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Science Talk

Algae, Art and Attitudes: A Roundtable about the AAAS Conference

Scientific American staffers Mark Fischetti and Robin Lloyd talk with podcast host Steve Mirsky about sessions they attended--including those about algae for energy, dissecting the astronomy in art, and attitudes about climate change--at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include www.aaas.org, www.aven.com

Scientific American staffers Mark Fischetti and Robin Lloyd talk with podcast host Steve Mirsky (pictured) about sessions they attended—including those about algae for energy, dissecting the astronomy in art, and attitudes about climate change—at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include www.aaas.org, www.aven.com

Podcast Transcription

Steve:          Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American posted on February 27th, 2010. I am Steve Mirsky. If you've been listening to this podcast and our daily offering, 60-Second Science, you know that I was recently at one of the major science conferences of the year, the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as were a couple of other SciAm staffers Mark Fischetti and Robin Lloyd. Once we got settled back in our New York offices, Mark, Robin, and I sat down and talked about just a few of the conference sessions we had gone to, after which we will test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. First up, me, Mark and Robin.

Steve:          Yes, Mark what were some of the things, if anything at the AAAS meeting that got you excited for the future?

Fischetti:          Well, I sat in on a number of the climate related sessions. One of them was a long session on algae and there was a growing perception that biofuel derived from algae really was not going to make a lot of sense because of the number of inputs that are needed: nutrients, carbon dioxide. Where you are going to get all the carbon dioxide to feed these algae so that it will produce biofuels? And interestingly, there does seem to be a growing solution or at least a sense of how to solve this which is to really co-locate—that's our new term—algae plants next to sources of carbon dioxide which would largely be coal fired power plants, industries, places that are spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, [and] instead pipe it down to the big algae farm and use that to grow algae which then can create biofuel.

Steve:          So this actually looks more promising.

Fischetti:          Yeah, you know up until now the research into algae has just been primarily can we get it do to what we want [it] to do, can we get it to create the lipids that can then be turned into biofuels, and I think scientifically the answers are yes, we can. So now it is becoming more of an economic question. Can we get this process on a large scale to be done economically, which basically means can you get your inputs really cheaply and that's where the looking for carbon dioxide comes in.

Steve:          Then where would all this algae get grown?

Fischetti:          Yeah, in basically [in] the farms. You know the basic designs, either you have open air ponds or you have these really long bags, like baggies, but football field–size baggies, full of algae that grow in sunlight; or you do it inside in very big bioreactors they call [them].

Steve:          Where they get the input energy in the bioreactors?

Fischetti:          It is kind of a passive process and that has been one of the issues. It takes time for the algae to grow, but if—here is this co-location idea again—it all happens faster if the temperature is high. So let's say you are next to a coal fire plant, you use the carbon dioxide as one of the inputs and there is waste [heat] from that plant, so you bring that in it warm up the algae and one of the algae's byproducts is actually biomass, so you could siphon that off and turn that into fertilizer to then create other crops. So this idea of working different industries together may be the key to what has been, kind of, standalone research before.

Steve:          So look for an algae farm coming to a neighborhood near you?

Fischetti:          Sure.

Steve:          Robin what jumped out at you?

Lloyd:          Following up on the climate change topic, I went to some of the policy oriented sessions that dealt with how we have been covering climate change as journalists. And I also went to a session where a couple of folks from public agenda were talking about how society is responding to public policy that is available and journalism that is now out there on climate change. Jean Johnson offered some amazing statistics of a survey that PublicAgenda did. They found that—this is a scientific survey they did of 1001 adults in the United States, four in ten Americans could not name a fossil fuel and that six in ten could not name a renewable fuel source. So there is a real disconnect going on with what we are trying to do, what the Obama administration is trying to do, with the efforts we are trying to make to advance responses to climate change. And what the Public Agenda folks recommended, this concluded Daniel Yankelovich and Jean Johnson, his colleague, they recommended understanding that sometimes getting society to respond to big social changing concepts and problems can take decades, and they actually [cited] as analogies to what we are undergoing now as a society with climate change, women's rights and slavery as analogous issues that we are grappling with; and if you think back historically as to how long it took [in the United States] for us to really come to terms with both of these issues. Well, we are still cycling through them. One of things that Yankelovich and Johnson also pointed out was that there is really a cycle, an S-shaped curve, over time that we go through as a society responding to social issues, and it starts with consciousness raising. Then the S curve starts heading up toward the ceiling and we are in a period of working through a process and finally it levels out, and we get to a resolution period. And they are saying that with climate change, we are just getting out of consciousness raising and we are just entering the working through period. And they urged policy makers and communicators and politicians to be not simply more patient, but also instead of advocating to present pros and cons and to present solutions for society for people engaging in various debates and discussions to choose among and to present the options in the pros and cons rather than advocating for any of them, but just present these pros and cons very clearly and simply; so that there is a sense of engagement and various options for people instead of a feeling that situations and positions are being crammed down their throats [or that] they don't even see a solution. The analogy that they gave in terms of climate change right now [is] as if a patient were in a doctor's office right now and the doctor said to the patient, "You have cancer, and it's fatal" and then stopped talking.

Steve:          It's interesting, you talked about the working through period. Deborah Blum's book The Poisoner's Handbook discusses among many other things the fact that lead in gasoline was finally taken out of gasoline, I think it was in the early 1970s that lead was removed. You know I was a little kid and I remember, it seemed like the effort to get lead out of gasoline started a few years earlier and then was ultimately achieved in the early '70s. It turns out according to Blum's book, the effort to get lead out of gasoline started in the 1920s. It took about 50 years to finally get the lead out, to literally get the lead out. I mean they knew way back then that it was causing a lot of problems, but the societal impetus was too weak until 50 years went by and the problems really started [to] permeate through society and then enough political will was finally achieved to make that possible.

Lloyd:          Sure. And there is still lead in paint in a lot of our homes today and the mitigation effects around that are ongoing.

Steve:          So we've got algae and climate change and people's reaction to how to move through the climate change, the acclimatization period.

Lloyd:          Yeah. I mean one more thing that came up around climate change was a panel of mostly journalists and other folks covering climate change and one of the things that they urged that I found really interesting is that journalists have to find new and better ways to tell the climate change story and to be more effective relating the science. Obviously that has not been done in the most effective way so far. And what they really urged was local coverage, keep it local, instead of going on to the big national and policy issues, what's going on in Congress; sure those issues are going to be covered by some of the big media, the Washington-based media, but what people need to know in their communities in California, in Oregon, in Bangladesh, in Vietnam, and what some of the journalists there were talking about [are] efforts to really say "Okay what are our local data, what are our local issues, what are our local options for responding to climate change?" instead of worrying about the global issues" and that provided a lot of hope and opportunity for folks in those communities.

Fischetti:          I would amplify that because if you think about how the whole environmental movement, you know, it shouldn't be seen as a movement. It took a long time, also to finally gain traction, but the way it gained traction was exactly that—it kind of stopped trying to fight the national issues and [did] go local and the[re were] local environmental movements and that is where the whole Superfund thing came from. If there is a local problem that is really bad right here, let's amplify that problem and then remind people, "Hey look, this problem repeats itself again and again and again in your community" and I think that is probably an interesting way to think about how to now transition. It does seem that publics are aware of [these] problems, but now try to solve them, rather than trying to solve the entire planet’s problem in one step. If you can look locally, you get people excited about solutions, which can then meld into a larger thing.

Steve:          What else do we have? If you have never been to one of these conferences at any one time there are probably 20 different talks going on, so nobody can go to all of them obviously, and it's just like a symphony of science information, or more like a cacophony of science information getting thrown out there. So Mark, what else did you wind up finding?

Fischetti:          Well, I can give you a really quick thing. The Pew Trusts, you know they have all kind of studies that they do, but since Robin brought up surveys. They, every ten years for, now twice, they ask experts about the future of the Internet. So this is the second time through; they did [it] in 2000. And these were computer-, Internet-savvy people, about 1,000 of them, what they envisioned the Internet would be in 2010, and they quickly reviewed some of the results. Nobody had envisioned anything like Facebook by the way, or that would it be so ubiquitous. So they asked this question again and [there] were [a] couple of really interesting results. So now what would the Internet be like in 2020, and two other really kind of cool results were they asked if they thought now that everybody is a, sort of, on the net and on their phones, publishing information so to speak, because of all the short hand that goes on. What would in the next 10 years the Internet do to the English language? Would it essentially make people more linguistic or less and their assumption was that people are going to just maul the English language because of all abbreviations. But the responses were essentially that it would improve the English language largely because, yeah, right now everybody is doing this kind of really rapid abbreviated things— although if you notice on texting now you don't see [the dopey] abbreviations much anymore; people [are] doing the whole-word thing—and the opinions were kind of as people are more used to their language being in the public and their friends' language being in the public, they can start to criticize each other's poor language to the point that that may raise a level of general language ability amongst the public, which is kind of intriguing.

Steve:          Is that the word they used? Oh "language ability"—two words.

Fischetti:          Yes, right.

Steve:          Okay.

Fischetti:          Ability.

Steve:          I thought it was "languageability"—maybe a new word. One of the things I mean I do a lot of typing on the iPhone and it finishes the words for you, so it kind of locks you into the correct usage.

Fischetti:          And just very quickly, a related question was: Would the Internet make people smarter or stupider? And the overwhelming response was for smarter; okay, but why? And I think they asked for written, sort of, opinions about why you are choosing this topic or this choice. There seem to be a basic undercurrent that as the Internet, the real time at the web, allows you to do more and more that there may be a shift in human cognitive ability and focus away from having to memorize information and more towards having to synthesize information now that you can have it so readily and that would actually raise people’s intelligence overtime because we're doing more synthesizing and analyzing and less just remembering.

Steve:          Then it should be pointed out that throughout history, I mean for thousands of years with the development of any new information storage technology like writing originally…

Fischetti:          Yeah.

Steve:          … people worried that it would make us dumber, but the kids today don't have to remember our stories because they could just write them down or read them whenever they want. And then when published books became available to the masses, some people worried about those making us dumb, because the information would be so easily available that [you] didn't need to know it. You needn't to carry [it] in your brain all the time.

Fischetti:          Yeah. We think at least we have gotten smarter and so it is the same phenomenon now: Now you don't need the books; it is all on the Internet, so nobody is going to read anything anymore, but obviously we still do.

Steve:          I know. I read a lot more; I don't read as many books maybe, but I read a lot more information every day.

Lloyd:          Well. We will take that as a segue to talk about youth culture. I went to this really fun session called "Watching the Watchmen and Cheering the Heroes: the Science of Superheroes". And the superstar there was really Jim Kakalios, who is at the University of Minnesota, who pioneered this course, this freshman seminar in 2001 at the University called "Physics of Superheroes".And he did it as a way to wake up his students; they weren't paying attention in class; [it's hard] to engage [anybody] when you are lecturing on any science topics, especially physics; and he was able to teach some basic principles of physics by getting people to engage with some of the science that is presented in comic books, especially in comic books dating back a while. And he actually did a little bit of analysis of the content of comic books and found that if you look at a comic book from the '50s or '60s, it will actually have a little explainer box for some of the concepts that are in powers that are illustrated in a comic book. And he actually had one student do a midterm paper on [whether] Flash, if he was running at almost the speed of the light, how long will it take him to consume all of the oxygen in Earth's atmosphere and it was great a paper apparently. Kakalios said that the kid had to start with the fact of the question of how many molecules of oxygen are there in Earth's atmosphere; and just him telling the story, I now have remembered for the past several days there are 1040 molecules of oxygen in Earth's atmosphere. How would I ever have remembered that, [other] than hearing this anecdote? So it was fun. The kid found out that, no Flash would have to run at nearly the speed of light for several million years before he exhausted all of the oxygen in our atmosphere. But you know, there are ways to use popular culture and entertainment to really engage students in some of these topics, and it was [a] fun session there. There was also a couple of writers from the TV series Heroes there as well as [a] screenwriter from the movie The Watchmen there, who [were] talking about their use of science in their screenwriting. And the short answer is science is inspiring to them, but they are not able for narrative reasons just stay really close to the science; but they do a good job of getting us started.

Steve:          Kakalios also had an example where you could figure out based on, you know, originally Superman couldn't fly; he could only leap really high and really far. So the problem that he [asked] his students to do was to figure out, based on the leaping ability that was described in the early comic books, let us say, he could leap a 30-story building. Based on that what would Krypton's gravity have to have been in order for a Superman with the same muscularity as he would have had to put that much force down and then leap, what would the original gravity [be] when compared to Earth's gravity. So it is fun stuff, and if you apply [it] correctly you can actually learn some physics. Okay, so what else? Anything else anybody went through that was of interest?

Lloyd:          Yeah, I went to [a] briefing actually on stem cells, a status report. Then there was actually a little frustration expressed among the researchers there. Funding is a real big problem in this field even with the signing of the executive order early on in the Obama administration. The issue here…

Fischetti:          … the executive order that enabled federal funding for some stem cell research again, in addition to the large…

Lloyd:          … extended more stem cell lines, yes. So the issue is that this research is basic, but some of the treatments are going to be one-time-only treatments and so there is not a lot of interest on the part of [the] pharmaceutical industry to invest in this, and yet tons of money is needed to get things moving forward. Irving Weissman at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine was hopeful, nonetheless, and he said that we are probably going to have some of the early regenerative medicine treatments available within the next 10 years, but there [is] still a lot of basic work that needs to be done. And they were also reiterating this issue that has been coming up lately in the news about the difference between induced pluripotent stem cells and embryonic stem cells and there has been a lot of hope that we could solve some of the ethical issues of working with embryonic stem cells. But some people have been using induced pluripotent stem cells as a substitute; but it's looking more and more like there is really not going to be a one-to-one match there. You can do some modeling with induced pluripotent stem cells, but they really are not going to be a perfect model; that we are really going to have to find another solution or become more comfortable with working with embryonic stem cells.

Steve:          Those induced pluripotent stem cells are stem cells from an adult that a[re] kind of reprogram[med] so that they would be equivalent or they are thought to be the equivalent of an embryonic stem cell, but it is not really 100 percent and you still need to do the basic research with the embryonic stem cells just to find out if you are reprogramming of the induced pluripotent ones actually does match up one to one.

Lloyd:          Right.

Steve:          I went to an interesting talk by a fellow named Donald Olson at Texas State University, and what this guy does is take a painting by Van Gogh and Edvard Munch that features an astronomical scene, like the famous Starry Night, and based on historical records they know approximately where Van Gogh was when he was painting. They'll know what city he was in, what town he might have been in, and approximately when, [it] might have been in April, and whatever year it was, maybe mid April, maybe the records aren't that good. And then by using certain identifiable objects in the foreground, like a barn or a house that hopefully [is] still there, he will then go to that place in France, and [he] brings some students; they scatter all around the town until they identify the exact spot, pretty much, where Van Gogh was when he saw the scene that he saw. And then they will be able to tell you exactly what the objects in the sky in the painting are. Because you cannot necessarily tell. The paintings are, obviously they are not photo realism, so you don't know is that a moon or is that a star? Is that a planet or is that a star? And based on the astronomical records and the historical records and the exact location that the painting had to have been painted from, and the assumption that the painters are very good recorders of reality in spite of the way they manifest that reality in the painting, he will be able to tell you exactly what it is. He will be able to tell you whether something is a moon's rise or a moon's set. They did some work also with some Ansel Adams's photographs where the records that Ansel Adams himself kept are not that great actually on when a particular shot was taken. So by studying the objects in the foreground in the Ansel Adams, and those are mountains or certain geological configurations other than mountains, you know spires that they have in the parks that he was in. He could identify exactly where Adams was and exactly what time these photographs had to have been taken. And it is a great exercise for his students for one thing, because they learn how to apply a lot of astronomical information in physics to a situation. That is also really fun to try to work out and not only that, he gets to go to Paris a lot; he gets to go to other places in Europe, to rather pleasant locations and bring students and they work together as a team and they scatter out [to] these locations. So it is real fun detective work and the kids seem to really enjoy it too.

Fischetti:          So when they have done enough of these and you are touring around in France then you have got your iPhone on and your little artist comes up and it goes off when you happen to walk by the house where this painting must be.

Steve:          This is a great idea. But it is interesting, there is apparently some resistance from some members of the art community to this kind of effort, because they think it somehow takes away from the art itself if you start evaluating it in terms of the scientific reality behind it. And I thought this has all settled a few hundred years ago with the idea that Newton had, kind of, destroyed the mystery of the rainbow by working at the optics; and most scientist will say, no, no it makes it even better than what it is, and that is where I come down. Probably everybody here and everybody listening. But there still is some resistance to the, even [the] idea of doing this and publishing the results; like the painting should stand on its own without us using it as some kind of historical tracer document.

Lloyd:          These are not the people who are going to be going to AAAS meeting, I guess.

Steve:          The American Association for the Advancement of Science, aka the AAAS, records all the talks at the meeting and makes them all available for sale. So if you are interested in any of the very few areas that you just heard discussed or to find out what else was on the table at the meeting and is out there to be heard just go to www.aaas.org and look for the schedule of the 2010 meeting. And the talks can be downloaded as MP3s; go to www.aven.com—that is for Audio Visual Education Network—and look for the 2010 AAAS meeting on its conference list; that is www.aven.com. Scientific American has no financial interest in the sale of these recordings; I am just passing on the info.

Now its time to play TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS .

Story 1: Forget swabbing the deck. A new US navy ship is outfitted with Roomba's robotic vacuum cleaners.

Story 2: A teenager science fair project for testing whether an athlete has a concussion will get presented at an upcoming meeting of the American Academy of Neurology.

Story 3: Chickens see in black and white only.

Story 4: Despite previous publications claiming that athletes wearing red perform better than athletes in other colors, athletes wearing red do not in fact have a competitive advantage.

Time is up.

Story 1 is true. The new navy ship the USS Freedom is outfitted with robotic Roomba's and Scuba cleaning robots. Now just organically link the pilots at the control center and you basically have the ship from the TV series Far Escape except for the flying-at-faster-than-light-speed-in-space part.

Story 2 is true. Teenager Ian Richardson, not the British actor of the same name, [thought] up the simple concussion test, attached a hockey puck to a stick, dropped the puck and measured how fast the athlete can catch the stick by how much of the stick goes past the athlete before he or she catches it. A small preliminary study found that concussed athletes had reaction times about 15 milliseconds slower than nonconcussed athletes. That is too small a difference to catch with a stopwatch, but it is very visible via the stick test. Richardson's dad is on the faculty at the University of Michigan Medical School, which may have had something to do with the test being fast tracked for inclusion at the upcoming April meeting of the American Academy of Neurology.

Story 4 is true. A 2005 paper in Nature claimed that Olympic athletes that wore red had a competitive advantage for some reason. But Charles Seife at the N.Y.U. Journalism School has published a paper refuting the red hypothesis. To find Charles' paper, which could be a factor in your own uniform design, just Google "Charles Seife" and "red uniforms". His research on this will be part of his upcoming book called Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deceptions.

All of which means that story 3, about chickens seeing in black and white, is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Because a new study notes that chickens have five types of retinal cones as opposed to our three. We can see red, green, and blue, but chickens see extra colors up in the ultraviolet. For more catch the February 26th episode of the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science, which noted that the enhanced vision of the chicken may explain why it crosses the road, because it sees interesting stuff on the other side that you and I can't.

Well that's it for this episode. We will be back soon with an interview with physicist Sean Carroll, author of the new book From Eternity to Here, a seriously fun look at time. In the meantime, get your science news at www.ScientificAmerican.com where you can find out how to enter our World-Changing Ideas video contest, and if you can follow us on Twitter you will get a tweet every time a new article hits the Web site; our Twitter name, @sciam. For Science Talk the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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