Science Talk

World Changing Ideas: December's Scientific American

Scientific American magazine Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina and editor Michael Moyer talk about the "World Changing Ideas" feature as well as other contents of the December issue. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news

Scientific American magazine Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina and editor Michael Moyer talk about the "World Changing Ideas" feature as well as other contents of the December issue. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news.

Podcast Transcription

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American posted on December 11th, 2009. I'm Steve Mirsky. Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina joins me for a discussion of the contents of the December issue of Scientific American magazine on this episode. We'll look once again at this year's science Nobels after that, and we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First up, Mariette DiChristina who has been our acting editor in chief but was named our permanent editor this past week. We spoke in her suddenly bigger, more opulent office.

Steve: The December issue is out. Mariette DiChristina is our editor in chief. Hi Mariette!

Mariette: Hi Steve. Thanks for having me.

Steve: Sure. So some interesting stuff. The big cover article: "World Changing Ideas" is actually a section really, not an article.

Mariette: Yes, it's a 10-page section on 20 spectacularly innovative ideas for the future of the world.

Steve: And it's not just the two of us in this room today?

Mariette: No, today we also are joined by Michael Moyer.

Moyer: [Internet] Hello!

Steve: So, Michael, you actually put this whole section together.

Moyer: I did put the whole section together; though I should be clear I did not come up with the 20 world changing ideas myself. We actually went and found some of the greatest ideas and most creative ones floating around in academia, in people, in start-up companies and things coming out of the labs that hopefully will be impacting the world in the next decade or so.

Steve: And the section is generally divided into five smaller areas.

Moyer: There are five main categories we addressed: energy, health and medicine, the environment, electronics and robotics, and transportation.

Steve: So let us talk about, you know, just a couple of—let's whet the audience's appetite and just give us a couple of the primo examples from those sections.

Moyer: Sure. [One] I really like a lot is the Central Nervous System for the Earth project, which is being done right now at Hewlett–Packard. And the idea behind this is that if you place lots and lots of tiny sensors everywhere around the world where you think you might be interested in some sort of data, you can just measure very basic things such as vibration and humidity and temperature and what have you; by agglomerating all that data together, and we are talking trillions of sensors here, you're going to get this kind of broad base of information that will have incredible applications that you really can't foresee now. In a way, I think it is a lot like the Internet: When you create this infrastructure, you can't predict 10 years down the line what kind of applications will come out of the Internet. All you know is that, when you have this very broad and widely applicable kind of information technology infrastructure that you're going to be able to do great things.

Steve: Isn't this like what Batman pulled in the second Christian Bale Batman movie, where he had all the cell phones sending out sonar and he was able to image the entire city?

Moyer: It is something like that, yes, except you don't get the full 3D pictures of people behind closed walls.

Steve: Right, but you'll actually be able to sort of get the pulse of the planet in real-time, every little thing that's going on. Well, what are the sensors actually going to be measuring?

Moyer: Right now, they are trying to pull together two different competing forces in a way, whereas on one hand, you want them to be able to measure as much as possible and on the other hand, you want them to consume as little power as possible and to be as small and as cheap as possible. So, they're concentrating on the basics right now—temperature, vibrations; they're developing these very extremely sensitive accelerometers, kind of the same sort of the thing that you'll have in a Nintendo Wii, where you are able to measure, you know, how everything move[s], except this is just on the order of little microshakes and humidity—all sorts of these things. And by agglomerating that kind of data together on a roadway, in a forest, wherever, what have you, you're able to create this, kind of, very rich picture of the world.

Mariette: Just to add to what Michael was saying, when you can gather that kind of really simple information—[did] something move a little bit, like the accelerometer gathers or what is the temperature change or things like this, the implications of this as the article explains, this particular item explains is; you could, for instance, put these sensors all over a bridge, and if the bridge was starting to have structural flaws in it, if things were shifting that shouldn't shift, the bridge could then say to the engineers, "I have issues here, come and look at me" and boy, we could have used that in Minnesota when that happened, just a couple of years ago. Another example would be, imagine a building that could monitor and track its own energy use and tune it up or down. You know, you have to hook these sensors in with larger processing powers so that they could then make collective decisions such as we would set in them, you know, to produce reality that we would like to see.

Steve: Very cool! So let's talk about some of the other things that are in the section.

Moyer: Well, one of the things that I really like is this idea behind a new way to get solar out to the people. As many people know our own George Musser here is installing solar-powered panels on his home in New Jersey. Actually, purchasing solar panels and having them installed in your home is the functional equivalent of prepaying your electric bill for about a decade, you know, thousands of dollars, and really who wants to do that?

Steve: And we should say, many people know about it because George has been blogging about his efforts to do this for the last few months.

Mariette: The blog is called "Solar at Home" for anybody who wants to check that out.

Moyer: Yes indeed. So, George is going through the process and you know there's some ups and downs in it. Start-up companies in California have come up with a new way to do it, where they will actually give you solar panels on your home for free. They will come and install them and there is no up-front cost to you. In return, you enter into an agreement with them, whereby you buy the power that is coming off of the top of your house from these companies. You buy it at or below market rates and in that way, it's the same thing as just paying your regular electrical bill, except that you are getting clean solar [energy] from the top of your house.

Steve: And you are selling them the energy that you harvest from solar?

Moyer: You are buying from them the energy that they're harvesting off the top.

Steve: Right, right, got you.

Moyer: So, you know, SolarCity and SunRun are the two big companies doing this in California. It's spreading to Oregon, Arizona, these sorts of places. There are also municipal plans where your municipality, your city or town will give you incentives to purchase a solar system. So, for instance, you put up the upfront money and then you get that off in tax rebates and in lower tax incentives [over] the life of your home.

Mariette: One of the things I love about this solar at home, which is characteristic of a lot of the world changing ideas are that many of these ideas are so simple and so straight forward and yet so powerful. And another one that's like that I would like to add to this discussion is in the environment category, the idea of zoning in the oceans. You know, you would expect, you walk down the street and here's an industrial area in, you know, on land here, and here's an area where people put their houses. And in the ocean we have nothing like that. Right now we have a huge area that the U.S., actually the U.S. is in control of about 25 percent more seascape than it has landscape and all of this is controlled through a set of really disconnected heads of various policies right now; there might be somebody in charge of fisheries, and then somebody in charge of what chemicals are permitted to be poured in there. Imagine, none of them are really communicating with each other, so a great idea for a solution there to improve the, you know, ocean environment especially near to shore is to zone it for particular uses.

Steve: Yeah, on the face of it that's sure makes lot of sense and considering that right now, it's almost, if you will, a land grab.

Mariette: It is almost a land grab. That's a good way to put it. In fact, we felt so strongly about it as a board of editors that we decided in the Perspectives—the house editorial for this issue—as well, we also examined, you know, why should we draw these invisible lines, I mean, I'm not going to say in the sand, right Steve, but invisible lines in the water and that could direct what would be okay and not okay and where.

Steve: So what else do we have in the section?

Moyer: Well, also in the section, we highlight the use of what are called biomarkers, to be able to detect and perhaps prevent disease. And biomarkers are actually—it's a pretty simple idea behind them and it's that as disease begins to grow within you, as a heart disease starts up or the very really early stages of cancer, those processes actually leave little traces in your body and in your blood. Those malicious processes create new proteins or they have certain DNA signatures, and biomarkers are simply the idea of taking a blood sample and searching for these signatures that you're able to see far in advance—long enough in advance so that you can really do something about it—that you are at high risk for getting heart disease or for getting cancer. It's not quite as simple as that because as we all know, the processes that go into creating these sorts of lifestyle diseases when you are in your '60s or '70s, you know, unfortunately sometimes earlier are incredibly complex. And so you are not looking for one telltale big neon sign, you are looking for this very intricate set of changes between how all these proteins interact; but with the intersection of biology and information science that's in informatics that's going on, they are able to start to tease out what these signatures are.

Steve: Right and if we have the ability to do that we might as well do it because there's a lot of information available that right now is just getting lost in the ether.

Moyer: Yeah absolutely, absolutely. And the idea that you can just go to your doctor and have a blood sample and through that blood sample, you know, get this list of okay, you are okay for this, but you should really watch out for this as we go down the line; and then also to see how these signals are changing over time. You get this done once a year, and you can show progress, you could show that this thing is actually getting worse. It's a very powerful proactive way to deal with health.

Mariette: Again, a simple, powerful idea. And the last category, which we haven't talked about which I would like to talk about for just a minute is the transportation category and there we are saluting the idea of making greater use of plug-in hybrid technology, which is where, you know, you have a dual propulsion system for your car—on the one hand you run off of battery power and that you can plug-in and charge overnight or at the times when the grid is not at peak levels and then you can have a very efficient engine of some kind that can pick up for when the battery power runs out.

Steve: Yeah the plug-in hybrid is going to be a big deal next year; I think it is the next year the Volt comes out.

Moyer: Yeah, they still say that they are on track for bringing out the Chevy Volt which is going to be the first mass market plug-in hybrid about a year from now, November 2010.

Steve: When I first heard about the Volt a few years ago, I heard that it only gets 40 miles on a charge, I thought that was a kind of ridiculous, but the more I have read about it, the more it's it's not so crazy because so many of us who are not commuting in the car don't use 40 miles at a shot; we might use 40 miles in a whole day and then you could just charge it up overnight.

Moyer: And 40 miles isn't just before the battery totally runs out, you go 40 miles before the engine has to first kick-in to help yourself out. And they have done studies, and most of us, most people who commute, actually commute less than 40 miles in a day. So for most people you wouldn't ever have to use that gasoline engine, it really just exists in case you want to do a 100-mile trip or you want to go on a road trip; in that case you are able to go as far as you want and actually the range of the Volt they say is going to be something around 500 or 600 miles between fill-ups you have to do.

Steve: So it's also going to have a very large gas tank.

Moyer: Yeah, I mean, it's going to get, you know Chevy has come out with a number that they are going to get 230 miles [to the] gallon and a lot of people have kind of taken a closer look at that number and said "Well, maybe that's, you know, we don't know exactly how they came up with that number", but it's going to be a great improvement over what we have today.

Mariette: I think one of the keys here is it's not just whatever the battery gives you. Okay, so maybe the battery gives you 40 miles, but then you have a very energy-efficient engine, maybe that's a package with that battery. One of the prototypes that the article mentions is called the IDEA Prototype, and I think it's—Michael will correct me, is it Bright Automotive?—gets 40 miles [to] the gallon. So you go for the 40 miles on the charge for the battery to the 40 miles on the gallon car, and that can take you pretty far.

Moyer: And also to be clear, that IDEA Prototype is not just for a midsize sedan, it's for a delivery truck. You know, this is for things that typically get 10 miles a gallon, so it's really a huge advantage.

Steve: That's five of the 20, we'll let the readers find the other 15. And just real quickly let's talk about some of the other things that are in this issue. We have got this fascinating article on the ancient Greek computational device which was called ...?

Mariette: "The Antikythera Mechanism"

Steve: And we are not going to talk about that because I am going to try to get the author of that for an interview for another episode but you'll see the article in the issue, and just, you know, look at it on the Web site or in the issue, it's really fascinating. The Arctic climate threat is one of our cover lines with the permafrost possibly going bye-bye, there's stored methane that's being released.

Mariette: Right, here's a huge problem—as the climate has been warming up we've been thawing the permafrost and it is called permafrost right because, it's supposed to stay permanently frozen but actually ...

Steve: It ain't "temperafrost".

Mariette: Right, it is not temperafrost. Now we are getting freeze-thaw cycles where it had been frozen solid for years and years, and there are a number of surprising and kind of very disturbing consequences as a result of this. One of them is that as the ground thaws, pools of water come together under the ground, and in those pools are microorganisms that begin to feed on stored carbon—so old plant material and so on that has been buried for thousands of years—and as those microbes do their job which is what they do, they break up things, they create methane gas which then comes up in large, you know, sometimes large pools or expulsions of methane. The reason, why do we care about methane, [well] methane pound per pound has about 25 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide and, as large a problem as carbon dioxide is, if methane should begin to be released in greater quantities it could really affect the speed of the global climate change that we are now experiencing.

Steve: And everybody remembers their ATP from high school biology—the currency, energy currency carrier in the cell; but we have an article that says it actually leads a secret double life.

Mariette: It does lead a secret double life which is, I don't know, so amazing. One of the things I am constantly struck by is how nature doesn't waste things, right. So, high school biology, we all learned about ATP being the energy currency that is used by all the cells and you know currency makes me think of money and dollars, and we all know that money talks, so maybe it shouldn't be such a surprise that ATP also has a signaling capacity in cells; just whether that's in the brain where it's, you know, actively helping signals, some of the neural transmissions or other areas, you know, organs and systems in the body. Literally ATP, as it turns out, seems to be involved in almost every cellular process that we can conceive of, and the article has old map of the human body with places where ATP has a vital signaling role not just one of conveying energy units.

Steve: Did you prepare that money talk?

Mariette: I didn't, it just came to me...

Steve: Well, it was great. So speaking of transportation which was in the World Changing Ideas, you know how I love our 50, 100 and 150 years ago section; and in December 1909—and even we knew that this was nuts but the headline is "Flying Railway", and, you know, for those of us who live in New York City [where], not in Manhattan, but in the surrounding we still have elevated trains, where the subway tracks are over the roads. But these guys had this fabulous idea, let me read it to you—this is a quote from our December 1909 issue: "A German engineer has conceived a novel and marvelously impracticable mode of transit, a sort of cross between the airship and the electric railway, in which a balloon supports the weight of passenger cars, which run on aerial cables and are propelled by electricity. And then it says "see illustration," and that's what really makes the whole thing worthwhile. "The balloon is of the rigid Zeppelin type of construction, and is propelled by electric motors capable of developing an airspeed of about 125 miles per hour. There are engineering as well as financial objections to this scheme." And the illustration shows what look like blimps with little carriages hanging from the bottom of the blimp that the pilot and the few passengers the blimp can carry are sitting in; only then the blimps are tethered on each side to lines that are then connected to stanchions, and these things are allegedly going to roll across, you know, maybe 30 feet in the air at a 125 miles an hour, while the people sit in the little cabins below. It never got off the ground, so to speak.

Mariette: I got to say Steve, I love it that you picked that one, because I was also agog when I saw it and I had, you know, two thoughts; one was [a whole new] meaning to elevated train which you have pointed out. The second one was, I thought is there finally something that makes Maglev start to look more practical.

Steve: Oh! No question. Maglev is the, that's [the salt] of the Earth compared to this thing. And also a shameless self promotion—if you turn to the back page you'll find my latest contribution to the decline of Western civilization is an article, a column about the science of knuckle cracking and, well, it goes something like this.

Mariette: Something like this...

Steve: The Nobel Prizes were actually awarded this week and the laureates' lectures are all now available online, so if you want to hear about the award winning research from the horses' mouths, just go to But since you are here right now, let's review the winners by listening to our daily podcast coverage once again of the three science prizes from back in October.

The 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to Venkatraman Ramakrishnan of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in England, Yale University's Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel for their studies of the ribosome. Guna Van Hanard of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences at the official announcement:

"The three laureates have accomplished what many scientists thought impossible, namely to determine the three-dimensional structure of the molecular machine that makes all the proteins in a cell, the so-called ribosome. Using x-ray crystallography to obtain snapshots of the ribosome in action, they have been able to explain how the ribosome selects and couples together amino acids to form proteins. They have also shown how bacterial ribosomes can be stopped dead in their tracks by various antibiotics, thereby providing insights that help researchers design new drugs to be used in our never-ending fight against bacterial infections."

The 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine goes to Harvard's Jack Szostak, Johns Hopkins's Carol Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn at U.C. San Francisco for their work on how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.

The Nobel laureates' research helped explain how an organism's DNA is successfully copied when cells divide. Telomeres are genetic sequences that act like little protective caps at the end of chromosomes—think of the sealed tips of your shoelaces. Telomerase is the enzyme that builds telomeres.

Blackburn and Szostak determined that it was a specific DNA sequence in the telomeres that kept chromosomes from fraying whenever they were copied when a cell splits in two. Blackburn and Greider discovered telomerase. The findings have implications for the understanding of aging and cancer, because if the enzyme keeps the telomeres robust, the chromosomes stay protected and the cell's aging is slowed. And in cancer cells, which unfortunately do not seem to age, telomere length is maintained virtually indefinitely. Szostak, Greider and Blackburn thus revealed one of life's basic mechanisms, and paved the way for new medical strategies.

Carol Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn coauthored the article "Telomeres, Telomerase and Cancer" for the February 1996 issue of Scientific American magazine. It is available in our digital archive at Jack Szostak coauthored the article "The Origin of Life on Earth" in the September 2009 issue of Scientific American magazine available on our Web site and to hear an archived interview with new Nobel laureate Jack Szostak, go to the May 7th, 2008 episode of Science Talk available at

The Nobel Prize in physics goes to Charles Kao of Standard Communications Labs in England and the Chinese University of Hong Kong and George Smith and Willard Boyle of Bell Labs in New Jersey. Kao figured out how to transmit light over long distances in optical glass fibers. From the official announcement: "Today, more than a billion kilometers of optical fiber around the world forms the backbone of modern global communication."

In 1969 Smith and Boyle made your digital camera possible by inventing the charge-coupled device, the CCD: "This device allows electronic recording of images and it replaces the photographic film in cameras. The CCD records the image as a distribution of charge in small cells or pixels, and it outputs the image as a series of digital numbers. The CCD is a crucial component of advanced cameras, and it finds numerous applications in scientific and medical equipment. For example, it gives us the spectacular images of the universe that we can see today."

Steve: Now it's time to play TOTALL....... 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: China is expected to pass the U.S. in car sales in 2025.

Story number 2: Duncan Watts at Yahoo Research predicts that the James Cameron movie Avatar will gross between $65 and $84 million its first weekend.

Story number 3: A neuroscience center in Canada is asking NHL and minor league hockey players to donate their brains.

And story number 4: Ink doped with carbon nanotubes could turn plain white paper into batteries.

Time is up.

Story number 4 is true. Scientists have converted plain white office paper into batteries by adding ink-containing carbon nanotubes which conduct electricity. The research appeared in the December 7th Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For more check out the news story "Carbon Nanotubes Turn Office Paper into Batteries" at

Story number 3 is true. The Krembil Neuroscience Center is asking NHL and minor league hockey players for their brains after they die of course. They are trying to get a handle on concussions and the suspected link between major head impacts and dementia. For more check out the December 8th edition of our Neuroscience Podcast, 60-Second Psych.

And story number 2 is true. Watts and colleagues developed an algorithm for predicting movie grosses based on search activity. Right now, Avatar searches are tracking those of Wolverine which had an opening weekend gross of 87 million dollars. The Yahoo Research publication "What Can Search Predict?" is available online free. Just google, "what can search predict".

All of which means that story number 1 about China passing the U.S. as the world's biggest car market in 2025 is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS, because what is true is that two years ago, J. D. Power and Associates predicted that China will become the world's largest market for automobiles in 2025, but the Chinese government has actually been subsidizing car sales, including SUV sales, and they have already passed the U.S. as the world's biggest car market. When the effects of pollution, sedentary lifestyle and gas prices become apparent look for articles in The New York Times headlined "Chinese Rediscover the Bicycle". I predict you'll see that article about 2025.

Well that's it for this episode of Science Talk, follow us on Twitter at SciAm; follow me as Steve Mirsky, if you've got nothing better to do, and check out for the latest science news and our slide show on deep-water ocean currents and climate change. For Science Talk the podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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