Science Talk

Origins of Everything: The September Scientific American Magazine

Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina discusses the September special single-topic issue of Scientific American magazine, which covers origins, from the universe to the horse stirrup. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include

Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina discusses the September special single-topic issue of Scientific American magazine, which covers origins, from the universe to the horse stirrup. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include

Podcast Transcription

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American posted on August 31st, 2009. I'm Steve Mirsky. And in this episode, we''ll talk about the September issue of Scientific American magazine with Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina, and a little bit about one of the big questions of our time: Where is the money going to come from to support new media? Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. I spoke to Mariette in her office.

Steve: Mariette, the September—the big September issue, we always have a single topic issue. And our single topic this year is…

Mariette: Origins.

Steve: Like of the species?

Mariette: Like, you know, "origins of the species," but like origins of the species [and] everything else actually, which is one of the really fun things about this issue.

Steve: We've actually already done our Darwin issue for this special year of Darwin, so this is a lot of other origins. Let's real quick talk about some of the types of origins we are talking about, then we'll talk about how this issue originated.

Mariette: That sounds great. So some of the origins we have about, [well] we have more than 50 different origins in this issue and we go from the very large in cosmic from the origins of the universe and the origins of life itself to the origins of the human mind and computing and also to things that you might wonder about just in your everyday life, like where [did the stirrup] in horseback riding come from, where did the clock come from.

Steve: And we have two really different sides to the issue. There are few of our traditional feature pieces which run six or seven or eight pages and then we have a whole bunch of [these] little half page origin items.

Mariette: The terrific thing about single topic issues in general is they let you dive really deep. And Scientific American is so well known for diving deep in its individual feature articles, you mentioned there, six or eight pages, in long form writing and can really get into depth, and we have several articles that do that in this issue as well. But we thought it would be really fun to cover a gamut of other sorts of origins stories that you would necessarily have room to do the eight to ten page treatment on all of them, so we chose to do a variety of them instead over more than 20-pages. So the depth is in the number of pages there.

Steve: I am turning to page 74 actually, because there were a couple of things, I was just leafing through all of these shorter origins pieces, and I learned a couple of really interesting things such as, we have this half a page on the origins of insurance and the insurance industry's getting, they are getting batted around a bit during this whole healthcare reform discussion, but what's really interesting is that the advent for or the necessity for insurance wound up being a crucial driver to the advent of mathematics and probability.

Mariette: One of the [amazing] things about science isn't it, how one thing leads to another, the famous "shoulder of giants" response.

Steve: It was Newton who said, "If I can see farther, it's because I've stood on the shoulders of giants" and it was, I believe, Gerald Holton, the historian of science, who once commented at a dinner, "We are now privileged to sit side by side with the giants upon whose shoulders we stand".

Mariette: I like that one. Well, one of the fun things about [an] item such as that insurance one, or others, is in each case, we've zeroed [in] on some unique moment of insight for that origin story that we're telling and tried to connect it with a larger picture of science. And to do this in a half page as you mentioned is the trick, but it makes them all really very fun and exciting, kind of light, too. One of the other things I like in the issue too is it answers questions. For me one of my favorites, you know, I don't remember what page it was offhand, but they answer the perennial question about which was first, the chicken or the egg?

Steve: I think that's the next page.

Mariette: Find that page, Steve…

Steve: It is page 77.

Mariette: Okay on page 77, the chicken and the egg. So folks, the biological answer there is clear about, it's the egg, although the question itself is the problem there, where you know, the insight is eggs don't in one full fluff, I want to say, swell foop because my former geometry teacher used to say that.

Steve: Swell foop!

Mariette: Swell foop! He used to back it up all the time, so I still have this verbal hitch. But of course you can't—and this is also so appropriate in the Darwin year—Create a species with one egg, one jump, but in each succeeding generation, where mutations build up, eventually speciation occurs, so the egg first, the species itself though, took a little while longer than one egg.

Steve: And then in a larger biological sense, you had eggs way, way before you had anything resembling birds.

Mariette: True.

Steve: Right, so, clearly as a structural unit, the egg came first.

Mariette: As a structural unit.

Steve: But we've got these feature pieces as well, "The Origins of the Universe", "The Origins of Life on Earth", "Origins of Computing". I'm going to in a future episode have an interview, [I] have it plan[ned], with the actual author of the "Origins of the Universe" article, so why don't we talk just a little bit, just for a minute or two, about the "Origins of Life" article because fat is just [such] a dirty word in our current, you know, obesity-riddled society, but without fat there would have been no life on Earth.

Mariette: I love it that you're pointing that out, see, because I was just trying to think of how could I get rid of some of my own extra fat and lipid content. But let's back up to the origin of life on Earth, because, of course, it's really hard to pinpoint an exact moment, and it's very complicated how life works in general. There are these, you know, your DNA, and it needs to be broken down; and there's this essential mystery about how could one get started with DNA where you need enzymes to break the DNA up so that you can then replicate. It looks [like] a really classic paradoxical puzzle, where there's no beginning and no end. Scientists have through their research figured out that RNA, a close relative of DNA could have been a first step towards life but RNA needs to go or anything needs to go into something protected so that it can do its replicating thing; and here is where Steve's discussion of fat comes in. Fat, as it turns out, or lipids, in early primitive Earth could self-form enclosures that could keep that genetic material or keep that early primeval RNA version contained so that larger molecules couldn't come in and out willy-nilly and so that other strands of RNA could eventually connect and replicate inside that cellular, well, protocellular form.

Steve: Right. Lipids just naturally form spheres.

Mariette: Right. Lipids naturally form spheres and also they, kind of, naturally come together. So there is a mechanism for lipids to, for the lipid sphere to start to grow. If there are other lipids nearby, they can aggregate against the existing sphere forming filaments and then you need some really plausible, but you do need some outside mechanism to get them started to break apart, so that they could then become separate cells. That could happen with temperature changes; for instance, you could imagine a pond where one area is heated by the sun more than the other and that extra energy from the sun's heat could help to serve, break the material apart or some slight shaking from rock movement or other things. So some slight energy you could see how it could eventually get into a self-replicating system.

Steve: And the amazing thing is these researchers saw these filaments grow spontaneously from the spheres, and they had no reason to expect that, but it's also just a natural kind of structural formation that happens with these particular chemical compounds when they're in [a] certain shape.

Mariette: Right, what's really interesting about that article, one of the things I love about it actually; because you could look at life today and you could say, how could it possibly get started, it's just so complicated, what are the ways that could even happen and you can look at it and say, you could throw your hands up and say "Oh, it's just too complicated; there's no way this could happen'. Well, what these researchers talk about and one of them is the one that Steve just mentioned—you create the conditions that would exist in the primeval Earth and you see what the mechanism could be, you follow the chemistry. And really this is a wonderful chemistry story in many ways as it describes how if you create conditions that you know could have existed, that were plausible to exist, then you watch what comes out of it; and then you ask the next question, "Well then how could, for instance, you know, how could these lipid molecules we were just talking about break apart to form new cells?" So you ask, "Well what are the mechanisms there?" and then you look at them and it's like one big long mystery story of the beginning of life and it has many interesting threads that these scientist detectives are rolling along to try to uncover the clues.

Steve: And I think part of the effort there is not necessarily to pin down exactly what did happen because that may be unknowable, but to just find out a plausible scenario.

Mariette: Right and really that's how a lot of science theory works anyway. You come up with plausible scenarios, and then you test them. So in this case, what this article does, it starts with the material, let's call it the coding material, whether it's DNA, RNA, anything that can record life information and pass it on eventually, and the other materials such as the lipids that were needed to contain it, and create a, kind of, working framework for cellular mechanisms to begin to arise; and then trace how those could happen. And the story that comes up tells you the experimental evidence for each piece of those steps, [and] it is a multistep process for sure but each one of them has a plausible arc of theory and then experimental weight behind it.

Steve: And one of the authors of that "Origins of Life" piece is Jack Szostak who was a guest on the podcast, I can't remember if it was a year ago or two years ago, but at the end of this interview I will be back to let you know exactly what date he was on, so that if you are interested, you can access that podcast from our archives and listen to the interview with him. Now one of our perennial or monthly, it's both, favorites is, the "50, 100 and 150 Years Ago".

Mariette: Always a favorite.

Steve: Always a favorite.

Mariette: Everybody loves this.

Steve: Now there are a couple of good things in here, but I want to share something from 1859's August issue or September issue of Scientific American. And this is a quote from that issue: "The common earthworm, though apt to be despised and trodden on, is really a useful creature. According to Mr. Charles Darwin, they give a kind of under tillage to the land, performing the same below ground that the spade does above for the garden, and the plow for arable soil. Fields which have been overspread with lime, burnt marl, or cinder, become, in time, covered by finely-divided soil. This result, usually attributed by farmers to the 'working down' of these materials, is really due to the action of earthworms. Mr. Darwin says, 'A field manured with marl has been covered, in the course of 80 years, with a bed of earth averaging 13 inches in thickness.'" The reason I really like this is back in early July, I went to Darwin's house and I walked around the fields behind his house, and I stepped on the worm stone. He and his son, I believe it was, put this big round stone, they kind of screwed it into the earth, so that they could track how the action of the earthworms raised up the soil around the stone because the movement is imperceptible to our eyes, but if you put that reference stone in there, you can see how everything else is moving in relationship to it, and that's how they came up with that number and so, you know, I got to stand on the worm stone just you know, six weeks ago.

Mariette: That piece mentions that worms are sort of despised. I think one of the ways that we have changed in a hundred and how many years since then is we have a better appreciation today for these amazing creatures [and] a self-interested one, not just in terms of natural services; but earthworms are a terrific way, as any composter can tell you, and here it is August and lot of us are composting to help digest peels and tops and things like that from out of your vegetable garden and put [it back out], add some more earth to the top of the soil.

Steve: And make some tomatoes.

Mariette: Make some tomatoes.

Steve: Here's a really, this is also a great item again from September 1859's Scientific American. "Professor Hamilton says: 'Gentlemen have adopted as a national costume a thin, tight-fitting black suit of broadcloth. To foreigners, we seem always in mourning: we travel in black, we write in black, we work in black. Even the day-laborer chooses always the same unvarying, monotonous black broadcloth. It is too thin to be warm in the winter, and too black to be cool in the summer.'" [He] must have walked down a street in Manhattan yesterday.

Mariette: I was thinking also that must have been the origin of the phrase "Black is the new black".

Steve: Manhattan has never changed, apparently.

Mariette: Black all the time.

Steve: So we have a new columnist who has joined the family here.

Mariette: We do. We have Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist, and, as it happens, director of the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University, where they are; we mentioned before, Steve and I were, when we were talking about origins as the issue, one of the reasons why origins is so intriguing is not just because, we can all say, well where did life come from. But these very questions—where did life come from, where did the universe come from, where did people come from, how did language begin—these are some of the most profound driving questions in science today. In Dr. Lawrence Krauss' initiative, he is seeking to address this in a cross-disciplinary way. In his essays for Scientific American he is also looking in a sense at interfaces of things. The column is called "Critical Mass" and he will be looking at topics that arise at the interface between science and society. And most appropriately, in his inaugural column, in the Origins special issue, he is looking at C. P. Snow, the discusser of the unfortunate "Two Cultures," on the one hand the very literary people, on the other hand the science-educated people, and we are still 50 years later after C. P. Snow's column trying to figure out a bridge between the two, and Dr. Krauss has some interesting things to say about that in this issue.

Steve: And you can also access in our archives an interview or a press conference that I recorded where Lawrence Krauss is one of the astrophysicist who is speaking. This was definitely this year at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting. So it is in our archives and it should be late February or early March and you can find that at and I am back on the back page for anybody who is looking for me and you can read all about my take on rifling, riffling, raffling, on reading books, on the Kindle and the various pitfalls and advantages thereof. There's another thing I wanted to bring up, and it's mixed news but it's important, and that is some of our content is going back behind a pay wall on the Web—just want to alert people who have been used to accessing all the content for free over the last year that we have taken this step. So what's going to be available free, what's going to be available at a premium and why did we do this?

Mariette: Well, I should tell you that first of all puts up 15 or so new original items every day. Some of them are breaking news, some of them are features, some of them are lovely podcasts by our own Steve Mirsky and others. And some of them are slide shows and other sort of multimedia videos, other sort of multimedia presentations that I am delighted we can offer our viewing audience. As many publications have explored different methods of publishing or different models of publishing so have we. For many years the magazine was not available on the Web site and then only pieces of it were available on the Web site and again we are going to the model where just a few—it's the feature articles, the long form feature articles—are behind the pay wall. What happens if you visit one of those long from articles, you'll still get a good several hundred words of an overview of what's in the article, the first couple of paragraphs and you have a great sense of what else is available should you wish to dive in and get the full presentation; of course it's also available in print form as well. So we have the original material, we have the departments that run in the magazine, such as Dr. Lawrence Krauss' new column that we talked about and other columns, Steve's column, still remain available on the Web site for free.

Steve: And it's important I think we are still feeling out what this whole new journalism is going to look like and behave like through the various modern modes of transmitting the information but I have to tell everybody out there that as much as I like things to be free when I am the consumer, I also recognize that, this for the professional journalists, this isn't a hobby and if you want quality journalism, I think we are going to have to get used to paying for it. And it's still going to be relatively inexpensive compared to what used to be like, when everything was disseminated on, you know, with dead tree technology. But one of the best ways I heard somebody explain it was, you know, if you want to be able to send reporters to Iraq to find out what's going on there, some money has to flow in to that journalistic enterprise, so that you are not just getting restaurant reviews from people about what's in their neighborhood. I mean that's great too and if it's free, that's wonderful. But there has to be at some point a commitment to professionals examining truly important situations. Now I am not saying that's what I am doing, but every once in a while we touch on something resembling that, and, you know, if you want to keep that kind of thing around, you know, [a] couple of nickels out of the pocket has to actually go into making that product viable.

Mariette: You remind me of a famous quote which people usually only quote the first half of.

Steve: The Chris Anderson quote.

Mariette: No, not Chris Anderson, this is by an M.I.T. researcher and it was several years ago. The quote is "Information wants to be free."

Steve: And that's where Chris Anderson stops when he quotes it, that's right.

Mariette: So, not Chris Anderson.

Steve: Right.

Mariette: The other half of that quote is "Information also wants to be expensive," and it goes on to explain that because if you want quality information, that takes time to produce and it is thus very precious; and I think it's with that half of the quote in mind that Scientific American and other publications need to make these step-by-step choices to find out what ultimately will be best for you, our readers, because if the magazine does not have a working model of providing good quality material, then no one is served.

Steve: Yeah, when I said the Chris Anderson quote, that's the quote I was referring to, but he only quotes the first half.

Mariette: And he is wrong.

Steve: And he is wrong.

Mariette: Because he sells his book.

Steve: He also gives it away.

Mariette: Online, yeah.

Steve: But you know what's really interesting the unabridged recording of the book is free. The book Free and it is free; the abridged recording of the book, they charge for because apparently the less of it you get, the more valuable it is.

Mariette: The more its worth. It was Pascal this quote. I am so sorry this is not a direct quote, "But I am so sorry this letter is so long, I did not have the time to make it short."

Steve: Exactly.

Mariette: Of course it takes effort to make something readable and enjoyable rather than blather.

Steve: But by the same logic if you actually don't read Chris Anderson's book at all it should cost you an infinite amount of money.

Mariette: It's the new math, folks.

Steve: Some bookkeeping, the Jack Szostak podcast was posted on May 7th, 2008, and the Lawrence Krauss podcasts came out on February 18th and 19th of 2009. They are all archived at; and the information wants to be free/expensive quote is from Stuart Brand's book, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T., although older and other versions of the quote do exist.

Now it's time to play TOTALLY……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, but only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Hearing insults when lying down is less insulting than hearing them while sitting up.

Story number 2: The mission commander of the space shuttle flying right now started out doing lube jobs at an International Harvester dealership.

Story number 3: Nitrous oxide, dentists' laughing gas, has been found to actually promote tooth decay.

And story number 4: As part of the year long recreation of Darwin's voyage on the Beagle, an olfactory scientist that is a smell researcher will explore how people respond to smell at each of the ships ports of call.

Time is up.

Story number 1 is true. If you are lying down when insulted, you don't seem to take it as personally as if you are sitting up; that's according to research published in the journal Psychological Science. Too bad we can't drive lying down.

Story number 2 is true. Future marine pilot Rick Sturckow described himself as a lube boy greasing trucks, changing oils etc. when one day he saw a truck pass that said Cal Poly on it; he found out that it was built by Cal Poly engineering students and decided to go there. For more stories about some of the other astronauts currently in space, check out the August 31st episode of the daily SciAm podcast.

And story number 4 is true. A researcher from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia will take part in the recreation of Darwin's voyage and ask locals to smell 12 different things including onions, chocolate and turpentine at some 25 ports of call. The researchers hope that the findings will provide insight into how our response to odor is influenced by culture and gender. One thing was known even back in Darwin's day, if you cut off a fish's nose, it still smells.

All of which means that story number 3 about nitrous oxide promoting tooth decay is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS, but what is true is that nitrous oxide seems to be promoting global warming and decay of the ozone layer. Most of it comes from manure and chemical fertilizer as well as industrial processes. For more check out the August 27th episode of our weekly environment podcast, 60-Second Earth at

Well that's it for this episode of Science Talk. Check out for the latest science news including lots of stuff on the space shuttle mission to the international space station. They are up there right now zipping around over your head, unlike this podcast. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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