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Science Talk

Test Tube Babies; Old Time Radio; What's In A Name

In this episode, journalist Robin Marantz Henig discusses a TV program airing on October 23 based in part on Pandora's Baby, the title of her book and Scientific American article about the early days of In Vitro Fertilization. JJ Mirsky talks about the technology of early radios. And we'll look at what happens when a company's name or url becomes detrimental overnight because of some coincidental association with another name. Plus we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include blog.sciam.com; www.sciamdigital.com; www.egrandslam.com; www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/babies

Science Talk October 18, 2006 -- Test-Tube Babies; Old-Time Radio; What's in a Name?

Welcome to Science Talk the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting October 18th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, journalist Robin Marantz Henig talks about a new TV account of test-tube babies. We'll look back at some technological history with an expert on old-time radios – it's my dad. I'll talk about how some companies' names go overnight from help to hindrance and we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news.

First up! Robin Marantz Henig. She wrote "Pandora's Baby," an article on the early days of test-tube babies that appeared in Scientific American magazine in June 2003. A book by the same name came out the next year. On Monday October 23rd, PBS will air a documentary called, Test-Tube Babies, based in large part on her book and the Scientific American article and she appears on the program. I called her at her home in Manhattan.

Steve: Hi, Robin! How are you?

Robin: Fine, Steve! How are you?

Steve: I’m okay! Tell me about this TV show that's going to be Monday night.

Robin: It's an episode of American Experience, which is on PBS. They come in 9 o'clock p.m. on most stations and it's basically a video version of some of the stories I tell in Pandora's Baby about the early days of test-tube fertilization research.

Steve: And Pandora's Baby was the name both of your book and the article you did for Scientific American in June of 2003.

Robin: Right!

Steve: Talk about some of the attitudes that prevailed when in vitro fertilization was a new thing.

Robin: It's hard to put ourselves back in that mindset because we take in vitro fertilization so much for granted now, but in the '70s people thought, first of all, that it was treading on, you know, unnatural territory. It was treading into God's terrain and something that people shouldn't do. If you weren't destined to have a baby you should just sort of leave it at that. And second of all, even scientists who thought this was an okay thing to attempt, thought that it was very likely that they were going to create monsters. I mean, how could you mess about with sperm and egg in a petri dish and not create some sort of chromosomal damage? So, they were pretty sure that the first test-tube baby was likely to be some sort of a monster.

Steve: And in fact the first test-tube baby turned out to be...

Robin: ...She was fine, she was beautiful, and she was perfect. This was Louise Brown who was born in England in 1978 and much to many people's surprise she was a perfectly normal, healthy baby.

Steve: And she is now, what, about 28 years old?

Robin: Yeah, about 28 and she, I think, just announced that she was getting married.

Steve: What was [were] some of the connections to what things were like then to how things are like today in some other controversial areas of biology?

Robin: When I was listening to some of the concerns over things like embryonic stem cell research and the possibility of human cloning, I was struck by how similar the objections were today to some of these innovations to what people were saying about in vitro fertilization in the '70s. Sometimes, the very same words were used and sometimes, the very same people were concerned about stem cell research as those who were concerned about IVF.

Steve: You are talking [about] Leon Kass in particular.

Robin: I am talking about Leon Kass in particular, but there were others as well. He was the most vocal, yet, at both points. He was very vocal back in the '70s, complaining about IVF and he was the head of the President's Council on Bioethics that came out with some very negative reports on embryonic stem cell research.

Steve: Right! Leon Kass also does not approve of the public consumption of ice-cream cones, but...

Robin: Right! That means that we're just totally not in control of our animal urges. You know, eating ice cream on sidewalks.

Steve: We're serious. Listeners might think we are kidding around, but he has written against the act of licking ice cream in public as being a sort of sub-human behavior. You want to talk a little bit about how the political pressures on IVF wound up ironically making it unregulated and what that led to?

Robin: Because people were so afraid of using federal funds to sponsor the kind of research that a certain subset of the population would find objectionable, the government basically advocated all responsibility in IVF research. They basically said, we are not going to use federal funds to support any research involving human embryos and fetuses. So what resulted from that was that IVF still continued to be investigated, but it became [a] kind of cowboy science, that was something that was funded by private people who were funding, you know, just sort of the marketplace of fertility clinic[s] and there was no regulation. If there had been federal funds for research grants, then there would have been certain restrictions on federal funding and also would have been an opportunity for the scientists to actually talk to each other, you know. When people get NIH grants, they often have conferences and they have, you know, some sort of public forum in which they describe some of the things they've been learning. But this put everything sort of under the radar and back in to the private marketplace, which was not necessarily good for this kind of research.

Steve: And in more recent years, some actual conditions related to IVF have been uncovered through an analysis of all the data. Right?

Robin: Right! At first, before any babies were born, they thought they might really be causing some damage. Then once the first bunch of healthy babies was born, they very quickly changed their opinion and thought, well, this is just like regular conception but is taking place some place out. Because basically, you fertilize the egg in the Petri dish but you put it back in the uterus to grow and everything else happens naturally. And recently, they discovered by looking more carefully at some of the results of IVF, they've discovered that there is actually an increase in some birth defect[s], mostly rare birth defects, and is still mostly a small percentage and many of them are also associated with the fact that IVF babies are much more likely to be multiple rather than singleton, much more likely to be twins and triplets and there are birth defects associated with that situation also.

Steve: Now, one of the unintended consequences of all this IVF, I think, is a big rise in the sales of multiple baby strollers.

Robin: (laughs)

Steve: You just can see it everywhere.

Robin: It goes both ways because older mothers also are more likely to have twins, just naturally, so, yes, there are. I live on the upper west side of New York. There are twin strollers all over the place here.

Steve: And a fair amount of triplet strollers as well.

Robin: Yeah! And that sort of gets pretty scary.

Steve: You're one of the talking heads on the television program, right?

Robin: Yes! And some of the other talking heads are some of the people who were in my book: Landrum Shettles, who made the first attempt on the American test-tube baby; John Del Zio and Doris Del Zio, who were the couple who tried to have the first American test-tube baby; Howard Jones, who actually created the first American test-tube baby in 1981, after Louise Brown was born.

Steve: The Del Zio case is really, really interesting.

Robin: They made an attempt in 1973, which was very early in the development of the science, to have IVF done on them in New York City and when the boss of the scientist, Landrum Shettles, who was trying to do it found out about it, he pulled the test tube out of the incubator where it was supposedly, you know, growing and stopped the experiment because he thought it was premature and then the Del Zios took the boss to court. They said that he had destroyed their property.

Steve: What are you working on right now? Any new books?

Robin: I am not doing any new books. I am doing a lot of articles for the New York Times Magazine and the one that I am working on now is about God, the evolutionary and scientific explanation for why God exists.

Steve: Ah! What a fascinating question!

Robin: Yeah!

Steve: Without getting into the interminable and kind of pointless debate over whether God exists, I think that it's incumbent upon science, if one is to really adopt a methodological, naturalistic point of view, to attempt to formulate an explanation for the belief in God.

Robin: Yeah! That's what I am writing about.

Steve: Tremendous. Can't wait to read it. Robin Marantz Henig, thanks very much!

Robin: Thank you, Steve.

Steve: Test-tube babies is on PBS' American Experience Monday night October 23rd in most places at 9 p.m. Robin Marantz Henig's June 2003 Scientific American article, "Pandora's Baby," is available at our digital archive, www.sciamdigital.com.

Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.

Here are 4 science stories but only 3 are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Radioactive snails have been discovered in southeastern Spain.

Story number 2: Poland's deputy education minister wants to stop the teaching of evolution in that country.

Story number 3: The British Medical Journal The Lancet estimates some 655,000 Iraqis have died since beginning of the war. President Bush agrees with that figure.

Story number 4: Adding extract of rosemary to the polypropylene packaging for meat keeps the meat looking pink and fresh longer than the meat treated the usual way with carbon monoxide.

We'll be back with the answer. But first, you kids today with your iPod nanos and your PCP players, you are used to radios that can fit in your pocket or right in your ear even, but the early days of big-time commercial radio came before transistors, and radios were huge and they had some other interesting features. Here's how my dad remembers radios almost 80 years ago.

Steve: Tell me about the first radio your father brought home.

J. J. Mirsky: I must have been about six and my dad brought home a Zenith radio, which was a cabinet about 3 foot by 3 foot on legs and as much in those days, I am talking about 1928, they didn't have receptacles in the walls to plug your appliances in. The radio played off an automobile battery that was placed on the floor behind the radio. (sighs)

Steve: A big 12-volt car battery...

J. J. Mirsky: Right!

Steve: Did you have electricity in the apartment?

J. J. Mirsky: I think one bulb maybe in each room, but that was almost like hanging with a bulb attached – nothing... no fancy chandeliers or anything like that – and what I remember mostly about it is that after a while, the battery acid would burn the wooden floor and it would have to be replaced until somebody came up with the brainstorm of having a metal pan that it would sit into and the damage was very little in comparison.

Steve: So when you'd buy a radio back then, you'd also buy a metal pan to put the battery in, so that when it leaked it wouldn't destroy your floor?

J. J. Mirsky: (laughs) That's correct! I also remember this particular Zenith had a little door on the right side and there were buttons that you press down like on a typewriter and that changed stations for you.

Steve: And your father was a carpenter and you were a carpenter and when you started to go out on jobs with your father you were still a boy.

J. J. Mirsky: I started to go out on jobs with my father when I was probably 10 or 11 years old.

Steve: And one of the most common things you did was repair the floors that had been damaged by the radio batteries.

J. J. Mirsky: Yes. (laughs) That's true, but by the time I was 14, I was skillful enough to hang French doors in apartments.

Steve: So you no longer had to fix the battery destroyed floors.

J. J. Mirsky: That's right! Because they had long wires with receptacles screwed onto the baseboard.

Steve: By then people were actually plugging the radios in.

J. J. Mirsky: Yeah! Right.

Steve: Well! Thanks, dad!

J. J. Mirsky: (laughs) You're welcome.

Steve: Now it's time to see which story was TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Let's review the four stories

Story number 1: Radioactive snails in Spain.

Story number 2: Poland's deputy education minister wants to get rid of evolution training.

Story number 3: Lancet study estimates 655,000 Iraqis dead. President Bush agrees.

Story number 4: Rosemary packaging keeps meat in the pink.

Time's up!

Story number 1 is true. Radioactive snails were found in Spain near where three U.S. H-bombs accidentally fell 40 years ago. The bombs didn't go off, but ignitors did blow on impact, spreading some radiation. Looks like more clean-up is still necessary. Radioactive snails! Walk, walk for your lives!! (sarcastic tone)

Story number 2 is true. Polish Deputy Education Minister Miroslaw Orzechowski wants evolution out of schools. He said the theory of evolution is a lie and a feeble idea. He went onto explain that Darwin came up with evolution "perhaps because he was a vegetarian and lacked fire inside him." See now! That's the kind of solid scientific reasoning you wanna teach kids, and excellent scholarship by the way, because according to Darwin's biographer, James Moore, Darwin was not a vegetarian. Better to be taught Darwin than to be taught by Miroslaw Orzechowski.

Story number 4 is true. Packaging incorporating rosemary extract kept meat rosy longer than meat treated the usual way with carbon monoxide. The researchers reported in September in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. Perhaps the beef industry will stop being so seal dependent.

All of which means that story number 3 about the Lancet study and President Bush agreeing about the numbers of Iraqi deaths is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Because the prestigious medical journal published a study that estimated 655,000 Iraqi deaths since the war began. The study used commonly accepted methodology involving canvassing a couple of thousand homes and extrapolating total numbers. President Bush, on the other hand, estimates the number of civilian death at more like 30,000. He got that number from, well, he didn't say. That low number that he decided was, once again, 30,000 civilian Iraqi deaths. As another heir to a throne once said, "Oh heavens! Died two months ago and not forgotten yet, then there is hope a great man's memory may outlive his life half a year." That story didn't end so great either.

Speaking of evolution, now I want to tell you the YouTube story. The YouTube was in the news a lot in the last week or so because of the sale to Google for $1.65 billion dollars. It turns out that there was a company in Toledo called Universal Tube & Rollform Equipment Corporation. Now, this company made actual tubes and their Web site was utube.com, spelled: u-t-u-b-e.com. Of course YouTube, the incredibly popular video file-sharing site is: y-o-u-t-u-b-e. Now the other utube, the one that was there first, the one that [was] for the company that actually makes tubes, had its Web site completely overwhelmed by people looking for the YouTube where you share your files. The Web site had to be shut down because it just couldn't handle the amount of traffic that it was getting, and they're having all kinds of problems over [at] that company. Now, it reminded me of a situation that was even worse actually, that maybe a lot of the younger listeners might not have heard of, but back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was an appetite-suppressant chocolate candy, [it] also came in a couple of other flavors actually, but the most popular one was chocolate and it was designed to help you lose weight. It was called Ayds: a-y-d-s.

Now here's an actual commercial from probably about 1982 for Ayds, the appetite-suppressant candy.

Female voice 1: I was overweight and embarrassed to go anyplace. Ayds helped me get back into a size 12.

Female voice 2: Ayds diet plan helped me get back into a size six.

Male voice 1: Ayds helps control your appetite, so you lose weight, yet Ayds lets you taste, chew and enjoy. Now, the appetite suppressant in Ayds is not a stimulant.

Female voice 3: Ayds helped me lose the weight. It has nothing in it that could make me nervous.

Male voice 2: Question: why take diet pills when you could enjoy Ayds? Ayds helps you lose weight safely and effectively. Use only as directed.

(commercial ends)

Steve: Now, once AIDS the disease, really became well-known, Ayds the diet candy, went out of business completely and there is an evolution lesson here, because an adaptation like your brand name that appears under a given set of environmental circumstances should be worthwhile, can suddenly and overnight become lethal, so one has to be flexible and develop new adaptations, and quickly, in order to survive and we hope the folks at utube, the tube making company, Universal Tube & Rollform Equipment Corp., somehow find a way out of the mess that they are in right now.

A couple of notes: our baseball mathematician from last week, Bruce Bukiet, gave the Tigers the nod over the A's and they indeed won their series. He picks the Mets over the Cardinals—that series is tied two games each as we go to press. Also, just to remind you of our other multimedia offerings, science video news is now available on our Web site www.sciam.com. Check it out and give a listen to the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science at the Web site and at iTunes. For good old-fashioned reading, you can also always check out Scientific American magazine and the rest of the Web site and the blog, which is at blog.sciam.com, and if you want to write, instead of read, you can write to us at podcast@sciam.com. Leave off the second "S," that's the "S" for science. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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