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The Big Dozen: 12 Events That Will Change Everything

Scientific American magazine Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina and news editor Philip Yam join podcast host Steve Mirsky to talk about the cover story of the June issue of the magazine, "12 Events That Will Change Everything". How things like the first human clone, an asteroid impact or the discovery of extra dimensions will change the world and our view of our place in the universe

Scientific American magazine Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina and news editor Philip Yam join podcast host Steve Mirsky (pictured) to talk about the cover story of the June issue of the magazine, "12 Events That Will Change Everything". And how things like the first human clone, an asteroid impact or the discovery of extra dimensions will change the world and our view of our place in the universe. 

Podcast Transcription

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American posted on June 2nd, 2010. I'm Steve Mirsky. The June issue of Scientific American magazine is out. It features a special section called "12 Events that Will Change Everything". Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina, section editor Philip Yam and I talked about the 12 events as well as other items in the June issue.

Steve:          Mariette, this is a bit of a departure from our usual format. Where did this article come from?

DiChristina:         Actually it came from a conversation that Phil Yam, the senior news editor, and I had once upon a time. Every so often we stop what we are doing day to day, and we take a look ahead and we try to see, what are the things that are coming up that we are to keep an eye on? And one day Phil came up to me and said, "Hey Mariette, in the course of thinking about things that we're doing, I keep track as the news editor of all kinds of things that, if they happened, would make enormous changes in people's lives. Do you think the other editors might be interested in such a thing?" And I said not only would the other editors be interested, I thought readers would really be interested in it—and this was the beginning.

Yam:          And that actually really surprised me because I looked at it purely as a functional practical part of my job. I mean, I thought about if some of these events certainly happened very quickly and suddenly, how do we mobilize our staff? How would we cover it? Who would do what? So we really started out totally on a practical set; Mariette decided, you know, a lot of our readers would probably enjoy reading about these.

DiChristina:         Yeah, I mean I think one of the things we don't realize working on the insides of Scientific American all the time is that the editor is not just working with the scientists but also they're reporting and going out to meetings and doing other things; they're [scouring] the world for the best science that matters for readers, have a lot of expertise themselves and it just seemed to me that this would be the kind of thing that readers might really find fascinating—what the editors of Scientific American [are] thinking based on all their conversations with the experts of the day covering the various areas of science and technology and how it affects our lives; and this was the genesis of this story.

Steve:          It's true, just as you said years ago I edited an article on the Komodo dragon of Bob and Ray fame; but there had been really only two people who had done serious research on Komodo dragons; some might argue with that and say that the number is closer to the fingers on one hand for somebody who hasn't spent a lot of time in machine shops. And I figured by the time I was done, because I had read basically all the literature and had done work on this article that was written by a person who didn't really speak English—so basically rewrote the thing—I figured I was one of world's foremost experts on the Komodo dragon by the time I was done. So that's a just a long way of saying that, yes the editors here really do become experts in specific fields given enough coverage of that field.

DiChristina:         We stand on the shoulders of giants so to speak, because, of course, we are working so closely with the scientists. And speaking of that, just one [extra thing,] as I was [listening to] you Steve, when Dennis Flanagan and Gerard Piel reinvented this magazine in 1948, one of the things they said is that science is not what—and I am paraphrasing—science is not what people around think it is, science is what the scientists are actually doing. And this is a case where we are tracking what the scientists are actually doing and thinking about and turning around and letting readers know about that.

Yam:          And you'll definitely see some big-name scientists in this section.

Steve:          So given that lengthy introduction, let's talk about what these 12 events that will allegedly change everything are; why don't we go through [them] one at a time?

DiChristina:         Well one of them, one of the other things I want to confess to everybody, since we are talking about Scientific American's inner workings, is that of course, we don't just put the magazine to bed and it shows up on the newsstand the next day; it takes a few weeks to get the magazine produced and put out, so one of the ones here that just tickled me was the item on the creation of synthetic life which we had put to bed now several weeks ago, and then last week, boom!!! Out it is.

Yam:          Yes, and one of the things that we've done with the[se] sections is to rate their likelihood by 2050, being that that's a reasonable time frame and most of us will still be around; and we [rated] that one as almost certain, and certainly latest news from Craig, coming out of Craig Venter's lab, that seems almost [certain] as well.

Steve:          And the Web site treatment of this section is a multimedia treatment; it's rather extravagant and beautifully done. I had nothing to do with it, so I am not batting on my own bat, but since we are in the creation of life section, there is an interview with George Church on the Web site related to that section. Let's hear a little bit of that interview right now.

Church:         To some extent analytic biology—that's to say analyzing what's out there as finite but synthetic—is infinite, I mean it's only limited by imagination and a few physical laws. So some would argue that that synthetic life or synthetic biology is a field that's already in full swing. What it shares with computational advances and DNA sequencing advances is on a very high exponential curve, so even though it does exist now, it's changing [radically], maybe by factors of 10 every year, which is even faster than computing.

Steve:          George Church by the way [is] a member of the board of advisors of Scientific American magazine. Phil, what's [one of] the other sections?

Yam:          Well one which I really like was "Machines of Awareness". I mean we've seen all these movies like Terminator, that someday the machines will become conscious and self-aware and wage war on us.

Steve:          [Or] for you old timers out there, Colossus: The Corbin Project.

Yam:          Yeah, you shouldn't admit that [too much Steve].

DiChristina:         [I was going to] say, really old timers.

Yam:          And Terminator was already like 20 years ago, so. But what's interesting, especially about that one, and that one [is a] piece written by Larry Greenemeier, was that, you know, all the popular science fiction treatments of that kind have it [suddenly] happening and conflict between humans but through Larry's reporting it seems more likely that we will see it coming; that machine self-awareness will occur in a certain kind of stepwise fashion where they're getting better at certain tasks; [that they'll be able to do] autonomous activities, and from there that you can actually see them develop, and it shouldn't come up as a big surprise as it if finally happens. It might happen very quickly. I mean machines can evolve pretty quickly if they're given the opportunity, but it's not going to be the [kind of] thing where Skynet becomes self-aware and launches nukes at us.

DiChristina:         I think what's interesting about this for me, or at least one of the things that['s] interesting is, we barely understand how, we can't even be said to understand how consciousness works in humans, but we know it's an emergent property that comes from many complex interactions among cells. And in like fashion, machines who learn how to learn can begin to accrue knowledge and build on it in ways that you could imagine how consciousness for them could begin to be an emerging process as well. And may[be] we'll see it coming. We've been talking about the Death of Moore's Law, the doubling of processing every year and a half or so, for a long time now; it continues to happen on like clockwork, and maybe it'll come out and surprise us. But it shouldn't surprise us actually that thing[s] that emerge and evolve from complex processes come through, whether they're machines that humans are working with or whether they're biological life forms as well.

Steve:          Speaking of California, we've another one of these 12 events is "the Big One," large massive earthquake in California.

Yam:          Yeah, we included the Big One mostly because of the popular conception at least in the American mind about how dangerous and how deadly it is [there]. I think everyone can remember in the first Superman movie, where Lex Luthor, kind of, tries the…

DiChristina:         …also more than 20 years old...

Yam:          …pushing 30 years there, but when he tries to push the western edge of California into the ocean to get beachfront property from the desert, and I think that has settled into the popular consciousness that the Big One will kind of rip California asunder. But given what we know about how big earthquakes are, while it's still possible to have a huge 9.0 magnitude earthquake, it's more likely that it'll be a smaller earthquake, still big, significant over 6.7 magnitude, almost certain to happen by 2038; but one thing [it won't do] is to reshape California's coast; it's not likely to [reshape] California, because it won't be as bad, I think, as people have anticipated.

DiChristina:         Certain not the way that Lex Luthor portrayed it. I think one of the other things that this section promises, and this one demonstrates, this particular item demonstrates, when we say, "not in the way you think", people had this idea Phil is talking about, where California is going to slide into the ocean and there'll be chaos. Certainly there'll be damage, but one of the thing that's happened in the past, well I'm going to call it 15 or 20 years or so, is that our construction techniques for dealing with the vibrations caused by the earthquake have been employed since then, so that damage will be limited, compared with what it might have been, had it happened, say 30 years ago, before new construction requirements were put into place.

Yam:          I mean, we're focused on California earthquakes, but of course, severe earthquakes happen all over the world, and I think places, as Haiti demonstrated, even smaller earthquakes can cause much greater damage, based on the construction there. So I think we've just got to keep in perspective; [we] included the Pacific earthquake because of the strange conception that's  the popular conception that's out there.

Steve:          So, a massive earthquake would not remodel the coastline, but one of the other sections, one of the other events in this section is the rising sea level which would drastically reshape the coastlines.

Yam:          Especially Florida, and we have an interactive map on the Web site as well, which loops through and you actually see how much intrusion the seas will have on the Florida area. Certainly we'll lose a lot of beachfront property along [the East Coast]. And this will, almost will happen by 2100 for sure, that [we'll] have a very high sea level rise. We've rated that down to, we took it down to likely by 2050.

Steve:          And who made the determination of how likely or unlikely any of these particular events would be?

Yam:          It was a discussion between the editors and reporters. We talked about it and we agreed more or less based on [the]  reporting [how does it] seem. I mean, I had my initial impressions about how certain things would emerge or how [certain things] wouldn't happen, and I changed my mind based on some of the reporting. So for instance, the human cloning, I would have guessed would be almost certain by 2050; but in the reporting, it just seems like it's a very tough job to do. I mean, biologists don't have enough practice with human eggs to do it [reliably so] that you can actually generate a healthy living creature.

Steve:          So human cloning is one of the 12 events that [would] change everything, and we do have on our interactive Web feature of the 12 events, an interview with Robert Lanza, related to human cloning. Let's listen to some of that right now.

Lanza:          When it comes to human reproductive cloning, there are a lot of very serious concerns in the scientific and medical community, not only scientific. We know, for instance, that there are many kinds of problems that occur in virtually every type of animal that has been cloned to date. For instance, when we cloned one of the first endangered species, there were two of these what we call bantengs that were born, and one of the them was twice the normal size [and it] had to be euthanized. So would you do this [with a] child? Would you want to have euthanize one out of every two or three children that are born defective? In addition to the defective potentialities here, we're also talking about only a very small fraction of the nuclear transfer units, the cloned embryos, actually will make it to term, so that we'll have a very high level of spontaneous abortion. In addition to the many scientific problems there are ethical issues.

Yam:          And one of the things visitors to our Web site and to the section can do is vote themselves on the topic, whether it's likely, unlikely, almost certain. And one thing I've noticed so far in the past few days we've had it up is that our readers seem to be a little bit more optimistic than we are. For instance, we thought cloning would be very likely, they mostly [rated it as] almost certain; for high-temperature superconductors, we thought it was 50–50 at best, and they were actually slightly skewed [above] that. Practical fusion energy, which we thought was very unlikely given the technical challenges, was [rated] at least  50–50, if not higher.

Steve:          So you've mentioned two of the other items in this section; one is room temperature superconductivity. And Louis Taillefer is featured in an interview on the Web site. Let's listen to some of that right now.

Taillefer:          Superconductivity was discovered 99 years ago in 1911 in Holland, and it was discovered in Mercury. So researchers there [had] just been able to liquify Helium, which is the way to cool down to very low temperatures. So they cooled down to, you know, –270 degrees Celsius and they found this sudden disappearance of resistance, electrical resistance, so superconductivity was discovered. And then for the next I don't know 70 years or 60 years, up to the early 1980s, the maximum temperature below which you could get superconductivity rose slowly but, you know, it seemed to saturate around –250 degrees Celsius; [so] very, very cold. But a discovery, one of those revolutionary discoveries occurred in 1986 when a pair of Swiss researchers, Bednorz and Mueller, discovered a new family of materials which could superconduct at much higher temperatures. So these are called the coup rates of the maximum critical temperatures rose very rapidly from, let's say –240 up to halfway to room temperature.

Steve:          And you also discussed the long-sought fusion power, and we actually just did an interview with Mike Moyer, our staff editor, who's the expert on that a few episodes back, and so here it crops up again. And what's the general consensus on that.

Yam:          As Mike indicates in his piece, and we all agree, it's just very unlikely. If you look at one of the big projects, the ITER project, I-T-E-R, big thermonuclear plasma reactor, that's not even going to reach, by 2050 [it will] only [reach] experimental stage by that point.

DiChristina:         [Phil], we've been talking a lot about things that are likely, at least 50/50 likely. How about something that's really unlikely? The discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, which is one of my favorites.

Yam:          Yeah, we thought it was unlikely, even though I would have preferred, almost, very likely myself. But, yeah, I mean, [studies] [have] been going on since 1960 when Frank Drake first pointed his telescope and tried to listen for something. And it['s] not so much [that] we've been monitoring the skies for 40 years since then, but really it's been very intermittent and there's very little time that researchers have to actually scan the skies, to get telescope timed to scan the skies. And even then there're so many parameters involved to pick up a signal that it's not a surprise, for instance, that we haven't heard anything from out there yet.

Steve:          And again going back to the Web site, we have [an] interview with Frank Drake in the interactive section of the Web site. Let's listen to some of that.

Drake:          Well, [we live in a] galaxy of many hundreds of billions of stars, as we now know, many of which possess planetary systems. We need to search those many stars for signals and also many frequency channels. And our equipment to date has been able to do only a little bit of the required searching of all those possibilities. So we're at the beginning. [And the] fact [that] we haven't discovered anything yet is totally predictable. We're not surprised, we're not discouraged; we're getting very excited because our search capability is becoming very much greater.

Steve:          Speaking [of outer] space, something that's in my view, far more likely than contact with any alien intelligence is an asteroid collision, and that's one of the items in [here].

Yam:          That's right. But at the same time, I would say that it's  [probably] not going to be the dinosaur-killing, extinction-level kind of asteroid, the kind of thing that we need Bruce Willis to fend off for us.

DiChristina:         [Another old] movie.

Steve:          That [one's] only about 10 years old.

Yam:          But such a bad movie. At the end, I was [rooting] for the asteroid, so.

Steve:          Well, it does have [that] great moment where Steve Buscemi says, "I think it's time to embrace the horror."

Yam:          Well, in terms of the [actual] threat, I think more of an airburst is more likely; the kind of thing that happened over Tunguska a century ago, which flattened a forest.

Steve:          But according to Ghostbusters that's a transdimensional rip.

DiChristina:         Another 20-year-old movie.

Yam:          We are big on the 20-year-old movies here, but I don't think they [found the] ectoplasmic residue that was expected at the forest.

Steve:          "Somebody sneezes and you want to keep it," to quote Bill Murray. So we have the asteroid collision. Then there is something that every virologist that I've ever spoke to says is going to happen: Sooner or later, we are going to have a big flu epidemic again.

Yam:          That's right. I mean, everyone kind of expects it to happen, and with what happened with H1N1, I think, it showed that [we] were lucky there; it showed that it turned out to be too, it was easily spread, but not as deadly as some of other possible viruses. But viruses can mix [their] genes [given] different incubators—pigs, humans, birds altogether can really create a huge jumble and can create pretty deadly strains that way.

DiChristina:         One of the things that we covered several months ago [now Steve,] by Nathan Wolfe, was better tracking of viruses and how with the idea that you could understand and contain a pandemic better, and maybe readers could take a look at that in our archives.

Steve:          And another interview that's on the Web site is with Lawrence Gostin on the potential for really deadly flu epidemic. Let's listen to some of that right now.

Gostin:          The risk of a deadly global pandemic over the long term is actually quite high. We, historically, have had two to three major influenza pandemics per century, and so I think it's a high likelihood. We risk even more now than we did before, because although we have a lot of medical technology, there are factors that could amplify the effects of a pandemic. First of all, they can more readily be pathogenic because we've got a very close interchange between animal and human populations, so if you think, for example, that avian influenza is highly pathogenic and that a high percentage of people would die, but it's not very easily transmissible human to human; or you might have the so-called swine flu, H1N1, which is not highly pathogenic, that is it doesn't kill a lot of people, but it's very highly transmissible. [But] if they were to swap genetic information, then one could have the perfect storm of influenzas, so I think that over the long term, we really do need to be prepared for a very serious pandemic.

Steve:          Okay, that's almost everything. The other items that are included in the 12 events will change everything are your nuclear war possibility and extra dimensions, which is something that we may get a glimpse of with [the] Large Hadron Collider?

Yam:          It's a theoretical possibility. For instance, if it does form like a small black hole that's evidence of extra-spatial dimensions, or extra-spatial dimensions would also affect the way [sub-]atomic particles would behave and you would be able to [check] that at the Large Hadron Collider. We wouldn't be able to enter this extra dimension ourselves, but it would be evidence that these do exist.

Steve:          And according to many movies, if you did enter the extra dimension, you would be able to walk through walls, but somehow the floor would support you.

Yam:          One thing I do want to mention [is] though, you know, we featured 12 events, but of course, you can come up with several others; you can say that, for instance, a supervolcano or even just life elsewhere in the solar system could also be considered and that could change everything. And readers, I would be happy to hear reader's comments or read reader's comments on the Web site if they had their own nominations for kinds of events; but we kept it at 12 because we thought these were the 12, kind of, the biggest ones for now.

Steve:          So that's the cover story of the June issue, and we have our usual assortment of other fascinating pieces, something on a whole new kind of mineral that was discovered in the Earth's mantle.

DiChristina:         It's called "postperovskite" and it's located outside of the inner core.

Steve:          It sounded like right outside of Moscow.

DiChristina:         It also outside of perovskite There's perovskite and there's postperovskite that's your heading toward the surface, assuming you could head towards the surface because, we have never been able to dig [very] far down.

Steve:          What's the record, something like 12 kilometers?

DiChristina:         I think you're about right. And the way this researcher, Kei Hirose, who wrote about this—he's at the Tokyo Institute of Technology—found out about this mineral as he tried to replicate the conditions that's far deep below the Earth; and [he] used a diamond anvil cell and learned more about this super dense, heretofore unexpected material around the inner core.

Steve:          And it's really quite amazing because it's, I mean we're not talking about something that's in trace quantities and scientists happened to discover it. This is a fundamental aspect of the way the Earth works.

DiChristina:         Right. It means that heat transfer and heat convection through the Earth's mantle and outside, around it is more active and more dynamic than we had earlier suspected.

Steve:          So, there [is] all kinds of good stuff like that and we're running out of time. I just always like to finish up by talking about something in the 50, 100 and 150 Years Ago section. And 150 years ago, seems like it was a tough summer in London because [the] Thames, well let me just read what we wrote in June of 1860: "Last year during three months of very dry weather, old father Thames, that once-classic stream, became a huge sewer sending forth fetid odors over all the British metropolis. A report recently presented on the subject contains the statement that about $88,000 worth of deodorizing materials,"—that's in 1860 dollars—"$88,000 worth of deodorizing material was thrown into the Thames during the months of June, July and August, chiefly chloride of lime, of which 478 tons were used, and chalk lime, of which 4,280 tons were used. These were chiefly thrown into the sewers [and while] the temperature of the river remained high, from 69 to 74 degrees, the river remained proof against all efforts of deodorization." Which is the 1860 way of saying, I think, that the river still stunk.

DiChristina:         Stank. Editor in chief.

Steve:          Thank you. "Great preparations have been made this year to provide a sufficient supply of the perchloride of iron in order to modify the pungent powers of father Thames's snuffbox."

DiChristina:         I have to say, if we were doing the dozen world-changing events, one of them might have been not the odor…

Steve:          …[you] mean if we were doing it in 1860s?

DiChristina:         …one of them might not have been the odor, but the environmental impact of dumping—what was that?—in hundreds of pounds of materials into the poor river.

Steve:          In hundreds of tons. That's 478 tons of chloride of lime, 4,280 tons of chalk lime.

DiChristina:         I guess we'll have to stay tuned to 1861 to see what happened to the surrounding environment.

Steve:          So, in June of 2011 we'll check back to see what happened in June 1861. Well that's it for this episode. Get your science news at www.ScientificAmerican.com, where you can find the interactive version of the 12-event section along with the full interviews with the various researchers you just heard. And follow us on Twitter, where you'll get a tweet every time a new article hits the Web site. Our Twitter name is @SciAm. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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