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Science Talk

Today's Alternative Energy; and November Issue Topics, Including Computer-Brain Interfaces and DNA Computing

Scientific American magazine editor in chief, John Rennie, talks about the November issue's contents, including computer-brain interfaces, DNA computing, the ongoing attempts to find an HIV vaccine and getting closer to the Star Trek tricorder with portable NMR. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites mentioned on this episode include snipurl.com/4LJ71; SciAm.com/sciammag

Scientific American magazine editor in chief, John Rennie, talks about the November issue's contents, including computer-brain interfaces, DNA computing, the ongoing attempts to find an HIV vaccine and getting closer to the Star Trek tricorder with portable NMR. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites mentioned on this episode include snipurl.com/4LJ71; SciAm.com/sciammag

> Related In-Depth Report: Today's Alternative Energy
> Related Issue: November 2008 Scientific American

Podcast Transcription

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting October 22nd, 2008, I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, we'll talk about the alternative energy that currently exists, with ScientificAmerican.com associate editor, David Biello, our energy and environment guy. We'll test your knowledge about some current science in the news and first up Scientific American magazine editor in chief, John Rennie, talks about some of the topics we cover in the November issue. We spoke in his office.

Steve: Hey John, the November issue of Scientific American is out. There's an interesting kind of overarching futuristic theme here.

Rennie: Yeah, I think a lot of articles in this issue, somewhat by coincidence more than design, really have to do with a lot of the future developments for technology; new kinds of technologies, all new sorts of technological solutions that we could apply to various problems; and as a result there are a lot of very science fiction–like elements that pop up in these stories.

Steve: The cover piece is "Plugging Into the Brain"; let's talk about that just a little bit. The whole Matrix, you know, you're going to get a plug stuck into the back of your neck and you will be able to upload and download massive amounts of information.

Rennie: Yes, this story really does have to do a lot with it, something like The Matrix. In this article, Gary Stix examines that issue. Science fiction writers for very long time have been batting around this idea that eventually we will be able to connect machines directly up to the brain and we would be able to control various devices with our thoughts or be able to download information from the machines into our brains; and of course, you even got the sorts of people Ray Kurzweil who dream of a day when we might be able to upload our consciousness and our memories into some other sort of machine.

Steve: We covered that in a previous episode with Glenn Zorpette and John Horgan, which was subtitled, you know, "Ray Kurzweil is Going to Die".

Rennie: (laughs) Right. Well, in this case Gary Stix manages to take a look at that and a number of other related technologies and tries to get a realistic sense of where we are with those, and the bottom line is that some of those technologies are certainly very real and will most likely continue to develop. For example, we do clearly have some sorts of early stage systems for being able to control devices more or less purely by the power of thought, and those should become a huge help to especially, say people in the disabled community or people in lots of other lines of work. But if you're talking about trying to move the information the other way, they're trying to take a really particularly, say, complicated information, equivalent to say downloading a book into your head—we are a long way from that. So, it's interesting to see, but we'll keep watching what happens; but for right now, don't count on just being able to cram for exams by flipping a switch.

Steve: Right, if you want to learn how to fly a helicopter, you're going to have to do it the old fashioned way and spend literally weeks of training—I hope more than that actually. There's another article in here about efforts to mitigate global warming by actually possibly putting little parasols into orbit.

Rennie: Right. This falls under the heading of geoengineering. Geoengineering—the idea of, well, we've already been inadvertently monkeying around with the earth's climate. What if we set about trying to do it deliberately?

Steve: Inadvertently.

Rennie: (laughs) Yeah. To solve the problems of global warming and so, realistically, could we hope to try to do that? Robert Kunzig takes a look at a number of proposals, and this is an idea that scientists are starting to take quite seriously a little bit out of desperation. If you asked a few years ago, most scientists would say that fundamentally the idea of geoengineering was just intrinsically so far-fetched or such a bad idea on the face of it because we don't know enough about climate to be able to control it very well. They would have said we shouldn't even waste time thinking about it. More recently, some climatologists have started to get so concerned that we've been failing to slow down the rate at which we're pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and maybe we need to have some sort of emergency procedure in our hip pocket to, at least, you know, something we might be able to do to address it in the future. And there are several ways you could do it. You mentioned one, which was the idea of trying to construct sort of a giant parasol in space. It really wouldn't consist of one giant parasol, it would actually consist of millions and millions of tiny, little very lightweight flyers that would be positioned in space, and they would, I think, you know, in effect create a sort of structure that was tens of thousands of miles long in space and they would all be very carefully controlled and they would act still like one big sunscreen to help keep the sun's rays from hitting the earth; very, very expensive, like 5 trillion dollars, and we don't even really, [we're] barely be able to think of trying to do something like that. There are less expensive ways of trying to do it. Ways that are in fact so potentially inexpensive that individual countries could do it. So for example, [the] United States might just decide to do this on its own. It could pump more sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, which would put little sulfate particles into the atmosphere or you can pump lots of sea mist, it seems, up into the atmosphere and create the high level of water droplets; [with] both of those plans, you'd be in effect creating, sort of, clouds that would be helping to bounce the sunlight back up, but there are lot of climate hitches involved with all of that.

Steve: Side effects may include...

Rennie: Acid rain, uncontrolled changes in rainfall or climate and you know, a host of other problems, not least among them, the fact that you know, remember in all of these situations, you're masking what would tend to be the earth's natural tendency to warm up with all that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So, if you ever stop doing this, if you ever take your hands off the wheel, you're going to suddenly see the earth's climate warm up very, very fast. So, I think it's an interesting article because it does talk about what we might have to grapple with someday, but it shows that geoengineering is not a neat, clean fix the way I think some people have dreamt that it would be.

Steve: These kinds of ideas always bring to mind to me the scenario where there's a meteor hurdling toward the earth and we send a, you know, a mission out to deflect the meteor, so it doesn't hit the earth and it turns out, oops! We deflected it just enough so that it actually does hit the earth because it was going to miss closely and we actually messed up and wound up bringing it by and [about] our [own] destruction.

Rennie: That's the "Curse you, Bruce Willis!" scenario; [a] different "Curse you, Bruce Willis!" scenario that's nothing to do with the quality of movies, but yes, that's right. That's right, yeah, this is one of those things where our big technological fix could become as big a problem as the original natural problem itself was.

Steve: There is [was], I remember, the editorial meeting, where we were discussing this article, and I think at the time, I brought up what I consider to be a solution that is such a third rail that it just never gets discussed. Because you know, we have the five trillion dollar parasol effort, the sea mist effort—you know, pumping sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere sounds nuts, because of the acid rain problems—and what I said is, you know, "If things really get bad enough, what we'll finally get put on the table for better or for worse, and it's probably for worse, but what needs to be discussed is the forced limitations on the number of children people could have."

Rennie: Well, you know, this does come down a lot of sustainability issues. There are certainly this train of thoughts that says that, "Ultimately aren't these all population-related issues? And really isn't the fundamental problem, one that we have too many people?" And that's an understandable analysis. The problem I have with looking at it that way obviously is that, I think, if you're going to say that, you need to couple it to some really good solution for how you intend to start pulling down the population fast enough, and I mean, you mentioned one way obviously, you can start to limit the number of children that people are having, but I mean, I think honestly if you were doing it in the name of say, trying to deal with global warming as a problem, I don't think that would be a drastic enough solution. I think that even if, basically, people decided they were going to stop having kids or huge numbers of people over the earth were going to stop having kids voluntarily or otherwise, I'm not sure that you'd actually be decreasing the level of say greenhouse gas emissions based on congenial consumption levels fast enough. I've no ground numbers or anything like that, so I don't know if that's the case, but I think that's the big problem. You can boil this down to a population problem, but bear in mind what you're there for [therefore] dictating, because it pretty much does lead to just some of the most horrific situations possible.

Steve: And you know, I don't mean to endorse that idea, I'm just saying—and use the word dictating and that's what it would require, we['d] require totalitarian dictatorship and I'm certainly not behind that idea—I'm just saying that if things got bad enough, you'd see some real draconian solutions being put on the table. Let's talk about the ongoing search for an HIV vaccine and possibly even a cure based on flushing all the viral particles out of the body.

Rennie: Right. You know, unlike some of the other ideas which, as you said, are sort of science-fiction-speculative kinds of notions, this special report that we did on the state of fighting HIV, 25 years after the discovery of the virus, is far a less speculative than we can all wish it could be, and certainly a problem which would let further alarm on this. Back in 1984, there were some sorts of predictions that [about] why we should have a vaccine for this within a year; it didn't happen and the answer is, of course, is that we've only discovered is that HIV is a much craftier, more insidious virus than anybody had dreamt of at the time. Back, I think, about a year ago, David Baltimore a Nobel laureate, had given a speech in which he actually was quite gloomy on this subject. He said he felt that really the search for an HIV vaccine had pretty much run into a wall, and that we're going to have to go back to just a basic research to start to figure out new vaccine targets. One of the articles that we have in this report takes a somewhat more optimistic view, in that it says there are actually already some targets we have not adequately explored and that we're going to have to start to investigate those because indeed it does seem like all of the past approaches to developing an HIV vaccine have gone to ground. But there are still some more ideas that are on the table, and we have to keep working on it. [A] vaccine is almost certainly going to have to be an important part of any long-term means of fighting HIV on a global scale. The search for some kind of cure is an even trickier problem because one questions is you have to define what do we mean by a cure for HIV and, as you said, you know, it really, in effect, it would mean that you'd have to eliminate all the active virus in the body and you'd have to eliminate all the cells in the body that are actively pumping out virus. Already that's tough, but one of the things that makes HIV that much tougher is that we've discovered that the virus actually will lie dormant inside some cells of the body; for example some parts of the nervous system and in the intestinal tract—these would not be tissues you'd wanna just would want to or even easily could just excise. So any attempt to devise a cure, is going to be tricky; not impossible as the authors of this piece point out, but it shows the magnitude of the problem is still very, very great. This is a tough, tough virus to beat.

Steve: One of the things that the article does bring up is—I'm not saying that the article itself mentions this, I'm saying it brings up this thought—if you hear people and [a] lot of conspiracists [sic] think that HIV was concocted in a laboratory, and we don't have anywhere near the technological capabilities to do that.

Rennie: No, we're not smart enough to be this evil.

Steve: Well put. We revisit in this issue, the DNA computer idea that's been around for a quite while. First it was theorized and then we actually made some DNA— [we] can't really even call them computers, because it was a test tube situation where DNA molecules were used to solve various kinds of mathematical problems because DNA is an information-storage medium.

Rennie: Right and I think a purist would argue that, in fact, they really were computers by virtue of the fact that they are tiny, little information-processing machines at that level. But right, there's been a lot of interest about this idea of DNA computing because, you know, theoretically you might be able to do something like this to develop some new ways of potentially being able to harness things that the cells might be able to do. You might be able to figure out a way where you could insert the right kind of DNA structure into a cell and maybe there would be some way of being able to try to control the cell with something like this. There would be a lot of applications that would also be good even just sitting in a test tube in some place. But a lot of this has tended to be kind of theoretical, as you said; but this month we have a report from some scientists who show how you can use DNA as they have to tackle one of the simplest programming problems that almost [anyone] who's ever learned anything about computer programming has had to do, which is get the computer to play tic-tac-toe. It's a really elementary problem for programming and they show, here's how you translate that problem into terms of making it something that DNA molecules can solve.

Steve: The DNA molecules do this by joining together at the lowest energy levels, and basically when they finish joining together, based on the types of strands of DNA that you put in there, you have the solution.

Rennie: Right, right. I mean, you'd have to go through the article to obviously get some kind of level of accurate portrayal of what this looks like. This might not be a tic-tac-toe game most people would like to play, but still it shows you can use DNA computing technology to solve actual problems and give you useful results.

Steve: Yeah, it's really cool stuff. We also have an article on hand-held NMR devices.

Rennie: Yeah, that's right; shades of the tricorder in some way. It's a little bigger than a hand-held at this point. It's still sort of a good-sized box, but the point is that if you look at the kind of technology called NMR, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, most people's familiarity with that is with [the] MRI scanner, so we think of it as a big medical scanner. MRI is a sort of subset of NMR technology. Imagine if you could perform that same sort of scan, but instead of having to go to a big piece of equipment that was in a hospital or someplace else, if you could actually make that small enough to make it mobile, so you could analyze things out in the world—that's what these researchers are working on. They've already built a small, sort of prototype of sorts and yes, not really quite hand-held at this point; but something small enough that you can say, take it to a museum, and you can use it to analyze the fine structure of pigments inside a painting to help determine more about when it was created, for example.

Steve: I just wanted to bring up the beginning of the "Plugging Into the Brain" article, which was the first thing we discussed, has this wonderful quote from 1990s movie Johnny Mnemonic, where the guy, you know, it's a sort of precursor. Keanu Reeves plays that guy, too, and it's a precursor to his Matrix character, but just to show you how science fiction can get some parts of the features right, while completely missing others, Johnny Mnemonic says, "I had hundreds of megabytes stashed in my head."

Rennie: (laughs) It is Keanu Reeves after all.

Steve: The SciAm Web site currently features a special in-depth report called "Today's Alternative Energy'". www.ScientificAmerican.com's, David Biello gives us an overview of the report. I called him at his home in New York City. So Dave, we have a lot of things in this alternative energy package, "Today's Alternative Energy". So we're going to talk a little bit about tomorrow's as well, but this package really looks at what is currently available out there.

Biello: That's right. These are projects that are either underway or shortly to be underway, even despite this fiscal crisis, that are meant to solve many parts of our energy crisis. So we have things such as offshore winds which will remove those unsightly wind turbines from your Cape Cod beach road property as well solar power in Spain and wave power in Portugal.

Steve: Let's talk about what is [there] when you go to the home page for this feature. I mean, it clearly stands out as the most fascinating item, and that is of course the solar-powered refrigerator.

Biello: Yes, and you're not alone in that interest. What's surprising, I guess, about the solar powered refrigerator is that really all you need to make a refrigerator work is some heat. And, of course, the sun is a very powerful heat source, as you can tell sitting out in any summer day; and with a right combination of liquids and gases that simple sun's heat can provide enough refrigeration to keep vaccines on ice in the developing [world] or keep food fresh or whatever else you might need a refrigerator to do.

Steve: So when using the sun, we're not converting it with panels to electricity to operate a refrigerator, we're actually using the heat.

Biello: That's correct. It's a direct conversion, and that actually saved some of the energy. So, going through the messy process of converting photons—you know, light—into electricity is a fairly inefficient process and then shipping that electricity from where the sunlight is collected to your refrigerator is also an inefficient process; but kind of collecting the heat from the sun that pours down on your house or ship or wherever else you might have your solar refrigerator installed, is a very direct way of providing cooling.

Steve: And we needn't go into the full details—you can read the article, it's online and it's free—but for those of you who remember your thermodynamics courses with your Carnot's cycles, which I still ride around on every once in a while and you're compressing and expanding gases, why it's child's play.

Biello: That's right.

Steve: So, what's going on in Spain with solar power?

Biello: Well, Spain has quickly kind of catapulted to the lead in solar power development, whether you are talking about photovoltaic fields or solar-thermal power plants—those are, again, power plants that harvest the heat of the sun—really any other solar technology in between. And that's because the Spanish government has been said to generously subsidize the production of solar power, given that Spain is so well known for its sunshine, to help make that power source more competitive with other more polluting power sources, such as coal or natural gas or other fossil fuels.

Steve: But our headline is "Is the Sun Setting on Solar Power in Spain?"

Biello: That's right, because we've actually come to the end ofthat cycle. Spain is not the world's largest country nor is [it] the world's richest country, and that means that both the support for these generous subsidies is starting to wane a little bit and the solar market, as it were, is getting kind of maxed out. So, the solar companies that have been developed in Spain over this time are now looking abroad. One of those companies is actually building the largest solar power plant in the U.S. now, and they're also looking into North Africa and other places with a lot of sunshine to kind of put the solar expertise they've garnered in Spain with the generous subsidies to work in places with [more] generous subsidies.

Steve: It's interesting. The silver lining in the high gas prices that we saw was that it was sending a price signal to really start developing alternative fuel technologies. But gas prices have plummeted over the last month and a half or so and so that signal may dissipate and we may wind up being back at square one. I know that the price support, the congressional price supports and subsidies for alternative fuel technology were defeated until the bailout bill, and they were snuck in there as riders in the bailout bill.

Biello: That's right.

Steve: So, you know, that's another silver lining in the bailout bill.

Biello: That's right. Although this time around—and that's pretty much what happened in the 1970s; we had some pretty strong alternative energy programs in the wake of the first oil shock, as it were, and those kind of withered on the vine as cheap oil came back in 1980s and 1990s—but there are some different drivers this time around, one of which is a global environmental problem that you might have heard of called climate change that seems to be driving investments in the direction of cleaner energy sources rather than fossil fuels; particularly if some kind of a national program, whether cap and trade or carbon tax or whatever else begins to regulate the amount of carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases that we can put into the atmosphere. And [under] that kind of a regime, alternative energy sources, whether solar power or geothermal or whatever else you might want, would actually have a cost-benefit compared to fossil fuels.

Steve: Right.

Biello: Very, very [much] cheaper.

Steve: And you know you mentioned the title "Possibilities with Portugal" and I remember for decades now we've been hearing about the possibilities of the Bay of Fundy; and so is the attempt to harness all the energy and tides really going to go anyplace?

Biello: Well, that's probably the most forward-looking of all the articles. Wave power is definitely in its infancy. There's a lot of wave power out there. The problem is getting the technology together that can both harness the power in the waves and the power in the tides and also withstand the power in the tides and the power in the waves. It's pretty rough stuff out there and machinery doesn't fare too well, not to mention the salt water, which is extremely corrosive to any metal you want to put in it. But we do seem to be getting a lot closer there now. Actual wave power plants [are] in production off the coast of Portugal and actually in the Bay of Fundy; slowly but surely, we seem to be approaching that goal.

Steve: The tide is turning.

Biello: That's right.

Steve: I'm sorry about that. The kind of theme you see here is that—you know, wind power, solar power, tidal power, geothermal, we have an article [on] Icelandic geothermal power—is rather than dig into the earth for the energy that's been stored there for millions of years, is grab the steady-state energy that's out there right now.

Biello: That's right—the ambient energy. And by combining all of those, you can actually provide all the power needs. One of the knocks on renewal [renewable] power is that it's intermittent; you know the wind isn't always blowing, the sun obviously isn't always shining. But by combining that with something like geothermal, which is a 24/7, as it were, a power source, you can actually even out and basically entirely replace the fossil fuel infrastructure with a renewable infrastructure.

Steve: The In-Depth Report: "Today's Alternative Energy," is available at the Web site http://www.SciAm.com or go to http://www.snipurl.com/4lj71. And listen to David Biello on the 60-Second Earth podcast every week.

(music)

Now its 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: Under ultraviolet light, ripe bananas are bright blue.

Story number 2: Researchers have found an entire ecosystem made up of just one species.

Story number 3: You know, the famous five stages of grief, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance? Well a new study finds that there's actually often a sixth stage—anticipation.

And story number 4: India has launched a rocket to the moon.

Time is up.

Story [number] 1 is true. Ripe bananas are bright blue under UV light. That's according to research published in the German chemistry journal Angewandte chemie; the blue glow is related to the breakdown products of chlorophyll, which concentrate in the peel. Some animals that eat bananas can see in the UV range, so the blue color might be a clue to them that the fruit is ready.

Story [number] 2 is true. There's apparently a deep underground natural ecosystem that consists of only a single species of bacterium. The research was reported in the journal Science. The species lives in fluid-filled cracks some three kilometers below the surface in a South African gold mine and appears to be utterly independent of any other living thing.

And story [number] 4 is true. India launched a two-year moon mission on October 22nd. The major goal was to establish a detailed three-dimensional map of the surface.

All of which means that story [number] 3 about a sixth stage of grief is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. In fact, there's actually no evidence that most people will go through most of the accepted five stages and in any particular order at that. For more check out Michael Shermer's column in the November Scientific American magazine and at the Web site called "The Five Fallacies of Grief". You'll find it at http://www.SciAm.com/Sciammag
(music)

Well, that's it for this edition of Scientific American's Science Talk. Visit http://www.SciAm.com for all the latest science news, blogs and videos. For Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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

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