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Science Talk

The Encyclopedia of Life; and the End of John Horgan's Pessimism

In this episode, Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist and writer E.O. Wilson talks to award-winning journalist John Horgan about the Encyclopedia of Life project and finding common ground between science and religion. And Horgan, the Director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, talks about his research into whether war might someday become a thing of the past. Plus we'll test your knowedge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include www.eol.org; bloggingheads.tv; www.cfa.harvard.edu/~tcox/localgroup; arxiv.org/abs/0705.1170

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting May 16th. I am Steve Mirsky.This week on the podcast, we'll hear from renowned scientist and writer E. O. Wilson about a brand new project—one of the great biology initiatives ever—and we'll talk to journalist John Horgan about human nature and other stuff; and John and E. O. Wilson talk to each other. Last Wednesday night, May 9th, E. O. Wilson sat down with John Horgan at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey where Horgan is the director of the Center for Science Writings. Wilson had just phoned in from Washington, where earlier in the day he had made a big announcement. Here's an edited version of the conversation that Wilson had with Horgan.

Wilson: Let me say about this morning, this—in my long career—this is the one morning when I think I took part in making history. That sounds like poor belief, but I am going to justify that in a moment. We met in the National Press Club for a press release to announce the launch of the Encyclopedia of Life, and this has been building for sometime; and I am very pleased that an article that I wrote—"Writing and Science" in Trends in Ecology and Evolution— and all three was the start of this notion, the Encyclopedia of Life. Here is what we propose to do.In the years immediately ahead, we are going to set out to discover every kind of plant, animal, and microorganism on the planet. We are going to devote—we are going to create an electronic encyclopedia with a page indefinitely extensible for each one of the millions of species. This will be an open source and open access. It will allow all the study of species, any species in any part of the world at any part of the world. I mean you can enter it from Angola and use the information, the [to] design research programs and to begin surveys in[and] ecological studies in your country, wherever you are—Ecuador, Angola, anywhere. I should say too that the Encyclopedia of Life is now a consortium, in the way of [a] growing consortium of organization[s]—mostly museums and great collections—and its parallel development is the Biodiversity Heritage Library; and these include the major science libraries that deal with biology including—especially—biodiversity. And what they propose to do is that is to scan everything ever published—back to Linnaeus—in biodiversity—a total of 300 or so million pages—and make those immediately available. Well John, I would suspect that this works and it's going to work. You could, within a very few years, just sit here at this table, call up any literature all the way back on any species, call up the page, see a photograph in multiple views, high-resolution digital photographs—Auto-Montage—give perfect focus of the authentic specimen, the types of specimen and learn everything there is to be known about it. If it has had its genome sequence, then you'll have a link to the gene bank and so on—everything known about that species. So I was asked to make a statement this morning in the announcement and if I may, I'll read that statement because it explains it.

Horgan: This is at the National Press Conference.

Wilson: This is what I just read a few hours ago at the National Press Club and I just thought it would be good to share it with you. Well I think this is—and everyone there present agrees—this is history being made, because this is going to substantially expand and modify biology in many ways.

Horgan: And it will be accessible to anybody with an Internet connection?

Wilson: Absolutely.In 1758, Carl Linnaeus—the great Swedish naturalist—introduced the binomial system of classification—two names, you know, for every species, which is highly effective and still used in classification. Yet 250 years later we [have] still discovered only as few as 10% of the species of organisms on this planet. Most kinds of flowering plants and birds have been discovered to be sure, but our knowledge of the vast array of insects and other small invertebrates of fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms are shockingly incomplete. For example about 60,000 species of fungi, rusts, molds, mushrooms and so on are known—60,000. But experts estimate that the true number out there is more than one and a half million. And the number of known species of nematode round worms (laughs)— the most abundant animals on earth, four out of every five animals are nematode roundworm. So much so, i[t’]s said, that if you remove all the solid matter off the surface of the Earth except for nematode roundworms, you will still be able to see a ghostly outline of most of it in the nematode roundworms. Well at any rate, (laughs) there are 16,000 species of nematode roundworms known to science with its binomial name and so on, but the number of roundworms could easily go into the hundreds of thousands or millions. Bacteria—maybe 10,000 species of bacteria are known and classified—but there is in every handful of garden soil around five to six thousand species of bacteria—all virtually unknown to science—and it has been estimated that in a ton of soil, [there are] four million species. Now each one of these species of organisms are ancient. The average lifespan of species of higher organism[s] anyway is on the order of a million years. Each one is exquisitely well adapted in its genome—in its biology—to a particular part of the environment, and they are all interlocked together in intricate arrays that make up the ecosystems and upon which our own lives depend.We are, in short, living on a little known planet. The information that is available is greatly scattered, usually known only to experts. In [our] daily little living world, we are flying blind. We are in the equivalent in analyzing ecosystems a doctor who knows only 10 percent of the organs in the body. So we have every reason to move ahead and add what I like to call the second dimension of biology—and do it as soon as we can—which is the diversity of life on earth. Now at last, [with] advances in technology—this is just within the last few years—including rapid genomic sequencing, we can now do a complete sequence of a bacterium about a million base pair in, under four hours. High-resolution digital photography which can be done in museums with an authenticated specimen, Internet publication—and that takes that information and makes it available to everyone everywhere. So you don't have to travel from museum to museum looking up the volumes of work on it and looking at the specimen with a microscope. You just call it up and you get this magnificent image. You can do it in the upper Amazon sitting in a camp—the same work you'd be doing if you travel around the museums of Europe. So we'll be able to speed up the whole process of exploring the planet a minimal of 10 times. And the researchers and companies in biotechnology are very interested in this project, for obvious reasons. They are now—as this becomes reality—they'll have that information to drop down. Another reason we are enthusiastic about it is that this is the way to build up science in the developing countries. This has allowed instant information transfer and is cost effective.

Horgan: Also available to young people, to students, even to grade school kids, your high school kids.

Wilson: You are right on target. This is entailed what's called "citizen science".This is a sort of information that can be gathered by anyone, particularly within a kind of instructions or help you'd get in the school or university; and it could be part of the training that leads in to science, including areas like biotechnology and bioinformatics. So why should we do this? What's for all this information work [for]? I'll just give you a couple of more paragraphs.New phenomena are going to be discovered and connections between phenomena. This is interactive. We need to get more and more information about how this species interacts with that. Only with such encyclopedic knowledge can biology as a whole fully mature. We think we have mature science now—we haven't even begun to get a mature science and acquire—we hope biology would acquire predictive power, species by species and ecosystem by ecosystem. The Encyclopedia of Life is going to be a "macroscope," which will be the complement of the microscope—except here, if you scan the totality of the diversity of life in the patterns and ecosystems and the life— [the] Encyclopedia is going to serve the interest of humanity. The discovery of wild plant species that can be adapted for agriculture—especially important now as we enter a world of climate change in which whole continents like Sub-Saharan Africa and Australia are going to go into deep draught periods—we need dry land agriculture, we need the plants, we need the genes from other plants that will allow dry land agriculture to be productive. And new classes of pharmaceuticals—we've got to keep winning the race against the bacteria, countless species of organisms have—not just fungi—but many other kinds of organisms have been running the race with bacteria for several hundred million years. We don't know how they've won it, how they've kept ahead, but not with antibiotics and other devices; but we need to get into that too. The outbreak of these disease agents and harmful plant and animal invasi[ons]ve will be better anticipated.Never again need we overlook so(for) many golden opportunities in the living world around [us]this or be so often surprised by the sudden appearance of destructive aliens that spring from that little known world. I hope I've given you a sense [of] where a large part of biology is going.

Steve: For more on the Encyclopedia of Life, go to www.eol.org.Later in the conversation, Horgan and Wilson talked about the current climate in the relationship between science and religion.

Horgan: There is a lot of tension between science and religion right now; and so if you've got some of your colleagues—Richard Dawkins, I guess, is the most high-profile example—are saying very harsh, critical things about religious people. Your book obviously is so different in tone. I wonder why you decided to write a book instead of reaching out to religious people—instead of trying to convince them that their religious views are foolish.

Wilson: If you read the first chapter of the [my] book of Creation, that was just published well, in last September, you'll find that there is just about the strongest, bold-faced, clear-cut statement of secularism…

Horgan: Right!

Wilson: …you'll find anywhere—as strong as Richard Dawkins. But what I say is to—I write this book apostrophically—that's for the English majors here . (laughs) Imagine to [an] imaginary southern Baptist pastor; and I say—if we were to meet—[I would say,] I think I know you well enough to call you friend, and I feel that if we met and spoke privately about our deepest beliefs, we would find compatibility [and] friendship.

Horgan: Right!

Wilson: And what I would like to suggest is that we put aside the sources of the culture, you know, the main issues of the culture war right now and come to a transcendent issue, which we could serve together. Science and religion are the two most powerful forces in America—in the world. Together, if they chose, they could solve some of the most important problems in the world.This is not the time to be divided, but to put aside the things that divide us and meet sort of at the river and go forward. Well, that is erratically [a radically] different way of approaching the religious faithful from Richard Dawkins. Richard Dawkins—I call him—he's a general in the military wing of the secularist[s] and (laughs) he wants to carpet bomb all religions (laughs) until—as a famous Air Force general said in during the Vietnam War—he wants to carpet bomb it until he sees the rubble bouncing. (laughs) And he somehow figures that by discrediting all religion enough and as a delusion then people will just give it up eventually.

Horgan: Yeah!

Wilson: But that's not the point that happened. And furthermore the reaction of the religious communities is the pushback.

Horgan: Right!

Wilson: And the widened the divider, and well, this is more reason not to be dealing with atheistic scientists and environmentalists and so on. When I proposed that we come together on this issue, I didn't know what the results would be; I was nervous. But it has been astonishing.

Horgan: So you've actually heard from Christian religious people.

Wilson: A flood of response.

Horgan: Really!

Wilson: Virtually all positive. Early on, another person with this type of approach and interest—Eric Chivian of Harvard who was co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for physicians for social responsibility—and I called on Eric, on Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelists, and we all agreed, we three agreed that we ought to have a retreat with [a] dozen science and environmental leaders and a dozen evangelical leaders and see what would come of it that seems in the book Creation.We held that retreat in October—in November rather—in South Georgia, a remote area, and the effects were astonishing.We not only got together and we were able to write a covenant satisfying them all, but also we formed a lasting—what I think would be lasting—friendship. I've recently been a guest by their invitations of the leaders of the Mormon Church;and I've recently returned from Samford—S-a-m-f-o-r-d—Samford University in Birmingham, called the Ivy League of the Southern Baptist Conference, where of course, I am a native son. I'm from Alabama, and I still know how to say "You all got any gleeups." (laughs) But the point is, that so that may open the door a little more widely, but then the enthusiasm was astonishing—you know, the welcoming the friendly discussion and so on. So the signs are very good. I believe that there was a sense of relief on the part of evangelicals that scientists were willing to offer their hand of friendship. That never happened before.

Steve: Wilson's latest book again is called The Creation; his last Scientific American article—called "The Bottleneck," appeared in the February 2002 issue. Just Google E. O. Wilson and Scientific American and that article is one of the first results to come up.

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:You weigh slightly less in parts of North America than in most other places because the earth there is still rebounding from the weight of ice sheets from the last ice age.

Story number 2:Calculations show that in about two billion years, the entire solar system will wind up on the outskirts of a new galaxy.

Story number 3:New EPA mileage ratings mean that hybrid vehicles will certainly loose efficiency.

And Story number 4:As you get older, your cell walls begin to deplete energy.

We'll be back with the answer. But first, after John Horgan was done talking to E.O. Wilson, John and I had a short conversation.

Steve: Hey John. How are you?

Horgan: Good, Steve.

Steve: So tell me now. You're famously the author of the End of Science, and now you run a science writing program.

Horgan: Not famously enough, but yes I wrote a book called the End of Science; and then I end up at a science- and engineering-oriented school. So—one of life's little paradoxes.

Steve: What I want to know is why are you training these students to write about something that is ending?

Horgan: (Laughs) I am trying to affect them with my evil "End of Science" mein. Now, I've actually become a little more upbeat about the future of science over the last few years, and I've always said that there is plenty of room in applied science.

Steve: Sure.

Horgan: And in understanding climate change and all of our environmental problems and doing something about it.

Steve: Right! You're talking about the really big questions.

Horgan: Yeah! Sort of understanding where the universe came from, what its basic laws are—and I still think that that picture is basically in place. But yes, lots of room for applied science, coming up with better treatments for cancer and other diseases, and technologies that can help get us out of this environmental crisis we are in.

Steve: So what kind of issues have you been thinking about lately, and what are you planning to write about?

Horgan: Actually my big obsession over the last couple of years—and I guess its obvious why—is warfare. And my sense is that most people today are really fatalistic about war being a permanent part of the human condition. And actually some of the scholarship on warfare that looks at the history of war, origins of warfare going back even before human history began—going all the way back to chimpanzees—sort of supports the fatalistic point of view—but I think wrongly. If you really understand the research correctly, you are lead to a much more optimistic conclusion that war arises out of certain circumstances, and we can get past it; and we can also get past militarism, and we'll reach a stage where we looked back at the spirit of war and won't even understand how we could've been so consumed by it. So I'm talking all these anthropologists and primatologists and archaeologists, and it's really fascinating stuff—even neurobiologists who study the neural basis of aggression and that sort of thing.

Steve: Might that be the beginning of a book?

Horgan: I think I would like to write a book. I would like to write an upbeat positive book, because, you know, mainly I’m gloom and doom and the end of this and the end of that and the end of war would be—that's a good ending. And actually I think that a book like this could have a positive impact because this sense that war is just a permanent part of things really is so pervasive. I did a survey of students here at Stevens last fall—I actually taught a course called, "War and Human Nature", and I asked students of my class to survey other students around the school. They surveyed more than 200 students in all about whether they thought war would ever vanish once and for all. Over 90 percent of the respondents thought that we would never stop fighting wars. So to me that's, you know, it's really an extreme fatalism and I'd love to do something to try to talk people out of that point of view.

Steve: If the science actually bears that point of view.

Horgan: Well! I'll find a way to make this science.

Steve: (Laughs) All right! So tell us about—you've got some kind of a Web thing going with George Johnson from The [New York] Times.

Horgan: Oh Yeah! Bloggingheads.tv. So Robert Wright, who's this really talented—he doesn't like being called a science writer anymore—he's transcended that now; he's like a kind of global cosmic culture political pundit. Anyway he created this thing called bloggingheads.tv which is basically video blogging. So he gets two pundits to talk to each other about current events— mostly its been stuff—you know real sort of inside the beltway stuff like the Scooter Libby trial or that woman up, Ann Coulter, you know, whether she is like a turtle.

Steve: Bad or awful!

Horgan: Right! But Bob thought it would be fun to have a science blogginghead show and so he asked George Johnson—he is one of my favorite science writers—and me to do this thing and we've done, I guess, five segments. We just talked for an hour about whatever is on our minds and it's a blast.

Steve: And how can listeners access that?

Horgan: Bloggingheads.tv—that's the Web site address.

Steve: By the way, Ann Coulter has written extensively about science. So you might want to include her in some of your science discussions.

Horgan: Hey, "goofanomics," I suspect.

Steve: No that's absolutely true. Her last book includes chapters on evolutionary theory and why it's nonsense.

Horgan: I would love to do a slam-down bloggingheads with Ann Coulter; that would be really fun.

Steve: And I would love to watch it.

Horgan: (Laughs) Okay!

Steve: Thanks a lot John.

Horgan: All right! Thanks Steve.

Steve: Rest assured that when I talked about Coulter explaining why evolution was nonsense, I was putting myself in her shoes; my evolved feet and head still hurt. John Horgan and George Johnson's discussions, as well as many other interesting conversations, can be found at bloggingheads.tv.

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

Story number 1:You weigh slightly less in parts of North America because the earth is rebounding from ice sheets.

Story number 2:Solar system destined for Boondocks of new galaxy.

Story number 3:New mileage ratings mean that hybrids will appear less efficient.

And Story number 4:As you get older, your cell walls begin to deplete energy.

Time is up.

Story number 1 is true. The rebounding earth that was crushed under the ice thousands of years ago means that you do weigh less in parts of Canada and the Northeast U.S.—not much, maybe an eighth of an ounce for the average person. The real story here is that satellite data have indeed confirmed that these areas have slightly lower gravity than elsewhere. For more, check out the May 11th episode of the daily Scientific American podcast, 60-Second Science.

Story number 2 is true. Our whole solar system may be on the way to what one astronomer called "a retirement home in the country"—our Milky Way galaxy is on a collision course with Andromeda galaxy. Calculations by researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for astrophysics show that when the galaxies hit each other in a couple of billion years, the sun and planets will wind up at the outer reaches of the new merged galaxy. The paper will appear in the monthly notices of the Royal Astronomical Society; the URL is listed in the informational description of this podcast.

Story number 3 is true. New EPA mileage ratings bring hybrid efficiencies down; for example the Prius loses 12 miles per gallon from its city driving estimate. According to Wired, the new standards mean it would take longer for a purchaser to recoup the extra price of a hybrid and gas savings, but I question whether most hybrid buyers have long-term gas savings as their major objective. I think many buyers think they are simply doing something good by driving a hybrid and that feeling is worth the extra cost to them.

All of which means that story number 4 about your cell walls depleting energy as you age is, of course, TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.Nevertheless, I recently heard New York City radio talk show host and Guardian Angels founder, Curtis Sliwa say "As you get older, your cell walls begin to deplete energy" in a commercial for some kind of, you know, medicinal style preparation that people no doubt take in order to keep their cell walls impervious to the depletion of energy.Note to Curtis and the people who wrote the ad copy—people do not have cell walls. Plants and some other life forms have cell walls. People and other animals do not have cell walls. So if you are a human being and your cell walls are in deed depleting energy, that's probably the least of your problems.

Well that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at podcast@SciAm.com; check out news articles at the Web site, www.SciAm.com; and the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science is at the Web site and at iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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