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TV Of Tomorrow; Battle Of The Science Journals; US Budget Crunch Threatens National Lab

In this episode, journalist Michael Antonoff, author of the article Digital TV At Last? in the February issue of Scientific American, talks about the upcoming switch to all digital television broadcasting, scheduled to take place February 17, 2009; SciAm.com associate editor David Biello discusses the war being waged between open access science journals and those that charge readers; and Scientific American magazine editor Mark Alpert gives us the lowdown on how the last Congress's failure to pass a budget has left Fermi National Laboratory in the lurch. Plus we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include www.sciam.com; blog.sciam.com; www.sciammind.com

Science Talk January 31, 2007 -- TV of Tomorrow; Battle of the Science Journals; and U.S. Budget Crunch Threatens National Lab

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting January 31st. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast we will run the gamut from A to B with guests Michael Antonoff, Mark Alpert and David Biello. Scientific American editor, Mark Alpert, will talk about the federal budget crunch and how it may cause the Fermi National Lab to close down temporarily. Sciam.com associate editor David Biello discusses the pitch[ed] battle between free open-access science journals and the ones that still charge readers and journalist Michael Antonoff talks about the future of television. He is the author of the article "Digital TV At last?" in the February issue of Scientific American. I called him at his home in Forest Hills, New York.

Steve: Hi, Michael how are you?

Antonoff: I’m pretty good Steve.

Steve: Tell us the difference first of all between digital television and high-definition television.

Antonoff: High-definition television is a subset of digital television. It requires more bandwidth. It requires a better display to see it and a larger display to appreciate it. It's still digital TV, but it's a much higher quality form of digital TV.

Steve: And this is really interesting, this mix of technology and politics. Talk about how this budget act in 2005 winds up mandating that all broadcasting is digital in 2009.

Antonoff: (Laughs) Well it's funny, you know, the Federal Government is in hog, pretty much, you know, to spending so much more than it is taking in and the politicians have discovered one of the ways that will help balance the budget is to auction off some of the public airwaves and the logical place to go is the analog TV broadcasting spectrum. We've been trying to transition from analog TV broadcasting to digital TV for over a decade, and it has been postponed and it looks like it's finally going to happen on February 17th, 2009; and at that point, the government will be able to sell, you know, those current station channels for probably for telecommunications use to raise billions of dollars, you know, I mean, they are projecting it could be, you know, 70 billion dollars. I doubt that is[it's] going to be that much, but a lot of money could be raised. And some of that, actually, some of that bandwidth will be used for public safety as well, so it's not just a question of raising money, but actually using it for things like first respond[ers] is actually being able to talk to each other when disaster is unfolding.

Steve: Which amazingly enough, they still can't do in many situations.

Antonoff: Right. (laughs) Exactly.

Steve: Yeah! Can you talk about the current television situation, I mean, most of us just turn the TV on, we don't know what's going on behind the scenes. What's the difference between how things are now and how they're going to be when the flips, when the switch gets flipped on February 7th, 2009?

Antonoff: Well, you know, the irony is, you're going to be hearing a lot of doom and gloom in the next couple of years about TV going dark, but the fact is that the vast majority people are not going to see any difference, because they get their TV signal through [a] cable box or through [a] satellite receiver. It's really, it is something like 15 percent of the public is still watching TV through an antenna and those old TVs are the ones with the analog-only tuners, and that's the signal that will disappear. But for the vast majority of us, we are not going to see any difference really.

Steve: We're not going to see any difference but for those people, these are probably the more disenfranchised members of the society to begin with.

Antonoff: Exactly.

Steve: And they're the ones still watching broadcasts; they have a limited number of channels; they might even be on old black and white sets&133;

Antonoff: Sure.

Steve: &133;till this day. And they are all of a sudden going to be completely cut off from any television signal.

Antonoff: Yes, unless they prepare to get a box that will convert the new digital signals to their old analog signals, so their old TVs can still see it.

Steve: And at the prices of some low-end televisions that are new, you['re] probably better off just buying a new TV.

Antonoff: Oh, yeah!

Steve: Right.

Antonoff: Oh! Absolutely and in fact by law, the new TVs have to include a DTV tuner in them, so it's a no-brainer. But, you know, if you want to save some money, you know, for $60 or something you're going to able to buy a TV converter box—a TV tuner converter box—that will at least just give you your basic over-the-air channels.

Steve: Right. [But] then but again we were talking about a segment of the population for whom 60 bucks may be a big deal.

Antonoff: Yeah. There's going to be a subsidy. I mean, the federal government is going to provide these two $40 coupons, so that will help.

Steve: Because there is a recognition that television is—in addition to entertainment—is a vital means of transmitting information that people actually need.

Antonoff: Right, they have to watch Caprotti , you know, so many things are important.

Steve: (Laughs) Okay, now sure for most of us, we're going to turn the TV on and there won't be any difference. But there will be a difference in terms of both the quality of the picture and in terms of how big the—I mean it's a same size of a pipe, but there's going to be a lot more stuff going through it. I'm starting to sound like Senator Ted Stevens here. It's a series of tubes, but that's not—I don’t mean that. One of the things that you get back by getting rid of analog TV is a lot of bandwidth that is currently cut— analog TV is a hog.

Antonoff: Right! Right! And in fact the broadcaster is looking forward to digital TV because all of a sudden instead of being able to send just one program at a time, they're going to be able to cut up that 6 MHz of bandwidth in multi-screen. They can send [a] high-definition program as well as a standard definition program and perhaps even more—and you know that's on the broadcast end. The cable companies are going to be, once they recover the analog space—this analog TV is still on the cable—once they recover that space they're going to be able to deliver a lot more high definition, a lot more digital channels.

Steve: So overall, is this a good thing or is it just a thing? Or is [it] just something that's going to happen? Or is it really a benefit for everybody?

Antonoff: Why, I think it's a benefit just because of two things—for diversity you are just going to be able to send a lot more program[ming] to people—you know, every special interest—and on top of that, for high-definition programming you're getting a picture that's something like six times sharper with surround sound; so if you've got a setup of larger speakers, you're going to be hearing discrete sounds coming from different corners of the room—I mean it's like a movie-theater experience.

Steve: Oh!

Antonoff: You know great screen, great great great sound—I mean, why wouldn't you want it?

Steve: This is bad news for those of us who live in apartments or attached houses though, where the neighbor's TV is already shaking my entire house.

Antonoff: (Laughs) Well I can always put air crates on the walls.

Steve: So are you already all outfitted for the changeover?

Antonoff: Yeah, I've got a high-definition cable box that receives two channels simultaneously and records simultaneously; and if I recorded something earlier, I can be watching a third program that's entirely different than the two programs that are coming in right [then]now.

Steve: Now one last thing is you were talking about the gloom-and-doom scenario possibilities, I mean, in a way reminds me of the Y2K thing

Antonoff: Yeah.

Steve: And what are people going to hear and how should their dismay kind of be assuaged by what you actually know?

Antonoff: Well, I mean, I just read today that there are some politicians that are demanding that warning labels be put on TVs—that it only has an analog broadcast tuner and it's not going to work after February 17th. Well, if they looked at the law, the fact is that this year—I think it's July 1st—every TV tuner—every TV being sold—has to have to a DTV tuner. It is[used] to be that it was certain—it had to be a certain size screen. Well by the time February 17th, 2009 comes around every tuner in every TV—every size, every tuner card in a computer, every DVR or VCR—has to include a DTV tuner in it. So you know this warning label doesn't really make a lot of sense in there; [the warning label,] that’s [for] a retailer selling, you know, TVs from a couple of years ago that he happened to find in the warehouse.

Steve: Alright, TVs off the back of the truck.

Antonoff: Yeah, exactly!

Steve: Okay.

Antonoff: (Laughs)

Steve: Well I guess the big problem that will remain and will always remain—because I get about 300 channels at home and still I surf around and there is often nothing worth watching.

Antonoff: Sure, well (laughs) that's not going to change.

Steve: (Laughs) I was hoping you could do something about that.

Antonoff: (Laughs)

Steve: Well Michael very good to talk to you. Thanks very much.

Antonoff: Thank you Steve.

Steve: Michael Antonoff's article "Digital TV At Last?" is in the February Scientific American and is also available on our Web site www.sciam.com. Antonoff notes that his last names begins analog but ends digital. By the way I misspoke at one point in the interview and said the rollout date for full digital TV was February 7th 2009—it's February 17th.

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: Forget the coffee; a scientist has created the caffeinated doughnut!

Story number 2: The tony town of Greenwich, Connecticut, home of CEOs, CFOs and COOs is apparently also home to a lot of c-o-y-o-t-e's—that is, coyotes.

Story number 3: Bald eagles aren't really bald, they just have those white head feathers; but Alaska is becoming so warm that bald eagles there actually have fewer head feathers now than they did 20 years ago, in effect going bald. And…

Story number 4: Damage to the part of the brain called the insula has the unexpected effect of enabling smokers to completely lose their nicotine addiction!

We'll be back with the answer, but first sciam.com associate editor David Biello recently wrote a piece for the Web site about the battle between free open-access science journals and those that charge readers. The article is called "Open Access to Science Under Attack". To find out more I called Dave. He was waiting to board a plane at JFK to cover the intergovernmental panel on climate change, which meets this week in Paris. I reached him on his cell.

Steve: Hi David, how are you?

David : I'm fine Steve, how are you?

Steve: I'm okay. You have this article on the Web site—January 26th is the date—and we're talking about this battle that's going on now between journals that you have to pay a lot of money to get and the free open-access journals; and it seems like there has been an event that precipitated lot of discussion and that was the hiring of this big PR guru.

David: Yeah—Eric Dezenhall by name. He is the—well I guess—he is most famous for defending or helping to orchestrate the defense of Jeff Skilling—if you may recall of the Enron scandal—but he's been involved in a lot of high-profile, I guess, public crafting of messages from Exxon Mobile on down. And in this case the American Association—the Association of American Publishers hired him to address their members—specifically their Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division—so that [they know] how to craft a message; and as he notes in his memo on the subject, they face enough skill [an uphill] battle because their opponents—in this case, the opponents of open access—have a really great message, a better message he calls it: free information.

Steve: Now apparently somebody got access to an internal memo that he sent to his new client.

David: That's correct, and I actually have a copy of that memo as well. I can't say who I got it from, but it's quite an interesting memo and I excerpted portions of it in the article; that's wh[ere]y that free information quote comes from. He basically was telling them to craft a message as much as possible to, I guess, align this battle as a battle between peer review and public access; and I believe the key quote is painting a picture of what the world would look like without peer-reviewed articles; it's his main advice and that's a bit of a mistake since open-access journals such as PLoS Medicine and PLoS Biology.

Steve: That's Public Library of Science…

David: …Public Library of Science journals are, opposed you know, heavily peer reviewed just the same as any of the other journals that [we] are looking at [or] may be familiar with—Nature, Science, what have you. So it's a bit of [a] misinformation campaign that [would be] fueled if they were to follow that advice.

Steve: Well it suffice[s] to say that it's really interesting times in the world of science publishing because peer review itself is under attack—open-access journals are threatening the old warhorses of the science publishing world, and we're talking about, you know, the journals in which science is initially reported.

David: Even the, I guess, the biggest warhorses of the peer reviewed, not-free journals will probably not be too heavily affected, at least right away—Nature and Science aren't going anywhere. They are published weekly and may get—they have a certain prestige factor—but smaller niche publications are the ones really feeling the heat on this. If you are in a college, just to say, studying the mating habits of—and I don't want to pick on any one particular branch of science—but the mating habits of, I don't know, tree shrews; you have a very small specialty audience and you also have a very small specialty funding, so you know, being asked to pay for your own publication—which is how the open access journals work—[it] can be difficult to convey the difference between, you know, your grad student being able to attend the conference on the subject or not, but at the same time it will allow that research on the—what did I say—the tree shrew …

Steve: (laughs) Yeah …

David: … to get out to a wider audience gradually.

Steve: Right. Because the fees to publish in this [these] open-access journals can be substantially—it can be in the thousands of dollars.

David: Correct. Typically—according to Mark Patterson who I spoke to from PLoS, which a[re] kind of the main line open-access journals—the fee ranges from $1,500 to $2,500 per article.

Steve: Well the article is called "Open Access to Science Under Attack"—that's dated January 26th, 2007—by David Biello. David thanks very much for your time. Have a good flight.

David: Thank you very much Steve.

Steve: David Biello's article is at our Web site www.sciam.com. Also check out his blog entry on the subject—dated January 27th—called "The Open Access Debate"; that's at [www.]blog.sciam.com.

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

Story number 1: Researcher creates caffeinated doughnut.

Story number 2: Affluent Greenwich, Connecticut has bunches of coyotes.

Story number 3: Warmer Alaska—home to bald eagles that are actually going bald. And…

Story number 4: Specific brain damage ends nicotine addiction.

Time's up.

Story number 1 is true. We now have the caffeinated doughnut. Of course, I thought I had invented the caffeinated doughnut when I cleverly dipped my doughnut in coffee, but no—North Carolinian Robert Bohannon claims to have figured out how to mask the normal bitter taste of caffeine effectively enough to add the stimulant to foods like doughnuts and bagels. No truth to the rumor that the NYPD is[hand] named him man of the year.

Story number 2 is true. Coyotes are making a decent living in and around the Greenwich, Connecticut; a City University of New York graduate student is currently studying the area's coyote population. A few dozen of the "Wile E. Coyotes" appear to live in Greenwich and the surrounding areas.

And story number 4 is true. Damage to the insula region of the brain apparently makes [a] smoker's nicotine addiction disappear.

For more, listen to the January 26th edition of the daily Scientific American podcast 60-Second Science, all of which means that story number 3, about bald eagles at[in] Alaska actually going bald is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. But what's true is that a bald eagle recently caused a power outage in the Juneau that affected 10,000 people. The eagle found a deer head in a landfill on January 28th and attempted to fly off with it. With that heavy load in toe, the eagle failed to gain altitude fast enough and crashed into some power lines on take-off, causing the power outage—a clear example of two heads of not being better than one.

So we are faced with the prospect of a national laboratory completely shutting down—temporarily—because of national budget woes. The lab in question is Fermilab in Chicago. To find out more, I spoke with Scientific American editor Mark Alpert in the library at the magazine's offices.

Steve: Hi Mark, how're you doing?

Mark: Good, How are you Steve?

Steve: I am Okay. Tell me about Fermilab. Its actually the plan right now is to actually shut the entire national laboratory for a full month.

Mark: Well they got a contingency plan, but it is a possibility. What happened is Congress basically failed in its responsibility to pass a budget for the Department of Energy for fiscal year 2007. They proposed the budget last February. The president actually proposed increases in the budget for Department of Energy, which made everyone at the national labs very happy, and yet Congress never passed anything. So, when that happens they basically have to keep operating at the level that they were in 2006, which is not enough money to just run the lab's basic operations. So if Congress does nothing at this point, then, yes, they will have to actually shut down the lab for a month—probably this summer—and basically furlough all the employees. They will continue to get their benefits, but they won't get paid for a month—which is certainly not going to do anything for their morale—but it also has—it would also have—a terrible effect on the high-energy physics program there at Fermilab, which is in a very exciting stage now. The Tevatron—which is still the world's most powerful particle collider—is running there now and it's running better than ever. They've managed to tighten the proton-antiproton beams so that they are forcing a ton of collisions into a very, very tiny space; and this is very important because the more particle collisions you have in a tiny space, the more results you can get, and they are in a desperate race to find something called the Higgs boson, which is probably on scientists' ten most-wanted particles list—this is like the number one because this is the particle predicted by the standard model of physics. It's the particle that gives all the other particles mass, so it's very important.

Steve: So people might not know that the Tevatron is scheduled to go offline in a couple of years.

Mark: 2009

Steve: 2009! So that's why there is a race before the thing goes offline.

Mark: Exactly. It's not like you can get this time back. You know they only have another two years to do these experiments and in 2008, the Large Hadron Collider over in Europe is going to start operations, and that's going to be a much more powerful, much more energetic collider; and so if the Fermilab has any chance to find Higgs boson first, now is the time to do it. So now is not the time to shut down the run for any extra time.

Steve: Isn't this embarrassing for the United States, to shut down an entire national laboratory for a month because we don't have two nickels to rub together?

Mark: Well, yeah. It shows, you know, an abdication of our responsibility to want to push the anvil upon science. I mean definitely it looks bad and what makes it really disheartening is there have been new results that have come out just in the past month that say that the Higgs boson is actually easier for the Tevatron to find than previously thought. So the Higgs boson is a fairly heavy particle and heavy particles are harder to find in these particle collisions because they are so energetic; but there has been recent measurements done at Fermilab of another particle called the W boson that helps to mediate the weak nuclear force; and by doing a very precise measurement of its mass, they were able to say—to put an upper limit on the Higgs boson's mass and it's lower than they thought. It's only a 153 billion electron volts versus 166; and that may not sound like a big change, but it puts it within range of the Tevatron. Now, if the Tevatron can run and do enough collisions they have a good chance of finding it if its there.

Steve: Okay, let me argue the other way. So what—so the—you know, the large Hadron collider goes online in Europe soon and they will find it, so what's the difference? So they find it a year later than it would have been found.

Mark: Well you are right! I mean, some of it is an ego thing, but some of it is also, you know, pushing the science—you want to find out sooner rather than later because then you know you can do more experiments. You know, it's good to have two machines discover the Higgs boson rather than one because obviously this makes it that much more of a better result; and then it's not just the Tevatron that will be affected by closing down Fermilab for a month. It also would affect the neutrino research that they are doing—they have a new neutrino project scheduled to start up and that would be delayed by at least six months, the director of Fermilab was saying. Another thing that would be heard is that preparations for the International Linear Collider—which is a proposed machine, [a] proposed accelerator—that would—it's different from the Tevatron and the LHC andin that it accelerates positrons rather than proton-antiprotons; but that is really a key machine because anything that the Tevatron and LHC discover will have to be really examined in detail by the International Linear Collider and it's really important—a lot of scientists think—for that to be based in United States for that development of our own, you know, physics community know, so that we don't lag behind other countries and the R and D for the ILC—the International Linear Collider—is being done a lot at Fermilab, that effort will also be set back. My guess [is] that it is a contingency plan closing—Fermilab for a month won't definitely happen, but there is a chance of it and that would be a terrible thing not only for losing running the machine for a month, but just what the morale that plays on all of these most brilliant scientists—and I went to Fermilab last year to meet some of these people. They are amazing! Not only the scientists, but the engineers who manage to hook these machines and make them perform beyond anyone's expectations—to tell them "Okay, we're not going to pay you for month, go find other work if you can, we'll see you in August." What kind of message is this to say to our best scientists and engineers?

Steve: Mark thanks a lot.

Mark: You're welcome. I enjoyed it.

Steve: Fermilab isn't the only facility affected. For example Argonne National Lab is looking at a delay in opening a 72,000,000 dollar Nanotech Research Center as well as layoffs. Democrat Jeff Bingaman—the new chairman of the senate, Energy and Natural Resources Committee—and Republican Lamar Alexander are jointly trying to germ up support to boost the Department of Energy's Office of Science budget so that these closings and delays can be avoided.

Well that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You're going to write to us at podcast@sciam.com. Check out news articles at our Web site, www.sciam.com, the daily sciam podcast, the 60-Second Science, is at the Web site and at I-tunes, sometimes—I understand from some listeners that that they are having trouble at iTunes. Always remember if you can't get it at Itunes just go to our Web site and you will find it there at sciam.com/podcast and don't forget to check out Mind Matters, the new expert-written seminar blog on the sciences of mind and brain that's updated weekly at the Scientific American Mind Web site, www.sciammind.com. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Web sites mentioned on this episode include www.sciam.com; blog.sciam.com; www.sciammind.com

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