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Podcast Transcription

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting July 30th, 2008. I'm Steve Mirsky. The June 18th, podcast featured a conversation with IEEE Spectrum editor in chief, Glenn Zorpette, and writer, John Horgan, about the so-called technological singularity in which artificial intelligence and computing power would allegedly lead to a new era in human history. Well after that conversation, we kept yapping, as is our habit. Glenn talked about his most recent trip to Iraq and John shared an anthropological take on war in general. Our conversation took place at IEEE Spectrum's headquarters in New York City.

Steve: Glenn you spent almost the entire month of January in Iraq.

Zorpette: I did do that.

Steve: And this is not your first trip to Iraq.

Zorpette: This is my second trip to Iraq.

Steve: And you were there for technology reasons though.

Zorpette: Yeah. Shortly after my first trip, I got interested in the idea of IEDs; when you are in Iraq, you should get used to know IEDs.

Steve: Improvised Explosive Devices.

Zorpette: Improvised Explosive Devices which is a, kind of, a catch all term that refers to roadside bombs, suicide bombs and car bombs. And so I became aware; I knew that there was a lot of work going on. The first time I was there was September and October of 2005, and I realized there was a lot going on. It was starting to get underway then, various high technologies and other technologies being applied to try to deal with IEDs; and since then in particular it's become this very large enterprise. There is an organization called the Joint IED Defeat Organization in the Pentagon, in the U.S. Military, which oversees research into counter IED and in particular technology and technology-related research into counter IED and they are spending several billion dollars a year, at this point; and there is...

Steve: And this operation has got to be fairly new, because IEDs were not anticipated, right?

Zorpette: Well, in their most current set of conflicts; because the Northern Ireland conflict in the, starting in the early '70s basically [involved] IEDs, although we didn't call them IEDs then, but IEDs were a major part of that conflict. In 1971 or '72 there were 1,400 IED detonations in one year in that conflict. But in terms of the modern IED situation, they are actually kind of got started in Afghanistan in late 2003, I believe, and then went to Iraq, where it really it, kind of, took off. They hit the height. The height they were seeing was somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 IED incidents a month in Iraq.

Steve: Jesus!!!

Zorpette: I think that's down quite a bit to between a 1,000 and 2,000 more recently. Exact numbers aren't released. A bad province in Iraq, a turbulent, convulsive province in Iraq such as Saladin might see 800-and-something-a-month IED incidents. There could be an IED found, it could be an IED detonation, it's not necessarily a death. I believe that in Iraq, slightly over half of all combat fatalities are IED caused. I think the figure for Afghanistan is 30 or 35 percent. So I got interested in this idea and I resolved to go back to try to learn more about it. It was quite difficult because understandably and justifiably it is among the most closely guarded and secretive things that's happening in this war. Basically, the insurgents, the malicious and others that use IEDs, are phenomenally adept and aggressive at using the Internet and any other means they can to find out about counter IED to refine and change their own tactics and the IEDs themselves to get around, the means being using to try to counteract them; it's an amazing, unbelievable cat-and-mouse game where you could see alterations to tactics or technology literally in a day or two.

Steve: The things that you can talk about that you learnt while you were there and you are preparing an article for your magazine...

Zorpette: Correct.

Steve: ... are related to dealing with IEDs.

Zorpette: Right. Yeah. The most common thing that people talk about or know about are the jammers. Every vehicle in Iraq now, that goes out on the roads, every coalition vehicle, I think most of the Iraqi vehicles, now have jammers. It is a family of these jammers—there's a number of generations—and those block the signals that are used to trigger what they call RCIEDs, Radio Controlled IEDs. These are bombs, these are set off by cellphones or garage door openers or keyless entry things; there is all kinds of stuff. And so the vehicles all carry these jammers; and then insurgents of course, quickly went back to using other things, typically what they call command wire, which is a hard-wired copper wire that just lead to a switch typically a kilometer or so away and also to pressure plates, what they call Victim-Operated IEDs. It's a pressure plate, crush wire or something else—metal that's held apart by phone or something else, a wheel, a tire, or a foot touches it, completes the circuit, IED goes off. There are advantages and disadvantages of all these things. The command wires lead to the triggerman. So, they're going to—the insurgents have lately, I mean, a lot of IEDs are now, the latest countermeasure are [is] one that, I heard about when I was there was, there will be a command wire from the IED buried, so it can't be seen, and that'll be long enough so it's outside the bubble of protection provided by the jammer and then at the end of the command wire is not a triggerman, but a cell phone or something. So the bomb can be detonated from very far away. So, this is the way the game goes. They make a change, you know, the adversary makes the change, the coalition responds to that and on it goes. But the IEDs are, there are enormous variety of types and kinds. There is something called an explosively formed penetrator which fires a molten mass at 2,000 kilometers per second or more, twice the high velocity of a rifle round; it can penetrate armor; tremendously lethal, many fatalities. The insurgents now are often using—and even the malicious—are using home-made explosive[s], which the military calls UBE for Unidentified Bulk Explosive, because basically they can get a lot of bang literally for the buck; that they can create enormous explosions. I heard of IEDs that the MRAP and the JERRV vehicles—MRAP is Mine Resistant Ambush Protected; it's the successor to the Humvee—what's happening now is, most of the Humvees are being given to the Iraqi army and U.S. forces are traveling in these things called MRAPs; they are much more heavily armored. They are higher off the ground. They are designed to withstand larger blasts and they weigh about 25 or 26 tons, but I have heard of IED blasts so large that they flung MRAPs tens of meters, actually sent them spinning in the air, flung them, say 40 or 50 or 60 meters. Its amazing, the explosive force that they can achieve.

Steve: So you have this little technological arms race between the bombers and bombees here.

Zorpette: Right.

Steve: You visited a, you know, in the old days there was the motor pools, now there is the robot pool.

Zorpette: Right. One of the aspects of counter IED is called EOD—Explosives Ordinance Demolition—and these are specially trained men and women in all the branches of the service whose job it is to deal with IEDs when they are found; because a convoy might be going down a road and they just come across an IED; somebody spots it. There are some telltale sign[s], disturbed earth or they say [see] a glint of copper or something—that's an IED. So, they stop; who do they call? They call an EOD team and these EOD teams, they do a number of a things, but two of their big responsibilities, one of them is called Area Response and that's when they are on call, they get call there is an IED and they have to go deal with it; and they also do something called Road Clearance and that means that they travel up and down these roads themselves, looking for IEDs, typically with army teams. I actually went on two road clearance missions, when I was there and we came across an IED on my second mission. Actually what happened was, we were on the main supply road, north-south through Iraq, which the coalition calls MSR Tampa—means Main Supply Road Tampa—and we got a call that they had found, a convoy had found, an IED. So we showed up there to take care of it. And the way these teams typically take care of these IEDs is they have robots. There are two different models. There is one called the PackBot, but the one they seem to favor is called TALON and they're about the size of a shopping cart or so, little, small and not quite that tall, and they have [a] very sophisticated camera and manipulator system. They have manipulator arms and a very sophisticated camera on it and the camera can see in different spectral bands, visible, infrared and so on. So, what they do is, they park their truck—the EOD teams travel in JERRVs (everything is an acronym)—JERRV is Joint EOD Rapid Response Vehicle—and these things cost about three-quarters of a million dollars before you put the defensive technology in. The high tech cameras, the jamming systems, you know the communication systems. That probably, I am sure, that brings it up over 2 million. The optical systems that let them scrutinize stuff alone called the Gyrocam, that alone cost about half a million. Okay so they park, I don't know, may be a few hundred meters away from the IED. The robot goes out the back of the JERRV and a robot operator [is] just steering it, driving it in real-time, using these cameras and things on it, just drives it to the IED, and they don't expect to look at or see at what they are dealing with to the extent they can. There's a lot of intelligence that goes on with IEDs. There's an intelligence operation near the Baghdad airport. They study IEDs there. They carefully categorize: Where did it come from? When did they get it? They can even—I believe or I have heard—that they can get an idea of who made it. Who the bomb-maker was. They can start to see signatures with the kind of triggering mechanism he favors; the kind of explosive; where they can get ideas or where the explosives are probably made. They do an enormous amount of forensic work basically. But when they come across one of these IEDs, they'll either try to disable it, if they can get a fell [feel], the bea[d] on how it works, the triggering mechanism, so on, they'll disable it and bring it back for further study; or if its nothing interesting, if it's just a garden-variety IED they've seen before or they are nervous about whether they can neutralize it, they'll just blow it up. So the robot in that case would come back, it would bring the IED back, if they're going to preserve it or if they're just going to blow it up in place, they bring the robot back. They put blocks of a military explosive like C4 one, or two blocks, put in the robot's claw, the robot goes back, they place that and they detonate it from within the JERRV with a relatively safe environment inside the JERRV. There are these teams that do that, that's their job. I mean, there are these young men and women, you know, they're in their early 20 some of them, and they've been trained to do these robots. They come from all the branches of the service and that's their job: to wake up and find these IEDs and blow them up with these robots.

Steve: Do you know how many robots are out there taking care of IEDs right now?

Zorpette: When I was there in January, there were 1,800 robots in theater in Iraq, I believe. They [There] are more in Afghanistan, but the number was rapidly increasing, and I was told that by the end of this year—this year being 2008—there will be at least another 1,000. So by the end of this year, there are supposed to be close to 3,000 of these EOD robots in theater.

Steve: And your article about this is going to come out in IEEE Spectrum in...

Zorpette: Correct, yeah, I am doing two articles. Actually I am doing an article on "An Overview of Counter IED" and the question I am trying to answer with this article is: Can we really render IEDs obsolete? It's not really an academic question, because there are many IED incidents and detonations in the world every month outside of Iraq. In Afghanistan, I've seen figures that it's well into the hundreds if not thousands per month outside of Iraq in Afghanistan, and all the other places like Pakistan, Chechnya, South America—[a] lot of that's linked to the drug trade—the Philippines, Sri Lanka, I mean all of these places have [IEDs]. In India there are IEDs incidents, these are the places that have large IED problems. Many military analysts and not just government analysts or homeland security, not at all but many, many analysts its[with] national security ties believe that we'll see IEDs. We've already seen them in Europe, you know, in places like Spain and [the] U.K. and elsewhere. But there is this feeling among many people that they will see them more in developed countries including [the] United States. In a way it's, I don't want to call it [a] race against time, but it's not hard to make the case that we really need to find a way to deal with IEDs. You know, there is this sense that I get that it's not going to be any one thing; and, I mean, I think no one thinks anymore that there is a silver bullet technology. I mean I used to hear this kind of thing: Well, you know terahertz waves, you know they don't let us see and disable. You know, no there is no one thing. There's going to be dozens, maybe hundreds of technologies that are brought to bear on this and hopefully, they will coalesce into something that really effectively deals with this threat, because it isn't going away, I don't think.

Horgan: I am a huge admirer of the reporting that he has done from Iraq and it takes a lot of courage just to go there and you produced a great article three years ago or two years ago...

Zorpette: No, two and a half.

Horgan: ...rebuilding the Iraq power grid and what a nightmare that had become. Great work done by this old colleague of mine.

Steve: I risked of turning this into a mutual admiration society!

Zorpette: When John and I were younger, we used to argue about politics and this is how all this was. We were arguing about the Sudanese and Nicaragua, so this is we are kind of all...

Horgan: Yes, this guy is right back.

Zorpette: ... so, but John and I would have these hilarious half-drunken arguments and what John inspired me in many ways, because I had just gotten into journalism, he had been to Columbia Journalism School; he was this, you know, he was the mentor really and, you know, he is the reason why I got so excited about science and technology journalism and decided that this was going to be my life's work really. But one of the things he did that impressed me, that always struck with me was that, he went to Nicaragua. He took a month's vacation and went down there and got dysentery and stuff, but I thought, Yeah, you know if you're going to argue about something or you want to know about something get on [in] there, see it. You know, don't read other people's stuff. So that's why I went.

Steve: Will you just follow up on your most recent trip to Iraq? Did you do any follow-up reporting about the electrical grid situation there?

Zorpette: I did. I was there for about four weeks and I spent one of those weeks with the a young group of engineers, and I went back to a couple of the sites I had visited on my first trip, including the Quds power plant which is north of Baghdad; it goes through some kind of dicey neighborhood, so the trip from the Green Zone to Quds is always a bit of hot charger; so we went up there in these Reva vehicles, these heavily armored South African Reva vehicles; and much to my amaze[ment], when I found that they had gotten some of their power plants started; they hadn't been able to run when I was there in 2005. It was a, kind of, these [this] good news/bad news things, because they had put in a lot of power plants, which we call combustion turbines which require a certain kind of fuel and lots of it, and they were trying to run them on diesel fuel. The specific types they were put[ting] in are much more easily run on natural gas, but they didn't have a supply of natural gas. So they are trying to run them on this diesel fuel and they didn't have a pipeline supply or ready supply of some of these other fuels that they needed.. So they basically have to truck it in. So as soon as we arrived at Quds, I saw a line of tanker trucks. I would guess there were 50 or 60 of them, 40 or 50 anyway, just snaking all around the inside of the perimeter, you know, gated area of this plant and that was, I was told, one day's supply of diesel fuel for one of the turbines that they have; and when they are done I believe, they'll have 8 or 9 turbines. Not all of them are going to be run on diesel; they are running some of them of this crude oil distill that they get from a, literally across the street. Not enough to run all those other things but that was kind of a sobering reminder of how the planning for the reconstruction of the electrical sector just didn't take into account harsh realities.

Steve: Is the diesel fuel at least Iraqi in origin?

Zorpette: No, it's not. Within Iraq there is very little domestic capability to refine petrochemicals. So I think there is one refinery in somewhere around Bayji, but it's not nearly enough for their needs. So lot of the diesel comes from Kuwait or Turkey. I think a lot of it lately is coming from Kuwait. It has to be trucked in; it's expensive and quite dangerous to truck in.

Horgan: That's ironic, isn't it?

Steve: Oh yeah, the word irony comes to mind. So, what you have [you] been working on, John?

Horgan: Well, you know I think the last time I talked to you was almost a year ago. Last time I talked to you for a Scientific American podcast that is, and I told you that I was working on an article about the roots of warfare and it would look at the question of whether war and militarism are permanent parts of the human condition or whether we can eradicate them. And I have had this wade into human history, finally, at some point. And that article finally was published in April in Discover magazine, and it was only about 3,000 words; and I have got a tremendous amount of material. Obviously, it's a huge topic. I still am absurdly optimistic that we can get war behind us; one of the reasons I want to write more about this topic is because most people I know, including Glenn—I am not sure how you feel [about] that this, Steve—are absolute fatalists. My students at Stevens, I have actually asked people in Europe, all across the country this question about whether they think war will always be with us. Every chance I get at, I put this question to people; and over 90 percent of the responses are that war will never end. And I just think that that's a real misreading of studies the roots of war and biology of aggression. War to me is clearly—especially, modern wars—are [a] cultural phenomenon, and we can get past it. In fact international war, in spite of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, is becoming very rare since World War II. This might be because of an increase in the number of democracies. So democracies rarely, if ever, fight each other. They often fight nondemocracies. That's obvious, but they ever fight each other, and there has been an increase in the number of democracies since World War II from about 20 to almost a 100 today. So there are lots of positive trends out there. I would like to tell people more about that so they become less fatalistic; because, obviously, the belief that war would never end becomes self-propelling, and I think we can get this behind us.

Steve: So you are turning that article into a book?

Horgan: That's my hope.

Steve: If you know, I think it is Sam Bowles at San Jose, he did a study that came out last fall in Science on the co-evolution of war and altruism.

Horgan: Interesting; yeah there have been a number of studies of the connection between war, altruism, cooperation, and the paradox is that within a society that is surrounded by enemies, are very warlike society, you get incredible cooperation that often leads to great technological advances and a great level of sophisticated organization within that society that allows it to go and smash the hell out of other societies around it. So obviously, militarisms have led to some of the greatest advances in science and technology and war, and war and militarism have often also been a civilizing factor in human history. That's another paradox, where I think I read a point in history now. We can sort of look at the European Union as a model where you have all these very powerful nations that have realized that war and militarism just made absolutely no sense anymore; and so they have created this set of treaties that acknowledge their inter-independence [interdependence] and make the possibility of, you know, a repeat of World War I or II extremely unlikely. My hope is that those kinds of alliances will gradually spread around the world and war will become even less likely in future.

Steve: So what we really need is an off-world threat; we need the threat of extraterrestrials like in Independence Day.

Horgan: Our climate—you know, that's something I hear very often—but you can also have a terrestrial global threat like climate change which also requires lot of international cooperation. Just one more thing that I would like to mention, one factor that comes up over and over again when I talked to scholars and scientists about war, is something that can really reduce the risk of conflict is educating females. If you educate young women, particularly in developing countries, then you get a very strong correlation with a reduced birth rate, then you get lower population and that's less of a strain on the natural resources and also the resources of government and medicine, much lower risk of conflicts. So through that one thing which also is the right thing to do for lots of other reasons for, so that's one thing you can really do a lot to reduce the risk of war.


Steve: Now its 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: A couple of species of animal have been found that purposefully seek out food containing alcohol.

Story number 2: A new study shows that athletes taking human growth hormone (HGH) significantly improve performance.

Story number 3: Call it map-crash quest; researchers have published a map of America's roads based on driving fatalities.

And story number 4: Erectile dysfunction drugs may eventually help fight human brain tumors.

We will be back with the answer, but first I want to tell you that last week I interviewed New York Times columnist Tom Friedman about his latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded. The book comes out in September, and we'll play the conversation then. In the meantime, you can read or rather listen to the audio book of his previous best seller, The World is Flat, free. Just go to Tom Friedman's Web site through August 10th and sign up to receive a free audio download of the World is Flat audio book as well as an exclusive audio preview of the new book, Hot, Flat and Crowded. Further terms and details are available at

Now back to the quiz.

Story number 4 is true. In a study with rats, erectile dysfunction drugs increase the levels of anticancer drugs that were able to reach malignant brain tumors. Getting such drugs to tumors can sometimes be a challenge. The work appeared in the journal Brain Research.

Story number 3 is true. Go to, type in your address, and you can see the safety record of the roads you drive everyday. The map was created at the University of Minnesota.

And story number 1 is true. Two species living in Malaysia were found to imbibe the equivalent of nine drinks every night. They fed on the alcoholy nectar of a local palm tree. One of the animals is the slow loris, which makes sense. For more check out the July 29th edition of the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science.

All of which means that story number 2, about athletes getting a performance boost from HGH is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Because what is true is that a recent study found that athletes who took a placebo but who thought it was HGH did improve while another recent study showed that while HGH did increase lean body mass, it did not improve performance unless apparently you believe that it does. For more, check out the July 24th article on our Web site entitled "Are Popular Doping Drugs Effects All in the Mind?".

Well that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. Visit for the latest science news and for our special package on the total solar eclipse taking place on August 1st. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

60-Second Science is a daily podcast. Subscribe to this Podcast: RSS | iTunes 

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