Science Talk

Virus-State Electronics; Baseball Oddsmaking; Star Trek Memorabilia Auction

In this episode, journalist Philip Ross discusses his article in the October Scientific American, called "Viral Nanoelectronics," about wires, batteries and microchips constructed out of viruses. New Jersey Institute of Technology mathematics professor Bruce Bukiet talks about his probability estimates for the first round of major league baseball's playoffs and how he managed to miss all four series winners while still being correct in his calculations. Scientific American magazine news editor Philip Yam recounts how he boldly went to the Star Trek memorabilia auction last week in New York City. Plus we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include;;;

Science Talk October 11, 2006 -- Virus-state Electronics; Baseball Oddsmaking; Star Trek Memorabilia Auction

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific american, for the seven days starting October 11th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, journalist Phil Ross talks about how tomorrow electrical wires and microchips may be filled with viruses. Mathematician Bruce Bukiet reveals the dangers of probability research. His picks for the first round of major league's baseball playoffs were the Yankees, Twins, Padres and Dodgers. They all lost. And Scientific American news editor Phil Yam reports on the Star Trek memorabilia auction here in New York last week and his unsuccessful attempts to buy bat'leths. Plus, we will quiz you about some recent science in the news.

First up, Phil Ross. He is the online editor at IEEE Spectrum, our favorite science magazine that's not Scientific American. He wrote the article, "Viral Nanoelectronics" in our October issue and I called him at his office in Manhattan.

Steve: Hi, Phil. How [are] you doing?

Phil Ross: Fine!

Steve: So, tell me about viral nanoelectronics. You are actually using viruses to do what?

Phil Ross: Well, to be essentially a clothes horse on which to drape stuff. You might think of them as chocolate-covered viruses, only it's not chocolate they are covered with—it's typically metals or some semiconducting material. The advantage of a virus that's long and skinny is that it's long and skinny, and because it's made from material, their proteins are not so very different from the things we see in antibodies; they tend to stick to other things properly, just as an antibody might be made to stick to something else. And if you could engineer these proteins to be just as you like them, you can get them to stick preferentially to just about anything.

Steve: You're talking about the proteins that are on the surface of a virus.

Phil Ross: Yes! These particular viruses are the kind that can't make you sick—almost your bacterium. They are phages very specific for bacteria.

Steve: They only infect bacteria. Right! In fact, you can use them to kill a bacteria if you want to kill bacteria, if you want to.

Phil Ross: There was a novel way back, written by Sinclair Lewis, I think Arrowsmith, where—this is in the 1920s before antibiotics were invented—where his scientist hero tries to use phages a way of killing up bacteria to save people's lives, and that was an actual research project, which has come back now that bacteria are in many cases immune to antibiotics.

Steve: So we use this particular virus because it is very long and skinny?

Phil Ross: Yes!

Steve: And the proteins on the surface have certain qualities and you can therefore use the virus itself to do all kinds of interesting stuff?

Phil Ross: Especially since the virus has another trick. It's got a different set of proteins on the ends and this means you could do one thing with the viruses, [which] is to coat the long, skinny thread and [use] something else that coats the tips, which means, for instance, you could make the viruses preferentially line up head to tail with their heads attracting their tail, or you could make them line up side by side. This way, you can produce long threads of virus. You can also produce thin sheets of films.

Steve: So you could actually produce a wire that is completely viral on the inside and is coated with metal all around it.

Phil Ross: A metal or some other substance of electronic interest, yes.

Steve: And?

Phil Ross: And then, if these things line up head to toe, they would become a long conducting wire, let us say, and if they line up in sheets, as you might have them do if they were as film, on top of another, film, or top of a substrate, then you could get one molecule or one virus-thick sheet.

Steve: And what kind of applications are they thinking about for these materials?

Phil Ross: Well! The most interesting one, and the one that seems the closest, is in batteries. If you had [an] entire sheet of coated virus[es] functioning as one of the electrodes in a battery, and if onto that sheet you manage to bind again using the same biochemical tools that make the virus in the first place—a substance containing an electrolyte, which is the substance that separates electrodes and provides the battery's juice—you could get ultrathin sheets of batteries, and this is very useful in making very small, sufficient ion-exchange batteries. Certainly we are familiar with the lithium ion batteries that we have in our computer, say.

Steve: Right. The article talks about just about how battery weight can be such an issue in some applications and how an extremely thin, lightweight battery could be such an advantage.

Phil Ross: Yeah! It is [a] little more efficient. It's just another way of saying, I have a battery of a given size that could do more work, and such batteries are the Achilles' heel in most electronics. In most portable electronics nowadays, anything that cuts the weight of a battery while maintaining its strength is of great interest, particularly to the military in the beginning because they can pay a lot for the extra performance. But once you get [a] large number of things produced, once you get a good number of units on the market, ultimately, we will get them cheap enough to be used in consumer products.

Steve: We should probably talk about Angela Belcher, [she] is the person who is doing most of this work. Is that right?

Phil Ross: She is quite an interesting character. Her idea is totally original with her, and not that the idea of using bacteria [to] do stuff, but viruses to function as templates.

Steve: So, now tell me something, though. How do you think people would react to a wire that is completely filled up with viruses inside, even if you try to explain that those viruses can't infect human beings?

Phil Ross: Well, if you really want to [make people] aware people out you should tell them that such viruses are all around us, in every drop of water in the world. You go to the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean, you take a cup out, and it probably has a trillion phages floating around in it. It is all over and it does us not one particle of damage. However, if it were not for these phages, the bacteria in the water would get completely out of control.

Steve: Right!

Phil Ross: With who knows what horrible 1950's style grade B movie results.

Steve: (laughs) Right! So, where do you think all this is going to be 5 or 10 years from now?

Phil Ross: I think even before that we're going to get better batteries, we're going to get lots of little things in which these materials are incorporated, whether we get the full ball of wax—things produced from the ground up by little molecular helpers in that time—I don't know.

Steve: Right!

Phil Ross: We will get certain highly defined things because we already have them. Angela Belcher is making it, but what she really would like to do is get the most valuable machines that we now make, microchips, and one of the great problems in building microchip-type circuitry from the ground up using nanoelectronics is getting them to assemble themselves. We get to a point where we can no longer carve the channels and the patterns we like using for those tasks, (unclear 6:56)because as mentioned, it's too small for light to manage. So, what she really would like is to have little tiny robots in the size of atoms or conglomerations of atoms do the work for you. Viruses come closer than anything we've tried yet.

Steve: Very interesting! The article, in the October issue of Scientific American, [is] "Viral Nanoelectronics." Phil Ross, thanks very much.

Phil Ross: Thank you very much.

Steve: Phil Ross' article can also be found on our Web site

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

You've four science stories, but only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Congress is considering a law requiring belts with buckles equipped with small explosive devices developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Police could detonate the buckles so that [a] fleeing criminal's pants would fall down, tripping them.

Story number 2: Researchers have come up with a way for digital cameras to store detailed images on a single pixel.

Story number 3: Roger Kornberg won the Nobel Prize in chemistry last week. His father also won a Nobel Prize.

Story number 4: Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion dollars. And you thought the pants-falling-down story was wacky, didn't you?

We'll be back with the answer. But first, Bruce Bukiet, is a mathematician at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, is also a big baseball fan and analyzed probable outcomes for this year's baseball playoffs before they began, and all four of the teams he thought were more likely to win in the first round did the other thing. I decided to annoy him further by calling him at his office in New York.

Steve: Professor Bukiet, thanks for talking to me today.

Bukiet: Thanks for having me.

Steve: So, you had a rough week for a mathematician.

Bukiet: Well, right!. Things don't always go as the probability says because that probability wasn't 100 percent on any of those series, but I don't think that necessarily I was wrong, maybe it was just that the players didn't play as they were supposed to.

Steve: Right! That’s the beautiful thing about what you do. You were not wrong. What was the actual for the Yankee-Tiger series? What was the actual break down?

Bukiet: I think that was about 75 percent probability of the Yankees winning a three-game series, a five-game series, the best three out of five.

Steve: You know, the way I guess, to look at this—you can tell me if I'm wrong—is if there were a hundred best of five series, you are not saying the Yankees definitely win; you are saying if they play a hundred times, the Yankees win 75 times.

Bukiet: Right around 75. There would be [a] certain standard deviation, but yeah, somewhere around, they are probably between 70 and 80.

Steve: Right! That's based on the input data that you had before the series begins.

Bukiet: Yeah! They saw that data as well as the model that I had developed years ago.

Steve: Right! So, that means that of the 100 series played 25 times, the Tigers win and that's not insignificant. So, it's an upset, but it's not... you were not wrong. You were just showing what the chances were, and so...

Bukiet: That's right.

Steve: And now what are the chances, however, that all four of the series go the other way from what you figured they would?

Bukiet: Oh, that would be fairly small. I believe that with the Minnesota-Oakland Series I had [a] 70 percent chance of Minnesota and I had about, I think, [a] 60 percent chance in the other two series. So, the probability of them all going wrong would be about 25 percent times 30 percent times about 40 percent times 40 percent, so it's just only about 1 percent, I think, off the top of my head maybe.

Steve: Well, then you really did beat the odds.

Bukiet: Yeah! (laughs)

Steve: Congratulations! Tell me about the work that you do that's not baseball related.

Bukiet: Okay, right. Baseball is just one way that I found to interest students in math and it demonstrates how math is applicable in real life and that's really what I do—and I am an applied mathematician. I am trained as [an] applied mathematician and the work that we do here in N.J.I.T. in our department is almost entirely what I would call math you can picture. So, my work, the background of my work, my PhD is in an area of math called detonation theory—the math of explosives. So, how do you build a better explosive? I used to work in Los Alamos Labs. That was my first job out of graduate school, where, of course, they developed nuclear weapons. Since then I've gotten on when... since I moved to the east coast to, you say, a more peaceful pursuits, where most of my research now deals with math biology in terms of helping doctors diagnose disease and evaluating the effectiveness of treatments of disease and I've recently done some work with an organization that uses statistics in order to improve what I would call the sanctity of [the] U.S. food supply. So, if you use math for a lot of things that relate to the real world, math you can picture, and baseball is just one example of that, and I'm no expert in baseball, but I've shown and I feel I've shown over the years that just using mathematical knowledge you can glean a lot of insight into how the game works and really understand a lot of what goes on in the game.

Steve: I've got to tell you, with the food supplies, (laughing) you are having a tough week.

Bukiet: (laughing) Well, that had nothing to do with me, but actually, if you go with the organization that I did this work for, what I've done is I've given them strategies for how should they inspect their food such that the food gets Kosher certification. That, it turns out, that you are allowed to have bugs in food in this country. I didn't realize that.

Steve: Right!

Bukiet: So I started doing this work and that how do you make sure that [it] is that low enough a level that it satisfies the laws of Kosher.

Steve: Right! Basically, you are allowed to have insect parts in food because it would be virtually impossible not to.

Bukiet: Absolutely, absolutely. So, if you get food without supervision, you will likely have a lot less of those insect parts than you have them in other things.

Steve: So, do you want to go out on a limb and predict the next series?

Bukiet: Sure, sure, why not? I can only improve from here, I figure. So, what I have is that the Mets have about a 60 percent chance of beating the Cards. Okay, in the American League we have the Tigers with a 58 percent chance of beating the A's, so it's like, hopefully the Mets and the Tigers in the World Series, and though I haven't done the math yet, we hope that the Mets win.

Steve: Even though I'm a Yankee fan I'll go with you because I'm a New Yorker.

Bukiet: Right. (laughs) Okay!

Steve: Well, Dr. Bukiet thanks very much. This was fun and maybe we will check in next week to see how you do on the next round.

Bukiet: Thank you very much! That'll be great and may the power of Met be with you.

Steve: For more picks from Bruce Bukiet, he usually writes at... go to

Now it's time to see which story was TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.

Let's review the four stories.

Story number 1: Explosive belt buckles to trip up thieves when pants fall.

Story number 2: Digital camera images on a single pixel.

Story number 3: Nobel laureate's father also won a Nobel.

Story number 4: Google spent $1.65 billion dollars for YouTube.

Time's up!

Story number 2 is true. Rice University researchers have come up with a way to store entire images on a single pixel using micro mirrors. For more info, check out J. R. Minkel's article, "Camera Reconstructs Image From Single Pixel" at

Story number 3 is true. New Nobel laureate Roger Kornberg [is] the son of Nobel laureate Arthur Kornberg. In fact, seven children of Nobel Prize winners have gone on to win Nobels.

Story number 4 is true. Google paid big bucks for YouTube. Lawsuits over use of copyrighted materials without permission to commence immediately.

All of which means that story number 1 about explosive belt buckles and falling pants to trip up criminals is, of course, TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. However, police in Salinas, California did grab a guy who was trying to run from them when his incredibly baggy pants fell down. The California Highway Patrol notes that numerous chases are now coming to abrupt ends because of suspects wearing baggy pants.

Next up, SciAm news editor Phil Yam. Last week, Christie's Auction House here in New York City transported a lot of money out of the pockets of Star Trek fans for show memorabilia. Phil attended day one of the auction after which I called him at his office.

Steve: Hey, Phil. How are you doing?

Philip: Great. How are you doing?

Steve: I am okay!. So you were at the Christie's Star Trek auction last week.

Philip: I actually just went to the first day and there the most of the people who were dressed in costume were actually the Christie's employees. (laughs) Okay! So, I did see a Picard look-a-like and there was a Mr. Spock walking around. We thought Mr. Spock was from actually from the Late Night with Conan O'Brien show and they were filming a skit obviously.

Steve: So, people who showed up to bid tended to show up in regular civilian clothes in this series.

Philip: That's right! They showed up in their usual 21st century outfits.

Steve: (laughs) I forgot we were in the 21st century.

Philip: (laughs) That's right.

Steve: Alright! It always comes as a surprise.

Philip: It's a lot of more futuristic that way.

Steve: It really does, and did you bid on anything?

Philip: Yes, I did. I did try to get something. It was very difficult because I really wanted the Klingon Bat'leth swords. These are those curved blades that Worf used to use to fight with other Klingons and other federation troops.

Steve: You don't have to explain. Everybody who's listening knows what that fabulous sword is.

Philip: Well that's just to make it clear, because I also wanted the lirpas, which are those giant Q-tips that the Kirk and Spock fought with.

Steve: (laughs) Right! Giant Q-tips.

Philip: One end is the blade and the other end is like is bludgeon, but looks like a Q-tip.

Steve: Right, right!

Philip: But those went first. But I was really saving up for the batleth and I started getting into a bidding war with a telephone bidder actually.

Steve: And this is was all in quatloos...

Philip: No! (laughs) This was actually in U.S. dollars. I was kind of surprised that no one actually bidded in quatloos. The Christie's big board where they actually flash the current bid, you know, does translate things into euros, British pounds, Japanese yen, but they did not have quatloos, disappointingly. But I actually started bidding on the bat'leths and I decided to give up at $5,500 and let the other bidder have it.

Steve: Now, you do have a fully operational holodeck at home in which you could do Klingon calisthenics.

Philip: Yeah! When I closed my eyes and imagined it, sure, it fits just fine. (laughs) But no, I was trying to convince my wife that maybe we can actually have, redo the entire dining room into some sort of Voyager theme, just buy enough furniture—put the chairs, the tables and consoles for instance, pay. It'd be the coolest dining room we've ever had.

Steve: Wow! A Star Trek family with a wife.

Philip: (laughs) Who would've thunk it is possible, right?

Steve: So what was the, you know, the most memorable thing that you saw there? Thing or person?

Philip: Thing or person? I think it's just the ships themselves. They had two models prominently displayed on the center stage—the Enterprise C, I believe and the original Enterprise D from The Next Generation. And you really look, if you look closely at them, you see the level of detail that the artists had put into it and it's really quite impressive.

Steve: Now, are these the models that, when we see on television a shot of the entire ship, was actually these models?

Philip: That's right! It's exactly these models themselves, the ones that are actually on the small screen and actually on the big screen as well. So, of course, those are up for sale and they are very popular. All the ships are very popular, I mean, the Borg cube, the miniature Borg cube about 30 inches square, sold for $80,000 dollars.

Steve: Wow!

Philip: Yeah! And the Enterprise E, which appeared in the movies, sold for $110,000 dollars. But what just was surprising to me was just how much these items went for. I mean, to sell for more than 10 times what Christie's had estimated, it shows that Christie's just vastly underestimated the demand or the ability of Star Trek fans to pay for these things or that there is a still a huge, you know, level [love] of Star Trek that, you know, people have money to spend on it. Whether or not to [it will] retain its value or people [will] still watch it and be aware of it 25, 30 years from now, who knows? You know, I'm a big Star Trek fan and I think a lot of scientists, the science writers who have grown up love Star Trek, but, you know, maybe its formally[finally] got [a] little tiring, so you just need to take a break and maybe [a] new generation will find it interesting, and I am sure enough, maybe a $5,500 dollar set of bat'leth could go for twice that, you know, 30 years from now. Who knows?

Steve: Star Trek, the generation.

Philip: (laughs) Yes, that's right.

Steve: Alright. Phil, thanks a lot.

Philip: Alright. Thanks, Steve.

Steve: For more, check out Phil's blog entry at By the way, the 78-inch-long Enterprise D went for $576,000 dollars. That's a lot of gold-pressed latinum.

Well, that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. Our e-mail address is Science news is updated daily on the Scientific American Web site, Science video news stories are now available at the Web site and check out the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science at the Web site [and] at iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking for [on] us.

(in mimicking voice)

Everybody, run! Run! Sorry, Meg, daddy loves you, but daddy also loves Star Trek, and in all fairness, Star Trek was here first.

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