Science Talk

China Quake Update; Fictional Scientists; What's New at

David Biello reports from China on the aftermath of the major earthquake that struck this week. Mark Alpert talks about the portrayal of scientists in fiction. And new online managing editor Ivan Oransky discusses what's up on the Web site. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites mentioned on this episode include,,

David Biello reports from China on the aftermath of the major earthquake that struck this week. Mark Alpert talks about the portrayal of scientists in fiction. And new online managing editor Ivan Oransky discusses what's up on the Web site. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites mentioned on this episode include,,

Podcast Transcript

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting May 14th, 2008. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, it's all in the family with three Scientific American staffers on board. We'll talk to editor and novelist Mark Alpert about scientists in fiction. Ivan Oransky, the new managing editor online is going to talk about what's going on at, but first Scientific American's David Biello happens to be in China on assignment. I spoke with him the evening of May 13th about the earthquake.

Steve: Dave, good to talk to you.

Biello: Good to talk to you.

Steve: Tell everybody exactly where you are.

Biello: I am in Shanghai presently and traveling to Beijing later today.

Steve: And how far are you from the earthquake?

Biello: China is roughly the same size as the continental U.S. minus Alaska. I am on the far eastern seaboard, so the equivalent maybe of New York, and this earthquake is in the far west, maybe the equivalent of Arizona.

Steve: Okay, nevertheless you are a lot closer than we are.

Biello: Yeah!

Steve: So what's going on over there?

Biello: Well, unfortunately you know, it is a terrible tragedy, 7.8 on the Richter scale; the shaking lasted for two or three minutes. It was felt by some here all the way on the eastern seaboard particularly those in tall office buildings which apparently swayed a bit, provoking nausea, but of course the far west was much harder hit; at least 7,000 dead in one small city and I believe the death toll is about 18,000 and still climbing as of this morning. It is a very hilly area, Sichuan Province, where this quake occurred. It's on the border of, kind of, the Tibetan plateau, Himalayan region, and unfortunately much of the infrastructure has been destroyed by the earthquake preventing rescuers and military personnel from reaching the scene of some of these horrors and finding out what's really going on.

Steve: So now, since we are Scientific American lets concentrate on some of the science aspects, because people can go to pretty much, you know, any of the regular news sites for the general information about the quake. So first thing that comes to mind based on what you said is, what is different about the geology in China that a quake that would happen, say 2,500 miles west could still be felt on the east coast, the eastern seaboard where you are, because if there is a quake out in San Francisco, we do not feel it in New York.

Biello: Absolutely! Actually that's an excellent question. There was a second quake, a much smaller quake located near Beijing basically concurrently. I think the large quake happened about 2:28 p.m. and the smaller quake happened about 2.35 p.m. Beijing is much closer to the east coast, and it may be that that second quake, which I am not sure whether it was an aftershock or a related quake, was what we felt on the east coast. I myself felt nothing, but I was on ground level. So my experience of the quake has been primarily people donating blood, and you know expressing condolences for their cousins out west.

Steve: One of the other aspects of this situation is the technology that goes into the building of structures; and by what you are hearing, does that account for the high death toll—the fact that these structures are not as earthquake safe as they could be?

Biello: That is definitely a factor. There is a major construction boom going on in China at present really across the board and the scale of it is something to behold. The new buildings are certainly up to lets say international building standards, at least in the showcase cities of Beijing and Shanghai and Chongqing, which is out in Sichuan, and even Chengdu, which has been hard hit by the quake. But older buildings maybe were not up to those international standards; less important buildings were more quickly and weakly built, from what I hear anecdotally, schools and hospitals have been particularly hard hit by the quake perhaps because of shoddy construction, according to some of the folks that I have talked to.

Steve: What other scientific aspects of what's going on there can you tell us about?

Biello: Well, what I can tell you is that a quake in this kind of Himalayan/Tibetan plateau region has been expected for sometime. Scientists have been predicting such a big quake for five to 10 years. Obviously this is a very active geologic region of the world. India is slamming into the continent and pushing up the Himalayas and just causing all kinds of stress to the rocks. Rocks eventually slip and slide and create a huge natural disaster like this; and unfortunately there is no, lets say, method in place that can provide even a few minutes of warning before a tragedy like this strikes, although I know that they are working on such earthquake prediction technology in California, and they have some kind of it operating in Japan.

Steve: We had an article, I believe, it was summer of 2006 by Kip Hodges, who is now at one of the Arizona schools—I forgot if its University of Arizona or Arizona State—on the geology of the Himalayas. So if people want more information about the general kind of geologic situation that winds up being in play in this quake and in other quakes in that area that is a good place to go look. Look for Kip Hodges on our archive. What are you doing in China in the first place, Dave?

Biello: I am on a reporting trip looking into environmental and scientific issues as they are advancing in China today [and] just happened to be here when this terrible earthquake struck.

Steve: Well, when you get back hopefully we can talk to you about some of the reasons you actually went and get an update on whatever you learnt about the quake in the rest of the time that you were there.

Biello: Yes, I can definitely tell you that there is an environmental angle to this quake. A lot of electric and industrial infrastructure was destroyed by the quake leading to some chemical spills and other nasty impacts. It also is in the region where the Wolong Nature Preserve, famous for its panda breeding program, is located. So, there are, in addition to the immense human tragedy, environmental tragedies as well.

Steve: Thanks very much, Dave.

Biello: Thank you.

Steve: Dave will be filing blog items, slide shows, and stories from China, until May 23rd; that's all at Next up is one of Scientific American's editors, Mark Alpert. He mused in the May issue about scientists in fiction. We spoke in his office.

Steve: Mark, how are you?

Alpert: I'm good.

Steve: You have a column in the May issue called the "Mad Scientist Myth". Is it really a myth?

Alpert: Yes, it's a myth. I mean if you deal with scientists at all, you know that they're all not bent on world destruction; maybe a few of them, but not all.

Steve: Edward Taylor comes to mind. No, I'm kidding.

Alpert: What got me interested is I started writing a novel about science. Its called Final Theory and it's out next month. But anyway, it made me think, you know, am I falling into this trap of making the scientists, [these]this crazy mad person[people] who only cares about some crazy idea or is bent on, you know, proving something to the world so that he throws everything overboard; and I started worrying about them, so I started reading other books, and it's fairly rare to find books where scientists are realistically depicted. I mean, the ones that I mentioned in the column, maybe they are—one of the first early books about real scientists is Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, which I read back in high school, and it made a big impression on me, and I reread it for the purposes of this column; because it shows the scientist, this young man, as being not a very likeable guy, you know, just sort of confused about what he wants to do, but more rejecting in everything. He rejects the quest for money and the quest for fame, and he wants to pursue pure research, but he keeps getting side tracked all the time. So, it was an interesting story.

Steve: What sort of the scientist is the young man?

Alpert: With warts and all which I liked. Other books I mentioned were there; this newer one, by Allegra Goodman, called Intuition, which is a really excellent book because it takes you right into a lab up in the Boston area. I think it's based on the Whitehead Institute actually, in which you have all this[these] post docs, and they are working feverishly on possible cancer treatments, and you see that these are young people who are extremely competitive, who are under a lot of pressure and how mistakes can happen; and it doesn't really come down hard on them, it just gives you a picture of these people like, as I said, warts and all.

Steve: And you mentioned another book in the column.

Alpert: Well, John Updike' Roger's Version; I just love John Updike, so I thought I'd throw it in there, but it's based on a computer programmer who thinks that he could find evidence of God by doing simulations of reality, and so Updike throws in all kinds of arguments about cosmology and astrophysics into the book which I like; but there's also a great scene where he writes about the researcher in the lab, it's late at night, he is trying to get the program to work, it's not working, and then suddenly he thinks he sees something on the screen, but then he closes his eyes and it's gone. He is vigorously trying to find it again, so I thought that really captured the experience of working late on a research project and not being in the best frame of mind.

Steve: Right. If anybody is running a SDS gel at about one in the morning Friday night, Saturday morning, you might relate to that very well.

Alpert: Yeah! I had a problem myself actually when I was at Princeton; I was an astrophysics major and I was looking at these glass plates that showed images. I was supposed to be looking for quasars in these images of the sky—and that was the best technology at the early 80s, the glass plates—and I was drinking a lot of coffee, and I was carrying the plate over to a microscope. I was actually looking at a microscope to look at space and I dropped the thing and it broke into a million pieces, and I was like oh no! these things are like irreplaceable, so I quickly put them in the back of my desk drawer, and I didn't tell my advisor, he had just gone down to New York (he is now at the University of Chicago). I saw him recently and we talked about this. It's funny now; it wasn't funny back then.

Steve: You finally admitted it.

Alpert: Yeah! Well, he knew. It's just I finally really apologized sincerely to that guy.

Steve: Let's talk about the most positive portrayal of a scientist in all of fiction, regardless of the particular medium. And that of course is the professor on Gilligan's Island.

Alpert: Yeah, and the famous line about him is he could make [a] radio out of coconuts, but he couldn't patch a hole in the boat.

Steve: (laughs) Right.

Alpert: Yeah! Maybe that's realistic. Scientists do get sort of, you know, single-minded about their pursuits to the exclusion of everything else. I was thinking also of in John Steinbeck, in his Cannery Row novel, there is the character of Doc, a very sympathetic character, and based I think on a real marine biologist of the 1930s; and, you know, this guy was just shown as, sort of, well almost like a Christ-like figure in the book; and so I think that was a very positive portrayal and sort of a realistic portrayal, the guy is absentminded and yet caring.

Steve: It's interesting, we're not talking about science fiction so much as fictional science.

Alpert: Yeah! Exactly! I mean, which is not to say that there are in some science fiction books; you also do some great portrayals of scientists. You know, I just saw the other day, On the Beach, the movie with Gregory Peck and ...

Steve: ... Fred Astaire!

Alpert: ... and Fred Astaire; it is his only movie where he does not do singing and dancing and he comes across pretty well, actually. He is really into science and he is into racecar driving and in the end, of course, and I was amazed at the courage in that movie to just kill everybody off at the end.

Steve: You just gave it away!

Alpert: Oh sorry! But they are saying right from the beginning, the nuclear fallout is coming, we all find ways to live and they all know that they are, you know, it's just wishful thinking to think otherwise, and in the end, I think Fred Astaire kills himself by locking himself in the garage with his car running.

Steve: With the car running.
Alpert: Yeah, yeah!

Steve: So, your book comes out next month. We're going to have you back in a few weeks to talk about your book and the portrayal of scientists in there.

Alpert: I hope I did a good job. I mean, you know, I've been showing it now to certain physicists and getting some positive responses, so that makes me feel good, like I didn't totally mangle it. And I knew another thing I wanted to mention is about the reality of science. You know, my book is just a thriller, okay, take it as it is, it's just a thriller; but one of things I found while writing it is this concept of family in science and [the] mentor and student relationship.

Steve: Oh yeah! It's very much like music, where a pianist will trace his/her lineage back to Beethoven and scientists will do that too. I studied with this professor, who took his doctorate with that professor, who studied directly with Niels Bohr or who studied directly with Rutherford.

Alpert: Yeah, exactly! I was thinking of all the obituaries that they had for John Wheeler who studied under Niels Bohr and then was you know, the people writing the obituaries were often students of John Wheeler, and so you see that there is[are] generations of science and that they are kind of like family generations, where one influences the next.

Steve: Genetics is very much that way. It's especially appropriate in genetics where they draw up genealogies for a living and all the geneticists will draw up their own genealogies, so that somebody studied with Kaufmann, who studied with somebody else who studied with T. H. Morgan.

Alpert: Right, well I experienced it a tiny bit, just a touch myself when I was at Princeton, and I did my undergraduate thesis with Richard Gott, the theorist at Princeton; and we worked on a paper together and he actually gave me credit on this paper, actually, you know, which was [an] amazing thing you know—just me, a mere undergraduate as a coauthor. And I'll always be thankful for that, but even more thankful for the opportunity to work with him. He gave me an idea and he said, work it out, you know, do the calculations, and I did them and I got an answer and I didn't know what it meant, so in the end I showed my notebooks to Dr. Gott, and he says, he gave me the best compliment you can get from a physicist which is "this is nontrivial." So I thought, you know, I got a little bit of a taste. I didn't go into science as you know, I have had a sort of dissolute life since then, but I got a little taste of it and I could see it operating in the scientific world.

Steve: Well thanks for this nontrivial conversation, Mark.

Alpert: You're very welcome.


Steve: Now it is 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: The newly published platypus genome shows that at the genetic level, the odd critter is almost indistinguishable from a beaver.

Story number 2: Captive cheetahs can get the cheetah version of Alzheimer's disease by eating their cage mates' feces.

Story number 3: Viagra may help muscular dystrophy patients.

And story number 4: Finally, a good use for nanotubes: to test the hotness of chili peppers.

We'll be back with the answer, but first our new managing editor online is Ivan Oransky. To find out more about what'll be going on at our Web site in the coming months, I spoke to Ivan in SciAm's library.

Steve: Ivan, how are you doing?

Oransky: Good, Steve.

Steve: So tell us about—what are your plans are with the Web site.

Oransky: We are going to be doing a lot more of the kinds of stuff that our users already love. All of our columns, Fact or Fiction, obviously all of our news, the podcast, which I've heard about.

Steve: Oh, thank goodness, I thought I was going to have to get a real job.

Oransky: No, we're going to be doing lots more of that stuff, but we're also going to be adding some new things, a lot more interactivity on the Web site. You're going to see a lot of the stuff that the Web is great at, whether it's surveys and polls, we're going to be building hopefully networks of other sites that we work together with, other editorial sites—really quite excited about that.

Steve: Who else do we work with?

Oransky: Reuters. We have the Reuters feed, and you'll see a lots of Reuter stories on our site, science and medical ones. ESA, the European Space Agency, we've just launched that, it has been in the works for awhile where we use a lot of their materials—some text but a lot of a images; as you can imagine these are some people with some pretty cool images of space and all kinds of things. So, very excited about that.

Steve: Don't worry everybody. I heard that he said launched, but I just had to let it go.

Oransky: (laughs)One thing we're launching this week actually is something called, Where Are They Now? Our users and listeners are no doubt familiar with the Intel Westinghouse Science Talent Search, which has been going on since 1942.

Steve: And we've actually interviewed a couple of the winners over the last couple of years on this podcast.

Oransky: Absolutely, so we are kind of, if you will, expanding that franchise a little bit and making it a more regular feature on the Web site, and as our listeners no doubt know these are people who've gone onto all kinds of greatness. Some of them have just gone onto sort of pure old good [old-]fashioned fun life; some of them have done both. The very first one that we profiled this week was Roald Hoffmann, who you know, managed to parlay his STS win—I think it was 1955—into a Nobel Prize in 1981, and now he is, you know, still doing science but actually doing lots of poetry; and he does these events downtown here in New York and lots of fun and does a lot of cultural things.

Steve: And he writes plays still.

Oransky: Absolutely! So you know, people like that, obviously not everyone has had quite as a rich life as Roald Hoffman, but the woman who is highlighted today is Mary-Dell Chilton, arguably sort of one of the parents of agricultural biotechnology, somebody who is coming up on Friday. I don't want to give too much away here, but actually is a really topnotch reporter at a newspaper you've definitely heard of. So, some really fascinating people. We're launching this week in Atlanta, actually I'm on my way down, as this is being broadcast, I'm on my way down to Atlanta with the freelancer columnist writing this for us, Laura Vanderkam, and we're going to be live blogging, so please check out the Web site, look for the SciAm observations blog on our site. We're going to be live blogging from the Intel ISEF, the International Science and Engineering Fair, down [in]at Atlanta; it's not exactly the Science Talent Search, but it's another Intel event; same kinds of kids, 1,500 kids from around the world presenting basically in [a] big science fair, presenting all kinds of stuff and we're really excited about this. There is going to be lot of fun.

Steve: Excellent. Well, listeners listen this is an opportunity for me to tell a Roald Hoffman story.

Oransky: Please.

Steve: Never told this in any group larger than three people. So, Roald Hoffman was actually my advisor, my first semester of graduate school.

Oransky: I did not know that.

Steve: And I left a PhD program with a Masters degree, which is sort of the equivalent of the hero, your lovely parting gifts. So years later, Roald and I were at a function together and somebody attempted to introduce us not knowing that we knew each other fairly well, and this person said to Roald Hoffmann, "Do you know Steve?" and Roald said, "Oh yes! He is one of our most successful failures."

Oransky: (laughs)

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

Story number 1: Platypus is virtually a beaver at the genetic level.

Story number 2: Cheetahs ingesting feces develop Alzheimer's-like disease.

Story number 3: Viagra could help muscular dystrophy patients.

And story number 4: Nanotubes to measure chili pepper hotness.

Time is up.

Story number 4 is true. Oxford University chemists have developed a way to use carbon nanotubes to measure chili pepper heat. They reported their findings in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal called The Analyst. The current technique is to use taste testers, which is obviously highly subjective. The most reliable method uses high performance liquid chromatography to measure the quantity of capsaicinoids—those are the compounds responsible for pepper heat. But that technique is expensive and bulky. The new procedure involves adsorbing the capsaicinoids onto the nanotubes. You then measure the current change as the compounds are oxidized and voila! You get an exact measurement. For more on pepper hotness, Google the phrase "additional unreported dangers from Mexican food".

Story number 3 is true. The drug sildenafil, sold as Viagra, may help some muscular dystrophy patients. A study in mice published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the drug reduced the levels of heart muscle damage. It appears to work by stopping the breakdown of a compound called CGMP, which is involved in cell signaling.

And story number 2 is true. See JR Minkel's May 12th article on the Web site called "Feces May Transmit Fatal Cheetah Disease". I had an excellent headline for the story abbreviated ESAD that decorum prevented us from using. But this can safely be [said of]set off the beleaguered feline: "Cheetahs Never Prosper".

Drum beat.

All of which means that story number 1 about the platypus being genetically almost indistinguishable from a beaver is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Because the publication of the platypus genome last week showed that the weird mammal with some reptile physiology is a strange amalgam of mammalian and reptilian genetics. For more check out the May 13th episode of the daily podcast 60-Second Science, titled "Platypus Genome is Duckbill Oddball'".

(music plays)

Well that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. You can write to us at Check out David Biello's China coverage over the next week plus at and sign up for the daily digest at For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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