Steve: Welcome to the Scientific American podcast, Science Talk, posted on March 7th, 2012. I'm Steve Mirsky. Two intrepid Scientific American staffers, Michael Moyer and Mark Fischetti, were at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a treasure trove of discussions about research. Upon their return, Mike and Mark briefed each other on sessions they had each attended. Topics include fracking and its associated environmental issues, tantalizing evidence of the Higgs but not from the LHC, the question of cetacean rights, and Twitter and the upcoming election. Take it away guys.
Moyer: My name is Michael Moyer, and I'm here with Mark Fischetti. And the two of us were covering the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Vancouver, Canada, and we're here to talk about what we saw. So Mark, what did you see?
Fischetti: Well, there were a number of interesting sessions. One that I was in had to do with fracking—breaking deep shales to get natural gas. And there's been a lot of controversy about fracking, but there's a new study from the University of Texas at Austin, there was a whole session built around this study that basically said that the most worrisome sources of potential contamination of ground water are in the very top of the well, if it's not cased correctly, and in just plain chemical spills from the whole industrial nature of that, and then finally from storing waste water in open ponds and tanks that leak into the ground.
Moyer: So, I saw some news about this that came out of the conference and basically the headline was, Fracking doesn't cause pollution. The things that happen surrounding fracking cause pollution.
Fischetti: Right, that's a good question, also a good, sort of, technicality because the industry defines fracking as just breaking the rock, and there's chemical and water that goes down there. So they'll say, "Hey, those chemicals don't really pose a threat," but the entire operation is necessary to actually harvest natural gas. So everything involved in that operation is fair game for other people who are worried about the whole enterprise.
Moyer: Right, you can't have the fracking down, you know, miles down without having the well up top where all these bad things can happen.
Fischetti: Well, I guess that is the sort of thing you see.
Moyer: But it was interesting because people were wondering whether or not the chemicals that go into those wells can seep up through the miles into the groundwater, which is relatively shallow, right.
Fischetti: Right. That's, the consensus seems to be that's not likely but those chemicals can back up the well in the beginning stages and if the well is not built correctly, then it can spill out, and if it's not stored correctly then it's going to leech into the ground too.
Moyer: So, here's something that I've never really understood about fracking, is that if the problem with fracking isn't the fracking itself, it's the chemicals that they use to do the fracking, why don't you just do fracking with water or something that's benign?
Fischetti: Yeah, well, it is mostly water but the chemicals are in there to help for lubrication and other reasons; it's a good question. There's actually some proposals, not at AAAS, but we've actually done a little work on our Web site about alternative ways to frack and one of the leading ones (laughs) is to use natural gas to, under pressure, to force the rock open which you would think you could just contain when it would flow back up because you're looking to contain the gas anyway.
Moyer: So that's like using oil to drill an oil well.
Fischetti: Yeah, right.
Moyer: Well, I've heard crazier things that could happen.
Fischetti: So, what about you?
Moyer: Well, I saw a number of things. I stuck more towards the physics and technology side of the conference, which every year seems to get a little smaller and smaller as these environmental issues become more at the forefront of the conference. But one of the interesting things I saw were some scientists from the big particle physics collider, the Tevatron outside of Chicago, which shut down last year—we had a story in the magazine about its legacy—and then, of course, the LHC in Geneva which is currently searching for the Higgs Boson. Everyone thought, okay once the Tevatron shuts down, there is no way that they're going to come up with anymore results about the Higgs. The Higgs-Boson is the famous undiscovered particle, the last part of the standard model that gives all other particles mass, or at least it's thought to. Turns out that there's still a lot of unsorted data; they haven't done the data analysis on lot of the stuff from the Tevatron, they haven't had the chance. And they're going to be coming out this month in March with their final analysis of Higgs data from the Tevatron, and the top scientists for one of the experiments there said that they would have "very interesting results." So, yeah, what is very interesting in particle physics? Doesn't mean that they're going to find it or say it's not there at all. When I asked him later about that, he said that they're going to be able to identify the Higgs or not identify the Higgs, he didn't say what exactly the results are going to be, but he said, "If it's there, we will be able to identify it with what's called 3-sigma certainty." And 3 sigma is a statistical term, which basically means it's something like 95 percent certainty, which is not enough to formally declare a discovery; by the rules of particle physics, you need 5-sigma certainty, which is I think 99.99 percent sure that it's there. So, I thought that was interesting, that there was a little bit of particle physics news coming out.
Fischetti: Right, so, then what did they say at the actual session—was the session a big tease then, and [they said], "We'll get back to you in March?"
Moyer: Yeah, they basically said, "We'll get back to you in March." They also spoke about, I mean, the managing director of CERN, which is the particle physics lab in Europe, spoke a little bit about their hunt. They spoke also about the neutrino results that came out last year. And just a short background on this, as most of you listening have probably heard, last year at CERN, they shot neutrinos through the Earth to a lab in Italy which picked them up. They had a funny result, in that the neutrino seemed to get there faster than the speed of light, which is thought to be impossible by Einstein's theory of special relativity. So, the question is—and the experimenter had said that this when it came out last year—"What did we do wrong? We must have done something wrong, what did we do wrong? We can't figure it out, so here's the results, everybody. You guys figure it out." So, what happened after this was very interesting. The lab, Fermilab in the U.S., was not able to do the same experiment right at the time, even though it was very similar because they just didn't have the right equipment, the electronics to be able to do it. As soon as this came up, they said, "Oh boy! We should try and replicate this," so they went and they bought the high-end electronics. They're starting actually they just started to shoot neutrinos from Fermilab to a mine in Minnesota and they hope to have results in May, which should confirm or deny the earlier results. CERN is of course doing the experiment again and they should have their further results later in the summer.
Fischetti: That's interesting. Do we know the path that the neutrinos are shot along, so we shouldn't stand in the way?
Moyer: Yeah. Well, if you're looking to not be in the path of neutrinos then you're going to be in trouble because there are trillions of neutrinos going through us right this very second, no matter where you are.
Fischetti: So, if you hear any artifacts on this recording, that's the neutrinos.
Moyer: Yes, exactly. It's not the iPhone I left on in my pocket. Definitely. So what besides the fracking?
Fischetti: There was a big session and there was some other, sort of, public events surrounding cetacean rights. So cetaceans, whales, dolphins. It was an interesting group of scientists on one hand and philosophers as well. So, the scientists were making a case that we should consider cetaceans as individual beings, nonhuman persons. And based on recent research which shows that cetaceans are self-aware, that they have abilities to communicate individually; also they have a sense of self, sense of community, so their brain size, they are starting to back up the notion that these animals at least have higher order brain function, which qualifies them as persons, not humans though—humans is a biological concept and persons is a philosophical concept. So, if that's the case then they should be afforded certain nonhuman person rights, or cetacean rights. And there was an interesting philosopher, Tom White from Loyola Marymount University, who was explaining why this is a, it's as valid to think of individual people as persons as it is to think of animals, individual animals, as persons. And if you accept all this then, it means certain basic rights should be afforded to them, like they shouldn't be killed, they shouldn't be captured for the reasons of being kept in captivity, and they shouldn't be bred in captivity for the purposes of our entertainment. And these are things that are commonly done with whales and dolphins at zoos and aquariums. And if you think about applying those criteria to individual people, you certainly wouldn't kill or capture or breed them for entertainment, so why shouldn't we afford cetaceans the same level of basic rights like that in any case? So it's an interesting discussion, and there's, sort of, a movement out there, if you're interested and you look on the Web for cetacean rights, you'll find a lot.
Moyer: Well, I mean, my response to that would be the reason we don't have to necessarily bestow those rights is because they are not people. It's hard for me to understand the distinction between human and a person. Would we, you know, call, for instance, a chimpanzee a person?
Fischetti: Yeah, that came up right away So, right, where do you draw the line? Right, because chimpanzees are self-aware, they have social structures and all that and that came up. The scientists had a little more trouble answering that question. Some of them resorted to brain scans, which is where a lot of this is coming from, and if you look at the brains of cetaceans, there's lots of folds and all that very—the brain looks surprisingly similar to human brains in the surface features. And some of the primates have some of that going on. And that is, sort of, the question ultimately—where do you draw the line?
Moyer: But now you are back to defining this philosophical description of personhood based on a physical characteristic, which is brain folds, which seems, kind of, troublesome, if you're making the distinction, the initial distinction is between the biological distinction between humans and a person.
Fischetti: Well, I think, yeah, Tom White was using that to say, "Don't think of this as human rights"; that you wouldn't afford cetaceans or primates the same rights as humans, different order, but maybe there's some simple fundamental rights that they should be afforded; and I'm sure the research community who deal with primates would agree with that.
Moyer: (laughs) Certainly. That's very interesting. I didn't know that was going on. One of the things with, since we're speaking of primates, I saw one session on politics—which I thought was nonhuman primates, (laughs) the study of—and it was a session on ways to use Twitter to, kind of, figure out the difference between truth and fiction in politics. Let me describe what I mean. These scientists, which are information scientists from the University of Indiana, have looked at the—political specifically—tweets going back and forth with people and have tried to identify, just through the structure of the networks that the tweets form, so if I talk to you Mark, right over Twitter, I reply to you and then you reply to me, and then I take our little tweet conversation and I talk to somebody else. You could think of that as a little network that's forming with these connectors between it. That happens, just in large scale, everyday on Twitter where people form a conversation over what are called hash tags, which are little identifying labels so that people can figure out what you're talking about; and by looking at the structure of these networks they can find basically, spambots, which are just fake accounts designed to push a certain candidate or to belittle another candidate, just through the structure of how they speak with one another. They'll have two bots engaged in a, quote, conversation back and forth with each other, so everyone else will say, "Oh! Well these must be two people who are talking," but no they're actually bots. So, you know, this is going to be interesting because it's going to be important, much more so in the run-up to this presidential election than it was in, for instance, in 2008—and in 2008 Twitter was just a year old and not that many people used it.
Fischetti: So, is it fair to say that there's a worry that these bots could, sort of, skew what's gleaned from the social network as to what people's preferences are?
Moyer: Well, the worry is that these bots are going to be used in insidious ways to spread misinformation and lies, right, which politicians have been doing since the dawn of time. It was thought, you know, in the early old wide-eyed days of Twitter, "Now we have citizens who're going to be able to say what they really think, and we're going to be able to get away from the mass media that, kind of, controls the few outlets we have, but of course whatever tool you have is just going to be co-opted by political forces that be. And so the study which is called—which I think is brilliant—the Truthy project at Indiana, is designed to, kind of, be able to separate this fact from fiction on Twitter.
If you'd like to know anything more about these topics, we of course have a lot of information up on http://www.ScientificAmerican.com. For now though, for my colleague Mark Fischetti, my name is Michael Moyer, thank you very much for listening.