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Science Talk

Flores hobbit update, chemistry in art, environmental impostors.

In this episode, Scientific American.com editorial director Kate Wong talks about the anthropology community's latest take on the remains of tiny humans from Flores; chemist Jennifer Mass discusses how she uses her science background artistically; and journalist Paul D. Thacker reveals how what appear to be environmental groups may be wolves in sheep's clothing. Also, test your science knowledge with our current events quiz.

Welcome to the Scientific American podcast for the seven days starting March 15th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, Scientific American online editor Kate Wong tells us what she found out about hobbits, the real kind, last week at a major anthropology conference. Chemist Jennifer Mass has one of the more unusual jobs in science and she talks about what she does at work. And journalist Paul D. Thacker discusses an article he published last week about how some environmental groups aren't exactly what they seem. Plus, we will test your knowledge of some recent science in the news.

First up, Scientific American Online editor Kate Wong. Kate wrote the cover story for the February 2005 issue of Scientific American about the fossils of tiny humans found on the island of Flores in Indonesia. She is the magazine's resident paleontology and anthropology expert and just attended the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Anchorage, Alaska, where there was a heap of hobbit talk. I called her at her office in New York City.

Steve: Hi Kate, how are you?

Wong: I am fine, Steve. How are you?

Steve: Good, good. How was the trip?

Wong: It was a good trip. I learned a lot, actually.

Steve: So, there was a lot of discussion about the tiny Flores people at this conference?

Wong: That's right! There was.

Steve: Let's back up and let's go over what that whole situation is for people who might not have heard about it in the last year.

Wong: Sure. Well, basically, back in October of 2004 a team of Indonesian and Australian scientists announced that they had found these tiny human remains from Flores in Indonesia and they judged these remains to represent a hominid species new to science that lived as recently as 12,000 years ago.

Steve: And, these people would have been in the genus Homo?

Wong: That's right! They determined that these people were probably a dwarfed species of an archaic hominid called Homo erectus that evolved a very small size on this island that they lived on, presumably as a response to the limited food resources they had.

Steve: And, what was the discussion at the conference? There has been a lot of controversy over whether it truly is a separate species or if it is some kind of abnormal modern human, is that right?

Wong: That's right! From the beginning there have been people who have suspected that rather than being a new species, this is actually a modern human that suffered from a disease known as microcephaly. This is a medical disorder in which the brains turns out to be much smaller than expected and it can be a syndrome. It can appear in over 200 syndromes.

Steve: How many complete skeletons do we have from Flores?

Wong: There is only one that preserves both the head and some of the skeleton and the other individuals that have been found are represented only by a few skeletal bones.

Steve: So, what's the actual feel within the anthropology community right now? You have just been around dozens, at least dozens or was it hundreds of anthropologists? How many people were there?

Wong: Hundreds.

Steve: Hundreds.

Wong: Yes!

Steve: So, what do people think? [Do] most people think this is really a completely different species, or are most people subscribing to the idea that this is a human with an actual disease?

Wong: I can't put percentages on that yet, but I would say that although there are still plenty of people who believe that the original interpretation is correct, there are an increasing number of people who at least think that the hypothesis of pathology, like this microcephaly, has not yet been sufficiently ruled out.

Steve: Was there any particular talk at the conference that really caught your attention?

Wong: There were a few, but let me tell you about one in particular. This was a presentation given by Tom Schoenemann of the University of Michigan at Dearborn, and what he did was to survey cranial capacity and body weight data, so brain size and body weight data for a bunch of modern humans and also [a] fossil one, and he plotted all of this on a graph and he determined that the brain size of the Flores hominid relative to her body size more closely approximates that what you see in the Australopithecines, which are much older, you know. These are things like Lucy, which lived over three million years ago.

Steve: So, this would make it seem like it really is a separate species.

Wong: Well! That's one interpretation, but then he found an even better fit with microcephalic modern human. So, given three possible explanations for what the Flores hominid is, and those three possibilities are that, you know, a dwarfed species descended from Homo erectus or an Australopithecine or a microcephalic modern human, he says that the most parsimonious diagnosis is the one that requires the fewest assumptions – would be microcephaly.

Steve: Okay, this is a story that we are going to be following probably for years, right?

Wong: Absolutely.

Steve: Well! Thanks a lot, Kate.

Wong: You are welcome, Steve. It's my pleasure.

Steve: Look for more of Kate's conference coverage on the Scientific American blog, blog.sciam.com.

Now it's time to play TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories. Three are true. See if you know which one is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS.

Story number 1 is from the dismal science, economics. $237 million dollars a day – that's the estimated loss in productivity over the next couple of weeks for Americans watching streaming Web coverage of March Madness, the NCAA basketball tournament, at work.

Story number 2: New figures released last week show that smoking in the U.S. is at its lowest level in 54 years.

Story number 3: The latest theory on the Loch Ness monster is that people really did see something in the loch and what they saw was an elephant in Scotland.

And story number 4: Cognitive neuroscientists working with functional MRI scanners believe they have identified a small area in the right temporal cortex that explains why some people are so good at memorizing TV theme songs.

We will be back with the answer. But first, Jennifer Mass got her doctorate in chemistry from Cornell University in 1995 and she put that Ph.D. to use in one of the more exotic areas of science. To find out more, I called her at her office in Delaware.

Steve: Dr. Mass, thanks for talking to us today.

Mass: Oh, it's great to talk to you, Steve.

Steve: You have one of the more unusual careers among people with doctorates in chemistry. Tell us what you do.

Mass: Two things: I am a conservation scientist chemist who works in an art conservation department on the preservation of objects of art.

Steve: And what institution are you with?

Mass: The Winterthur Museum.

Steve: Which is in Winterthur, Delaware?

Mass: Yes! It's a du Pont collection of art and the antiques, specifically, Henry Francis du Pont collection.

Steve: So, when you were in graduate school getting your doctorate in chemistry did you know that this was what you wanted to do?

Mass: No, that was actually in the days before the Internet, and so I knew that I wanted to combine science and art in some way, but it wasn't until I was finishing up my dissertation when I learned about the field of art conservation and that there were chemists who work in art museums, spending their careers studying objects of art.

Steve: What is a typical day for you?

Mass: Oh! Let's see. We have got curators who come in having questions about objects that they would like to acquire for their collection, wanting to know about the authenticity of pieces, maybe compare them with the pieces that are already in our collection. We have conservators coming in having questions about higher restoration on objects of art. It's only in the last 40 years or so that conservation has really become a professional discipline where people are scrupulous about keeping track of all of the restorations there being done to objects of art, whereas art has been restored basically for the entire period of time that art has been made, and so we find so many undocumented, unexpected materials on an object of art.

Steve: So, you look at a 500-year-old painting and when you start to really analyze it you will find layers of previous attempts to restore the original?

Mass: Absolutely, yes! And in order for the conservators that we work with to undo some of those prior restorations, some of them… but can be quite damaging to the original material, whereas that first helps them do the material's identification using something like x-ray fluorescence or graph chromatography.

Steve: What kind of techniques do you use when you are doing authentication?

Mass: Oh! Authentication, a lot of it depends on whether or not we can take a sample or not. If we can take a sample, which is actually fairly common considering the value of some of these pieces, that will be totally nondestructive, we will do x-ray fluorescence and so, from the elements that we find present in an object or art, we will try and then infer what pigments are present and from our knowledge of what pigments were introduced during different time periods, we can get a date range or when different paint layers were applied.

Steve: And the big tool there is x-ray fluorescence?

Mass: Yes!

Steve: So, would you bombard the painting with x-rays and stuff bounces off and fluorescence is off and then you can tell what the original substances are that way?

Mass: Exactly! We are using energy dispersive x-ray fluorescence. So, it's the energies of the x-rays that are emitted by the elements, the pigments that tell us what different elements are present.

Steve: Right in the end, if you find a pigment that wasn't available before 1900, you know you have got a phony?

Mass: Exactly! One bad actor is chromium. Chromium-based pigments were not introduced until the 19th century and so, if we see chromium in the green, for example, on an ancient Roman object—this has happened in the past—or even in an 18th century object, then we know either we are looking at an area of private restoration, maybe we were looking at a past (unclear), maybe we are looking at something that's an out and out fake.

Steve: What's the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you on the job?

Mass: Oh, let's see. Oh, I used to work at the Met, actually I did a postdoc there after I got out of graduate school, and…

Steve: The Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York?

Mass: Yes! And we used to just laugh about how every time a piece came into the conservation lab that we just loved, the art was spectacularly beautiful, it was a fake. (laughs) We seemed to have these unerring eyes of picking out fakes and absolutely loving them. So, it's a good thing that we didn't have the curator's job because we would have done a pretty bad job on that end.

Steve: So, if the fakes are so good, what does that say about art?

Mass: (laughs) Well! What we like to tell collectors, if we have the bad news to tell them about their object, is that it's decorative. If you like it, hang it on your wall.

Steve: It's a fake, but it's still beautiful.

Mass: Exactly! Yeah! It doesn't distract from the beauty of the piece, but certainly distracts in [from] the value of the piece. What we do in our lab is we unearth truth on a lot of work for dealers and collectors and auction houses, and I tell you, I often feel like the opposite of Antiques Roadshow, because so often we have to get people the bad news about their objects rather than the good news.

Steve: So, what's the typical reduction in value for a painting that somebody thinks is really worth something if it's a fake? 100 percent, right?

Mass: (laughs) Well! To give you an example, we have a painting that's signed by Pissarro in the lab now and we are in agreement that it is a 19th century French painting and we are investigating the signature. If the signature is authentic, then we are talking about several hundred thousand dollars. If the signature turns out not to be authentic, if it's done with cadmium red, which is a 20th century pigment, then we are talking maybe $25 dollars.

Steve: The kind of painting that's suitable for your motel wall?

Mass: (laughs) Exactly!

Steve: Well! Dr. Mass, thanks very much for talking to us today.

Mass: Oh! You are so welcome. It was a lot of fun.

Steve: Dr. Mass is co-director of a project involving the recovery of the Beauvoir and Ohr-O’Keefe Museum collections in Biloxi, Mississippi, which were affected by Hurricane Katrina and she also contributed her insights to my column on an art museum party that went bad. That story will appear in the May issue of Scientific American.

Now it's time to find out which story was TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. Let's review the four stories, three of which are real.

Story number 1: NCAA tournament basketball costs $237 million dollars a day in lost productivity.

Story number 2: Smoking is at a 54-year low.

Story number 3: A paleontologist theorizes that the Loch Ness monster is really an elephant.

Story number 4: Scientists pinpointed the area of the brain responsible for why you know that it was a [("we are with you") Music] i.e., why you know all the words to old TV theme songs.

Story number 1 is true. The L.A. Times reports that a reputable consulting firm estimates that close to 60 million Americans who follow hoops are going to watch about 15 minutes a day of March Madness at the office for a total daily loss in productivity of 237 million dollars.

Story number 2 is true. Smoking is down to its lowest levels in 54 years in the U.S. according to the Washington Post. That's right, only 378 billion cigarettes were sold in the U.S. in 2005, which amazingly is the lowest number since 1951, and only 400,000 Americans died of smoking-related causes last year.

Story number 3 is true. Scottish paleontologist Neil Clark notes in the March issue of the journal of the Open University Geological Society that traveling circuses would often take a break at the Loch and let the elephants go for a wee swim. Some of the more famous Nessie photos do look like an elephant's trunk, I mean, now that you are thinking about elephants. "Elephants! Hey that's the answer, there's a whole lot of elephants in the circus," which means that the story about scientists pinpointing the brain region for memorizing TV theme songs is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS.

Next up, journalist Paul D. Thacker. He writes for the new section of the journal Environmental Science and Technology, published by the American Chemical Society. Last week he had a story about environmental groups that aren't exactly what they appear to be. I called him at his office in Washington, D.C.

Steve: Hi Paul, how are you doing?

Thacker: Hey, Steve. Thanks for having me.

Steve: You have an interesting article in Environmental Science and Technology online and it's called, "Hidden Ties: Big Environmental Changes Backed by Big Industries."

Thacker: Well! What originally got me into this story was I started to look back at President Bush's healthy forest legislation. There was a movement by the President and Republicans to manage the land through healthy forest legislation, and two big things that came out of that was we need to thin the forest in order to prevent fires. The forests are too overgrown and there is some criticism coming from a lot of scientists first up saying that, you know, we didn't really know how to thin effectively to prevent fires, and there is also some concern about the fact that they were going to streamline everything. What that meant was cutting out citizens' comment about logging operations. So, I was looking into the background of this to see, you know, where are we today with the healthy forest legislation and in the process of down laying the three years of congressional testimony and a lot of newspaper reports, I ran across a group called Project Protect, which caught my attention because I have never heard of them before. And I started looking them up and I found out that the campaign director of Project Protect was a guy named Tim Wigley. Well! When I looked him up, I found out that he actually worked at a PR firm called Pac/West Communication[s]. I thought, well this is very odd. So, then I started Googling Tim Wigley.

Steve: We will back up a bit. Project Protect was supposed to be what?

Thacker: It was designed to be an environmental group that was trying to protect the forests by teaming up with President Bush to say we need to pass up before legislation because we want to protect the forests from catastrophic wild fire.

Steve: Okay, so they are posing as an environmental group, but they are really not.

Thacker: Right! I started looking into the background of this guy and I found out that now he is also working on another grassroots organization called the Save Our Species Alliance, which is working with congressman Richard Pombo of California to change the Endangered Species Act. That just kind of got my attention about, well, that's interesting. Why do you see a person jumping from issue to issue, first passing President Bush's healthy forests legislation, now working with congressman Pombo on a bill to change Endangered Species Act? So, I looked a little bit at the Save Our Species Alliance. I looked up their lobbying registration form, and the lobbyist for the Save Our Species Alliance—so this is one working with Pombo—their lobbyist is a man named Steven Quarles, who I know very well because he goes back for, I don't know, a number of years, but certainly into the '90s as a timber lobbyist. So, that of course raised warning bells. Oh, why is a timber lobbyist working with this environmental organization?

Steve: So, is this a trend we are seeing where industry-backed people are setting up what appear to be pro-environment groups, but are actually lobbying for the kind of legislation that industry rather than your typical environmental groups would like to see enacted?

Thacker: This idea of creating these sort of—these groups are called Astroturf. My partner described as, you know: just add money and watch it grow.

Steve: Well! That's Astroturf as opposed to real grassroots.

Thacker: Right! What’s going on with this is, this is not necessarily a new innovation. A lot of this idea, pretty needs, front groups really came into formation back in the '90s with the wise-use movement and there is a book written on this actually by a journalist named David Helvarg and is called The War against the Greens, and he tracked a lot of these individuals and I actually ran across some of these same people that he had written [about] back in the 1990s. I think what's [a] little different right now that we are seeing today in the Bush administration is they are really making no attempt at all or even trying to organize people in any way. It's just going directly to a sort of well-oiled machine, which is made up of lobbyists here in Washington, D.C., or iMat PR firm and NDC and also apparently now with Pac/West they are working on a lot of land conservation issues.

Steve: The whole intent here is just to generate ads in newspapers or television that make the voter think that certain environmental groups are actually behind this kind of legislation?

Thacker: I certainly will describe it as bad, but then I have also heard some people describe it as it's not necessarily they are trying to convince the voters who seem to be very disengaged a lot with voting right now as much as it is, they convince a congressman or a senator that there is political cover for them to vote for certain pieces of legislation, which they are probably concerned that the voters don't really like. I mean, when you look to see where the American public is on environmental issues, they are very much poor in environmental regulations. Even Republicans are lining up. They think that bio-regulations either are strong enough or don't go far enough.

Steve: Thanks very much, Paul.

Thacker: Thanks for having me, Steve.

Steve: Thacker's article is available at the Web site of the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The URL is long, but I created a shortcut so you can access the piece at tinyurl.com/zl4ys, and thanks to podcast listener Ron Harlive. He wrote in to tell me about services that take your long, unwieldy Web site address and spit back out a short manageable one. One of those free services is tinyurl.com, t-i-n-y-u-r-l.com, which I used to shorten the address of the Thacker piece to tinyurl.com/zl4ys. Another service that shortens Web site addresses is shrinkster.com, and both are free.

Well! that's it for this edition of the Scientific American podcast. Our e-mail address is podcast@sciam.com that's podcast@s-c-i-a-m.com. And also remember that science news is updated daily on the Scientific American Web site, www.sciam.com. I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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