Science Talk

John Rennie Hacks the Planet

Former Scientific American editor in chief John Rennie talks about his new six-episode Weather Channel TV Show, Hacking the Planet, which debuts February 28

Podcast Transcription

Steve Mirsky:       This Scientific American podcast is brought to you by, your source for audio books and more. features more than 100,000 titles including science books like Bad Pharma, How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients by Ben Goldacre and new sci-fi like Extinction by Mark Alpert.

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Welcome to the Scientific American podcast Science Talk posted on February 28th, 2013.  I am Steve Mirsky.

John Rennie:        Fidel Castro got very annoyed at the idea that we might be doing something like trying to steer hurricanes because he was worried we were going to use them – an incredible weapon for devastating Cuba.

Steve Mirsky:       And that’s our old friend, John Rennie.  The former editor in chief of Scientific American is coming to your living room on the small screen starting tonight.  We talked about his latest project in his Manhattan apartment.  The jingling and panting you might here, that’s not us.  John’s two dogs were in the room and were, for the most part, exceptionally well behaved, but you can hear a little [makes panting sound].  We spoke on February 21st.

So, John.

John Rennie:        Yes, Steve.  Hello.

Steve Mirsky:       Tell everybody about your new television show.  You are on Twitter at TVJRennie.

John Rennie:        That’s right.

Steve Mirsky:       And it is now actually –

John Rennie:        It’s official.

Steve Mirsky:       Official.

John Rennie:        I am now, in fact, TV’s John Rennie.  Hello.  That’s right.  Yes.  So, starting on February 28th, I will be debuting as the host of a new series on the Weather Channel called Hacking the Planet, and this is a series in which, each week, the format is I take a look at some kind of big natural threat, things like hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes and the like, and I explore what we understand, the science of how these things work and where they came from and how they stop and then we figure out, well, how can we use this knowledge to our advantage.

So some of the kinds of questions that look into are, for example, the bigger end of things, questions like, well, would it be possible for us to do something like stop a hurricane or steer it so that it would hit a less vulnerable part of the coast? 

But even, in some cases, short of that sort of thing, there are fascinating questions about whether or not we can use this knowledge to improve our prediction of things like earthquakes and whether or not we can find ways to be able to sometimes use some of these phenomena to our advantage, so things about like with volcanoes being able to use those for geothermal energy, that sort of thing.

Steve Mirsky:       So do they drop you into a volcano?  I know they took – you’ve been all over the place.

John Rennie:        I have, in fact, been all over the place.  I’ve – I can’t even – I should have added up the mileage on this, but, yes, definitely been to Hawaii and Iceland and over to Switzerland and up  into Canada for part of this, just all over the U.S.

Steve Mirsky:       What were you doing in Iceland?

John Rennie:        In Iceland – well, Iceland, of course, is a highly volcanic island.  Iceland owes its very existence to volcanism and the gigantic volcanic forces that are organized that mid-Atlantic rift.  So I was there taking a look at not so much the volcanoes that were there but a lot of the other sort of geology and, in particular, the ways that they’ve been using the geological formations that are related to why they have so many volcanoes and why Iceland is a leading place in the world for geothermal energy and how they’re using that.

Steve Mirsky:       And Sweden.

John Rennie:        Let’s see.  I didn’t get to Sweden.  Switzerland.

Steve Mirsky:       Switzerland.

John Rennie:        Switzerland.  I was in Switzerland because, there, some laboratories doing a lot of work for a couple of different things but on lightning.  Particularly, for example, work being done at the University of Genevia – Geneva not Genevia.

Steve Mirsky:       Not anymore

John Rennie:        Not anymore.  No.  They’ve ruined that but the University of Geneva, research is being done on sort of an amazing idea for being able to use lasers that would be directed, shot up into the sky into storm formations, that might have a lot electrical activity, basically creating a plasma channel to help guide the lightning down to a spot where you want it to hit so it’s not just randomly hitting someplace else.

Steve Mirsky:       And Hawaii, you were there for –

John Rennie:        Volcanoes, again.  Lots of stuff going over there.  So, right, they’re some of the most active volcanoes in the world to be found there in Hawaii.  I did  not actually get thrown into a volcano at that time.  I know.

Steve Mirsky:       Well, you're not a virgin.

John Rennie:        Well, not currently but, yeah, so and ___ got a great opportunity to fly over volcanoes as part of this great ongoing NASA study where they are monitoring the deformation of the ground over the entire big island  of Hawaii with the idea of being able to measure minute changes in the ground which may be really big clues to how the volcanoes are becoming more active or less active.  That’s the kind of information that might ultimately be very important for developing a better sense of when volcanoes are going to erupt.

Steve Mirsky:       So which volcano did you fly over?

John Rennie:        We – all of them.

Steve Mirsky:       All.

John Rennie:        I – the big island of Hawaii is not so gigantic in the big scheme of things, but I spent more than six and a half hours in this flight, basically flying in these passes over it in a particular search.  Basically, I took the equivalent of another transatlantic trip over the big island of Hawaii.

Steve Mirsky:       And it’s an active volcano. 
John Rennie:        Well, that’s right.  That’s right.  You have a – let’s see – Mauna Kea but you also have Kilauea, and, also, you're flying over Mauna Loa which is not active but.

Steve Mirsky:       But when you're flying over the active ones and you look down, do you – are they radiating –


John Rennie:        Well, the interesting thing about that is, in theory, in places, you might be able to.  Of course, the tricky thing is, though, if you're flying over an active volcano, there’s usually no small amount of steam and ash and other things coming out.  So there’s often a lot of clouds, so it’s actually kind of hard to look down into  it and see that.  But, yeah, it’s an amazing thing to see.

Steve Mirsky:       And they sent you to Florida.

John Rennie:        Yes.  Lots going on down in Florida, lots of things related to hurricanes which is, of course, one of the big things that we were focused on there.  There’s been an enormous amount of work, obviously, on studying hurricanes and  trying to figure out better ways  to protect against them but, also, the surprising amount of work going back into, I believe, the ‘50s for when people – and the U.S. government, for example, studying like whether or not it might be possible to steer a hurricane or be able to stop one.

Steve Mirsky:       So how’s that going?

John Rennie:        Well, the fact is there are actually a surprisingly large number of ideas around there.  I mean this was an active project called Project Storm Fury for the U.S. government back during the ‘50s and the ‘60s.  They actually – the military was very, very interested in this for some time, and it was an interesting episode because that whole activity, it shows a lot of the problems that can sometimes come up from even just saying that you're going to explore some of these things.

So one thing, for example, is, as you might imagine, Fidel Castro got very annoyed at the idea that we might be doing something like trying to steer hurricanes because he was worried we were going to use them as a weapon – an incredible weapon for devastating Cuba, so he was convinced that’s what we were trying to do.

But, even in the U.S., there were some people who got very concerned that – there were a few hurricanes that – around that time that took some sort of odd twists.  There were ones that were moving up the coast and then seemed to go out to sea and then, sort of somewhat bizarrely, it turned around and came back in toward the shore again. 

This kind of thing occasionally happens, but it’s not very common.  And there were people who were convinced that this was the result of U.S. government activities, that they had either tampering with this hurricane or that they had managed to mess up hurricanes in general.  There are a lot of conspiracy theories going on around there concerned with affecting the weather as you might imagine. 

Steve Mirsky:       Boy, if we could actually do the things that some people think we can do.

John Rennie:        Yeah.  It’s kind of interesting.  I mean, as I said, this was back during the ‘50s and the ‘60s.  At this point, the science of studying hurricanes, for example, we know a lot more about them now than we ever used to.  We have a lot more tools for this.  We have – we’re studying with satellites.  We also have like different sorts of unmanned drones, so that we can fly over those. 

Actually, it was another place that I went for this was actually down to Wallops Island on the Virginia coast where NASA has a flight facility, and they deploy some of these same kinds of drones, ones that were developed originally for flying out over Afghanistan.  They send them out across the Atlantic Ocean to fly above imminent storms forming out around like the Canary Islands, so that they can really start to get a sense of how do hurricanes form and how do they get launched into the trajectories that they follow.

So we have a much better understanding of things like hurricanes now than we ever used to, and in retrospect, it’s really clear that anything that could have been brought to bear on the problem, back in the ‘50s and ‘60s,  really, there’s no chance that we would have been able to affect that.  Even today, we really don’t have the technology to be able to do anything very much with that.  It’s just very interesting to see that there are a number of interesting ideas that people have on the table and actually are trying to develop.
And, granted, there – you're probably not going to wake up any time too soon finding that people suddenly developed the ability to affect something like a hurricane, but it’s not inconceivable that, at some point quite a ways out, we might actually have the technology capable of doing something like that.

Steve Mirsky:       What’s the theory behind moving a hurricane?

John Rennie:        Well, I mean, as you imagine, it’s all leveraged against a lot of different – big assumptions about how much you would  be able to understand and predict about a lot of these.  So it is definitely – we are talking about some fairly far out science in being able to make it all work. 

But so it’s partly a matter of just the scale.  Think about a hurricane and its force.  It’s gigantic, and it moves fairly quickly, and you don’t always know exactly where it’s going to go anyway. But there are several different ways that you can think of trying to influence them.

So, for example, a big part of what drives a hurricane is the fact that you’ve got a lot of warm water near the surface of the ocean that is transferring heat into the air, and that’s what’s moving up, and that is a big part of then what’s propelling the entire bigger storm system.

So, in theory, if you could manage to lower the temperature of the surface of the ocean ahead of a hurricane by a few degrees, you could conceivably pull enough heat out of the system that the storm would start to wind itself down.  Those are very big ifs, of course, but there are ways that people look at the question. 

What – theoretically, what might you be able to do about that?  And so there are different ways of doing that.  There are also kinds of things that you could do by trying to influence the atmosphere, too.  You could try to attack it from that angle, different ways of, again, trying to affect the balance of heat and the movements of these big columns of air around that way.

What’s interesting, though, is there have also been a lot of ideas that get floated.  For example, couldn’t we do – what if we just set off a nuclear bomb inside a hurricane?  Wouldn’t that be good?  Couldn’t we just sort of disrupt the storm system that way?  That’s kind of, as you would imagine, one of the big ideas that immediately comes up anytime people think about this and –

Steve Mirsky:       Let’s have radioactive rain falling –

John Rennie:        Sure.

Steve Mirsky:       Hundreds of hundreds of thousands –


John Rennie:        What could possibly be wrong with that idea?  Right.  But even beyond that, as a little tiny hitch in the whole problem, the fact is it’s kind of surprising.  It’s not actually enough power.  You could, in fact, you could set off – you could drop nuclear weapons inside hurricane, a hurricane is just going to go right through it.  The – it’s partly a matter of just sort of the magnitude of the forces but also the scale of time over which some of these are acting.

The explosion of a nuclear weapon happens in literally a flash.  The rate at which the energy is being expended, the sort of cycle of power that’s working through a hurricane is longer.  So, quite frankly, it just would come and go too quickly. 

Steve Mirsky:       And where else did they send you?  Somewhere else in Europe

John Rennie:        Let’s see.  No place else in Europe.  I was a lot of different places.  I was in a number of different places, actually, also just within the U.S. itself. 

There’s a lot of weather related research that actually happens to be going on in Colorado because, of course, you have a number of big research facilities that are out there.  So a number of times, I found myself back out around the Denver, Boulder area talking to a lot of researchers there who have been involved with things. 

I even had reasons to – and this is the tough part of the job – to be going to Vail, Colorado and Telluride around ski time – ski season because, in that case, we were looking at another kind of weather manipulation we all hear about, cloud seeding and the question of whether or not you can actually create precipitation on demand.  And it’s actually – that’s the kind of thing that actually was fascinating to get into, just to find out –

I think we’ve all heard about cloud seeding.  I mean it’s been – people have been trying to do cloud seeding for decades, more than 50, 60 years at this point.  What’s interesting is the extent to which some of this stuff is still kind of science on the edge.  You might think that they would have a better understanding of whether or not it really works, but it’s actually hard to prove sometimes.

The question of how do you prove that seeding a cloud system made it rain more is kind of tricky because you have to be able to prove that it would have rained more or less than it would have if you had left it alone which is a kind of tricky problem.  But, again, it’s when the people are actually working on now, so we might really be right on the brink of finally coming up with some good, hard answer about whether or  not something like that works. 

And it’s not a frivolous question because we think a lot about things like cloud seeding, obviously, for the sake of farmers who they may want to be trying to get more rain for their crops.  There’s a lot of similar kind of cloud seeding that is done around these ski areas because, obviously, they want to try to have a more snowfall to improve skiing conditions. 

Now maybe that does sound kind of frivolous, at first, but remember, influencing snowfall has a very big influence down the line  on the entire water table in part of the west.  And so as we get into the century, we’re looking at more climate change and potentially big disruptions of what have been lost of past weather systems.

We might really want to be prepared to try to figure out whether or not we can or need to do things to try to make sure that we’re getting as much precipitation and, therefore, fresh water falling down into parts of the West or other areas that may be exposed to very serious drought otherwise.

Steve Mirsky:       Right because that snow melts and that feeds –

John Rennie:        Right.

Steve Mirsky:       The rivers and that take the water – the fresh water hundreds of miles away where it winds up in places like Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

John Rennie:        That’s right.

Steve Mirsky:       Which, otherwise, would really be up the creek, if you will.

John Rennie:        Yeah and they are very serious issues about looking into the future about this and possibly a lot of parts of the Southwestern, Western United States, in particular, could really be faced with some very severe drought conditions if the climate starts to the change the way is sometimes feared.  So these could be important technologies for a lot of reasons. 

Steve Mirsky:       I’m a little disappointed that they didn’t dangle you inside of an active volcano.  They didn’t send you out like Jim Cantore into the teeth of a hurricane, standing out on a beach.
John Rennie:        Well, you know, you’ll be thrilled to know that the producers did everything they could to basically try to risk my life.

Steve Mirsky:       Oh, okay.  Well, I stand correct.

John Rennie:        I – yeah.  No.  I mean, as I understand it, they and my wife both took out really big insurance policies ahead of time.  So, over the course of the series, you’ll get a chance to see me in a few somewhat dodgy situations of one sort or another.  I certainly was inside the simulators for a number of different things, hurricane simulators, tornado simulators.  Yeah.  It’s – I take a few shots along the way. 

Steve Mirsky:       But the entire series has been filmed already.

John Rennie:        At  the moment, for the first –


The six episodes that constitute this first season, those have all been shot at this point.  There’s actually some other work that we’re still doing on another special related to tornadoes, and I saw we  in this case.  It’s myself and the producers at Castle Picture who are behind this but, also, the other two people who appear in this show with me who – they are a sort of a sounding board for me as I’m making my travels.

At this point, I check in periodically with other science writers.  One of them is the science comedian, Brian Malow, and then another is Cara Santa Maria who writes the Talk Nerdy to Me column for The Huffington Post.

Steve Mirsky:       Okay and  so six episodes

John Rennie:        Right.

Steve Mirsky:       Beginning on February 28th.

John Rennie:        That’s right.  So Thursday.

Steve Mirsky:       And each one airs on Thursday, but they’re in heavy rotation.  You can find them on the Weather Channel.

John Rennie:        Right.

Steve Mirsky:       At three in the morning every night until the next episode.

John Rennie:        That’s entirely possible.  I would recommend that people, who are interested in watching the show – and you know you are, people of America – by all means, check your listings for when this will be one.  So you’ll have a lot of good opportunities.

And, in fact I think, on our first night, I believe 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time, we’ll actually – I and Care and Brian will all be on Facebook on the Hacking the Planet Facebook page chatting with anybody who want to drop by and talk to us about the series.

Steve Mirsky:       That’s it for this episode.  Get your science news at our website, where you can check out the article on environmental concerns about connecting the Red Sea to the Dead Sea which could revive the old axiom better dead than red.

And follow us on Twitter where you’ll get a tweet whenever a new article hits the website.  Our Twitter name is @sciam.  S-C-I-A-M.

For Scientific American Science Talk, I’m Steve Mirsky.  Thanks for clicking on us. 

[End of Audio]     

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