Science Talk

The Naked Singularity Meets Social Media

Scientific American Editor in Chief John Rennie talks about the content of the February issue, including naked singularities and the greenhouse hamburger. N.Y.U. journalism professor Jay Rosen discusses social media. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include;

Podcast Transcription

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, for the week of February 4th, 2009. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, we'll hear from journalist and media expert Jay Rosen about social media, and we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. But first up we'll talk with Scientific American magazine's editor in chief, John Rennie, about some of the content in the February issue. Please forgive some intermittent interference in the first three minutes. We talked about the new issue in the library at Scientific American.

Steve: On the cover: "Naked Singularities".

Rennie: Bare-naked singularities, that's right.

Steve: You've got your regular singularities.

Rennie: Yes.

Steve: And your naked singularities.

Rennie: Yes.

Steve: Compare and contrast.

Rennie: Well I would be happy to do that Steve. You see your regular singularity is something you would find deep inside a black hole. What happens with a black hole is you have a star that has consumed all of it's fuel and now it's nothing but a big ball of gravity collapsing in on top of itself; and it collapses in, and it collapses in, and it collapses in and all the matter of the star is now collapsed down to a single infinitesimal point at which normal physics pretty much falls apart, because mathematics describes normal physics; it does not like infinity. It does not like denominators of zero; it does not like anything of this sort. So all the usual descriptions that we would have for what you have when you pack any amount of matter down into an infinitely small space, it surely will breakdown; you don't even have to describe in terms of space and time and relativity anymore. Now the great saving grace that would have made all the physicists throw themselves out the window was the discovery that, "Wait, if that's happening ..." there was a thought that, in fact, at a certain point the density would seem as though it should grow so great that the escape velocity from this thing that you're getting, this tiny little compacted object should exceed the speed of light; and this, it was a great saving solution because it meant that you had a kind of don't-ask- don't-tell situation, anything that got in too close, fell in, it could never come back out. And so the universe as a whole was protected by the presence of this event horizon which you would think of as the edge of a black hole. So the universe would never experience a bare naked singularity then and there at the bottom, because who knows what could happen? If you've got a naked singularity, well the laws of physics don't apply, anything could happen at any given moment, you know, player pianos could come shooting out of that thing, giant gravity waves of inconceivable energy. You don't even know how to describe it because you basically would need what's called a quantum theory of gravity and that's something that is still under development. So the lucky thing was, instead of having, like, naked singularities, you're supposed to have black holes and that cosmic censorship hypothesis applied that you will protect it from having to see a naked singularity. What this article describes though is that that view that the normal collapse of a star down into a black hole would inevitably happen turns out to be a little bit naïve. Because if you actually try to model what happens when a star would be falling in on itself, it doesn't always actually lead to the kind of condition that would create a black hole in a number of situations, and it's possible that the models are missing something but it seems as though you would go direct to singularity without ever generating the kind of infinitely high densities that would give rise to a black hole around it. So that's very disturbing. It means that our universe may actually have naked singularities floating around.

Steve: Are they searching the skies for the player pianos?

Rennie: They would be hard to spot because player pianos are smaller than them.

Steve: Relatively smaller.

Rennie: But one thing that you might recognize will be some sorts of extreme high energy events that could be, again, like imagine the odd gigantic things that come flying out of your singularity or some sort of huge gravity wave or something might erupt from it—that is something that we could actually look for and, in fact, now the astrophysicists are looking for exactly that kind of signature maybe some place in the sky.

Steve: So basically we are talking about a kind of something that would ordinarily be found inside a black hole, but there is no black hole; there is just this physical entity that's amazingly weird and powerful.

Rennie: Right, exactly. The standard view is that you've got a black hole and it is a kind of a big bottomless pit of gravity and at the heart of it lives this impossible weird thing—a singularity. And with a naked singularity you just don't have that big pit full of gravity. You've just got this impossible thing which could, sort of, corrupt the rest of the universe all around us. So it's troubling if these things exist.

Steve: I tell you I would bet on finding one of these things before I found Sasquatch.

Rennie: That's an interesting possibility. That's very interesting, and I have to think about that, but you might be [on to] something there.

Steve: Let's move on to one of the other articles. We go from these amazing, weird things out in the universe, possibly somewhere, to this amazing weird thing that all of us walk around with: our human brains.

Rennie: Oh, I am so glad you said it was our brains.

Steve: Yes, it is our brains. Min[e] is smooth as a billiard ball, but I understand some other peoples have all these amazing convolutions and ridges and gorges; so what are we so interested in that for?

Rennie: Well Steve, yes, the surface of the brain, the cortex of the brain is way too big to just fit inside our skulls unless you folded it up. So there you have this kind of neurological origami that takes place in which our brains are all folded up and just in the way that you described. Neuroscientists have been wondering for a long time about exactly how that takes place and what directs that sort of folding. And another of the article[s] here in the February issue describes what seems to be part of that process, which is that we now know that parts of the brain that are functionally connected to one another where you have neurons attached to one another. It seems it's not just like they are sending little electrical impulses back and forth. There's actually a kind of physical tension between those spaces. Indeed it seems as though the more activity there is, the more there is some kind of functional connection between them. There is a little bit more of this sort of physical tension, a sort of pulling force. So it seems as though the brain starts to organize its own shape as the kind of reflection of the underlying functionality that's there. This could be really interesting and important potentially as a kind of diagnostic for some sorts of neurological problems that people can be looking at, or at least it might offer us some way of understand[ing] a little more what's going on in those neurological problems. Because if, for example, if say, people who suffer from autism, if there are certain parts of their brain that are not communicating as they would be in most members of the population, it may be that we will eventually start to see some kinds of slightly different shape of their brain that may be very helpful in their diagnostics. Now these would probably be very, very subtle, very, very small effect[s], but they might be within the range of things that could be detectable using the kinds of scanners and measurement tools that we have today.

Steve: So we really don't know yet whether the particular variations that you would see in a pathological condition would be just within the variable limits that you would see in just [a] normal brain, that's not clear yet. We're going to look for ...

Rennie: Yes, that's right. This is also, you know, the, sort of, the early stages of a research program. People don't know very much about that yet, and so you know you would really want to be very, my choice of autism there, it's an example.

Steve: Right.

Rennie: Because it could be autism, it could be schizophrenia, it could be any number of different sorts of conditions. We don't know whether any of that's strongly relevant, yet the case is still looking to be demonstrated, but this is the sort of the thing the authors describe.

Steve: And there are devastating conditions where the cortex has not folded, convoluted properly.

Rennie: Right.

Steve: Severe mental retardation.

Rennie: That's right. And in some of those, I mean, and then you can start to get into a question of well chicken and the egg on that. Is it the level of retardation and developmental defect that you are looking at? Is that because the brain did not start to fold of well, and as a result some parts that should have been in closer association and in more functional contact that they never really got a chance to, or is it the case that because in very early stages of development that they didn't start to connect up for whatever reasons and as a result, that tension pulling things together wasn't really there.

Steve: Right, right.

Rennie: Still, let, you know, all very much the sort of thing that we have to look into.

Steve: We have an article on nanomedicine, which sounds really nifty, nanomedicine against cancer. One of the authors there is Leroy Hood, who is a big star in biology, biomedical research.

Rennie: That's right, and this is a piece that is interesting. When you hear the words nanomedicine of course immediately kind of the standard Fantastic Voyage image of the little submarine inside you shooting around doing things to fix you from the inside comes to mind; and you know, maybe there is some view of medicine of the future that was only developed but the text is there. What Leroy Hood and his coauthors are writing about here is a little bit different. That is that we've, of course, because of the human genome project and [a] lot of the other sorts of work that has been arising since then, we are getting a better and better fine-tuned view of how the human body works at a real molecular level, and what they are talking about is, in a sense, it's not just trying to break the body down into its different individual elements but understanding how all of those elements relate to one another, to understanding the networks and systems that are there and how they relate to one another. And the result of that could be that, in the future, because we would have such a fine grasp of the kinds of biochemical and genetic processes that are going on inside the body, that we might someday be able to, for example, just take a simple blood test and by looking at the contents of the serum of the blood be able to get an extraordinary kind of assay on the state of your health in many, many ways; including for example, understanding of whether you have cancer, what the qualities or characteristics of that particular malignancy might be and what sorts of drugs might work best against it. So it's a very different view of nanomedicine than people might first imagine, and the choice of cancer is really, just sort of one particular example, that could apply to anything having to do with your health in any respect. But it's an interesting view of where the future of medicine and healthcare may be going.

Steve: The nano is what we're looking at, not what we are sending in to try to ...

Rennie: Right, that's exactly because you're looking at things down at that level of the atoms and molecules and trying to understand the functionality of the body at that level.

Steve: I don't need Donald Pleasance shrunk down in my head anytime soon, by the way.

Rennie: (laughs)

Steve: I could only remember Donald Pleasance or Raquel Welch or Stephen Boyd and somebody else to shrink down.

Rennie: Extraordinary. Extraordinary that you remember all of those things. Most of us stop at Raquel Welch.

Steve: She doesn't move her arms when she walks, you know.

Rennie: I was not aware of that, but ...

Steve: It's just a Seinfeld [reference]. The bad news, we have a very, very depressing article in this issue.

Rennie: Well, maybe if you're Wimpy from Popeye as you are sure. You're referring to the greenhouse hamburger article.

Steve: That's the one I'm talking about.

Rennie: Right.

Steve: I mean, for those of us who really enjoy a good burger.

Rennie: Yes.

Steve: This article, you are trying to make me feel guilty about eating that hamburger.

Rennie: Well, Steve, I don't want to make you feel guilty about eating that hamburger, but I think that there's probably a growing sense among a lot of environmentalists that we should all be a lot more aware of how diet directly or indirectly affects the state of a problem like global warming. We're all used to thinking about, you know, global warming in terms of things like burning coal for electricity or even choices about, you know, mileage in cars and that sort of thing, but amazingly enough, it looks like the production and consumption of meat actually contributes may be as much as 22 percent of all of our greenhouse gases that we are generating into the atmosphere.

Steve: Is this Americans or worldwide?

Rennie: Oh! Worldwide.

Steve: Okay.

Rennie: But in a sense the Americans are a very strong driver of that, because if you look at diet, the single biggest factor in there, and sort of "sorry cows, sorry cattle ranchers of America" but beef tends to be a huge contributor to that because cows are actually a major, major source of this. So what this article is looking to is its certainly trying to apply some sorts of numbers to this.

Steve: We are not just talking about flatulence and methane.

Rennie: No, no, we're just talking about people.

Steve: Right.

Rennie: There is so much that is also involved in the energy that is involved in raising cattle and in killing [them]. Everything, that's right. You are dealing with a whole systems level approach to the problem of what it means to be looking at cattle as a source of food; with cows really represent and beef represents a big part of that. So you know, I think it, as you say, for those of us who do love hamburgers and steaks and other beefy things, you know, that can be very depressing to think that maybe that's a big contributor to global warming; and so, yes, maybe there is a sort of sense that I want you to feel a little bit guilty about some of that. But I think, you know, one of the other things that can come out of reading the article—and my sense of what a lot of the environmentalists who are now starting to beat the drum about this fact that we have to raise the awareness of these dietary issues—is that it's not as though that they are saying everybody has to become a vegetarian. Some people might like everyone to become a vegetarian, but you, know, in that sense everybody doesn't have to become a vegetarian anymore than everybody has to stop driving cars.

Steve: Right.

Rennie: The key is if we can start to reduce some of that kind of consumption, we make [a] huge effect on the [this] set of problem[s]. If we all ate less beef, then it will be a major improvement on what we are doing in affecting the climate that way. Moreover, as they point out, more than beef is really the problem, more than meat, all types of meat are in a sense, they are bigger source of this problem than vegetables would be, but there is a gigantic difference between the level of problem associated with beef and, say, that of pork and that of chicken; and so you know, to the extent that it's much easier to probably convince 300 people to replace beef in their diet with chicken than it would be to convince even just 100 people to become vegetarians after they had been dedicated beef eaters, that shift from beef to chicken for that large number of people would actually have a larger beneficial effect than the less successful conversion of people to pure vegetarianism.

Steve: Right, and just personally I have discovered that if you put enough ketchup and mustard and radish and onions and tomatoes and lettuce on a Boca Burger with a really good bun, it's almost half as good as [a] regular burger.

Rennie: You are a living endorsement of soy proteins.

Steve: Much of the content of the February issue of Scientific American is available free at our Web site. Just go to This past week Rockefeller University in New York City hosted a symposium on social media, your Facebook's, MySpace's, Twitter's and Tweet's. One of the speakers was N.Y.U. journalism professor Jay Rosen. He spoke for about nine minutes.

Rosen: I have four things I want to share with you. I want to share a kind of master image with you for understanding the Web. I want to distribute among you my magic fact; I want to tell you about a current obsession of mine that will interest you as science journalists and then finally if we have time, I'll try to tell you what I'm doing on Twitter, which is one of my new projects. So my images, how many of you remember that scene in Network, the movie Network, where Howard Beale urges people who are as mad as he is to get up from their television sets and go to the window and open the windows and shout out "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."? You know that scene? Or how many of you have ever gone to see the hot new band in town who are finally in concert and you kind of wonder, who's going to show up? Because you have never seen this act, and you've never seen the people who listen to this band in one place. Has that ever happened to you? Or in New York, if you find a high ground, high spot in New York at night, you could look down into people's windows? Did you ever do that? Mostly what you see if you get up on a big tall building in Brooklyn [and] you look down is people watching television in their separate apartments. So I start with these images because I found that in understanding the Web, one of the most helpful things you can do for yourself, for your mind as it were, is to try and picture, what the mass audience will look like in the days of mass medium when mass media was everything and mass media was king. What I mean, is you have to actually try and picture the arrangement of people in space to really understand what's different about our world. So we try to picture the mass audience who is watching television at night or the mass audience that receives the newspaper on the doorstep every day or the circulation base of Time magazine that gets the magazine in the mail every week or that's listening to All Things Considered. When we picture them, they are all sharing the same thing, but they are widely scattered in space; and [the] most important thing, they are connected up to big media and to news, to politics, the institutions of power, through the news but they are not connected across to each other. That's the normal state of affairs in mass media. And if you can picture those people, then you can see it is so different about the Web because the Web does connect you up, it's good at connecting you. I can go right to and I'm connected to the White House. It's good for connecting to CNN, to NBC, to The New York Times, which I visit every day, but it's also just as effective at connecting across and all those people sitting on the end of their television sets, who could only receive, who could not talk back, who could not talk across the network, who could not make media, who were not themselves producers, those are the people that Howard Beale said to, "Get up from your [couch]" because they were powerless. Well there has been a shift in power because all the media tools that used to be so heavily capitalized and in possession of media companies have now been distributed to the public at large. You remember your Marx? Yes you do; a lot of you had to read Marx in college, so I know you remember it. What does he say about revolution? is. Revolution is when the means of production change hands. Well, in publishing that's what happened; the means of production changed hand[s]. Lots of people had it when before only a few people had them. So if you can picture the audience the way it was, you can picture what is different about the Web. That's my image. My magic fact, this is the thing that's changing the world, it's changing politics, it's changing commerce, it's going to change the economy and it's certainly changing media and journalism, and it's the falling cause for people with the same interest to meet each other, share information, collaborate and publish what they know. Falling cause for like-minded people to locate each other, exchange information, pool what they know, manipulate that and publish back to the Web, to the world, it's changing world and that's what Obama tapped into in his organization; that's what makes possible things like open-source software; open-source intelligence; that's what crowd-sourcing is about, that's what social media is about. It's the falling cause for people who had the same interest, like the same things; who have [the] same fascinations, want to dig deeper; to find each other, even though they are widely scattered. So because those costs are being driven down so rapidly, so dramatically by the Web, all kinds of things that were unthinkable before are suddenly very thinkable: That's my magic fact. My current obsession, when I learned about open-source software which is, lets have thousands of programmers contribute to this piece of software and just use the best one. Let's have thousands of people catching bugs for Mozilla because if they do it, it will be just way better than we have a bug-catching team at headquarters; that's open-source software. When I learned about it, I first learned about it and it is like [a] panicked memo that got leaked from Microsoft because some poor kid had to tell his bosses about the potential of open-source software and he knew that they won't going to like it. But when I learned about it, I said with the fine cost of like-minded people who share information and find each other, we can now involve hundreds and potentially thousands of people in our investigations, in the collection of batches, in reporting, because it is doable. If we can create Wikipedia with thousands of editors; if we can create a piece of software with thousands of geeks; if we can debug a popular browser with thousands of testers; if we can outsource T-shirt design like with so [with] thousands of would-be designers, we can certainly recruit hundreds and thousands of people to help us with our reporting. How to do that? How does it work in practice? What are the problems if you try to do it? How can you make it reliable? How can you filter it properly? How can you organize it? How can you do it without your head imploding? All those huge and practical problems are what I am trying to solve through my project which I can tell you more [about] if you want, so that's my obsession. How to do that? Because I believe in the future, we'll know how to do it and it will be like standard practice. And, for example, beat reporters who have networks of hundreds of thousands of people helping them do their beat and we will have that and the future we don't know, and so we have to keep pushing. What I am doing at Twitter? Twitter is my giant tipster network, it's where I collect and meet friends of my work. It's a group of people interested in the same things I am interested [in] and who edit the Web for me and therefore plan out what I should be paying attention to. They are an early warning system for changes in my environment. It's the best live news system going, because you can find out before it gets to CNN; if it happens like a big news event, when the breaking news is about an earthquake or something. And by trying to communicate to people on Twitter, I am getting a weed [lead] on my ideas and getting a kind of reaction that helps me figure out what I should blog about at my blog, first thing. And so as a blogger, I have discovered that the ideal for me now is really to have a blog and a Twitter feed. [The] blog is like my place for finished pieces and the Twitter feed is where I am in constant contact with the constituency for my work, and one can feed the other one.

Steve: Jay Rosen's blog is PressThink. Just google "pressthink" and it comes right up; go there and you'll find a quick link to followers and on Twitter. Just a few words following up on the last episode with Tyler Volk on the carbon cycle. We briefly mentioned how the ocean's ability to sop up some of the carbon came with the price, increased acidity of the water. Well the day after that podcast appeared, more than 150 leading marine scientists issued a warning that such certification [acidification] will severely damage ocean ecosystems. The so-called Monaco declaration is based on the conclusions reached at a symposium on carbon dioxide and the oceans held in Monaco in October. They note that ocean chemistry is changing a 100 times faster than in the last 650,000 years, and we were quoted to drop of over a tenth of a pH point, just since the 1980s. The lower pH interferes with skeleton and shell development as well as reproduction and growth in general. For more information, just google Monaco declaration.

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: Male cellists can fall victim to what is known [as] cello scrotum, a condition related to chafing caused by the position of the instrument as it is played.

Story number 2: Producing a pound of beef generates almost four times the greenhouse gases than producing a pound of pork, 13 and a half as much as producing a pound of chicken and 57 times as much as producing a pound of potatoes.

Story number 3: A goat was imprisoned in Nigeria when vigilantes turned it over to police claiming that it was a human thief that changed it's form to a goat to hide.

And story number 4: We squander seven billion gallons of clean drinking water everyday in the U.S. because of leaky pipes.

Time's up.

Story number 4 is true. Leaky pipes lose seven billion gallons of clean water a day. That's according to a report on America's infrastructure released by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The entire infrastructure is in a sad state, and I am not just talking about New Jersey.

Story number 3 is true. The goat was imprisoned but police said it was only until it was claimed by its owner. However, some members of the population did believe that the animal was a human thief hiding in goat form. Crazy! We have a lot of people here who think the world is 6,000 years old.

And story number 2 is true. Beef production produces much more greenhouse gas emissions than even pork production. For more check out the story, "How Meat Contributes to Global Warming"at our Web site.

All of which means that story number 1, about male cellists being at risk for so called cello scrotum is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS because what is true is that this condition was reported in the British Medical Journal in 1974, but the researchers of that alleged ailment have finally come forward to admit it was a prank. The hoaxers were a doctor and her husband who reported the danger to the BMJ after reading about a musician's chafing problem called guitarist's nipple. CNN reports that the doctor, Elaine Murphy, is now a member of the House of Lords specializing in issues related to aging and mental health.

Well that's it for this edition of Scientific American's Science Talk. Check out for the latest science news and blogs including the new extinction countdown. 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 in Chief John Rennie talks about the content of the February issue, including naked singularities and the greenhouse hamburger. N.Y.U. journalism professor Jay Rosen discusses social media. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include;


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