Welcome to the Scientific American podcast for mid February. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, we will talk with Scientific American editor, Christine Soares, about avian flu. Paleontologist Gregory Erickson tells us about the discovery of a fossil from T.rex's great, great, great, great, great, great—well, you got the idea—granddad. And Bruce Mirken discusses marijuana policy in the U.S. and in England. Along with those interviews, we will test your veracity or mendacity versus capacity with a quiz about real and fake science and with Jon Stewart, perhaps our most trusted news anchor, we'll look at how yesterday's comics might have handled today's news. Thanks for joining us on the Scientific American podcast.
First up avian flu. Wayt Gibbs and Christine Soares co-wrote a November Scientific American article on avian flu. Now that we're deep into this flu season, I spoke with Christine at her office at Scientific American magazine.
Steve: We have been hearing about avian flu in humans in the country Turkey. So what's going on there?
Soares: Yes, there has been a recent outbreak; very worrying because, of course, every time the virus infects people it gets another opportunity to adapt to people.
Steve: The big concern there is that the adaptation could come where avian flu acquires the ability to be transmitted directly from one human to another?
Soares: Exactly! Yes. It might meet a human flu virus and swap genes and gain the ability to transmit between people or it might just evolve it on its own.
Steve: There is always a concern around flu season, but this year, hyper-concern. Why was the concern so great?
Soares: Well! Of course, there has been building concern among scientists for the last few years about this particular virus potentially turning into the next pandemic virus. This fall, I think, the U.S. released its pandemic plan with a lot of fanfare right around the same time that the virus was identified in birds in Europe, and so you got a kind of confluence of a lot of general media coverage that might have been a little panicky.
Steve: Let's talk about the media coverage for a moment. Was the media coverage overblown? Was there too much?
Soares: Well! In the sense that it's an extremely serious threat, there is probably no such thing (laughs) as too much coverage. Scientists have been trying to get attention for the issue for years. The general media was probably new to the subject and may be didn't understand a lot of the details and nuances and the basis of concern and what to be concerned about and may have been a little bit hysterical.
Steve: So, how long are we going to be watching avian flu?
Soares: Well! (laughs) There have been people who have been watching it already will continue to watch it very closely—not just the strain, but all avian flu strains. I think they worry that the public attention will wane after so much frenzy last fall and perhaps support for further research and preparations will also wane along with that, which would be the worst thing that could happen.
Steve: Is there a big flu pandemic coming at us inevitably?
Soares: Well! I guess, if you look past history, you know, (laughs) look back thousands of years, there are records of flu pandemic, so statistically it's a good bet; when is the question. Whether it can be delayed or averted or prevented, unknown.
Steve: Christine thanks very much.
Soares: Thank you Steve.
Steve: Now it's time to play TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories. Three of them are actually true. See if you can guess which one is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: Researchers recently published an analysis of coma patients on soap operas.
Story number 2: A British man went bankrupt redesigning his apartment to look like the interior of the starship Voyager from the TV show Star Trek: Voyager. Then his wife left him.
Story number 3: The American Association of Petroleum Geologists gave their journalism award to Michael Crichton for his novels—Jurassic Park and the more recent State of Fear, in which he pooh-poohs global warming.
And story number 4: On the weekend after the new Harry Potter book came out, only half as many kids wound up in English emergency rooms as on a typical weekend.
I will be back with the totally bogus answer, but first in January the British Government released a report from its advisory council on the misuse of drugs with recommendations on how marijuana should be legally classified.
I talked about the report and differences in how cannabis is handled by the governments of England and the U.S. with Bruce Mirken. He is with an organization called the Marijuana Policy Project and I called him at his office in San Francisco.
Steve: Mr. Mirken, good to talk to you today.
Mirken: Good to be here.
Steve: Tell me about the British report and what brought it about and what conclusions they came to?
Mirken: Sure. This goes back a few years. The British Government has been in a process of reconsidering their policy towards marijuana—or cannabis as its known back there—
and more scientifically and two years ago they reclassified—what they called downgraded—marijuana in their national drug law. They moved it down to the lowest category, what's considered the least dangerous of illicit drugs. And in practical terms, what that meant is that, by and large, you don't get arrested in Britain for possession of marijuana unless there is aggravating circumstances. They implemented that policy in the beginning of 2004 and then the government began to have some second thoughts, in part because a couple of studies came out in the last year or so suggesting a possible link between marijuana use and mental illness. So basically the British Government, the Home Office turned to their Scientific Advisory Panel—a group called the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which is a group of very high-powered scientists from Oxford and Cambridge, and other high-powered institutions—and they basically said, look at the data again, make sure we did the right thing or do we need to change this.
Steve: The conclusions that the council reached—the Advisory Council—after reviewing the data?
Mirken: Well! The council reviewed the data, they released a report in mid-January of this year and concluded that the policy should be maintained—that is they should not go back to arresting marijuana users. They looked at the data and concluded that there are some risks. This is definitely not a report that whitewashes the health risks of marijuana. They are particularly strong about saying that young people should be discouraged from using it.
Steve: Let me go over some of the material from the report for people who are not familiar with the drug classification scheme. In England, according to the report, a drug like cocaine is in class A, the most dangerous class; drugs like amphetamines or barbiturates are considered class B. And marijuana had been moved recently from class B down to class C, what was considered the least harmful of the regulated drugs right?
Mirken: Correct; and it's such an interesting contrast of course to the U.S. national drug law—what's called [the] Controlled Substances Act—in which marijuana is in the worst categor
ies[y]—what's called Schedule I—with heroin and LSD.
Steve: Why is there is such a difference between the American attitude and the British attitude toward cannabis?
Mirken: Well! I have to say I think it's because the British have chosen to take a science-based approach. They really looked at the data, acknowledged that this substance is not harmless, but the harm that it causes is relatively limited; while the U.S. has really just—I've got to say—have clung to mythology. This is a drug that carries a lot of social and cultural baggage with it and it's been stigmatized in a way that, that really almost seems to make U.S. policy impervious to data.
Steve: Now the report recommends that rather than classify marijuana back up to a more serious drug, that the government engage in a public information campaign to try to discourage its use while still maintaining it in the lowest of the categories, in terms of harm. Now how does that contrast with the American situation?
Mirken: In a newspaper ad directed at parents that ran all over the country last year—USA Today, New York Times, all the major papers—big headline says Marijuana and Your Teen's Mental Health: Depression, Suicidal Thoughts, Schizophrenia. Scary stuff intended to be scary stuff. But the British experts looked at the data and came away convinced—and I'll just read this, "The recent data are not overall persuasive of a causal association between cannabis use and the development of depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety." So what the White House has really done here is cherry pick
ed little snippets of data out of context to support a political position and that doesn't help us. You know, people can disagree about what the right policy should be, but let's have some respect for science.
Steve: Thanks very much Mr. Mirken; we appreciate it.
Mirken: Thank you, it was a pleasure.
Steve: The Marijuana Policy Project's Web site is mpp.org and the Web site of the office of National Drug Control Policy's youth anti-drug media campaign is mediacampaign.org.
And now it's time to see which story was TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. Again the stories were:
Did scientists really do an outcome study of coma patients on soap operas?
Did a man go broke making his apartment look like the starship Voyager?
Did the American Association of Petroleum Geologists really give Michael Crichton their journalism award?
And do Harry Potter Books cut down on emergency room visits?
Soap opera comas really were studied. Researche
s[r] in Philadelphia looked at 64 coma patients on soap operas over a 10-year period: 89 percent of the patients made a full recovery, which shows once again that it's better to have a coma on TV than in real life.
Petroleum geologists really did give Crichton their journalism award, which is weird, because never mind that his stake on global warming science is suspect; how about the fact that most of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park actually lived in the more recent Cretaceous period—although you have to admit that Jurassic Park is a better title than "Cretaceous Park." There is more on this story at the Scientific American blog, blog.sciam.com.
And Harry Potter does cut down on trauma. Reading Harry Potter probably keeps kids indoors in soft chairs instead of outside playing on hard concrete, getting hurt and going to emergency rooms, although the long-term impact of a sedentary lifestyle may offset these short-term health gains, which means that the story about the guy going bankrupt from turning his home into the starship Voyager, after which his wife left him is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. Because, you see, according to published accounts, his wife left him before he redesigned the apartment to look like the starship Voyager. If he was trying to get her back, maybe he should have gone with the Enterprise instead; and maybe we should have gone with PARTIALL…….Y BOGUS. Although you have to admit that "Totally Bogus" is a better title than "Partially Bogus." If you've got any comments about the Scientific American podcast that you'd like to share, send us e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's p-o-d-c-a-s-t-@-s-c-i-a-m.com.
Next up, paleontologist Gregory Erickson. He wrote a big T. rex update article for Scientific American back in September 1999 and he is a co-author of a paper in last week's edition of the journal Nature about the discovery of a new, very old T. rex relative. I called him at his office at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
Steve: Professor Erickson, thanks for joining us today.
Erickson: Sure! Thanks for having me, Steve.
Steve: So, tell us about this fossil. First of all who found it, where they found it; and you are one of the co-authors on the journal Nature paper. What was your role in this whole thing?
Erickson: Well! That's correct. This was found by Xu Xing who is at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, China, and he was working with Jim Clark from George Washington University; and they had a crew out on the field a year or so ago and one of their colleagues—his name is Yu—was the one who actually came across this specimen.
Steve: And you are one of the co-authors on the paper, so what was your role?
Erickson: Well! Xu came to me with this specimen—actually two specimens—and he knew they were the same species, but one was much smaller than the other and also there were some differences in the shapes of the skull and things such as the orbit—the place where the eye is on the skull—some of these things kind of puzzled him and he was wondering whether we had two adults here or we were looking at developmental differences. So my role as being an expert on dinosaur growth patterns was to cut up some of the bones from these animals to figure out how old they were and what we found is that the larger specimen—that's the one with the most elaborate crest—was about 13 years of age at the time of death and the smaller one was 6 years of age. This tells us that we're probably dealing with developmental differences between these animals and not sexual differences.
Steve: Can you very briefly explain how you can look at the bones and tell how old this dinosaur was when it died?
Erickson: Yeah! That's a great question. Aging reptiles is very much like aging a tree, if you count all the growth rings in the tree from the center moving to the outside, you know, of the tree you can figure how old it is counting the annual growth lines. In reptiles you see the same growth lines; and so we basically select certain bones—particularly the fibula which is the shinbone on meat-eating dinosaurs like this—and we'll cut them open and we'll make a microscope slide of them. You can then just count the growth lines from the center to the outside and figure out how old they are.
Steve: So, in the introduction to the entire podcast, I called this dinosaur a great, great, great ad infinitum grandfather of T. rex. Now is that accurate, or is it more like a fifieth cousin a million times removed, or what is it?
Erickson: Probably the latter. This is a tyrannosaur that is not a direct ancestor to T. rex, but it's a close relative. It's on a, you know, another dead-end lineage so to speak. But it shares a common ancestor with Tyrannosaurus rex.
Steve: And the big deal about this is that it's so much older than T. rex?
Erickson: Yeah! This is the oldest tyrannosaur, so it's about 90 million years older than Tyrannosaurus rex and it clearly has tyrannosaur-type features, but it is definitely not, you know, a T. rex—it's not a gigantic animal. It doesn't have those two fingers. It clearly is a lot more like some of the smaller meat-eating dinosaurs from earlier times.
Steve: Okay, it's not gigantic, but it's not tiny either?
Erickson: No, it's about 10 feet long which is, you know, a moderate size when we're talking about dinosaurs. Tyrannosaurus rex for comparison was about 42 to 43 feet long and weighed about 12,000 pounds, so …
Erickson: … this is a good considerably smaller animal.
Steve: But you still wouldn't want to come across it.
Erickson: I wouldn't want to come across either of them actually. (laughs)
Steve: Right! Now, earlier in the podcast, I made reference to Jurassic Park and the fact that a lot of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are actually from the Cretaceous, but this baby is from the Jurassic, right?
Erickson: Yes! You are right. This is an animal that actually comes from the Jurassic period.
Steve: There was a piece about this research on your university's Web site—the Florida State University Web site— where you were quoted as calling it the sexiest of the tyrannosaur
us. How does it rate that description?
Erickson: (laughs) Yeah! I guess I did say that. It's—well! It has this enormous crest on its skull. Its, you know, very much like the crests we see on the spitter from Jurassic Park and no excrescence like this has ever been seen on a tyrannosaur, and we take that these are structures that were prime for species recognition and probably for sexual display; so in that sense this is a sex-related crest, I guess, and they are—being the relatively largest crest on any tyrannosaur—I guess that makes it the sexiest tyrannosaur.
Steve: The dinosaur has been dubbed Guanlong wucaii. Is that right?
Erickson: Wucaii yeah!
Steve: Wucaii—and that has a pretty cool translation when you turn it into English?
Erickson: Yeah! It means the crown dragon of five colors; and the five colors comes from the very colorful rocks that the specimen was found in; and it is some of the shops there, I guess they call them apothecary shops. They powder up dinosaur bones—they do this to this very day—and then sell them as medicine and they are sold as dragon bones; and so, you know, in a sense these really are the dragons that (laughs) those tales comes from.
Steve: So that's quite an [expiration date]
exploration data on that bottle of medicine.
Erickson: (laughs) Yeah! It's true.
Steve: Professor Erickson, thank you, we appreciate it.
Erickson: Oh! My pleasure, thank you very much.
Steve: Finally, you know, many Americans get most of their news from comics like Jon Stewart. We wondered how some of yesterday's best-loved comedians might have handled today's news.
Voice 1: Hey bud, I've been hearing a lot lately about this bird flu. It sounds awful scary.
Voice 2: Well! You know, Lou, that's very understandable. Stopping it will require an international response by the World Health Organization, WHO.
Voice 1: WHO is trying to stop it?
Voice 2: That's right!
Voice 1: What's right?
Voice 2: WHO is trying to stop it.
Voice 1: That's what I asked.
Voice 2: And I told you the answer is WHO.
Voice 1: WHO what?
Voice 2: Is stopping this spread of the avian flu?
Voice 1: That's what I want to know.
Voice 2: And that's why I keep telling you, WHO is responsible for bird flu.
Voice 1: Wait, so
whoWHO brought the flu to Europe?
Voice 2: No, WHO tried to stop the flu from getting to Europe.
Voice 1: That's what I want to know.
Voice 2: And that's what I am telling you.
Voice 1: Telling me what?
Voice 2: WHO didn't stop the flu from getting to Europe.
Voice 1: Right! So how did it get there?
Voice 2: It's flu in the bird.
Voice 1: I know it's flu in the birds. I want to know how it got there?
Voice 2: You should ask WHO.
Voice 1: Ask WHO what? I don't even know what we're talking about?
Tell me, (loud laughs and claps) are they sick turkeys?
Voice 2: I don't know.
Voice 1: So the flu might not be in turkey.
Voice 2: No, it's definitely in Turkey
Voice 1: But you said you didn't know.
Voice 2: But I do know, WHO told me.
Voice 1: I can't guess.
Voice 2: Guess what?
Voice 1: You tell me.
Voice 2: Tell you what?
Voice 1: Tell me who?
Voice 2: WHO what?
Voice 1: Where?
Both: Turkey. (loud laughs)
Voice 1: How, I don't know, it flew.
Voice 2: Exactly!
Voice 1: And how did it get there? WHO knows?
Voice 2: Now you got it.
Voice 1: I don't got nothing.
Voice 2: Duck.
Voice 1: Oh ….
Voice 2: I told you to duck.
Steve: Well! I can see by the vibration of the CCM Adams on the wall, that's it for this edition of the Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at email@example.com. I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.