Welcome to Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting July 19th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, we will hear a little bit more from Max Houck. He is a forensics expert and author of the article "CSI: Reality" that appears in the July Scientific American. On last week's podcast he talked about the article. He had also just returned from a forensics conference and will share some very interesting news about fingerprints that he picked up there. We will also test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First though, a couple of weeks ago I got email from a podcast listener named James Bagian, and I thought you would like to meet him. For one thing, he is a physician and the director of the Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for Patient Safety. Before that, he was an astronaut and flew two shuttle missions. I spoke with Dr. Bagian Sunday morning, a day before the space shuttle Discovery made a safe return to Earth. I called him at his home in Northville, Michigan.
Steve: Dr. Bagian, thanks for talking to us today.
Bagian: Oh, glad to be here.
Steve: You already had an M.D. when you became an astronaut.
Bagian: Really, NASA, when they look for astronauts, they look for what I will call people who are jacks of all trades, but master of one. Undergraduate education, I was a mechanical engineer, then went to medical school. I also had some flying experience as well, ended up at NASA as an astronaut, which was certainly a thrill and a rare privilege to be sure and was there actually before the first shuttle flight and was there through the initial shuttle flight, was there before the Challenger accident, two missions after the Challenger and left NASA, ultimately going to the VA--Department of Veterans Affairs--to develop
ing and run a patient safety program.
Steve: Just tell me briefly about your roles on the two flights that you flew.
Bagian: Sure. In the first one, I actually did a[n] experiment that I proposed where we--actually two of them--but one of them was a cure for space motion sickness, which affects about 75 percent of all lucky astronauts. And I proposed to use a treatment often used on the ground but [that] required an injection; and typically with aviation or space flight pilots or aircrew are not given medication, because it can have side effects. But I worked with the flight surgeons regarding the mission from the medical standpoint and said why don't we try Phenergan--is the trade name for Promethazine--why don't we use it intramuscularly even though it used to cause sedation on the ground, and perhaps we could gain some benefit. And they agreed that that would be okay if I want to do it with the permission of the affected crew members, and we did and it worked brilliantly.
Steve: So, let me just ask you a couple more questions about being in space. Number one--and this is fairly obvious, but--how much fun is it?
Bagian: I think it varies. I will tell you, there were parts of the mission that
was[were] fun as you would say it's fun. I would say more, it's very satisfying. It's very hard work, sometimes physically, but usually there is tremendous time pressure, tremendous pressure to never have any kind of mistake or hiccup, because things are so tightly choreographed. You understand that the resources are so expensive and there won't be another opportunity, maybe ever for certain experiments, if you don't get them done correctly; that you are extremely driven to do that and absolutely have picture-perfect performance. It's just a wor d[ry] to be successful for you and for the mission, for NASA, for the investigators, that drives you on. Some of the missions aren't as tightly choreographed, fortunately or unfortunately--mine were. So, there wasn't a lot of time to play [around] on or be looking at [out] the window, and that's my first mission. I felt like I was locked in a basement for five days.
Steve: Right, you get every once in a while, you look out the window and are reminded where you actually were.
Bagian: Oh yeah. I mean, I would look outside almost all day until I was supposed to be sleeping, literally. So, I spent 16 hours basically lost in the project. And that actually is what I had done and that's very disappointing. I felt very glad that we achieved all we did and people were very happy with the stuff I could cure for this space motion sickness and that was p
laying a huge advantage, but nobody even expected we would do [it], so I felt professionally extremely proud. I felt personally extremely disappointed that I flew--you know, who knew about if I was going to have any chance to fly again or whatever else--and really how things appeared what, it looked like in space, I don't know, I didn't see it.
Bagian: I was busy working. Now, in the next one, I had a little bit more chance to see things and we were still working extremely hard because we knew the more data tapes that we could take the better the science would be because you have more replications or trials to do and even though we could do the minimal requirement, I think many of us felt like it was our duty, our moral duty to do everything we could to get at the questions as best they could be.
Steve: Years ago, I interviewed a fellow who smelled things for NASA before they would go up in the shuttle.
Bagian: The problem now is that your sense of olfaction is different on orbit than it is on earth and things that you might find to be very pleasant scent here on Earth can be absolutely revolting on orbit. For example, modern mothballs, on my first flight, one guy took a, we are allowed to take some stuff in the fresh-food locker, he took a zip-wrap bag holding mothballs and when he opened that, the aroma was absolutely--and I mean literally--nauseating.
V[W]ow, that's really interesting.
Bagian: And it was--what is that stench? You couldn't recognize this [as] modern mothballs, that's the point. It was a much different thing [than] what you smelled as mothballs, but we traced it down to him, we opened the bag and gosh, that's what it is. And we finally said, alright, look, you have 10 minutes, use [as] many as you want and we are throwing the rest in the vented trash, and that's what we did.
Steve: How did it basically smell up there after a week in space?
Bagian: No different. They activated carbon filters that the air circulated through. They did a very good job, so I mean, I can tell your there had been a change in our crew. We did many different jobs. So, I have been there where you are the first one in the module when they land, and I had been there for [a] number of days with a bunch of people on it, and you know, your thought might be that it would smell like a locker room or something, you know, really what a locker room smells like.
Steve: May I ask you one other thing in light of your unique background--what's your view of the current shuttle program regarding both safety issues and the overall program?
Bagian: Well, I think NASA is, you know, doing a fine job quite frankly and I think this is another thing that when people--I was involved in
during both the Challenger and Columbia investigation[s], in fact I had been assigned to the Challenger flight and we switched payload just before that accident, so I missed--certainly my friends were on both of those flights. So, it's certainly a significant event, but we all knew there was a risk and that we know that some bad thing is going to happen and that did. And it's certainly unfortunate, and then we try to learn from those. I think the cultural aspect generally is pretty good. I think if you look at this last mission that just launched less than two weeks ago, there was much made in the press about, see, the individualism in the process. [They] said this doesn't meet our criteria, we would recommend not to fly, and then the administrator overruled them, you might say. The fact, is if we look into it and listen to the interviews, for instance I take the NPR [interview with] the head of safety, Bryan O’Connor, who is a classmate of mine, he is an astronaut, and he and I flew together. Bryan, I think--it was a very good interview and very clear, where he said that, yes, there is significant certain criteria, but there's always going to be some risk. And I think the way the administrator made the decision is his prerogative and appropriate, but the point is not there is [n]ever is your[any] risk, there's not, there's not in space flight, there's not in medicine. The point is, when you make a decision it should be with full knowledge of what those risks are--you do the risk/benefit ratio and then decide, and I wanted to make that decision. You know, as [far as] what [was] pointed out by Mr. Griffin, he said w[t]hat the decisions we were making we don't believe is [are] putting the crew at really any significant additional risk; but the chance for[we're] taking is if it do --that is, that we might not be able to repair the shuttle, and we would have to basically not be able to recover [it] successfully in the worst situation, and we could bring the crew back in another shuttle. So, we won't put the crew at risk. And he said understanding as per the program, it's better to take that economic risk if you will, than not to fly at all. Will that make sense?
Steve: Well, as long as the crew safety is assured or is as assured as possible.
Bagian: Right, and that's how the case was. That's why I think you heard Bryan O’Conner, head of safety ma[k]
de the comment that, you know, his look at safety is both for the mission, the system, as well as the individuals. He is charged with both. It's not for him to abdicate one of those rules. On the other hand, it is the administrator's job to decide when that's appropriate and he said for the fiscal risk, it was worth it. And personally I think from what I know, I was in the middle of decision, I can say [that] rationale is not necessarily inappropriate. The panel I was on for NRC--[the] National Research Council--I feel, is about how to look at that risk and not only that, but how to communicate it effectively to not just the legislator--so I think they are doing a fairly good job doing that--but for the public; because when there is a crash, the public thinks that should not happen and in fact the question is if you are running, let's say [a] one percent chance of failure, that's one in a hundred.
Steve: Right which is approximately the ratio of lost missions?
Bagian: That's exactly right. So, I mean if you look at [it] on the other hand you could say NASA has done a very good job and the fact that the loss rate is about what they have always said it would be.
Bagian: It doesn't mean you want to have any particular loss when you try to learn as all you can and incorporate that, but you can't live in a single-walled type world where you believe it never will happen. You know, that's not true. And I think we have to understand that the potential loss is one of the cost[s] of exploration. And that we won't have those--we are going to do everything we can do to prevent that. We need to very clearly communicate what those risks are to everybody, certainly the crew will understand that. There's was nobody on the crew that doesn't understand flying on a shuttle is a risky endeavor.
Bagian: I mean, everybody, one of the things you do before you fly is you have to go through your will, make sure it's properly executed. That's part of the final couple weeks before flight, all that stuff is done. There
is [are] not many other people or jobs that people engage in, well, before you do it, you have to sit down and make sure your will is in order.
Steve: Right, so that is a sobering experience.
Bagian: Yeah, you have to
be, you know, absolutely understand what's happening.
Steve: We will have a few more minutes with James Bagian next week about his current work patient safety. In the meantime, the Veterans Affairs National Center for Patient Safety is at www.patientsafety.gov. We'll be right back.
For breaking news about science and technology, visit www.sciam.com/newstoday
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: Australian paleontologists have found fossils of a killer kangaroo with fangs.
Story number 2: The owner of Dinosaur Adventure Land, a creationist theme park in Florida, shut down the park in light of overwhelming scientific evidence that humans and dinosaurs did not in fact live together.
Story number 3: Providing nutritional information with high-school cafeteria lunch choices not only helps students to make better food choices, but also causes students to have higher opinions of the oft-maligned lunch ladies.
Story number 4: If an elderly woman loses weight, it can be a warning sign of the later onset of Alzheimer's disease.
We will be back with the answer, but first--Max Houck is a trace evidence expert and director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University. Last week we talked about his article on CSI science in the July issue of Scientific American. He had also coincidentally just returned from a conference and I asked him about that.
Houck: I just got back from the International Association for Identification or IAI, their annual education symposium.
Steve: And you were one of the presenters, but I assume you also went to some of the other talks.
Houck: Exactly. And the disciplines that are covered under IAI are fingerprinting, crime scene work, photography, other types of impression evidence like shoe prints or tire tracks.
Steve: And what did you come away with, anything new that jumped out
of[at] you that you thought was really worth having learned about.
Houck: In the last few years there have been several significant challenges to fingerprints in court as to whether fingerprinting is in fact science, are all fingerprints unique.
Steve: That's really interesting, before you go further, because fingerprints, I mean, we all grew up hearing that fingerprints are absolutely unique and a fingerprint at a crime scene would be iron-clad evidence.
Houck: And you just hit on the exact nature of the issue. Fingerprints, most everybody would argue those in fact are unique. If the patent prints--latent prints are the ones not immediately visible, patent prints are the ones that are visible--say in paint or blood or some other material at a crime scene. That's a transfer of that original detail of that information to another surface. It's not the question whether fingerprints themselves are unique, it can be used
on[to] say that those transferred pattern[s] are in fact unique to one and only one source.
Steve: Because the entire fingerprint is not going to necessarily be there in perfect form.
Houck: Well, that, and fingerprint, in terms of language, there are translation issues
that[like] how much pressure was used, how smooth was the underlying surface, was there twisting or torsion involved. Is it distorted? Is it blurred? So, all those issues go into how accurately that fingerprint got transferred. Really it's the first time that this field has had that much attention paid to it in terms of research at such a fundamental level.
Steve: What has driven the quest for more detail about fingerprints?
Houck: Well, it's the legal challenges--those were at the heart of it--but it's an issue of admissibility: For evidence to be admissible in courts, it has to have value
so that[to] one side or the other, prosecution or the defense, but it also has to meet some other requirements. Those requirements changed [a] number of years ago with a series of Supreme Court cases. The one which most everybody refers to is Daubert versus Merrill Dow, which set a criteria for what constituted scientific evidence, that's been translated to the criminal side; Daubert was a civil case and those have been picked up and are now being applied to mainly to forensic sciences. So, it's these new requirements for what constitutes science in a legal context that is now driving people back to some pretty fundamental research.
Steve: So, overall this is a good thing or a bad thing that we are putting fingerprints under this kind of scrutiny?
Houck: Overall, I think it's good. I think it's good for a couple of reasons; one, the forensic science is historically--they started out in science and then it became adopted with techniques with law enforcement agencies; and that, sort of, you'll excuse the rest of their development, because the law and law enforcement [agencies] are about certainty, and science isn't always, and so, there wasn't much development. There were additions and field[s] did progress, but not like what it is for say biology or chemistry or physics. I had been doing some reading on this and in fact biology and chemistry went through a phase w[h]ere they were considered only applied sciences and not real[ly] worthy of real research; and I think we are beginning to see that in these older disciplines, in forensic science, where we are now getting back to our research mindset; and we are asking some of these fundamental questions, which I think is excellent. I think it's excellent not only for the field as a science, but obviously it's going to provide us with a better justice.
Steve: Well, thanks very much Professor Houck. I appreciate your time.
Houck: Sure, thanks Steve, no problem.
Steve: Max Houck's article called "CSI: Reality" is in the July issue of Scientific American and on our Web site, www.sciam.com
Now, it's time to see which story was TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Let's review the four stories.
Story number 1: Fanged killer kangaroos once terrorized the Australian outback.
Story number 2: The owner of Dinosaur Adventure Land shut down the park because of scientific evidence that humans and dinosaurs never coexisted.
Story number 3: Giving kids nutritional information along with their cafeteria lunch also upped the image of the cafeteria staff in the students' eyes.
Story number 4: Weight loss in an elderly woman can be a warning sign of Alzheimer's disease.
Story number 4 is true. Weight loss in elderly women can be a warning sign of Alzheimer's; that's according to research from the Mayo Clinic. Now, this doesn't mean that older woman who diet are increasing their odds of developing Alzheimer's. Rather it means that older wom
an[en] who suddenly start losing weight may be getting thinner because Alzheimer's, in it's very earliest stages, maybe interfering with taste or smell or even the sense of being full.
Story number 3 is true. Providing nutritional information with high-school cafeteria lunch choices not only help students to make better food choices, but also improves the students' satisfaction with school lunch programs and dining-room staff, according to a Penn State study; however, the additional information did not improve opinions about ambiance or cost.
Story number 1 is true. Paleontologists in Australia found fossils of a meat-eating kangaroo with fangs that would have sliced through flesh and bone. Another fossil is of a kangaroo with long forelimbs that would have galloped rather than hopped; kind of takes away the whole meaning of kangaroo limb for us doesn't it? The ancient Aussies lived at least 10 million years ago.
All of which means that the story about Dinosaur Adventure Land closing because scientific evidence shows that humans and dinosaurs never palled around together is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Because what's true is that the park, which was promoted as the place where dinosaurs and the Bible meet, the park closed because owner, Kent Hovind never got building permits for the structures in the park and because last week Hovind was arrested on 58 federal charges ranging from failure to pay employee taxes, threatening investigators, and evasion of bank reporting requirements. Hovind runs the Creation Science Evangelism Ministry; the Pensacola News Journal newspaper reports that members of [the] Creation Science Evangelism group said that building permits violated their "deeply held" religious beliefs. We'll be right back.
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Well that's it for this edition of the Scientific American podcast. Our e-mail address is email@example.com. And also remember that science news is updated daily on the Scientific American Web site www.sciam.com. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.