In this special edition of Science Talk, Scientific American editor in chief, John Rennie, talks to Steve about the August issue of the magazine, which features articles on migraine, solar superstorms and self-cleaning materials.
Steve: The August issue of Scientific American is available, one of the big articles is related to the China coverage and that's the health impact of all the smoke on kids and it's a growing problem.
Rennie: Yes, we are very interested in running this article. Obviously, China has got a lot of pollution problems at the moment. Air pollution is one that is going to be very obvious. Even to people who are just watching the Olympics coverage, they are most likely going to see [that] a lot of air in parts of China is pretty filthy and some of that's related to pollutants that are released in, for example, the coal-burning power plants. The article we have, "Chinese Children of Smoke" in the August issue, talks about some work in the rather new field of molecular epidemiology trying to link some of the pollutants that are found in the air to certain chemicals that are attaching themselves apparently to the DNA of the children in this area, and that may be responsible for some of the children having some forms of lessened intellectual performance.
Steve: We also have in another health story, we have [a] big migraine piece. This is a fascinating field, migraine study.
Rennie: Right. It really is. I mean, obviously anybody who has ever had a migraine or even just seen other people suffer from migraines know how excruciating they are, know that they are not just a bad headache. The funny thing is that for hundreds of years medical science basically was in the situation of, in some respects, treating migraines as though they were just really bad headaches, that is, it was believed that it was a kind of circulatory problem that something happened that for some reason the blood flow into people's brains would be reduced for a while and then there would be a big surge in blood flow. And it was thought that the pain of migraines was actually the pain in the blood vessels, of all those vessels dilating and stretching. It turns out that that is almost completely wrong and the actual circumstances of blood flow in the brains of people who have migraines go exactly the other way.
Steve: Weren't migraine sufferers been treated with vasoconstricting drugs?
Rennie: Right. I mean...
Steve: So, that just made things worse.
Rennie: Unfortunately, it certainly wasn't helping matters at all and this really was the way that migraines were understood to work
up certainly into the 1980s. The newer understanding though is that migraines are, at root, more of a genuine neurological problem. It's something that actually does arise inside your brain, among the neurons of your brain, and then that becomes a phenomenon that elicits pain. The phenomenon in question is called cortical spreading depression and basically it begins on the surface of the brain as this expanding wave of hyperactivity among the neurons, [which] moves fairly slowly by lot of standards of things happening in the brain, but you just have this widening field of neurons that are firing very, very fast and then after that happens in the wake of, sort of, that almost literal brain storm, those neurons are in a kind of depressed state. It makes it very, very hard for them to fire there, they are inhibited, and that inhibited state seems to be what's associated with the pain of migraine, in the same way that the expanding wave of overactivity is associated with the auras that people have before migraines.
Steve: I get those. Well, I haven’t gotten them often but I have gotten, I think, four times in my life. The auras, the ocular migraine, fortunately not followed by the very painful episode, although my entire head was a little sensitive for the next couple of days after that. But I have gotten these auras and it's fascinating. The first time it happened I didn't really know what was going on. I thought I was seeing the reflection of a ceiling fan on a Formica table top and when I looked up
and the fan was not on. And the whole bottom half of my field of vision was sort of shimmering, is the way I think of it. And I was rendered basically, I don't want to say, blind because I could still see things, but you know, I couldn't have driven a car under those circumstances.
Rennie: Right. I think a lot of people don't necessarily... were lucky enough not to have migraines don't necessarily fully appreciate how much... It is a phenomenon that occurs over quite a piece of time. There is an interval that can last sometimes a couple of days before the onset of migraines in which you may just feel, sort of, a little lethargic and a little sensitive to light and then this period of the aura, which generally means that the onset of pain is about an hour away.
Steve: [It] means it is coming.
Rennie: The migraine, the painful part of it, can last some place between like four hours and three days and after that you can still have this period of sensitivity to light and fatigue that, you know, in some cases it can take days or even weeks for people to shake off. But this is why it is that migraines, which apparently strike about 300 million people in the world, why it is that that migraine is now seen as a much bigger cause of chronic problems than was often appreciated. There was a statistic from the World Health Organization that suggested that migraine is one of the four most disabling chronic medical disorders and the hit to the US economy may be like 17 billion dollars for migraines, once you start to factor in the time lost for work and disability payments and other kinds of health care expenses.
Steve: Well, you can also look up any migraine fans and I'm sure there's no fans out there but anybody with a particular
ly interest in migraines, especially the auras. Just look up Saint Hildegard of Bingen. There's some interesting stuff about her and her migraine experiences. From brain storms, as you said, literally brain storms to solar superstorms.
Rennie: Solar superstorms.
Steve: Apparently, I didn't know about this 1859 solar superstorm and if we get a repeat of that, why, it's going to be fun and games down here on our little blue marble.
Rennie: Right, right. Well put, Steve. Astronomers who strangely don't often call these things solar superstorms in the literature would sometimes talk about these as what's called the coronal mass ejection.
When [A] coronal mass ejection is different from like a solar flare, which you have a certain amount of the sun's materials sort of expelled far out in the space. With a coronal mass injection we're talking about a very sizeable amount of solar material that is ejected, and when it is, you get this huge disruption of magnetic field that comes along with it. If this mass that's being ejected from the sun is moving in the direction of the Earth, it's carrying along a lot of these charged particles and has a huge effect on the Earth's own magnetic field.
Steve: Basically blows our magnetic field out for awhile.
Rennie: Right. And the magnetic field, of course, is very important for protecting us in all sorts of ways. Of course, you know that at one time this sort of thing could happen and we would be oblivious to it here on the surface of the Earth, because we are not directly experiencing magnetic fields. But these days we're very, very dependent on the magnetic field of the Earth. We constantly depend on it for all kinds of electronic communications, not to mention that we have many different types of electronic devices that are very sensitive to strong magnetic fields. So, a concern that this article flags is that if we were to have a replay of the kind of big solar storm that we had back in 1859, that it could really fry a lot of electronic equipment and could blow out a lot of satellites. In fact, to understand just the impact of this, it's conceivable that it could blow out the power grid across the United States and across a lot of the rest of the world.
Steve: And that would be bad.
Rennie: That would be very unfortunate.
Steve: Now let me ask you, what was the evidence for the 1859 solar superstorm since there weren't these... I guess you had telegraph lines at that point that might have been disrupted.
Rennie: That's right, and in fact, telegraph operators were reporting at the time that they were getting an unusually large amount of interference that were showing up on their lines and interfering with their own sorts of communications, but in fact, there were some other kinds of obvious indications of this. At night the aurora borealis, the northern lights, [were] not quite just as northern as usual. There were reports that they could be seen down as far south as Cuba, I think, and then of course also astronomers at the time who were watching the sun were noticing that there was quite a bit of activity going on there. So, in retrospect it was relatively easy to piece together that we had a massive solar event.
Steve: So, from the sun back down to the Earth, we have another article on self-cleaning materials and this is not your old self-cleaning oven, this is, which doesn't work anyway. But this is, we are copying nature here and we get materials that basically take care of their own grime.
Rennie: Yes, yes, that's right, which is refreshing because imagine how long it will take to clean nature otherwise.
Steve: So, a lot of dirt out there in nature.
Rennie: Yes. The Earth, a large portion of it is dirt as I understand. I don't know. I don't go outside, but this is what I've heard. Anyway, yes, this article is talking about some engineering accomplishments in the area of biomimicry, which is the effort to look at nature and see how various natural materials have desirable properties and then starting to try to transfer those over into man-made materials. The starting point for this article is the lotus leaf, I don't know if you've ever looked closely at a lotus plant. It's a pretty little plant. Even in a fairly dusty environment, lotus leaves will stay clean. The dust literally just rolls right back off of them.
Steve: They have to get wet.
Rennie: They have to get wet, that's right. Any sort of moisture that accumulates in the air, starts to condense on the lotus leaves and then it rolls over, those tiny little droplets will roll down the surface of the lotus leaf picking up any sorts of dirt as it goes and cleans the plant off. Now engineers have been able to do this same sort of thing, re-create that same kind of extremely fine-scale texture onto other materials. And as a result of this you now can take advantage of that same self-cleaning effect and it could potentially be used for things like some sort of fabrics or materials and glass; its application to, for example, windshield is really wonderful because that means in a windshield you have a windshield that will never get foggy and of course it will also clean itself.
Rennie: Yes. Anytime the moisture accumulates on it, it immediately runs right back off. [We] might have windshields without windshield wipers.
I you'll we[We'll] have dishes that you don't soap—you just rinse them off.
Rennie: Yeah, rinse them off and then any kind of food particles would dislodge and come right off with a stream of water.
Steve: Of course that won't change the cleaning habits of my house. But I'd also like to just take a moment and I am very proud of my contribution to this month's issue – the first ever horoscope published in Scientific American.I'm looking for it right...
Rennie: That would be page 43.
Steve: Page 43. Some listeners might not know, but I "contribute" a column to the magazine every month and decided to write a horoscope this month. I will give you an example. This is the type of horoscope that you would see only in Scientific American and for example Sagittarius as entry: "You will go on a long journey when you became a highly trained astronaut and travel through the International Space Station to fix the toilet." More of those kinds of gems...
Steve: ...are available in the column "Looking for a Sign?” the antigravity column in the August issue of Scientific American. John, thanks again for your time and are we going to have a September issue this year?
Rennie: According to this horoscope that I'm looking at here—yes, yes there is at least one more issue in my future and, exactly, the September issue this year is our annual September single-topic issue. And this year it is on the futureof privacy: a look at how it is that the state of technology is changing
at the state of privacy and data security for us all around the world.