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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Hobbit: 10 Years Later
Science Talk

Little Brains, Big Brains: Latest Flores Hobbit News and the Intel Science Fair

Kate Wong brings us up to date on the ongoing research into fossils of the tiny human, called the Hobbit, found on the island of Flores. And Ivan Oransky reports from the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Plus, Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman illustrates problems with reductionism and refrigerators. And we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites mentioned on this episode include www.SciAm.com/daily, www.nybg.org/darwin/symposium.php, www.intel.com/education/ISEF

Kate Wong brings us up to date on the ongoing research into fossils of the tiny human, called the Hobbit, found on the island of Flores. And Ivan Oransky reports from the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Plus, Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman illustrates problems with reductionism and refrigerators. And we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites mentioned on this episode include www.SciAm.com/daily, www.nybg.org/darwin/symposium.php, www.intel.com/education/ISEF

Podcast Transcript

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting May 21st, 2008. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast big brains, little brains and a Nobel brain—our resident anthropology expert Kate Wong talks about the latest findings and feelings about the Hobbit, the tiny human fossil found in Indonesia. Ivan Oransky, the new managing editor online reports from the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Plus, we'll have comedy from Nobel Prize winner Gerald Edelman and we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First up Kate Wong; we spoke in the library at Scientific American.

Steve: Kate, you're at this big meeting in, where in Columbus, Ohio?

Wong: Yeah, I was at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Columbus last month.

Steve: And what goes on at this meeting?

Wong: Well, you have people from all areas of physical anthropology including primatology and human genetics and paleoanthropology convening and hashing out their latest findings.

Steve: The Flores fossil. Homo floren— How do you say it?

Wong: Floresiensis.

Steve: Floresiensis—the Hobbit as it's popularly known.

Wong: That's right.

Steve: It's still a huge subject of controversy.

Wong: It is. In fact, all of the talks that I went to—the ones that concern the Hobbit—were the ones that were the standing room only talks.

Steve: SRO for the little guy. And sum up what the outstanding issues are related to the Hobbit; in fact, for people who have come in on this story just now, why don't you just take couple of sentences and explain what the Hobbit is and why there are [is] so much controversies [controversy] still around it?

Wong: Sure; back in 2004, a team of Australian and Indonesian scientists working on the island of Flores, found some very small remains in a cave called Liang Bua and the most prominent of these remains was the better part of a skeleton of an individual who stood a little more than a meter tall and had a brain the size of a grapefruit.

Steve: As opposed—to what are our brains, how big are they?

Wong: Three times larger.

Steve: Okay, so three grapefruits.

Wong: (laughs) Right, three grapefruits. And the discoverers interpreted this as an example of what is known as island dwarfing, in which animals evolve [to] a smaller size—in this case as a response to the diminished resources in their island home.

Steve: And a couple of really famous examples on Flores itself, they have found fossils of tiny elephants.

Wong: That's right.

Steve: And also up in the allusions, I think, it is because of the receding, at the end of the ice age; I think you had some dwarfism among mammoths.

Wong: Yes, that's correct, too. So this happens a lot among the proboscidians, the group that includes the elephants. Also on Flores, there are examples of giant rats because the other thing that could happen on islands is that animals smaller than rabbits can get big. So you get cases of gigantism as well as dwarfism.

Steve: And some people think that's why the Komodo dragon became the biggest reptile in the world or the biggest lizard, I should say, in the world because of the same kind of island bio-geographical influence.

Wong: I am not sure if that's true, actually.

Steve: Well, some people do think it.

Wong: (laughs) Yes, some people do think that. (laughs)

Steve: And that they were hunting the little elephants.

Wong: (laughs)

Steve: That's a whole different story.

Wong: Right, right.

Steve: Let's get back to the Hobbits.

Wong: Yes. And so this was held up as an example of island dwarfing as applied to humans, which had never been seen before. So, the small brain size of the Flores Hobbit has always been a puzzle for anthropologists, because our large brains are our primary adaptation. Other animals are faster and stronger and have sharper teeth and longer claws and people just have big brains. So among living people there are a number of populations where people have small body size, but their brains are just as large as those of people who have large bodies, and so this has been a real sort of conundrum in terms of understanding how natural selection would shrink a brain in humans and in fact, the most recent research on the Hobbit has revealed a number of very primitive characteristics. So the skeleton that in fact come[s] to mind [is] that very famous fossil known as Lucy, who was an australopithecine, a very early human ancestor, who was very small bodied and very small brained. And so now what researchers are considering is the possibility that the ancestors of the Hobbit in fact are a much more primitive form of human than previously believed and instead of getting dwarfism of a human ancestor in fact the Hobbit could just be the descendant of a very early hominid that exited Africa far earlier than researchers believed that the humans ever left the continent.

Steve: One of the big problems right now is there are a number of individual skeletons that we have but only one head.

Wong: That's right. There are lots of, maybe a dozen or so individuals have been discovered, many of them are represented by isolated bones and only one, that original skeleton, actually includes a head; so there is always been a question of, "Well if they find another head, will it be as small as this one?" That question is particularly important because there have been, ever since the discovery was announced, some researchers who have questioned whether or not the Hobbit represents a new species of human or whether it actually is just a modern human with a growth disorder that produced a small brain size.

Steve: So finding a second small head would be indicative of it really being a separate species and not an individual with pathology.

Wong: Exactly. It would clinch the deal really in favor of the majority of the researchers who believe that the Flores Hobbit is a new species of human.

Steve: So, what do you do now? You have to find some more fossils to try to really settle this issue, and one big thing would be to try to figure out how did this relative of Australopithecus, if that's what it is, get from Africa to Indonesia without leaving any fossils anywhere else?

Wong: Right; and that's the big stumbling block for researchers who are on the fence about the Hobbit and who don't believe it's a pathology, but who are a little bit skeptical that somehow paleontologists have completely overlooked, or never discovered in the first place, the fossils that will connect the dots between the australopithecines and other early hominids in Africa and the hominids that you find in Flores.

Steve: And one of the challenges to finding these fossils is that the region that you'd expect the fossils to be in, if it's a direct line from Africa to Indonesia, [is] not that good for finding fossils in general.

Wong: Not that good for finding fossils of the age that paleontologists would be looking for; and, you know, in Africa the geology is just right for finding human ancestors and its proved a lot more difficult to find the really early hominids. Well it has been impossible actually to find hominids older than 1.9 million years outside of Africa. Maybe that's because they weren't there, but maybe it's just because the geology hasn't been …

Steve: Conducive to fossilization right out there.

Wong: Exactly!

Steve: So this is great for you. You are going to be employed forever.

Wong: I hope so! (laughs)

Steve: Thanks Kate.

Wong: Thank you, Steve.

Steve: For more, check out Kate's article "Hobbit Hullabaloo"in the June issue of Scientific American. It's also available at our digital archive, http://www.sciamdigital.com. Next up: Web editor, Ivan Oransky. He hit the road last week. I spoke to him Friday. Hi Ivan, why don't you tell everybody where you are?

Oransky: Hey Steve! I'm in Atlanta for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Steve: This is like a science fair, like a lot of people probably are used to, but no vinegar volcanoes in this one.

Oransky: That's right. No vinegar volcanoes, at least not that I saw, but I got to tell you its not as though I got to every single one of the more than 1,500 booths here. These just are amazing kids, but as far as I know, no vinegar volcano.

Steve: And again this is all high school students.

Oransky: That's right. High school students from around the world; dozens of countries here; just quite a showing.

Steve: And what was the general level of sophistication in the examples that you did get a chance to see?

Oransky: You know, the levels of sophistication were really pretty high; I mean, sophisticated enough that I had to ask two or three times sometimes to make sure I was getting, you know, what it was that the students were doing. I mean, it's really quite impressive. Everything from very high-end molecular biology techniques to trying to create new battery types; robotics was a big theme here; some really impressive stuff.

Steve: So, why don't you give us a rundown of what a couple of the really outstanding exhibits that you saw were?

Oransky: Sure and, you know, I hate to sound partial, but to be honest they were all very outstanding. I mean to get to this point these kids all had to compete against lots of other kids all around the world, so, you know, should emphasize really impressive stuff.

Steve: And again this is not the Intel—formerly the Westinghouse—Science Competition. This is something related, but different.

Oransky: That's correct. So, Intel sponsors [a] number of things. The contest you are referring to, the winners of which were the subject of another column we have, as you know, that's the Science Talent Search; and that's probably you know, arguably the sort of the top contest of this type, but this is a pretty high-end one, too. I mean, the top three winners of this contest actually each get $50,000 in college scholarships, so there is a lot of, you know, reward involved; but also lot of high-end stuff involved. Looking at some of the stuff we wrote about on our blogs, Laura Vanderkam is the new columnist for us now. We started out looking at whether or not kudzu could become a biofuel source. I mean, think about there are 8 million acres of this stuff all around the U.S. here, and it's considered a really noxious kind of invasive species nobody wanted. Well! If you could make fuel out of it, maybe we could at least use what we have. No one is going to plant more of it. So that was a kind of call and that was someone from Oklahoma, [a] young woman from Oklahoma. This is her fourth ISEF actually. She is a senior now and three of those years she spent looking at kudzu. So another couple of kids, they were sisters, actually from Oregon, outside of Portland, and they made these robots that could do all sorts of things. They have a robot who could move a solar panel made out of Lego onto the top of a house, stuff like that; I mean, then there are all these physics things.

Steve: Well, we should point out that those sisters were 14 and 11 years old.

Oransky: Exactly!

Steve: Right.

Oransky: Exactly! Fourteen and 11.

Steve: I like the one about the air battery.

Oransky: Yeah! This was a kid, you know, this was really interesting. A kid from Washington, D.C. and it occurred to him and in a minute, I will describe why this actually is not nearly as far fetched as it sounds. You know, we have all this air around, okay, we've got essentially an endless supply of air, you could argue; and if you compress air, you are actually, you know, storing energy. So why not use compressed air to create a battery? And he actually did that. He has you know, an air canister. He has got compressed air and he used that to power a tiny little turbine and as a, sort of, proof of principle, what he did was he used the turbine to literally create enough energy to recompress the air. So you say, "Well, it doesn't sound that interesting." But again it's a real proof of principle. He was even been able to power his Walkman and for those of you wondering why, you know, a teenager has a Walkman, when you wouldn't even think they imagine what they are, he told me, you know, he loves his Walkman. I said, "Good for you."

Steve: Well, you know, compressed air is a much bigger industry in this country than a lot of people realize, so this is not that crazy, and what's really interesting to me is how much energy gets wasted, for example in health clubs. If we could have all those people on Stairmasters and stationary bikes compressing air and then slowly releasing the air to run turbines, boy! We could, maybe solve this energy crisis.

Oransky: I think that's great idea; I'll be often in touch with Joseph Church in D.C.

Steve: Okay. Now there is a really unique kind of prize that the kids are getting in addition to the $50,000 scholarship.

Oransky: That's right. This was very cool. They announced this today. So, the M.I.T. Lincoln Laboratory—which many of our readers and listeners will know does a lot of asteroid research— they run a program called the Linear Program; so they discovered [a] lot of asteroids, [a] lot of minor planets, and so it turns out that this year, all the first and second place category award winner names will be sent to name near-earth asteroids. In other words, if you won a first or second place category award this year, you are going to have an asteroid named after you.

Steve: That's really pretty cool.

Oransky: I think so.

Steve: Well, all the winners and [a] lot of the interesting projects that you looked at are up on our Web site, and you've been live-blogging from the event.

Oransky: That's right, that's right. I actually should probably get back to that so that I can get a couple of more post[s] ups there.

Steve: Sounds good. Well, thanks for checking in and look forward to seeing what else goes up. The last entry that I have looked at that's posted is a battery that runs on air, so we can expect some more things to be up by the time that people actually hear this.

Oransky: That's right, that's right and probably a slide show, too.I'm going to put together—I took a bunch of photos here, so that will be up by the time this goes live.

Steve: Excellent! Thanks a lot Ivan.

Oransky: Thanks, Steve.

Steve: By the way, the winners were Mississippi's Natalie Saranga Omattage who developed an efficient inexpensive way to screen for food contaminants; New York's Sana Raoof, who showed how mathematical knot theory could find application in biochemistry; and Taipei's Yi-Han Su who worked on finding catalysts for improved hydrogen generation. Again these are high school students. My major achievement recently was getting new wiper blades for my car. Anyway all our coverage of the science fair, including Ivan's promised slide show is at our Web site, http://www.SciAm.com.

(music)

Now it's 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: Kids born to moms who live on farms seemed to be protected against allergic conditions.

Story number 2: Some college students engage in a binge drinking ritual when they turn 21; they down 21 drinks.

Story number 3: An invasion of so-called crazy raspberry ants has severely damaged the raspberry crop in the part of Washington State that grows 65 percent of the nation's supply.

And story number 4: Global warming could lead to more kidney stones.

We'll be back with the answer; but right now what I hope is the first in a series of Nobel comedy offerings. I was at a conference recently where Nobel Laureate, Gerald Edelman shared the following.

(excerpt from Gerald Edelman's talk)

Edelman: So, I want to challenge any residual reductionist in the audience with the following story. It appears that a young man thought his girl was carrying on with somebody else, downtown, New York on a hot July day, 100 degrees in the shade, came home and started to search for his presumed rival, looked in the closets, looks underneath the bed. She asserted "You are silly, there was no one," found himself at the rear window of this, cold water slap, hot though it was, and out of the corner of his eye he saw on the fire escape below, a chap wiping his brow and wringing his neck and opening his collar, flew into a rage, grabbed hold of the refrigerator, passed it through the window and dropped it on the chap's head whereupon he dropped dead. The scene switches to heaven. Three souls are being admitted. St. Peter says, "Well! You have to just say how you died." The first chap said, "I thought there was some hanky-panky, came home early, didn't see him for a while, but then I caught him at the end on that fire escape, dropped a refrigerator on him" and [St. Peter] said, "must have had a heart attack.'" Second chap said, "I don't know, it was a very hot day, I couldn't afford an air conditioner. I went home early, got a drink, stepped out on the fire escape, wiped my brow, loosened my collar and this refrigerator fell on my head." And the third fellow said, "I don't know, I was just sitting in this refrigerator minding my own business." (crowd laughs)

Steve: If you are a Nobel Laureate and want to share a joke, get in touch with us at podcast@sciam.com. That's for Nobel Laureates only, please do not apply if you've won a Field's Medal or Lasker or a National Medal of Science, we are only taking applications from Nobel Prize Winners. Anyway you can hear Edelman's entire talk, which was on Neural Darwinism as well as all the other talks from the two-day Darwin symposium that took place here in New York City in early May; they are all up at http://www.nybg.org/darwin/symposium.php.

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

Story number 1: Farm-born kids less allergic.

Story number 2: Twenty-one drinks on 21st birthdays.

Story number 3: Crazy raspberry ants take down large percentage of nation's supply of raspberries.

And Story number 4: Global warming may cause kidney stones.

Time is up.

Story number 1 is true. Kids born to moms who live on farms, had better luck with allergies. That's according to research presented May 21st at the American Thoracic Society Conference in Toronto. German researchers studied the children of 77 mothers, 18 of whom lived on farms. Their kids had more and better functioning regulatory T-cells, which contribute to healthy immune development. The effect appeared to be strongest among moms who entered barns or drank farm milk.

Story number 2 is true. A common binge-drinking ritual is apparently the attempt to down 21 drinks on 21st birthdays. That's according to a research that appears in the June issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Over 2,500 college students were surveyed. 34 percent of men and 24 percent of women reported having 21 drinks on their legal drinking age birthday. Some women reported 30 drinks; some men said they had downed 50. One potential problem with the study—all the students surveyed were from a single large Midwestern University. So the problem may not be as widespread as it first appeared. In any event, I did the following calculations. If that university has 25,000 students that means there are about 70 of them are having a birthday every day. Figure about a fifth, so-to-speak, are turning 21, which gives us about 14 new 21 year olds every day; and given the study's findings about percentages who binge, about four of those kids on any given day are downing 21 drinks. Let's hope they are not driving themselves to the emergency room.

And story number 4 is true. Global warming could increase the incidence of kidney stones. That's according to the research presented on May 20th at the Annual Meeting of the American Urological Association in Orlando. Dehydration is linked to kidney stone formation, particularly in hotter areas; since global warming will make more areas hotter and increase dehydration look for more kidney stones on the horizon.

All of which means that story number 3 about so-called crazy rasberry ants eating away a big chunk of the supply in Washington State is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. But here is what is true. Some 65 percent of America's raspberries are grown in Whatcom County, Washington, and there has been an invasion of crazy rasberry ants, but that invasion happened in Texas, and the ants don't eat raspberries. What they do like to eat is electrical equipment. They have messed up computers. The AP reports they've also been seen at NASA's Johnson Space Center, but Houston we don't have a problem there yet. They are called crazy rasberry ants because they seem to zip around wildly and one of the first exterminators to fight them was a guy named Tom Rasberry.

(music)

Well that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. You can write to us at podcast@SciAm.com. Don't forget to sign up for the daily digest at www.SciAm.com/daily. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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