steve: It is very different, and that's what he remembers as being the real kind of signature to him that he was in a very strange place.
Steve: And Schmitt in the article talks about the difficulty of the gloves—that's what really stuck out for him. The [moon] suit was fabulous, it worked great in fact because of the low pressure; the suit was pressurized obviously, but the pressure was less than you would have on Earth, and with the gravity being less he states you can pretty much keep up a good—if you wanted to run, you get into the right crouched position, you can do an extended run at a solid six miles an hour.
Rennie: Which is, you know, amazingly good. I mean, you know, a lot of us would be hard-pressed to do that just under Earth conditions, normally that way.
Steve: Exactly, 10-meter miles on the moon in a big suit.
Steve: But it is the gloves that drove him crazy. That was really fascinating.
Rennie: Yeah, because as he describes, there's an enormous amount of work that was involved in using your hands when you wore these gloves. And I think it's because the way they fit. I mean, it tended to just sort of, you got lots of abrasions inside. And I believe the reason is that, because, I think this is grossly oversimplifying the problem, but, of course, if you have
got a pressurized spacesuit, and you have it under vacuum circumstances, you don't want it to suddenly be that you are an astronaut and suddenly [it] is now like one of the big balloons in the Thanksgiving's Day Parade, you know—you've got [to] still be able to move. So I believe that even, you know, every motion, whether you are, say, clenching your hand or unclenching your hand, it takes exertion [of] a certain amount of pressure; otherwise the suit wants to retain its position, which, you know ..., means there is a lot more work going into that. And so as you said, you know, by the time they would end the different sorts of shifts of doing all kinds of work, wearing these pressure suit gloves, [it] would be exhausting. His hands would ache...
Steve: ... In the forearms.
Rennie: In the forearms, right, but I thought it was fascinating and
thought that he also said that, of course, because of the lower gravity and the improved circulation efficiency from that, that the pain went away faster.
Steve: [He had no residual muscle soreness he said,] because you were talking about circulation, talking about cardiovascular circulation.
Rennie: Right, right.
Steve: So your recovery from this exertion was incredibly rapid. So that's one of the highlights: If you're going to go to the moon, and you do a really strenuous workout, your recovery time will probably be pretty quick.
Rennie: That's right.
Steve: Harrison Schmitt. I'm glad that you mentioned [him. He] was the other astronaut that I actually met while with a whole bunch of people on an eclipse—solar eclipse—expedition; and he was one of the speakers on this thing, and the question came up about what he took away from it personally. And I remember him saying that the thing that he got of out it personally that when you're having an experience like being on the moon, which, I don't know if you could really say that.
Steve: It's a pretty singular thing, [yeah.] I mean there have been, [what,] about 12 people ever who have done it.
Rennie: I forgot.
Steve: I think it's 12. The important thing is to really be there mentally, just be in that moment experiencing what you are experiencing so that, you know, you can have that for the rest of your life. And he was talking about it in terms of the solar eclipse that we were about to see, and what a tremendous amazing experience that is, and while you are in it, really take it in. And, you know, I do not want to go all Zen on us here; you know, I think that being on the moon, of course, is an unbelievable, amazing thing but so is every moment of just being alive.
Rennie: Well, that's very true.
Steve: Right, so I think that's the thing that I got out of what he was talking about, and probably he has taken away from that experience, as well, is that, you know, every moment has it's own kind of fascinating stuff going on that you can really just ...
Rennie: You want to be fully present for all those moments and, sure, we all drop into our own kind of preoccupation and the routines of things that we have seen a thousand times before, and you don't look at them anymore.
Rennie: Appreciate the things around you.
Steve: Right, so going to the moon is a good way to remind yourself of how great it is just to be back on Earth.
Steve: Speaking of Earth ...
Steve: I understand we are going to make all kinds of fabulous fuels out of, like, common grasses and other kinds of things that just grow out of the ground everywhere.
Steve: According to the cover of this issue.
Rennie: The grassoline cover. That's right. Well that's
the certainly the hope. This relates to the whole area of development for people talking about biofuels, which is this idea of trying to develop replacements for the conventional sorts of fossil fuels that we have to at least—if we are going to be burning some sort of hydrocarbons of some kind—to try to get them [so] that they are being derived from a different source, and potentially or ideally, ones that would actually burn without delivering as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere too; that's great if you can get that. But, so one big area of research is this idea of trying to create these sorts of biofuels, and we have those now, ethanol that you can go to almost any gas station, and you can find ethanol very often these days to put in cars. But the problem is that most of the ethanol we have right now is when it is talked about it being a first generation biofuel; that is that ethanol fuel is coming from the fermentation of sugars from crops like corn. Which means it's [a] very, very expensive way of getting that kind of ethanol. You have to put a lot of energy into raising that corn, not to mention the fact that you are diverting a potential food crop like corn to a use like making fuel. So there's a lot of interest in trying to develop these kinds of, what they would call second-generation biofuels. These would be new types of bio-ethanol or other sorts of potential fuels that would be made by converting the cellulose, the stocky, woody material that's really makes up the structure of most plants; and we have a lot of that. And if you could inexpensively convert that into some sort of good fuel efficiently then potentially that gives you a great alternative source of fuel.
Steve: And what are some of the big challenges in getting at that energy that's locked up in the cellulose?
Rennie: Well, you know, there are, in a way you could divide them up into the technical challenges and the economic challenges. The technical challenge is of course just how do you do it. Now, in fact, you get several different avenues for doing that and, in fact, one of them, the process for creating syngas has been around for quite sometime. Back in World War II it was being used with the Fischer-Tropsch reaction. Anyway, it's a process [for] being able to create some sort of synthetic gas that way.
Steve: Don't ask me, I was only a chemistry major.
Steve: So, syngas meaning synthetic gasoline.
Rennie: Exactly. But the problem is, that's a very high temperature process and, which means if it is taking, it involves high temperatures, then you are sinking a lot of energy into creating it most likely, unless you have a cheap source of heat available. So the real goal is to try to figure out what is a way to be able to do this at very low temperatures, very inexpensively, ideally something where you could, you know, take bags of cellulose that have been mashed up and be able to throw in the right kinds of catalysts and some reactants and be able to have the fuel you want pouring off the other side really, really efficiently, really, really inexpensively. Easy to say, not always easy to do; so that's the technical challenge in all of this.
Steve: And then there is the economics.
Rennie: The economic challenge is of course that basically all of these kinds of biofuels are ultimately in competition with regular old gasoline that you would have to pump and for as long as oil is really, really cheap, which, you know, for most part we are sort of happily in the situation that's it is a lot less expensive than it was a couple of years ago. That means that it's hard for some of these kinds of biofuels to get a purchase on the market, so that's going [to] be a different part of the challenge, and that [is] obviously going to be a shifting target.
Steve: You know, I just visited my dad, who has as many members of his generation do, has long harbored the belief that somewhere, somebody has invented a pill.
Rennie: Let me guess: That [you can] drop into water, and your car will run on that.
Steve: That's right.
Steve: Yes, so I have tried numerous times to dissuade him of this notion on thermodynamic grounds.
Steve: And he brought it up again this weekend, and I said to him, no actually dad you're right, there will soon be a car that can run on water. What you are going have to do is, you take the water, you heat it up until it forms steam, and then you run the car on the steam.
Rennie: Yeah, that's right.
Steve: So it's very inefficient though, and it's probably not going to catch on; I'm much more optimistic about your plug-in hybrids or your plug-in pure-electric vehicle.
Rennie: Yours was I think good 1890s technology.
Rennie: Now you realize that there is always a certain number of people who listen to us having this conversation [and say,] "Ah, they are all part of this big conspiracy."
Steve: Yes it's true, we are part of the conspiracy that accepts the fact that a certain amount of energy is stored in chemical bonds, and another amount of energy must go into opening up those chemical bonds to release the energy and sooner or later when push comes to shove, something gets pushed and something else get[s] shoved.
Rennie: Why are you so close minded on this?
Steve: I know, I know.
Rennie: You chemist, you.
Steve: I know, what about the, you mentioned in the economics, what about, I know it's not in the article—the political problem. When your first presidential primary—and I brought this up [on] the podcast with Thomas Friedman.
Steve: When your first presidential primary is in Iowa, the constituency for corn ethanol is powerful beyond its size.
Rennie: Well, that's definitely always been a concern. You know, that it would be wonderful from a, sort of, technocratic view of reality if, you know, you could imagine that well, all the scientists would figure out the best way to do something, and then, you know, wave off their hands and somehow everything would drop into place. The reality is [it's] going to be part of the political process. The policy has to work itself through elections and all the rest of the law making process that we have, and even if you are a big, staunch believer in the values of representative democratic government the way we are, the fact is that it is still not always pretty or efficient or as effective as everybody would like. So yes, right now the agricultural lobby is exerting a very strong influence on a lot of things affecting biofuel policy, and actually other parts of policies that are related to climate changes, so it's awkward that way.
Steve: If we get that first primary [or] caucus moved to Arizona, the solar energy lobby is going to really do a lot.
Steve: So we also have an article in this issue on the desperate need for new kinds of antibiotics for these superbugs, really.
Steve: You know, "New Ways to Squash Superbugs" is the title of the piece, and you know, begins with a story of MRSA that hit a couple of years ago.
Rennie: MRSA which is M-R-S-A, the Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which is, you know, the highly drug-resistant form of staph infections which, you know, can be lethal.
Steve: So what do we do?
Rennie: Well, it's a real problem, because, as you say you have got a couple of problems going on simultaneously. One is the fact that just through the use of the antibiotics that we have and that we traditionally relied on, that of course, they are losing a lot of their potency. The bacteria populations that are out there are increasingly resistant because, of course, they are all descended from the populations of bacteria that were more resistant to those than the wider population used to be. You have also got a big problem, that is, we increasingly see, bacteria tend to be very, very profligate in the ways that they, sort of, throw around these genes for resistance. So even if you start off [with] say, a resistant type of staph infection, that line of staph organisms not only, will they be more resistant, but they may pass some of the genes for that resistance off to completely other unrelated types of bacteria.
Steve: You have these lateral transmissions in bacterial populations.
Rennie: Right, right, in which they just hand the genes to one another. So that's bad. And of course, for many, many years there was a period—many listeners may remember—there was a, now it seems an sort of an astonishingly naïve period, I believe in the 1970 for a while, when antibiotics were so effective and the level of this sort of transmissible disease was falling down so low that some people were really thinking that we had, kind of, beaten these kinds of infectious diseases. So for a lot of reasons, the pipeline of development that the pharmaceutical companies had for developing new kinds of antibiotics really slowed down. And by the time it became clear that we really needed a lot of new antibiotics, because the old ones weren't working as well, it just it slowed everything down, [and] you are going to have a huge number of years with new drugs not coming online. So we are still currently stuck in that problem. The other problem, [and] this is one of the things that the article in the July issues goes into, is that unfortunately we pretty much already harvested the low hanging fruit. Most of the antibiotics that we know are compounds that are produced by different kinds of soil bacteria. And although there are I can't even imagine how many different types of soil bacteria and how many millions of different compounds that they may produce the fact is that we had actually already skimmed of and looked at and developed a lot of the best of those for antibiotics. So what's possible in the future is that, if [we] really need to have better antibiotics, we need to start to look in new places, and we need to start to be a lot more inventive. One thing is to start looking in places where we haven't really searched over very carefully. So, for example, marine organisms: A lot of marine organisms may have these sorts of antibacterial properties. They may have those sorts of antibacterial molecules, and they [may] operate on means that are fundamentally different from the ones that the soil did. And if that's the case, then we may have some of the new kinds of drugs we could develop that way. It may also be now that our understanding of bacterial genetics is a lot of sophisticated than it used to be, we may be able to independently tailor some of their kinds of drugs that would intervene in their own internal mechanisms a little more cleverly. And it's also possible that with our better understanding of how bacteria function as part of an environment with other bacteria and with your host organisms, that may represent a kind of relatively untouched set of potential vulnerabilities that we could take advantage of.
Steve: Right, we may be able to strengthen the bacteria that an infectious organism is competing with.
Steve: And use our own internal, intestinal flora, for example, to drive off the bacterial infection
Rennie: Right, so the good news is that it's not quite the case that the well is totally dry on new ideas for better antibiotics. [The catch is,] a lot of these are still at a very early stage of development, and it may be, you know, still quite a few years before we see a lot of those developments—but things are coming.
Steve: There is another interesting idea [that is: Don't kill the bacteria; just make them so they can't get you sick.
Steve: But they still infect you, they are still alive, but for all intents and purposes, you know, they are powerless.
Rennie: Right and most of us are constantly walking around with, you know, a number of different pathogens in our system all the time. The question is, there aren't enough of them to be a real problem. And so, you know, it may be a matter of just being able to suppress the populations or changing their own interactions with the rest of their environment inside your body.
Steve: That's part of the July issue; other good stuff— origins of your two hemispheres in your brain, [we've] got something on using forensics to track the DNA of ivory that's evidence for poaching, which of course, most people would want to stop. You've got Gary Stix's article on the science of bubbles and bursts about how, you know, a lot of economic theory assumes that the individuals in a market are rational players, which may not be the case.
Rennie: Past few years w[h]ere the news has been textbook refutations of that.
Steve: And, of course, one of my favorite sections in the magazine that we usually talk about a little bit. The 50, 100 and 150 years ago.
Steve: Column, that's it.
Rennie: Steve, what was in the magazine?
Steve: A 150 years ago, here's a real indication of how cultural mores may change over time. 150 years ago we wrote, "A pernicious excitement to learn and play chess has spread all over the country, and numerous clubs for practicing this game have been formed in cities and villages. Why should we regret this it may be asked? We answer chess is a mere amusement of a very inferior character which robs the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to nobler requirements, while it affords no benefit whatever to the body. Chess has acquired a high reputation as being a means to discipline the mind, but persons engaged in sedentary occupations should never practice this cheerless game. They require out of door exercises not this sort of mental gladiatorship."
Steve: Can you imagine, we came out against chess.
Rennie: Well, as you know, Steve it is well established that playing of chess leads to the playing of whist and mumblety-peg—it's a gateway game.
Steve: All the articles in the July Scientific American are available free for a limited time at the Web site, ScientificAmerican.com. And look for John Rennie in print, radio and television. He is the king of all media.
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: Michael Jackson's death stressed the Web to the point that the average time for downloading news sites more than doubled.
Story number 2: Greenhouse gas emissions could interfere with fishes' ability to navigate.
Story number 3: Researchers have found fossil evidence for a kind of piranha that was three feet long.
And story number 4: The Mars Spirit Rover, which has been stuck in the same place since early May, has finally run out of power ending its almost five and one-half years of exploration.
Time is up.
Story number 1 is true. Michael Jackson's death really stressed the Web. Most major news sites had some problems and the average download time went from less than four seconds to more than nine, according to www.datacenterknowledge.com. Twitter had to turn off search features to keep from getting knocked down.
Story number 2 is true. Carbon in the atmosphere winds up acidifying the ocean, which could lead to changes in fish anatomy related to navigation. In lab tests, the researchers raised sea bass at different carbon dioxide concentrations and saw changes in the development of ear bones which help fish sense speed and direction. For more, see our blog item called "Changing Ocean Chemistry Might Jam Fish Ears".
And story number 3 is true. The three-foot long piranha has been dubbed megapiranha. It lived eight [million] to 10 million years ago, according to our friends at LiveScience.com Despite many scary movie scenes, there has never been a documented human death from piranhas.
All of which means that story number 4, about the Mars Rovers Spirit finally powering down for good is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Spirit has indeed been stuck in the same place since early May, but wind cleared off its solar arrays, and it has plenty of juice; so it has been using it's various tools to analyze the layers of soil that it's busted wheel has skewered up. Meanwhile in simulations here on Earth, researchers are still working on ways to free up the Rover, which was originally designed for a 90-day mission.
Well, that's it for this edition of Scientific American's Science Talk. Check out www.scientificamerican.com for the latest science news and Jesse Bering's piece on the evolutionary enigma of dreams. You know, sometimes when sleep knits your ravell’d sleeve of care, a bad dream can re-unravel it. For Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.
Steve: Okay, well, thanks very much, John.
Rennie: On behalf of myself and all the boys, [I hope we passed the audition].