Science Talk

Evolution, stem cells and the National Inventors Hall of Fame

In this episode, Scientific American editor-in-chief John Rennie reflects on the Korean stem cell debacle; the National Inventors Hall of Fame announces this year's inductees; and evolution defender Eugenie Scott discusses the importance of the decision in the recent Dover evolution trial. Also: hear outtakes from the CSI show you're never going to see on TV.

Welcome to the Scientific American podcast. I am Steve Mirsky. In this inaugural edition of the podcast, we'll talk with John Rennie, the editor in chief of Scientific American magazine, about the crisis in cloning and its implications for stem cell research. Also joining us is Eugenie Scott. She is the director of the National Center for Science Education and was involved in the recent historic Dover, Pennsylvania, evolution trial. And we'll talk to Rini Paiva of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. On February 8th, they announced their inductees for 2006 and while those names might not be familiar to everyone, their inventions definitely are. Along with those interviews, we'll throw some Hall of Fame trivia at you and we'll hear some clips from the CSI show you are never going to see on television. Thanks for joining us here on the Scientific American podcast.

First up: cloning in crisis.

Steve: We're at the offices of Scientific American and I'm talking to John Rennie, the editor in chief of the magazine.

John, there's been really a scandal in the cloning world of late.

Rennie: Yes! That's right! Everyone is completely outraged by the recent discovery surrounding the work of the Korean stem cell researcher, Dr. Woo Suk Hwang. Dr. Hwang's work really made major headlines around the world in 2004 and 2005, because of [a] couple of different papers that he had published, in which he had shown that he was first able to clone human embryonic stem cells and later produce lines of embryonic stem cells cloned from individual patients. However, now based on studies from the Seoul National University and the panel investigating the evidence, it now becomes quite clear that Dr. Hwang seemed to have faked much of this research.

Steve: And what's going to happen to him?

Rennie: Needless to say, his scientific reputation is completely in tatters. He's already resigned at least some of his academic positions. I think really probably for him one of the biggest questions now is whether or not he is going to become the subject of criminal prosecution possibly for mishandling government funds.

Steve: This cloning scandal has political ramifications in terms of stem cell research, right?

Rennie: Oh sure. Stem cell research has been very politically charged for years now. So I'm afraid that this sort of scandal surrounding Dr. Hwang's works are really is only going to energize some of that further. There are a number of people who always argued that embryonic stem cell work was unacceptable for different ethical or religious reasons. They are probably going to point to what's happened in Dr. Hwang's lab and as evidence that lot of the stem cell researchers really can't be trusted and that they certainly can't be trusted to do this kind of work ethically. However, I think, it is important to say that most of the scientific communities doesn't see any of this bad work done by Dr. Hwang as reflecting badly on the science of stem cells at all.

Steve: But in terms of actually getting the mechanisms going to do stem cell research, this could be a problem?

Rennie: That's certainly one of the big concerns; embryonic stem cell research has been very politically charged for years now. When you try to look at the political problems of stem cell research you really have to look at it at least two levels—the federal level and then what's going on down at the level of the states. At the federal level, the administration has stood by the policy it established back early in the Bush administration of saying that in effect the federal funds for embryonic stem cells would be limited to work only on certain lines of stem cells that were grandfathered in. The states—most notably California—have stepped into this and have started to put lot of money toward this. California has now basically become the leading stem cell research funder in the world by its decision to put 3 billion dollars over the course of ten years [in]to this [research].

Steve: Because the restrictions on stem cell research in this country are federal, but at the state level you're pretty much free to do what you want. Is that right?

Rennie: That's basically right. Yes, the states are moving and trying to write their own rules. Now there is always a question of whether there could be some sort of federal legislation that could restrict that further; but some people feel that in a lot of ways much of the political discussion about this is in some respects over and basically the weight of stem cell research has moved to the states and the federal government is not likely to move back in and try to take this over soon.

Steve: Thanks, a lot John.

Rennie: Thank you Steve.

Steve: For more on cloning and ethics and lots of other topical science, check out the Scientific American blog at; that's

It's a little mind numbing to think about all the inventions you are using right now while you are listening to this podcast, either on your computer or your MP3 player. Well! On February 8th, the National Inventors Hall of Fame announced their new inductees, the people who made the modern world … modern. I called Rini Paiva of the National Inventors Hall of Fame at her office in Akron, Ohio.

Steve: Hi, Ms. Paiva. Very good to talk to you today.

Paiva: Thanks, it's good to talk to you as well.

Steve: Tell us about the National Inventors Hall of Fame first and what you have to do to get in.

Paiva: Well! The National Inventors Hall of Fame is actually an organization that has been around since early 1970s, and ever since then we've been honoring outstanding inventors. And for someone to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, that person must have a U.S. patent and then—very importantly—that patent must be something that has bettered our society in someway and made our lives better.

Steve: Who decides who gets in?

Paiva: Well! We actually have a National Selection Committee that takes a look at all of our nominees for the year. This is comprised of people from, you know, different scientific fields—all experts of course—and they are the ones who make the recommendation to us.

Steve: So, and the person does not have to be alive. You can get in for something you invented 200 years ago?

Paiva: You can (laughs) as long as a patent was issued for it. You could be either a living person or a deceased person.

Steve: Let's talk about some of the inductees who are actually alive and the kind of work that they did that we probably use on a daily basis and might not be aware of.

Paiva: Sure. Well, you know, one of the things that I don't know about you, but I use everyday is the Internet; and, you know, we always think about where did the Internet really come from? Well! In fact there were two individuals by the name of Robert Kahn and Vincent Cerf who were the ones who came up with the protocol that allows the Internet to run. It allows us to talk to each other via e-mail, to search the Worldwide Web, to do everything that we are used to today.

Steve: Some of the other living inductees include …

Paiva: Well! Something that a lot of people have been enjoying these days are their new digital cameras; and one of the inventions this year is one that's been done by Willard Boyle and George Smith, they are the inventors of the charged couple device. Now a lot of people have not heard of the charged couple device or the CCD, but it's actually the device that allows digital imaging to happen. It really dramatically advanced digital imaging and you're going to find it not just in digital cameras but in anything else that takes a digital image [whether it]where there is something as every day as a fax machine to something as big as a telescope like the Hubble, taking pictures of space.

Steve: Some people might be walking around wearing the products of one of this year's inductees and some people might have the products of one of this year's inductees inside of them right now.

Paiva: Robert Gore is one of this year's inductees and he came up with a product that is now known by the Gore-Tex brand. And everyone can think of course things like Gore-Tex outerwear that protects you from the elements and Gore-Tex is used for so many other things as well.

Steve: So you have the Internet protocol?

Paiva: Yeah!

Steve: And you have a Gore, but it's not Al Gore.

Paiva: No, but it's not Al Gore. (laughs) You know, I've been waiting for people to make those comments. (laughs)

Steve: And the fellow who invented something people might have inside them?

Paiva: Well! That's a person by the name of Julio Palmaz and he is a physician who is actually working—believe it or not—at a lab at home and he picked up this piece of metal up off the floor and he was experimenting with it and he realized that he could make a good intravascular stent. Now that's kind of a big—you know, a lot of people might not realize what the intravascular part is, but the stent part people have heard of; and a lot of people—over a million people actually every year—have had stents implanted in them to unclog their arteries.

Steve: So it's still possible to actually invent something in your basement or come up with the idea in your basement and it becomes a viable invention.

Paiva: You know what? We see it all the time. We definitely see people who have done their work in the corporate R&D labs and their work is phenomenal; and we've seen the people who literally have come up with their ideas with the materials that they found in their basement or the garage.

Steve: When are the actual induction ceremonies?

Paiva: Well! We're looking forward to the induction ceremonies on May 5th and 6th because they are going to be taking place at the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio.

Steve: And I have been there, and it's also a fun museum to chomp around[check out]; and so if you are in the area, I recommend dropping by for the ceremony and checking out the museum. And just 20 miles down the road you have the Football Hall of Fame—you can make it an all-Hall-of-Fame weekend.

Paiva: We do; there is a lot of Hall of the Fame all around us.

Steve: What else is there?

Paiva: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland.

Steve: Oh—that's only about 50 miles away, right?

Paiva: They are all very close to each other—within an hour's drive of each other.

Steve: Terrific. Thanks very much, Ms. Paiva.

Paiva: Oh you're welcome.

Steve: For more information, go to And if you are an inventor yourself, you'll probably be interested in checking out the various competitions that the Hall of Fame sponsors. There are categories for graduate students, undergrads and regular folks who might just be coming up with the next great invention right at home.

Now it's time for some Hall of Fame trivia. There is one person who has been elected to both the National Inventors Hall of Fame and to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Here is a hint. If you are a Beatles fan, his name might be considered the opposite of "more John"; and here is another hint—he holds patent number 3018680 for his invention of the solid body electric guitar in 1941, and his legendary recording of "How High the Moon" was number one on the charts in 1951. Guitarist extraordinaire Les Paul is still plucking along at age 90.

Next up, Eugenie Scott, the director of the National Center for Science Education. She is the country's number one defender of evolution in the classroom, and I called her at her office in Oakland, California.

Steve: Hi, Dr. Scott.

Scott: Hi [there]dear Steve.

Steve: Tell me about why the Dover evolution/intelligent design case was so important?

Scott: Oh, the Dover case was a very important case because it was the first time that the idea of intelligent design had to have its day in court. And of course as scientists would predict, intelligent design laws—it is not science and it's not legal to teach it.

Steve: A scientist might predict that, but you might not have necessarily been sure that a judge would find that way; and this judge found that way in a blistering fashion, that the decision that he issued was really scathing against the defendants who were the school board who wanted idea in the classroom.

Scott: Oh, absolutely. The judge could have ruled very narrowly. He had enough evidence that the purpose of the school board was to promote religion when they passed the policy, and he could have struck it down on that ground alone, but he didn't. He went on; he had listened to the scientific testimony. In fact, he had listened very carefully and very attentively to the scientific testimony, and he decided that the claims of the defense that intelligent design was science and therefore there was a secular reason to teach it were—[he] found that there was no science behind intelligent design and the only reason for presenting it was to promote a religious—a sectarian religious—[view];hue [it] was a wonderful decision from our standpoint.

Steve: Now hot on the heels of that decision, another case cropped up that was very similar and that was out where you are in California.

Scott: That's right! A case in southern California in the El Tejon School District where a high school teacher decided that she would offer a course on intelligent design on a four-week inter-session part of the semester; and with the distinction that the El Tejon course was going to be held in philosophy rather than in the science curriculum.

Steve: And that sounds okay. It's okay to talk about intelligent design in public schools as long as you don't present it as science, is that right?

Scott: Not exactly; and the operant where[operative word] there is, about—you said, talk about intelligent design. And that's the key difference. Of course, you can describe religious ideas in the public school curriculum, and it's appropriate, but you can't advocate or promote these ideas; and that was the problem with the El Tejon intelligent design. I think the title of the course was "Philosophy of Intelligent Design". That was the problem here.

Steve: And that case has now also been resolved?

Scott: Yes! On January 17th, the district court judge signed an agreement between the plaintiffs—who were parents in the district—and the school district agreeing that the course would be cancelled. This is a victory for good science education.

Steve: This result in California, do you think that that is a direct result of the judge's decision in Pennsylvania?

Scott: I think the judge's decision in Pennsylvania was a real wake-up call for school districts around the country who are contemplating teaching intelligent design. Whether it's in the science curriculum or outside of the science curriculum, it is unconstitutional to promote a religious idea.

Steve: And we're talking about in public schools?

Scott: Correct.

Steve: Okay. Thanks very much. I really appreciate it.

Scott: You're welcome.

Steve: Do you watch CSI, Dr. Scott?

Scott: No, I'm sorry, I see very little television, but I do know what the program is about.

Steve: Well! We have some clips from the CSI program that you'll never see on TV.

Scott: (laughs) Well! That would be worth tuning in for.

Steve: This week on the new hit series, CSI: Reality.

Male voice: Rebecca I sent some trace evidence samples to you. I need you to do a mass spec on sample A.

Rebecca: We don't have a mass spec.

Male voice: Then let's do a gas chromatography on sample B.

Rebecca: We don't have one of those either, gas chrome photography[chromatography].

Male voice: Can we run the fingerprints through the National Database?

Rebecca: Yes! Although the fingerprint guys are on vacation this week and we have the state database, but it doesn't interphase with all the other states, so ….

Male voice: Okay! Okay! Well, let's at least run the DNA we recovered.

Rebecca: Okay! We send out DNA; we'll get it back in about a month.

Steve: Next week on CSI Reality

Voice 1: I'm entering the house now. My flashlight is broken.

Voice 2: Hey chief, why don't you just, you know, switch the lights on?

Steve: That's it for this edition of the Scientific American podcast. I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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