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Science Talk

The Heat IS On: International Global Warming Consensus; and Academy Award Winning Audio Science

In this episode, SciAm.com associate editor David Biello discusses the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released last week in Paris; Academy Award Winner and Dolby Laboratories Senior VP Ioan Allen talks about the cyan dye audio track innovation that will be honored Saturday at the Scientific And Technical Academy Awards ceremony. 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

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific american for the seven days starting February 7th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, just like last week, we'll run the gamut from A to B with guests, Ioan Allen and David Biello. Allen is an Oscar winner who is once again being honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences later this week. But first, we'll hear from sciam.com associate editor David Biello. He's just back from Paris where he was reporting on the big global warming consensus report last week. I called him at his home in Brooklyn.

Steve Hi Dave, how are you?

Biello: I am good Steve, how are you?

Steve: I know that you're really not good. You became a little sick over in Paris on the return trip, so I appreciate talking to you.

Biello: No problem.

Steve: So you were in Paris for the IPCC. What's the IPCC first of all?

Biello: Well, the IPCC stands for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It's a world body composed of scientists and diplomats, actually, and the goal is to produce a consensus document that's all the world's governments and most of the world's scientists agree to, based on the peer-reviewed scientific literature, as to what is happening with climate change and then going further, what should be done about it and what will actually happen as a result of it.

Steve: And this has been all over the news for the last week. The report was issued on Friday. Why don't you just bottom-line the report for us?

Biello: Well, first I want to be clear that the report itself has not been released yet.

Steve: Right! This is the preliminary report.

Biello: This is actually the part of the report that gets read. (laughs)

Steve: (laughs) What exactly do you mean by that?

Biello: It's called the summary for policy makers.

Steve: Okay!

Biello: And it's about a 14-page document that summarizes everything that's in this voluminous report.

Steve: Okay! So what was issued was basically an abstract for the full report that will come out in a few months.

Biello: Yeah! If you want to put it in, you know, scientific literature terms, an abstract is exactly what it is.

Steve: Okay! So bottom-line the abstract for us then.

Biello: Well, the key finding is that man being responsible for climate change has been bumped up from likely, which the IPCC terms at the 66 percent probability, to very likely, which is a 90 percent probability, meaning that they are pretty much certain that we're behind the climate changes that we've already seen and the climate change that we will see going forward. There are still two further, I guess, notches the IPCC can go—I find it kind of amusing—that is extremely likely, which is a greater than 95 percent chance, and then virtually certain at greater than 99 percent probability. Also, with 6 years' more data they could give us a best estimate as to what kind of warming we will see if we continue on our present part of putting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Their best guess is that we will see a three degrees Celsius warming by the end of this century. Three degrees Celsius warming, to put that into some perspective is, according to the term report, which is another analysis that came out, about one to four billion people in the worldwere —as much as half of [the] human population—suffering water shortages, 550 additional millions at risk of hunger, [and] up to 170 million more people affected by coastal flooding. So that particular prognostication is pretty bad. The other side of that is that no matter what we do, if we stop emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases today and it no longer rises, we have locked in already [at] 0.6 degree Celsius warming and that sounds like a small number, but that's enough to unlock some of the ice in Greenland and Antarctica and raise sea levels. Most of this teach that we are trapping with greenhouse gases going into the oceans, well the oceans, roughly 80 percent – that's causing thermal expansion, that's what's been leading to the sea rise we've already seen that will continue to accelerate and pretty much, you know, now that we're very likely the cause, we now know enough that we should be doing something to stop this.

Steve: Let me ask you something about the 0.6 degree Celsius temperature increase that's locked in – it's over the next what time period again?

Biello: It is over in the next century.

Steve: Over the next century. That's even if we stop all carbon emissions immediately.

Biello: Yeah. That's even if we stop all carbon emissions today. Basically, pre-industrially we were at about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We are now at 379 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. To get to that three degrees Celsius warming, that would be as a result of doubling to 560 parts per million. Obviously, we don't have that much more to go and carbon dioxide emission, despite some efforts, will rise or continuing to rise, thanks in part to U.S. emissions, but also the emissions from developing countries like China and India as they burn coal for home heating and industries.

Steve: Let me ask you about the confidence of 66 percent human causes for the global warming versus 90 percent over the last few years. The improved confidence that humans are actually behind global warming, because I think this is something worth talking about a little bit, because people might want to, you know. Where are[do] those numbers come from?

Biello: Sure!

Steve: So it's a question of, as the data sources become richer, your statistical analysis becomes finer, right?

Biello: Exactly! Basically, we now have longer observational records. Those observational records are, you know, more statistically robust. So, you know, for example in the case of hurricanes, we have six more years of data. In the case of annual temperatures, we have six more years of data, you know, stretching back to 1850 or so. We also now have longer satellite records, so we can track, you know, everything from the thermal expansion of the sea to what's going on in the atmosphere from space. Those records are now longer and more robust, but also in the models for the last assessment in 2001, the models have been, for the most part, run once and that gives you some information, but doesn't give you a lot of confidence in that information. Now we have both more models and more runs of those models, which mean that, you know, statistically speaking, you can begin to tease out something like best estimates, which were not included last time around, that three degrees Celsius we talked about.

Steve: Right! The way I've been thinking, I happened to watch – Michael Crichton was on C-SPAN last weekend. It was a replay of a talk he had given, I think, in December and one of his initial points was that you can't predict anything ever. You can't even predict what's going to happen tomorrow so, you know, these predictions are kind of ridiculous and I thought, well, you know, taken completely literally, I suppose he is correct, but taking anything like that completely literally misses the point and, I mean, think of it in terms of baseball. Based on his records so far, based on the statistical information I have available, I can tell you with, let's say, 90 percent accuracy … I'm just throwing the numbers out.

Biello: Sure!

Steve: I can tell you with 90 percent confidence, I should say that Derek Jeter will hit somewhere between 315 and 340 next year. Okay?

Biello: (laughs) Right!

Steve: And I can tell you with 95 percent confidence he will hit somewhere between 270 and 360, and again, I'm just throwing those numbers out there

Biello: Right.

Steve: But I wouldn't be surprised if they are not too far off.

Biello: Yeah!

Steve: And I think, you know, if you think about it in those terms that are what we're talking about, yes, there is a 10 percent possibility based on all the data that we're looking at that he will go out next year and hit 125.

Biello: Right!

Steve: But, and I am sure in real life it is much smaller than 10 percent. (Biello laughs) But, you know, this is what you have to work with in science. You compile the data as best you can, you work up the numbers, and then you come to some sort of a conclusion based on those numbers within a certain confidence interval, and at that point we turn things over to the policy makers and say, this is science's best understanding of things, now it's up to you to do something about it.

Biello: Yeah! Exactly! And certainly both policy makers and, you know, business leaders are inherently comfortable with dealing with uncertainty. As Mr. Crichton said, you know, you can't predict anything so when we – say [an] energy company decides to build a coal-fired power plant, they can't know, for example, whether there will be a price on carbon dioxide or whether, you know, electricity prices will go up or down, whether that coal-fired power plant will be profitable 20 years from now. But they have a best guess and that best guess is what drives their decision making, so now that they have really very, very good odds that man-made climate change is happening, I mean, seriously, if you are in a casino in Vegas and they gave you 90 percent odds that, you know, you're going to win every hand of blackjack, well you will be a fool not to take them. So these business leaders and policy makers now have those kinds of odds that we are in fact behind climate change and they would be foolish to continue to ignore the problem.

Steve: Let me throw something here. I received a press release from something called the Competitive Enterprise Institute and this was dated January 31st—prior to the release of the abstract that we've been discussing—and let me just read the headline: "Good news for the planet equals bad news for climate alarmists: activists shun U.S. climate consensus," and its dateline [is] January 31st, Washington D.C. "Advanced details of the United Nations' latest reports on global warming are already sending mixed signals to scientific observers around the world. While the study is expected to predict climate impact significantly less dramatic than previous reports, some long-time alarmists have begun to attack the report itself as flawed and bureaucratically timid." So my question is, why is a long-time alarmist, like you, not telling us the truth?

Biello: (laughs) Well! There are two points to that. One is that as we were talking about, this is a considerable refinement; the numbers are much more precise this time. So we're in the third assessment. They gave ranges and those ranges were quite wide from, you know, a best case scenario to a very worst case scenario. All those ranges have been refined and honed to the point where, yes, they are smaller ranges, but they are also much more likely ranges and give – even if you don't have, you know, 20 feet of sea-level rise or whatever it is that you want to call it a worst case scenario –you, ten feet of sea-level rise is bad enough if you have a house, you know, on Cape Cod or a house in Bangladesh or, you know, a rice paddy in Bangladesh that you want to keep above water. The other side of that is that some climate change—I don't want to use their terminology of alarmists—some climate change, I guess, campaigners do attack this report as timid because it is a consensus document and that every word is negotiated between world governments.

Steve: Right!

Biello: And that leads to a very conservative document, let's say, drawing on all the peer-reviewed literature that has been, you know, published in the last six years and before. The world's scientists put together their best, you know, their best understanding of where the state of climate science is, and then the world government negotiates over how to present that information. The weakness of that is that you end up with a conservative document. The strength of that is that you end up with a document that all the world's governments have agreed to and therefore I can stand at the basis of, okay, here's what we all understand the science to be. What can we do about the problem that the science is revealing to us?

Steve: Right! So again, now I'm going to throw some numbers at you that are not the actual numbers, but just to get the point across, the old document might have said there is a 50 percent chance of [a] 100-foot sea-level rise.

Biello: Right!

Steve: And the new document says there is a 90 percent chance of a five-foot sea-level rise and that's bad enough.

Biello: Exactly! That's exactly what is going on and I believe that it is sea-level rise that's those who would tend to dispute climate change are focusing on because these – the range there is smaller than the last time around, but that is simply a fact of precision.

Steve: Well Dave, thanks very much. Hope you feel better. You did some really terrific and yeoman-like spot reporting from Paris and it's all up on our Web site, the last one dated February 2nd and titled, "Final Report: Humans Cause Global Warming." Thanks very much.

Biello: Thank you!

Steve: And by Thursday or Friday, depending on how fast he recovers from whatever bug bit him, David should have a summary document posted on our Web site and that article will contain links to various other articles and blog items he posted from Paris all last week. Look for it at www.sciam.com.

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: A census of bacteria living on our skin finds almost 200 different species of these single-cell stowaways, with some of them having been unknown to science prior to this search.

Story number 2: A study found that users of online dating services tend to lie about their physical attributes.

Story number 3: Snakes and horses definitely don't mix and that's especially true at Saratoga Raceway. A New York State grand jury is looking at allegations that racehorses were illegally injected with cobra venom, which allegedly deadens nerves so that the horses will run despite injuries.

Story number 4: We had Nobel laureates on the podcast and we have an Oscar winner on this week, but nobody has ever won a Nobel and an Oscar.

We'll be back with the answer, but first Ioan Allen is an adjunct professor at the U.S.C. School of Cinema and Television and he is an Academy Award winning actor, if by actor I can mean someone who has done something requiring action. Okay, so he is not an actor actually, but he really is an Oscar winner. Allen is a senior vice president at Dolby Laboratories – the people who make theaters shake. He is now one of a team that is being honored with a special award from the academy for the development of something called cyan dye tracks, the better to hear movies by. Cyan is c-y-a-n; it's a purplish-blue pigment that absorbs red light as you'll hear about. The award gets handed out February 10th as part of the Scientific and Technical Academy Awards. To find out more, I called Allen at his office in San Francisco.

Steve: Mr. Allen, pleasure to talk to you today.

Allen: Thank you Steve. Nice to be with you.

Steve: And congratulations!

Allen: Thanks again.

Steve: I understand this is not your first recognition by the academy.

Allen: No, we've been lucky. In fact, as a company, we picked up 10 technical awards over the years and this is my fifth personal one. These did not include all Oscars—only one of them is an Oscar—but this time [it] is a special award relating to cyan dye tracks.

Steve: Cyan dye tracks on film stock.

Allen: This is 35-millimeter film stock. If you'd like the background of this, it goes back to the 1940s, which is when the first color films were made. Prior to that the films were black and white and they released with silver as the element that, if you had enough silver, the picture looked pretty black and no silver, the picture looked white. And the soundtrack was made from the same silver and the soundtrack and analog soundtrack webbed by shining a light through the varying width of the soundtrack, and so behind the film are photo vacuum tube generated current[s], which ultimately drove the loudspeaker. When people went to color films, things changed because there is no silver actually in the picture, it is just colored dye. They discovered that if you had a dye soundtrack and you presented [it] to regular tungsten light—you know, the regular film on light reflector or home lighting, if you like—the dye was totally transparent so that the soundtrack wouldn't web properly. They had the very bad signal-to-noise ratio and very low-level output. So what they had to do in the 1940s was to regenerate a silver just for the soundtrack so that the conventional tungsten lamps still worked with the conventional silver soundtracks. And that process started in 1940—regenerating the silver—and went on until we managed to establish this new method of doing it with a cyan track.

Steve: And talk about why that was an issue at all. Why did the presence of the silver on the film disturb anybody?

Allen: The problem with silver [is] it's a very nasty process, very complicated, and it has an extra series of steps in the lab, which is very ugly, if you like, in the sense that it uses some pretty caustic chemicals, and also used a huge amount of water. But there was no alternative to it as long as all the theaters used tungsten lamps. There had to be silver in the soundtrack, and not only was it wasteful environmentally in terms of water and chemicals, but it was also probably the single biggest cause of print rejection because it was [a] very tricky thing to do. The redevelopment process involved a wheel that had the sticky stuff on it or a jet, which is sprayed onto the soundtrack area. The soundtrack is about a tenth of an inch wide, but it was difficult to make sure that the glue only covered a tenth of an inch and was wind [lined] up correctly. What would happen would be – the typical problems would be that the glue would get over to one side and you'd see splatters of the glue on the left-hand side of the picture on the cinema screen that becomes visible, but if you went the other way, you start hearing it so that the loudspeaker would start emitting (blowing air sounds) what we used to call grunge noise. So I don't know the numbers but it was a significant reason for the print rejection. So it was not only environmentally bad, but difficult to do. But when people started becoming more conscious of environmental problems, about say 15 years ago, the question came up: what was going to happen in the future? So there had to be some way of not using the hazardous materials and not leaving silver on the soundtracks because when films are finished with, they go into some kind of landfill or get smashed up, and while the base material can be used again or used in landfill, the silver in there, at some point in the future, it's going to be considered pretty bad practice to throw away tons and tons of silver into the landfills. So that the target was to come up with a different way of doing this which didn't involve – with this silver redevelopment process as it's called. Well, our major contribution to start out in this program was, 13 years ago, with the realization that red LEDs were getting really bright.

Steve: This is the kind of thing you see on the back of a bicycle.

Allen: The back of a bicycle or even in the rear lamps of cars now. People are talking about using bright red LEDs and red is the color that's easiest to get bright in LED technology and they were getting brighter and brighter because of these automotives, let's say, transportational application. And the color that's complementary to a red LED is cyan, and we realized back 13 years ago that you could actually have a cyan dye track that's made out dye with no silver and illuminated with a red LED and you'd get a signal-to-noise ratio that would be pretty close to what it would be with the silver on it. And that really was the beginning of the problem, which is the technology that's very easy to do: you put a red LED in the projector and you just don't redevelop the soundtrack in the lab. But the problem, related to the classic chicken-and-egg situation, [is], the theaters would say, screw you, I am not going to change my projector until I get cyan dye tracks.

Steve: Right!

Allen: And the studios will say, screw you, won't do cyan dye tracks until the theaters have red lights.

Steve: Okay!

Allen: So everything never got off; stopped at center, apart from huge amounts of leg work on our part, when we kind of spearheaded various industry study groups and committees, both in the studios and in the theaters – push, push, push for years until finally, that's how, I guess, last year we got most of the theaters equipped and an [the] oldest studio started releasing cyan tracks and is now an 100 percent cyan dye company in the U.S.

Steve: That's so interesting because this is something the movie-going public has probably never even heard of, and yet this is [a] major technological change that happens[ed] in the theaters and at the production studios.

Allen: Yeah! And to give you some clue about the environmental savings, one scale of I will look at it is – that, to say, that if you start out with 500,000 odd prints pushed forwards in 2005—that's about six billion feature films, that's about one million miles of movie film. And the savings environmentally are[is] such that you have enough drinking water to supply a town or city of 200,000 people, and that's not in a day or in a year; it's forever – as long as, you know, it's equivalent to that much water being saved on a daily basis. And it's about 2,000 tons of chemicals that are not being used and those chemicals are just waste chemicals to be thrown out by the lab, so there is a huge environmental benefit.

Steve: And what did you actually study when you were in school?

Allen: Well! A broad range of stuff – vaguely technical, vaguely technical. So in England I was studying maths and physics. But then I got into, believe or not, rock and roll music and artist management and then finally finished up with Dolby all the way, long time ago at 1969, taking my music background and my technical background and glued them together and found myself a new home.

Steve: Right! Well! You're an example to all the listeners that there is more than one way to win an Academy Award. If you, if you study your math and physics, you might actually wind up with an Oscar instead of a Nobel Prize.

Allen: You've got to be able to tell jokes as well. (laughs)

Steve: It's a pleasure to talk to you and congratulations.

Allen: Thanks very much, Steve.

Steve: You can catch clips from the Scientific and Technical Awards ceremony; they are featured during the regular old Academy Awards telecast on February 25th.

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

Story number 1: Almost 200 different species of bacteria live on you.

Story number 2: Web daters lie about themselves in their profiles.

Story number 3: Charges that horses were illegally injected with cobra venom.

Story number 4: Nobody has won a Nobel Prize and an Academy Award.

Time's up!

Story number 1 is true. A census of bacteria living on human skin found 182 different species. Eight percent had never been catalogued before. In fact, there are 10 times as many bacterial cells living on and in you than the number of your own cells. For more see the February 5th article on our Web site called, "Human Skin Populated by Veritable Zoo of Bacteria."

You had no doubt that story number 2 about online daters lying was true. The study found that the majority of online dating service users lie about their weight in their posted profiles. For more, check out the February 7th episode of the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science.

Story number 3 is true. A New York State grand jury is investigating charges that racehorses at Saratoga were injected with nerve-deadening cobra venom. Well, the track does bring out a disproportionate number of snakes in the grass.

All of which means that story number 4, which claimed that nobody has ever won an Oscar and a Noble Prize, is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS, because one talented individual did indeed garner both coveted awards. And the winner was George Bernard Shaw, who took home the Nobel Prize in literature in 1925 and then won an Oscar in 1938 for best adapted screenplay for Pygmalion. Nobel laureate John Steinbeck came close – he was nominated for an Oscar and of course it's an honor just to be a nominee. Chemist Linus Pauling almost came close. The two-time Nobel laureate could've been a contender had he starred in the movie he always wanted to make, "Voyage to the Bottom of the Vitamin C."

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 our Web site: www.sciam.com. The daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science is at the Web site and at iTunes. And check out the mind and brain blog, "Mind Matters," and our general blog at blog.sciam.com. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. By the way, this was the first episode of our second year, so extra thanks for clicking on us.

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