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This article is from the In-Depth Report The 40th Anniversary of Apollo 8's Journey to the Moon
Science Talk

Christmas at the Moon; and Instant Egghead Guide: The Mind

Scientific American editor Michael Battaglia discusses the online In-Depth-Report on Apollo 8, which orbited the moon 40 years ago this week. And author Emily Anthes talks about her new book, Instant Egghead Guide: The Mind. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include www.SciAm.com/report.cfm?id=apollo8; www.SciAm.com/report.cfm?id=science-movies; www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/tag/doctor-atomic

Podcast Transcription

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting December 24, 2008; I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast we'll hear from Scientific American editor Michael Battaglia on the 40th anniversary of Apollo 8's historic flight to the moon. And journalist Emily Anthes talks about her new book, The Instant Egghead Guide to the Mind. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First up, Michael Battaglia: He put together the In-Depth Report for our Web site about the Apollo 8 mission which orbited the moon, Christmas Eve, 40 years ago. We spoke in the library at Scientific American.

Steve: One of the things that people still probably don't know about Apollo 8, which was at the time the biggest deal there had ever been in spaceflight.

Battaglia: True.

Steve: Today people remember Apollo 11, but Apollo 8 was the one that really broke ground, because it was the first mission carrying human beings outside the Earth's orbit.

Battaglia: Correct. Yeah. That was truly the great leap for mankind, I think. I don't want to [diminish] the [moon] landing and the incredible accomplishment there, but I think Apollo 8 really paved the way. It brought them to within 69 miles of the landing and tested so many things. There was [were] so many "firsts" on that mission. It was the first time humans had ever rode aboard the Saturn 5, booster which had only been tested a few times, and was the most powerful rocket ever built.

Steve: They didn't need this Saturn 5 if they were just doing Earth orbit. Even the other Apollo cruise had not been on a Saturn 5.

Battaglia: Ah, correct. Apollo 7 was the only the other time Apollo [was]required in space with people. It was on a Saturn 1B, which was a smaller version. [The flight] tested the third stage but not the other stages, [including the first stage], which had the massive 7.5-million-pound thrust engines and all that—that was needed to put the whole assembly in [Earth] orbit and then on to the moon.

Steve: So, now I didn't remember that—Apollo 7 was the first Apollo mission that actually carried people?

Battaglia: Correct. There were some unmanned Apollo flights, but the first time that they actually launched an Apollo in[to] space with people to test their command and service modules was with Apollo 7.

Steve: Wow. So on the second mission, they're going to the moon.

Battaglia: That's it. Yes. It was really quite a gutsy—and you usually think of NASA now as [a] somewhat risk-averse agency—but here we see, and not that it [Apollo 8] wasn't planned, but it was planned so quickly and innovatively that it's [a] real testimonial to what a bureaucracy could do, you can say.

Steve: And this was because they were in a rush to get somebody on the moon before the decade was out to fulfill the Kennedy promise?

Battaglia: Correct. And also the CIA had given them intelligence saying that the Russians were planning a lunar mission before the end of '68, and there was one of the N1 rocket[s]—which was their super moon rocket—was already on the pad that was probably a mock-up, from what I have heard. And they had already launched twice the Zond spacecraft, which circled the moon and came back; took some great pictures, actually. (laughs)

Steve: Those were unmanned, obviously.

Battaglia: Yeah.

Steve: So was that CIA intelligence faulty or did the Russians back off?

Battaglia: I think it could be a combination of both. You know, they might have heard what the Russians thought they were going to do, but the Russians did back off. Because I think they had some problems with design that they didn't—of course, they were so secretive—that they thought maybe humans couldn't survive reentry—they seemed to have problems with that; and the leadership didn't want such an embarrassment.

Steve: One of the things in the package that is really fascinating is that according to a polling data, it appears that the public's enthusiasm for manned spaceflight and for the whole moon effort is really already waning by the time Apollo 11 actually puts people on the moon. Apollo 8 though, is still at the height of the moon mania.

Battaglia: Seems to be the case. It is sort of counterintuitive but somehow that mission caught peoples' imagination[s]; I think it could possibly be maybe because of the timing was just so spectacularly perfect; there they were at Christmas Eve 1968 in orbit around the moon, reading Genesis and giving other greetings to the planet, and it was such a terrible year politically...

Steve: Right...

Battaglia: ...that maybe that was just what the doctor ordered. There is that one famous line, it was not a line, it was actually a telegram sent to Frank Borman, and it said, "Thank you Apollo 8 for saving 1968." He said that was the [his] favorite telegram that he had ever gotten. And it was probably a good remedy for what ailed them at that time; and then that combined with the idea that maybe intuitively people realized that we had won the space race. Once we orbited the moon, it was pretty much in the bag, and maybe that is where interest started waning because it could have been a certain degree of being anticlimactic. So it seems hard to believe now, but I don't think it was really immediately apparent when Apollo 11 landed, because there was a lot of enthusiasm, but as you can see, once Apollo 11 had gotten to the moon the interest just completely died out; and that was one of the big things about Apollo 13, no one was interested with it until they were in trouble.

Steve: Right, and Lovell who was the commander of Apollo 13, is also on board Apollo 8.

Battaglia: Yes, and it is sort of an interesting thing on that is that Lovell on Apollo 8 had made a bit of a boo-boo on the way back he erased the navigational data from the ship's miniscule computer, miniscule in our standards, but very important at that time.

Steve: Was it about 64 Kb of data (laughs)....

Battaglia: Something like that in a microwave oven, I'm not sure. It wasn't much of a multitasker, but it did do a job. But Lovell had inadvertently erased some of the data, and they lost their positional coordinates and they were coming in for reentry which was like one of the most precise things they had to do, and at 25,000 miles per hour there is little room for error. You know, they had a one-mile envelope to catch the atmosphere just right, and he had used visual coordinates—good old-fashioned constellations and looking out the window—to reestablish position. Ironically enough, he would be doing that again with Apollo 13 when the crippled craft needed to be positioned to get back to Earth.

Steve: Right, there is this scene in the movie Apollo 13 where you see them navigating by the seat of their pants by looking out of the window...

Battaglia Yes...

Steve: ...keeping things lined up in the frame of the window.
Battaglia: And you know, talking about the point there in the lunar module, which Apollo 8 didn't have with them at that time, but in Apollo 13 they had the lunar module and steering that with the Apollo service and command modules hooked to it, it was like trying to maneuver with an elephant on your back.(laughs) That was for Lovell, strangely enough, a dress rehearsal for what he had to go through to save their lives on Apollo 13.

Steve: And he is the only person to have gone out of Earth's orbit twice, to go all the way to the moon. But he never actually left the craft; they never landed on the moon either of those missions.

Battaglia: Yeah, I believe so. I mean, other astronauts had gone to the moon more than once but at least one time I think they landed, like Eugene Cernan for instance. But I think Lovell was yeah, was the only one. It was a horribe tease; he was denied twice and he came very close but then again he could say he was on two of the most exciting mission[s] NASA ever had because one [was] sort of this incredibly innovative mission that they put together, and pretty much saved the goal [of] in getting there before 1969; the other mission is what I call NASA's only unplanned mission, and that's the, you know, great testimony of their innovation, how they got those astronauts home.

Steve: We have three pieces... have four pieces to this section; there is a really terrific slide show, but there is also an article by Andrew Chaikin, [a] really well known space writer...

Battaglia: Yes...

Steve: ...and he interviewed these guys at that time and he talks about that.

Battaglia: It's one of the reasons I wanted him to write for us, because I think he has great respect from most of the astronauts. I think all of them trust his observations, you know, they seem to think he has done a very good job of writing [the] history of the moon program. So, I thought it would be great to get him, and he wrote us a nice essay on their impressions, going to the moon, in orbit, and coming back. And their impressions that are based on his interviews with the astronauts and other little asides which only he seems to know about just by being there and talking to people for endless hours, (laughs) over the years, way in a way like Apollo 8's input [import] was actually even more so when they got back. Suddenly there were ticker-tape parades. People had realized what had happened, and once—they saw grainy television photos while they were out there—but once the film was developed from their snapshots, they suddenly realized they had this incredible view of the planet. And people—I mean, I always thought of Earth as a planet—but a lot of people didn't, I don't think. And this suddenly drove the point home, you know, war torn, riots, assassinations, pollution, and they look back and see this beautiful blue island out there in the void, and they realize it was a self portrait, and it was moving for the whole world. And that might be the greatest accomplishment: As I say, they went to visit he moon—I'm not sure which astronaut said it, it could have been Anders—they went to the moon and ended up discovering Earth. So that photo could be one of the most iconic of the 20th century, maybe more so.

Steve: We have an article by John Matson about pretty much the future, well about the near future of manned spaceflight; and, I mean there is a lot of stuff going on. There is this big controversy about whether NASA Administrator Griffin is trying to stonewall the Obama transition team. I mean NASA and government, I mean NASA is part of government, but you know what I mean—NASA and the power structure are really not getting along right now.

Battaglia: No, no. I suspect, I don't know all the details; there is a lot of scuttlebutt about this. I think, the Orlando Sentinel did a story, and there weren't too many sources that they had disclosed and someone said it happened at a party but, Griffin seems to be stonewalling the Obama transition team; being very protective of the Constellation program, [which] is the next technology that will get us back to the moon and onward to Mars, in some scenarios. I think there is a lot of frustration at NASA because they are seeing it maybe as an unfunded mandate or I think there is uncertainty about what Obama will be doing. He has got to make his decision very quickly, I'm afraid, on the shuttle program, and I believe when he was campaigning he said that he would just delay the Constellation program for five years for other programs. And this I think sent shock waves through NASA, because it's really hard to, I think, to give what NASA's point of view may be, it's really hard like to start a massive program and then have it, sort of, pulled away from you, and also not to know what to do with your old program; because once we get rid of the shuttle, we will not have any way of getting into space. Probably better if NASA does end up the way they want to, in an orderly manner, get the Hubble [Space Telescope] fixed, which, I think, is the main priority. When you are talking about NASA, we are talking a lot about manned space missions. We should be talking, too, about science...

Steve: Right, I mean in some ways NASA has never been more successful.

Battaglia: Yes. [The science missions are] their crown jewel; the Rovers, are still running around on Mars, Cassini is showing us things that we have never dreamt of. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is mapping the planet. I can go on, but.... We have two spacecraft about to leave the heliopause; you know, we launched them in 1977—we're still getting lot of bang for our buck there...

Steve: Yeah, that's amazing....

Battaglia: ...[with] the Voyagers. So, I mean, NASA has nothing to be ashamed of; they should be very proud.

Steve: Yeah, but the big manned missions are just not there right now.

Battaglia: And basically, yeah, Apollo 8 was the high point, so you are thinking that was 1968, I mean, there was Skylab, there was, you know, maybe the space station got some attention, but I don't think it has ever reached that point, which sort of makes the anniversary so special. I mean that's sort of bittersweet, because I would like to think there will be another high point in the future—in my lifetime. I'm a little selfish about, it because I'd love to do what I did back in 1968, to just be awed by something like that

Steve: To find the Apollo 8 In-DepthReport just go to www.SciAm.com You'll find a link on the home page during Christmas week, and it will be archived after that. In the spirit of the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science, a series of books is coming out. The Instant Egghead books about various scientific subjects, all of which consist of lots of short pieces that will wind up giving you a good foundation in that subject. Emily Anthes is the author of the first book in the series, The Instant Egghead Guide: Mind which was officially released this week. We spoke in the SciAm library.

Steve: Instant Egghead Guide: Mind, and then we have the little Poindexter character on the cover, [and it says] "explain big ideas fast". So what are some of the big ideas in this book?

Anthes: Oh! [A] lot of big ideas. You know, from the basics of how the various parts of the brain work individually to what happens when they come together. I mean we go all the way from how does a neuron work and what is a neuron to what is consciousness, which is probably one of the biggest ideas that's out there. We don't always counter [come up with] answers, you know—our scientists are still struggling to learn what consciousness is—but we at least try to talk about, you know, how do you tackle a problem like what consciousness is? I mean [what's]that's a bigger problem right now then what is consciousness? How do we go about studying that? And [at] the more concrete level, we've looked at things like language: Where did language come from? And you know, what are some of the basic properties of language? To things like how can people improve their brain power, make the most of their brain? You know, things like diet and exercise aren't just things that are good for the body, they are also good for the brain. And so we talk about some of those ides as well.

Steve: So, we actually have some evidence now that diet and exercise really do help the brain function?

Anthes: Yeah, for sure. You know, I am not sure that people want more reasons to be shamed into exercising and eating well, but there have been a lot of studies, particularly with senior folks, that those who exercise several times a week, even things as simple as, you know, taking a half-hour walk around the neighborhood, it doesn't have to be running a marathon, can stave off cognitive decline and keep the brain functioning well. There are a couple of different theories for why this might be. One is pretty simple, which is just that exercise increases blood flow into the whole body and also blood flow to the brain, which means the brain is getting more nutrients and more oxygen. There is some other, sort of, more technical theories in there but, you know, there are plenty of reasons that people wanting to keep their minds young as well as their body should exercise and you were [eat] right.

Steve: The brain is a really weird thing, you know; I keep thinking of the Jerry Seinfeld line law about the motorcycle helmet law which was something to the effect that, See you have to make a law for people to protect the thing that they are not smart enough to be protecting that makes them not smart enough to protect it in the first place.

Anthes: Right.

Steve: It's a very strange organ, this brain thing.

Anthes: Yeah, I am a big Seinfeld fan. I don't remember that line, but I mean the brain is very delicate, and you don't want to damage it. Scientists are also learning that, it's also a lot more resilient than we ever thought. You know there's been a lot of talk in the last decade about neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. And how we used to think that we are born with a fixed number of neurons and when you do drugs or drink or fall off your motorcycle and they die, that's it. That's all you to have to get. You know, scientists are now learning that actually the brain has an amazing ability to repair itself and to grow throughout adulthood; and you know, it's definitely, you don't want to damage it if you don't have to, but it's far more resilient than we ever thought it was.

Steve: You mentioned, you know, you didn't have room to get into a lot of detailed on some of these subjects but that's by design. I mean this book is, I hope this isn't pejorative, but it's like the perfect bathroom book in many ways.

Anthes: It is, yes. It is by design, you know; we wanted to give people a little taste of everything. So there are actually 100 different topics and I doubt that, you know, every reader is going to be fascinated by every single one of them, but the idea is to put a little something in there for everyone. And actually at the end of the book, I have listed a bunch of suggestions for further reading, brain books that I have loved reading, that are fascinating if readers get interested in one topic or another where they can sort of pursue it in more depth. This book is designed to be an introduction and give people an idea what sort of topics about the mind they might be interested in and want to read about further.

Steve: Yeah, an amuse bush [bouche] to your brain.

Anthes: Exactly! Exactly!

Steve: So, yeah, if it's a subject you are not that interested in, it will be over in another page, and if it's a subject you are interested in you can find out where to learn more about [it] at the back of the book.

Anthes: Exactly.

Steve: So, when you were writing this book, what did you learn that kind of blew you away?

Anthes: Well, one of my favorite things that I learned about, and this is a little bit esoteric, but something that's really stuck with me is the idea of, I must call thermal taste, which is the idea that scientists have now uncovered—I think it's in 2000—that they have uncovered the first evidence of this; that, you know, the tongue is covered with taste buds that help you detect sweet, sour, bitter, etc., but also the changes in temperature on the tongue are enough by themselves to produce the sensation of taste. And you know, researchers discovered this when they were trying to look into how the tongue detects temperature and they, you know, a grad student was holding an ice cube to his tongue and noticed that actually he had tasted it salty, you know, it's just a regular ice cube which shouldn't have tasted salty. So they ended up doing all these experiments and found out this molecular mechanism, which we don't go into too much detail [about], but if you change the temperature of the tongue, if you decrease it, it can produce a salty taste. If you want[warm] the tongue, it can produce a sweet taste which is something that, I don't know if you have ever sat there and let a ball of ice cream melt, but the melted ice cream actually will taste somewhat sweeter than the frozen ice cream.

Steve: I thought that was because the oils had a chance to, kind of, be more volatile in your mouth when you were smelling more, but that's not true?

Anthes: Yeah, I mean my first instinct would be, "Oh! It's becausethe cold ice cream numbs the tongue so you can't taste it well", but actually there are channels in your taste receptors that temperature influences how widely they open or not. So it's a molecular mechanism and if, you know, they open more widely something tastes sweeter, and it's based on temperature and not on other things. I know something that has been one of the applications that's been mentioned is—and, you know, things like wine tasting and certain foods where the temperature is controlled—it sort of helps us explain why you might want to let some things come to a certain temperature before you eat them.

Steve: That is really interesting, I had never heard of that before. Anything else that you ran into while you were working on it [the book] that was completely unexpected?

Anthes: Well, I have always been really interested in language and obviously that's sort of a huge area of research. And something that I find really interesting is that researchers have been discovering over the last few years, perhaps longer, what a huge role gestures play in language; and that they are not just these ancillary parts of language or unnecessary parts where you're gesturing, because you need to do something with your hands. Gesturing actually helps the speaker think better, helps people understand better; they have done experiments now with math students who learn to gesture along with problem solving and when they are allowed to gesture, they do better in math class.

Steve: I should point out, you are gesturing right now.

Anthes: I am, and I'm trying to stop, but it's hard.

Steve: It's almost impossible to not use—I am doing it as well—to not use your hands when you talk. And clearly that's built into language, although somebody who is listening to this will still get the content, but they might miss some of the nuances of what we are talking about because they are not getting our facial expressions. They are not able to see our lips move; they are not seeing our hand gesticulations. Yeah, that's really fascinating.

Anthes: And obviously the big question [has] been, how has language evolved? In some research, researchers now think that it actually started as gesture and certain gestures evolved into language. So there is a lot of interesting stuff going on about gesture and the importance of gesture.

Steve: So, in addition to people who spend a lot of time in the bathroom, who would really get something out of this book? Who is this book written for, really?

Anthes: Well, it sounds like a cliché to say it, but we really hope the book is for everyone. It's intentionally written to be interesting and stimulating, but it's not going to be over the head with, you know, tons of scientific names and facts and details. And obviously we hope you come away with some facts, but you don't need to be a scientist to read this, you don't need to have a science degree to read this book. We really hope it's for [a] general audience; we've tried to make it accessible and even funny in some places—science can be funny—used a lot of metaphors to help people, sort of, visualize some of the complicated ideas we talk about. And you know with 100 different topics, we are pretty confident that you can find at least one that's going to interest you.

Steve: I am going to open this book completely at random, and let's see what we find.

Anthes: All right.

Steve: Okay, an article on sleep that knits the ravel sleep of care, so that's in here. So each article looks to be about 250 words, and then we have at the end of each article, something called cocktail party tidbits, little bullet points, and I will just read one. This is again connected to the article on sleep and it says, "We first start yawning in utero and then—bad news, fetuses—life only gets more exhausting." Isn't that the truth? So that's really fascinating. What are fetuses yawning over?

Anthes: It's not clear, and, you know, the answer [to] that would probably have to have a better sense of what purpose yawning serves, which is actually something we're not really sure about. You know, yawning, as you probably have noticed, is this social phenomenon. Someone yawns, someone else yawns. Some researchers theorize that yawning is mainly served as [serves] social purpose. There is some research lately that, indicates that...

Steve: Dogs, right.

Anthes: Oh, yes. Even dogs can detect yawning. Also that yawning maybe cools the brain, and, you know, by changing blood flow and stretching the back of the neck it can cool the brain and you know, maybe boost thinking. There is sort of a lot of speculation out there about what purpose yawning serves in adults and what purpose it serves in a fetus. I can't even begin to speculate; maybe practicing.

Steve: Practicing, yeah, just making sure they are going through the checklist.

Anthes: Everything works, right.

Steve: Before launch.

Anthes: Exactly!

Steve: So, how many people listening have just been yawning as we've been talking about yawning, because yawning is so suggestive, you don't even have to see somebody yawn. I mean, I started to feel the urge to yawn just talking about it.

Anthes: And actually, similarly to it is itching, [which] is something that's also suggestive, and I was reading about itching and it's hard to read about itching without starting to itch and then you scratch. So another sort of, seems like the brain comes first and then the body sensation follows.

Steve: We're constantly being fooled by our little, old convoluted brains.

Anthes: Yeah.

Steve: The book again, The Instant Egghead Guide: Mind. Emily Anthes thanks a lot.

Anthes: Thank you.

Steve: 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: Sugary foods don't really make kids any more hyper.

Story number 2: The producers of the new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still' have beamed the entire movie in the direction of Alpha Centauri for possible alien entertainment.

Story number 3: The state with the healthiest population is Louisiana.

And story number 4: You could soon be driving on tires partially made from soy beans.

We will be back with answer, but first I want to tell you [about] the Metropolitan Opera's production of Dr. Atomic, the story of Robert Oppenheimer [and] the Manhattan Project, is nationwide on Monday December 29th. We are planning to have some related content in next week's podcast. And your time is now up.

Story number 4 is true. Researchers are looking at soy flour as a filler for tires and other rubber products. Most such fillers are petroleum-based particles called carbon black. But recent research in the Journal of Applied Polymer Science shows that soy flour could also fit the bill. By the way, back in 1941 Henry Ford developed a car whose panels used soy bean meal as a component, but the car never went into production. Too bad. I might still be driving my vintage Ford tofu.

Story number 1 is true. Slipping kids some sugar does no[t] seem to lead to hyperactivity. That's according to research in the British Medical Journal. In fact one study has found that parents who were falsely told that their kids had sugar saw them as being more hyperactive. For more, check out the December 22nd episode of our 60-Second Psych podcast.

And story number 2 is true. The Day the Earth Stood Still was beamed into space through the deep space communications network [at] Cape Canaveral. It will arrive at Alpha Centauri in 2012. Expect a reply in 2016 which says, "Send the original and, of course, more Chuck Berry."

All of which means that story number 3, about Louisiana being the healthiest state is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Because that honor goes to Vermont according to a ranking done by the American Public Health Foundation, the Partnership for Prevention, and the United Health Foundation. Louisiana came in last. Why? New Hampshire, Minnesota, Utah, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Idaho and Maine were the other states with the healthiest people. The other suffering states: Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Nevada and Georgia.

Well that's it for this edition of Scientific American's Science Talk. Check out SciAm.com for the In-Depth Report of Apollo 8 and another In-Depth Report on science at the movies. For Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Science Talk is a weekly podcast, subscribe here: RSS | iTunes

Scientific American editor Michael Battaglia discusses the online In-Depth Report on Apollo 8, which orbited the moon 40 years ago this week. And author Emily Anthes talks about her new book, the Instant Egghead Guide to the Mind. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include www.SciAm.com/report.cfm?id=apollo8; www.SciAm.com/report.cfm?id=science-movies; www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/tag/doctor-atomic

 

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