The Wildlife Conservation Society's George Schaller talks about his new book, A Naturalist and Other Beasts, which covers his 50 years of documenting important large animal species in the field. And <i>SciAm</i> editor in chief, John Rennie, talks about a few of the articles to be found in our June issue. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites mentioned on this episode include www.sciam.com/daily, www.wcs.org
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting May 28th, 2008. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast we'll talk with George Schaller, one of the world's great field biologists, and SciAm editor in chief, John Rennie, talks about few of the articles to be found in our June issue. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First up: George Schaller. He was vice president for science and exploration at the Wildlife Conservation Society and is now their senior conservationist. He gave a talk to sixth graders on May 23rd at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx. I spoke to him in one of the school's offices after his talk with many school kids playing in the yard just outside.
Steve: You have this book out. The title is: A Naturalist and Other Beasts. So by implication, you are referring to yourself as one of the beasts.
Schaller: Well! Humans are animals, so no problem in that.
Steve: No problem with that. You refer to yourself in one of the chapters of the book as a feral biologist—what do you mean by that?
Schaller: I'm domesticated in many ways, but I run wild and that's a feral creature.
Steve: Tell me some more about the book—it's a collection of articles that you've had published, for the most part, in magazines over the years.
Schaller: It's just to give people an overview of really the wonders of nature, all these beautiful animals out there that need protection.
Steve: Why do you bother to write for general audience in addition to your scientific publications?
Schaller: Partly I enjoy writing more readable material rather than scientific and if you do something that you think is important for a society, you want to reach society. And so popular articles, even if it still reaches a small percentage of people, reaches far more than the scientific pieces; and I think you also have a responsibility as a scientist to communicate to the public because you are using public money to do your science.
Steve: The various articles that are compiled in the book range all over the place: different animals; very different locales. Well what's the through line? How are all the different articles connected to make this a whole?
Schaller: I've been accused of having a short-attention span and that some people spend their whole lives working with one species such as wolves or tigers.
Schaller: I enjoy being out. I enjoy looking at beautiful animals. I look for opportunities which are not crowded with people and other scientists, so I go look at a country and say, "Hey I don't know any thing about Tajikistan and I don't find anything published, let's go to Tajikistan and see if you can help in anyway." And so one way or another, if you pick a large beautiful animal, you create empathy for it. People now have great empathy for gorillas, which they didn't have 50 years ago, just because of the popular writing, the popular films; and they see people sitting near them and so people respond to that. If in a same area, I had been studying something else, let's say a leech, nobody would pay any attention.
Steve: This is one of the questions I was going to ask you, because you've made a whole career out of studying the large charismatic animals, but those leeches are incredibly important as the foundation.
Schaller: They are of more importance, but by studying the large animals, which you can sit there and enjoy and get the information and project the knowledge to the public, so they respond, you get areas set aside as reserves; and whatever our management owns, which you would never get the attention if you don't have local and international support. So, as far as to step the yard doing basic research, you need to have a constituency for conservation and that's one reason to work in [a] lot of these countries. China has been tremendously receptive to this. I've been working now there for quarter of a century and Northern Tibet now has a block of countryside that's about 250,000 square miles—that's about the size of Texas—which has a legal protection. It has nomads living in it; fine, so one has to work with the nomads to find certain harmony between the people, the livestock, the rangeland and the wildlife. But if you go to areas where nobody has paid attention, you can have often the most impact, whereas if I go to someplace like Nairobi, which is full of people doing important work,
but the impact you can have is much less.
Steve: And also, I mean, you implied this, but I don't think, you actually said it, "If you protect the gorillas, you also protect the leeches, and a thousand or million other species that are too small to get on people's radars."
Schaller: Absolutely! That's the one point from conservation, but I didn't start out this way professionally. I like to be out and sit and watch animals and write their biographies and so forth, but right from the beginning, I was fortunate to work with mentors who were interested in conservation. So automatically, as you do your research, you think of ways now how can you improve the conservation? And even if I only spent two or three years,
and nearly all my projects, others have carried on in that area, whether it's mountain gorillas or Serengeti lions and tigers and so forth. So other people are building knowledge on top of what I do. And one of the main aims I have really in these countries is to find young, local people that are enthusiastic about being out, that go with me, work with me, and then, one hopes continue, on in this work and WCS has been funding some of these people and now we are already in the third generation of some of whom that started out with me, went onto become professors, and have their own students doing the same thing.
Steve: On the other hand, you've got these generations of researchers, but you also have the generations of the animals. You studied lions in the Serengeti 35 years ago and the descendants of those same animals have been studied continuously in all the time since then by your research descendants. What do we get from one of these really long-term studies of the same individuals and their descendants that we don't get by more snapshot field studies, where somebody comes in, five years later somebody else comes in and looks at a different group of animals; what do you get from that through them?
Schaller: Well! If you really want to know an animal, then it's useful to study at least one life span, which is, lions would be 18 years and elephants may be 60 years, not too many researchers spend the 60 years in elephants, but …
Steve: Tough to study tortoises?
Schaller: Yeah! Now there is a 120-year-old Galapagos tortoise, but you get a depth of knowledge of their society beyond that; but your presence alone helps conservation, even if you do nothing but sit there. Just by having people out monitoring what's going on is very important. Number two is, you see cycles of what's happening, which you can't predict, like suddenly Serengeti lions get canine distemper from the village stocks around and 2,000 lions die, alright? We wouldn't know about this unless somebody was there, but then we also learn that, "Hey, they breed so fast, the population goes right back up, if it's protected."
Steve: So what might appear to be a major disaster is actually just a little ripple in the long-term span of the lion.
Schaller: Right. And normal life, even if people weren't present there, might well pick up some sort of disease, but for those two reasons alone it's very important. And you simply, if an area is worthwhile, you can never turn your back. If it's a natural heritage, somebody has got to keep an eye on it. And the perfect example is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in this country which is 30,000 square miles of wilderness and it's our greatest wilderness area; yet the administration, oil companies want to thrash it; its complete ecological vandalism. One of the senators from Alaska, Ted Stevens is under investigation for corruption.
Steve: Well! I've got to say something about Ted Stevens for our long-time listeners. I just have to use the phrase "a series of tubes." Okay, I'll let you continue.
Schaller: Yeah! I remember that one. Then you have Representative Don Young also under investigation for corruption. Oil companies are ….
Steve: Alaska is a very special place.
Schaller: No it's not; it's a very typical place. It's special in that it still has a lot of wilderness and few people, but the point is unless you keep an eye on things, you're going to lose it and that is true for every country, which has something worth saving.
Steve: Let me give you a quote. You know the comedian Dennis Miller?
Steve: Anyway I'll tell you something he said, and I would like your reaction to it. He said, "You know, I like caribou, but we should suck that wildlife refuge drier than one of Oscar Wilde's thank you notes".
Schaller: (laughs) As far as the wildlife refuge, I got a whole page of quotes by everything from presidents down to oil company executives, but the number of lies and the amount of ignorance that's displayed is horrendous in our government officials.
Steve: Well, since we've been comparing our oil issues with an addiction, it's kind of ironic that the solution being proposed by drilling in the Arctic is to find more of the stuff we're addicted to.
Schaller: Well, the thing is the Arctic slope, almost 90 percent of it is leased already to oil companies and hasn't been drilled, but they still want that little corner of the Arctic Refuge because they know if they can get in there, they can get in anywhere.
Steve: Why have they not drilled in the 90 percent that they could drill in?
Schaller: Now there is a very good American reason—it costs a little more.
Steve: It would be cheaper to drill in this section that's currently protected?
Schaller: It's cheaper and a higher grade, but the point is if they are that concerned about getting oil, okay they've already leased places. So leave the one place that is a calving ground for 120,000 caribou alone.
Steve: Let me ask you about some of your field studies. You were studying pandas in China. You went two months without seeing an animal. Now you talked about, you know, how much fun really it is to study animals in the wild. What is it like when you are a field biologist and you go out there and day after day for two months you are not seeing the animal you came to look at?
Schaller: Oh, but there's lots of other things to see. A panda makes about 90 bamboo droppings a day, poop that gives you a lot of stuff to analyze.
Steve: I see. So, even though you are not seeing the animal, you are seeing a lot of evidence for the animal.
Schaller: Absolutely! And you can track them in snow; you can learn an awful lot by indirect means. Field studies take a lot of time. There are no quick answers, because you go according to the life of the animal, not your life.
Steve: Right, it's pretty funny … you came back to the tent one day and the panda was waiting for you.
Schaller: Not only that, it left a big pile of poop on my bed.
Steve: (laughs) And you did the first real field studies of mountain gorillas.
Schaller: Detailed studies. I habituated, in other words, got them used to my presence near them. I didn't try to get close, I let them close to me if they wanted to; that was absolutely lovely. We had this cabin, I roamed around each day, usually alone because it's easier to make animals used to you if you come everyday, and pretty soon they look up and say "Oh! Jesus, it's that guy again," and they go on with their business.
Steve: Right, right. You know, people have seen gorillas on television or maybe at a zoo for the most part. You are out there. I've been up close with a lot of alligators in the Everglades, and you do get a sense that they're really not that interested in you, and if you do get too close to them, they'll let you know before they'll do anything violent to you. But I'd be much more wary about a gorilla who might weigh, how much does a big male gorilla go?
Schaller: Oh, maybe 400.
Steve: And it is all muscle and no …
Schaller: And a big gut full of vegetation.
Steve: Right, big gut full of vegetation fermenting there. A large male gorilla could be fatal, if the interaction is …
Schaller: They often prove that point.
Steve: So, what is your emotional state when you are encountering one of these animals up close for the first time?
Steve: It's a good answer.
Schaller: The thing is, for an animal like a gorilla, you can judge reasonably well what its thinking. A panda which doesn't have much facial expression, it's more difficult to judge. So, if you see the animal is getting very tense and nervous, yeah, you back off or in other words, give it some space; if you get accidentally too close, well people have gotten injured. A big male gorilla likes to come roaring at you and take a big sweep of his arm and if he hits you with that big sweep, you'll probably feel it. I've worked in Alaska around bears quite a bit, and so I wasn't very concerned.
Steve: But the consanguinity of our relationship there with gorillas, you think that's an advantage because we can actually read each other's facial expressions better than for example, us and a bear or us and a cat. Forget about that.
Schaller: One has to learn. I mean, if you've had a dog, that dog can read your gestures before you even know you made them and—animals are much better at reading gestures and—if you're going to work with an animal, you better learn as much as you can about what's sets it off and how does it respond.
Steve: Because that's their primary language.
Schaller: It's their primary language, and that's what stimulates them to behave in a certain way.
Steve: So, where are you headed to next?
Schaller: Oh! I'm going up to Ladakh, which is in the Tibetan plateau part that's in India.
Steve: And what're you going to be looking at there?
Schaller: We've got projects there, and I've got some Indian biologists that want to take me there and show me their projects. I'm looking to see what other projects there should be. You've got the same fauna as next door in Tibet. They have got gazelles and wild asses and wild yaks, in the steep parts you've got ibex and snow leopards. But the main thing is to see, work with communities to see how they stimulate communities to protect their own environment. And that's the big challenge in conservation, whether you are talking about ranchers in Montana or nomads in Tibet.
Steve: Great to talk to you. Thanks very much.
Schaller: My pleasure, thank you.
Steve: There is a new issue of Scientific American out. I spoke with editor in chief, John Rennie, in the SciAm library. Well, the June issue of Scientific American looks like a lot of fun—and I mean that this time.
Rennie: Well, I'm glad to hear that Steve, thank you.
Steve: I see we have for the second issue in a row.
Steve: A Sean Carol article, but they are two different Sean Carols.
Rennie: Two different Sean Carols, that's right. And Sean Carol the physicist is the one who is writing in our June issue. He is writing about the cosmic origins of time's arrow, and this is a great question. It's one of those, sort of, fundamental philosophical questions of "Why does time move forward?" Why does time go in one particular direction? You know, the clock never runs backward for us. Time is always marching in one direction, really at one pace.
Steve: Or I think it was Bertrand Russell who said—and he was describing entropy but it is intimately related—he said, "you can't unscramble eggs."
Rennie: Right, that's right. That's the universe in which we live. You can break the eggs, you can scramble them; the processes will not reverse themselves spontaneously and remake an egg. Now the reason why that's sort of a mystery in terms of physics is that if you look at all the fundamental physical processes that the physicists are constantly identifying, they are symmetrical over time. So when particles can combine to form a new particle or that kind of particle can decompose into the constituent particles, in theory all these different processes in nature should run in both directions. So why is it then that what we observe is a macro-universe in which it all keeps running that way into one direction that we think of as the future. And this is a problem that physicists have been pondering for a long time. Sean Carol writes about an idea that he and some of his colleagues have been developing that is based on the idea of entropy as you were talking about it. They make an argument that maybe the beginning and the end of the universe may be very similar. And in fact the universe in which we live may really be just one of a gigantic network of universes and part of a great big multiverse; and in some of those other universes, time really may be running backward as far as we are concerned.
Steve: Man! You just blew my mind. (laugh) Any individuals in that universe that would experience time as running forward.
Rennie: That's right. If something happened and our universe did suddenly seem to be running backward with respect to time, we wouldn't know it. The sense of perception of time would always be based in one direction.
Steve: So, you can't walk backwards into the movie theater and not have to pay.
Rennie: No, no. I think that's one of the most important consequences of their work.
Steve: So … another really interesting article on the forensics of digital imaging.
Rennie: Dimital igmining!
Steve: Yes, it's been a long and fruitful day.
Rennie: Indeed it has.
Steve: Dimital igmining!
Rennie: If time were running backward, we could eliminate that, yes.
Steve: Digital imaging and obviously, I mean, you know, an 8-year-old kid on a PC can put together incriminating photographs that would put you at the scene of a crime with very little effort especially because you were at the scene of the crime.
Rennie: You can't prove that.
Steve: We have an article about techniques to analyze digital photographs and determine whether or not they've been doctored.
Rennie: That's right. The sophistication of what's goes on in photographic manipulation, really the two go hand in hand. On the one hand, thanks to Photoshop and more sophisticated tools, it is possible to do all kinds of fraudulent things with photographs, but if you look at a more sophisticated level of what's happening to the digital information, you can sometimes sort out where the fakery is taking place.
Steve: Right. If a photograph is going to become part of a court case, you obviously want to be able to tell whether or not it has been doctored.
Steve: So, we've got an article by Carl Zimmer about what a species is. We're going to have Carl on an upcoming podcast. So, we'll mention that a little bit. He has a new book out as well. And then we've got this, finally, we've got the Tunguska Mystery. Now I'm still sticking with the Venkman hypothesis (laughs), that the Tunguska mystery is actually the large interdimensional cross-rip.
Rennie: Oh! You Ghostbusters fans, when will you ever learn to let this alone?
Steve: Apparently, though there is some actual physics explanation now?
Rennie: Yes, well it's more of an astronomical explanation, in case there is anybody who doesn't know. A hundred years ago, just a hundred years ago, over Siberia, there was an explosion suddenly in the skies. It was a massive explosion that flattened trees for 50 miles around. It's fortunate that it happened in a largely uninhabited area, so as far as I know, no one was actually killed or injured in the process, but it was a huge event. And ever since then, people had been wondering what happened. The obvious kind of explanation that we would often think of these days is, well maybe it was some kind of some, sort of, meteor that was suddenly coming down and maybe exploded just above the ground in Siberia. The problem is, when you would go to this site, there was no sign of an impact crater, and so this has been one of things that have made the Tunguska mystery so persistent over the years. People are trying to figure out what was going on; you've had a lot of exotic explanations. People have sometimes thought, not necessarily, about interdimensional gateways.
Steve: Any oddball listeners could probably list you a half dozen really interesting hypothesis.
Rennie: Yeah, you've had people who thought it was UFOs that were exploding, or maybe some kind of, you know, tiny quantum black hole was coming down to the atmosphere and we were seeing something that was happening there. But the authors of this new piece think they've come up with the explanation, and
that they've gone over this area and they've reconstructed a scenario in which it could have been the case that some sort of small meteor did come to ground and what may help make the determination here, is that they think they've identified what may be a crater after all. It's a small lake that under the right circumstances it could be the site of the impact crater, and it might have been subsequently filled with water. If that's the case, then further searchings down at the bottom of that pond, they might be able to turn up some fragments from that impactor.
Steve: Which would be the kind of evidence that you really need?
Rennie: At that point, you'd pretty much, you could put, you know, stamp, "solved" right onto the Tunguska mystery.
Steve: That's all in the June issue of Scientific American. Also, featured articles on the ethics and economics of climate change as well as the trust hormone.
Rennie: That's right, oxytocin! So something for everyone in the June issue, Steve.
Steve: 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: The smaller red spot on Jupiter, discovered in 2006, appears to be breaking apart already.
Story number 2: The world's oldest known tree is a Swedish spruce that has been around for almost 10 millennia.
Story number 3: Astronomers recently witnessed a star exploding, as they happened to be looking at it.
And story number 4: Oregano oil is as good as pesticides to get rid of a common beetle that infests stored cereals.
Time is up.
Story number 4 is true. Oregano oil is as good as synthetic insecticides at fighting of a common beetle, Rhizopertha dominica, that can ruin stockpiles of cereal. The finding appeared in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. Oregano seems to inhibit egg laying and larval developmental probably because the oregano plant has to fight off bugs too.
And story number 3 is true. Astronomers from Princeton did happen to catch a supernova while they were looking at the star. They were intending to look at a month-old supernova, but instead saw an x-ray burst that signaled the beginning of another supernova. Their paper appeared in the journal Nature.
And story number 2 is true. Researchers in Sweden found that the 16-foot-tall spruce is actually 9,550 years old—that's a lot of rings to count. It's part of a system of tree clones, growing from the same root network. For more, check out the May 27th edition of the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science.
All of which means that story number 1 about the smaller red spot on Jupiter breaking apart is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Because what is true is that the smaller red spot dubbed
a Red Spot Junior and the famous Great Red Spot have been joined by a third red spot. It was found by Hubble in early May and lies to the west of the Great Red Spot in the same latitude. If both red spots continue on their current courses, they should bang into each other in August. "Run, spots, run."
Well that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. You can write to us at podcast@SciAm.com and sign up for the daily digest at www.SciAm.com/daily. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.