August 29, 2007 -- Another Look at The World without Us
What's New at Scientific American
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting August 29th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast: We'll hear a little more from Alan Weisman, author of the best-selling book, "The World without Us, which is at its core—gigantic thought experiment, what would happen if human beings suddenly disappeared and we'll talk to Scientific American editor in chief, John Rennie, about some big doings at the magazine. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First up, Alan Weisman, you may have seen him on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart last week. We aired most of my phone interview with him on the June 27th podcast, but there was some interesting stuff we didn't have time for in that episode. We had just talked about his visits to Chernobyl and the Korean DMZ, two places devoid of humans that have experienced a wildlife comeback, and here's what we talked about next.
Weisman: Later on in my research, I also went out into the middle of the ocean into one of the most inaccessible parts of the South Pacific, where there are still coral reefs that have been less damaged by human impact that has barely seen any human impact than any other coral reef system on Earth. I went out there with marine biologists from all over the world in a Scripps Oceanographic Institution expedition trying to look at, you know, what would the baseline be for a truly healthy ocean that had not been overfished and overflushed with chemicals and all the other things that we dump into the ocean— and from those examples, I started to get an idea of what the world might look like without us, but then it occurred to me to really understand, I would also have to get a baseline for what was the world like before us. What was it like before
they [there] were any human beings at all? So, I went back to Africa to the place where humans originally evolved and this is the continent where there are still huge animals roaming around and it turns out that we used to have huge animals in all the other continents as well and then in many of the islands [it] seems that one after another were discovered by human beings and the great populations of large animals were extirpated rather quickly after human arrival.
Steve: In fact, North America had bigger and more animals than Africa does now.
Weisman: North and South America were two of the richest biotic zones on Earth after the extinction of dinosaurs and the rise of the age of mammals. We had enormous creatures here. We had giant sloths that were even bigger than the mammoth.
Steve: Beavers, the size of bears.
Weisman: We had beavers the size of bears. We had giant pigs. We had giant armadillos. We had huge creatures that look like camels that had short trunks. It was an extraordinary monastery here, and—and it's quite controversial as to what actually wiped them out. There is a lot of indication that suspiciously points a finger to us; us being Homo sapiens, because their extinction seems to coincide with the arrival of human beings on land mass after landmass, and then after a while back, there is this question from it: "Well, if human beings wiped out all the animals on this landmass
and, why do we still have big animals in Africa?" And the answer was explained to me by many of the experts who I interviewed for this book; that Africa is the place where human beings and animals evolve together and those animals learned strategies to avoid our predation, just like zebras have learnt how to avoid predation by lions. I mean, not every zebra of course have, [having] seen many lions eating zebras—but enough zebras do survive, so that their population continues on and that’s pretty much the same down with human beings there, though of course in recent years it has gotten a little more challenging because we've become much more cunning and technologically empowered predators than we were before.
Steve: You draw the analogy, well, at this point native populations of the New World, what they had to deal with when they were confronted with the diseases that the Old World peoples brought over and the sort of a behavioral analogy. The animals that were here didn't have the behaviors to withstand the behaviors of the people when they first showed up.
Weisman: Yeah! That is really a fair analogy. They were confronted with something that they had never seen before, just like the Mesoamerican people have, you know, dealt with smallpox for example. These animals had never met a predator who was as adept as we were and also one that
were [was] so well disguised. We don’t look very threatening to a saber-toothed tiger.
Steve: Right! But we do things that they just had no clue that they be in for.
Weisman: Yeah! We've been remarkably effective. There are some species that do extremely well in invading and conquering: the eucalyptus tree, the coyote and the human beings, so here we are.
Steve: Later we talked about people's hunger for nature.
Weisman: There is no question that we are all kind of longing to get back to the garden at some level, and so many people live so completely separate from nature and they don't know what they are missing but they do sense it. There is such a thirst for this thing, every time that I talk about this people ask me, you know, what have I been working on, I end up not being able to shut them up and people just get so excited thinking about it, talking about [it]. There is just sort of this incredible rush of life that surges through them.
Weisman: That I realize quickly this was a device that was going to let me do something that I've been trying to do for about past 15 to 20 years. It's a fine way
s to write about environmental issues that didn't totally scare people off.
Steve: Yeah! It's terrific.
Weisman: And I've been looking for a way to get people to read through to the end of the book.
Steve: Right, right. (laughs)
Weisman: You know, there is the deep spiritual (unclear 7:04) of, you know, the human race at the brink and the fact that, all right, so whatever happens—I am not articulating this really well—but I think that one of
these [the] strongest experiences that I have had in doing this book and the response of them getting from readers is that it's not a depressing book, it's almost, it's kind of uplifting in a way.
Steve: Yeah! Exactly!
Weisman: And what's uplifting is that, what I've discovered is how resilient life is.
Weisman: You know, I mean, we may have screwed up in many ways, but we are really better at making that dent in life. Yeah! A lot of species are going to go down, but the world has seen a lot worse than us before and it's going to come out fine.
Steve: You can hear the original edit of the interview with Alan Weisman on the June 27th episode of Science Talk, which is available free at our Web site, www.SciAm.com/podcast and an edited transcript along with additional audio and video materials about The World without Us can be found free on our Web site in our archive July issue that's www.SciAm.com. We'll be right back.
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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: Pronouns may keep your working memory from being overloaded, said I!
Story number 2: Specialized sweet-sensing molecules found in the tongue have also been found to exist in the human intestine.
Story number 3: Pink for girls—not so fast. Men and women surveyed, said blue was their favorite color and in equal numbers.
Story number 4: Scientists have been able to give subjects an out-of-body experience in the laboratory.
We'll be back with the answer, but first John Rennie is the editor in chief of Scientific American magazine. The magazine has undergone some big changes recently, which are both interesting in their own right and also as an example of the kinds of things that are not happening everywhere as old and new media find ways to work together. I spoke to John in the library at Scientific American.
Steve: Hey John. How are you doing?
Rennie: Just fine, Steve. Thanks for having me.
Steve: My pleasure. After all, it's the Scientific American podcast. (laughs) So, [the] magazine looks a little different these days.
Rennie: Yes. Scientific American just debuted its new redesign, which involves, of course, [a] new look for the magazine, but also a certain amount of rethinking how we approach the editorial.
Steve: What is the intent of the change in the magazine? And what are some of the changes that would be obvious to people who are regular readers or might be of interest to people who aren't regular readers?
Rennie: Sure. I mean, of course, one fact of life of the magazine business is that periodically magazines just redesign themselves, partly because it just keeps things fresh. In this case, we, in looking at Scientific American, felt like it was overdue to try to just update the look, just so that it continued look like, you know, [a] bright, contemporary magazine. You know, these days, of course, if you are in the print publishing industry, you have to be very aware, too, of how much people's reading habits and their information needs are also being addressed by the Internet, not to mention video, and so you try to put together a magazine with some of those things in mind. And in this case, what we wanted to do was, we wanted to try to take advantage of the fact that we could really form in print a better partnership with SciAm.com, our Web site, and have a more powerful, more interesting publication as a result.
Steve: And how does that relationship work though?
Rennie: Well, you know, traditionally, going back 10 years or whatever, the idea for a lot of publications—print publications—is they would come out with whatever they were creating in paper and then they would tend to produce some version of that that would appear electronically on their Web site. Sometimes there would be additional new editorial content that's just on the Web site, but in a lot of cases, the Web site was sort of just a companion to whatever was being done in print—and that's in effect what Scientific American's Web site was for many years, too. But these days, of course, people are increasingly turning to the Web first for sort of fast-breaking news about science and technology—and there are wonderful things about the Web because, of course, it's a highly interactive media and it is one where it's
a really very well suited for letting people explore their interests in whatever level of depth that they have, which is perfect for something like Scientific American. Some people really like to, you know, [a] very fairly quick, breezy, short-take on something. And then, in many cases, people want to be able to explore the literature, right up to the technical papers themselves. So, what we are now trying to do is we are trying to work with the print articles and form the right kinds of connections over to pages that people can find on our Web site that will in many cases help them extend their reading experience of what they would have had in print. The other amazing thing is that you can take advantage of the very different deadlines that the things face. You know, for a monthly magazine like Scientific American, several weeks passed [pass] between the time that we put an issue to bed and the time that it shows up in subscribers' mailboxes or shows up on newsstands—but of course on the Web, you can have sort of instantaneous communication. So the great thing is, you now, one fascinating opportunity, is that we can put some kinds of articles up on our Web site first, start to present that information, start to immediately, then initiate a kind of conversation with our audience over this and start to draw in their comments, fill [in] any kinds of questions they had that we didn’t address in the original form of that editorial, and we can use that to rework what we would then do in print. So, it's sort of like, you know, in technical journals, they have a peer review and this is almost like that. In a sense we are able to present some of our articles to our audience and figure out ways to improve them for the rest of the print audience that follows.
Steve: I know there is one specific article that was sort of designed with that in mind. Which one is that?
Rennie: Well, we've done that a few different times. This was an experiment that we first did last December for an article that Kate Wong, one of our staff, had done writing about Lucy's baby—it was the discovery of an Australopithecus infant fossil, an amazing fossil discovery.
Steve: Well, we had Donald Johanson on the podcast to talk about that, in fact.
Rennie: And, of course, that news actually broke back in September, right around the time that we were getting ready to put an issue of the magazine to bed. So, in this case, Kate was able to put a version of that story up online and we were then able to use the feedback that we got from readers and from other professional scientists, who were responding to that article. We then used that to help enrich that article. So, we are going to be doing a lot more of those kinds of things to greater and lesser degrees in the future.
Steve: What do you say to various people, I hear from them sometimes, who kind of miss the old Scientific American magazine, that they really couldn't understand that much?
Rennie: Well, yeah! I mean, I think, a lot of us love the old Scientific American, you know, lot of us grew up with the Scientific American and have extremely fond memories of it. It's probably worth at least a footnote that like many things in our memory, they are not always as trustworthy as you think—and I think some people would go back and look at some of those old issues and be a little bit disappointed that some things were not exactly the way that they remembered them—but the fact is that for its time, Scientific American was a fantastic science magazine. The problem is times are different. Scientific American of the 1950s and 1960s and the 1970s was really not one that was being published against the backdrop of the kind of media that exists today. There are many, many more sources of science information and the fact is that if we were still publishing print articles that were of the same length that we had back in those days, and if we were largely illustrating the magazine with lots of black and white photographs and small fine line drawings—as wonderful as those are–the fact is it would not look very appealing to most of the people, who enjoy Scientific American and benefit from it now.
Steve: You know, talking about these people [who] remember Scientific American in a certain way that maybe is not quite the way it really was. Do you recall the e-mail or letter we got from this gentleman, who was upset about a particular political stance that we took and cited something that we had done and said we would never have done that in the past?
Rennie: Sure. There, of course, have been a lot of different letters that say exactly that sort of thing, but there was one great one that really came to mind: This guy was writing in because he was complaining about the fact that something that had appeared in a recent issue of magazine was taking a certain, sort of, I think, antinuclear weapon stance of some kind and he was pointing out that this was exactly the kind of thing that just represented what was wrong with the magazine these days—that it had become opinionated and it had these sorts of political positions and that this was exactly the sort of thing that never would have appeared in the magazine in the old days. And this was really deeply ironic because the passage he was quoting was from our 50-and-100-and-150-years-ago column of the magazine and he was pointing to something that had been in the magazine 50 years ago.
Steve: (laughs) That's great. I love that story. I mean the guy is completely guileless, didn't even realize what age he was looking at, and thought it was a fresh opinion and say[s], "You would never have done that kind of thing 50 years ago." Actually, I think we would have—look at the top of the page. I want to you to tell us just briefly about the single topic issue, coming up in September.
Rennie: Yes. This September, we've got a single topic issue. It's on the subject of food, fat, and famine. And it really looks at the issue of food and its health significance all around the world. We address issues about obesity and why it is that so many people around the world are getting fat—not just the rich Americans but, in fact, people in developing countries all around the world. We also talk about the issues of malnutrition, which can strike people all over the world in unusual ways, and we also look at those larger questions about how we are supposed to keep feeding the perhaps nine billion people that will be facing (unclear) in the mid century.
Steve: And we are going to have a bunch of podcast interviews with some of the authors. Thanks John.
Rennie: Thank you, Steve.
Steve: Some of the content of the single topic food issue is available free at 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: Pronouns may keep your brain from being overloaded.
Story number 2: Sweet taste sensors on the tongue also found in the intestines.
Story number 3: Women and men both prefer blue to pink.
And story number 4: Artificially induced out-of-body experience.
Time is up.
Story number 1 is true. A study out of the University of South Carolina finds that pronouns may be a way to free up limited working memory in your brain. Functional MRI brain scans of subjects found that a lot more of their brains got activated when they had to deal with proper nouns rather than pronouns, although it could all be, he said–she said, kind of thing. The research appeared in the journal, NeuroReport.
Story number 2 is true. The same receptors for sweetness found in the tongue have also been identified in the intestine. That's according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The gut's sugar receptors are apparently involved in the reactions that release insulin and other hormones involved in appetite. For more, listen to the August 28th episode of the daily Scientific American podcast, 60-Second Science.
And story number 4 is true. Researchers at the Karolinska Institute were able to induce an out-of-body experience in study subjects. Volunteers were shown video of their own field of view, along with the visual of somebody poking at where their bodies were in that view, while they were actually being poked outside of their own view. The sensation produced this eerily—like being out of your own body, according to the volunteers.
All of which means that story number 3 about men and women being equally fond of blue is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. Because a survey of over 200 people found that women strongly preferred reddish hues. For more, check out the new weekly Scientific American psychology and neuroscience podcast, 60-Second Psych. There is a new episode every Friday, at www.SciAm.com/podcast.
Well that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at podcast@SciAm.com, check out news articles at our Web site, www.SciAm.com. The daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science is at the Web site and at iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.