Stephen Asma, professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, talks about his two latest books, The Evolution of Imagination and Why We Need Religion.
Steve Mirsky: Welcome to Scientific American's Science Talk, posted on August 16, 2018. I'm Steve Mirsky. On this episode…
Stephen Asma: "Imagination deserves to come back to the forefront of research and concern in psychology and philosophy, and I would say even in neuroscience. It fell out of the picture because of the rise of behaviorism."
Mirsky: That's Stephen Asma. He's professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago. He was on the podcast last Halloween to talk about his 2009 book on Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. He's also the author of two newer books: The Evolution of Imagination, which came out in June 2017, and Why We Need Religion, which was published in May 2018. I was in Chicago recently. So, I met with Asma in his office to talk about his latest works.
You write in The Evolution of Imagination, "We live in a world that's only partly happening. We also live in co-present, simultaneous worlds made up of almosts or what-ifs, and maybes. So, let's start there and then get into the whole book.
Asma: Yeah, that's great. I've done a lot of sort of, as a philosopher, thinking about consciousness and, also, I've been studying sort of neuroscience and cognitive science for many years. But I've also had this long-standing interest in things like Buddhism, which, in many ways, is kind of an early psychology theory. Some people think of it as religious, but if you look at the Buddhist writings, it's clear that he's just developing a psychology.
So, one of the things you learn in Buddhism as you're trying to be – have your mind in the present moment as much as possible, you know, but really most of us spend our lives not in the present moment, sort of looking at our perceptions. We're actually worrying about what we're going to say to our boss or we're sort of planning what we're going to have to dinner or we're thinking about what we said yesterday and how that was received by others. It's almost like you've got a second universe running in your head in parallel with the actual universe that you're moving through.
Sometimes you're so immersed in that second universe of representations, ideas, narratives, that you don't even – you're not even aware of what you're doing. You're just sort of on auto-pilot. You're driving your car. You're walking down the street. But really, you're living in this imaginative world I think more dominantly.
Mirsky: That was before we had screens to distract us everywhere we go.
Asma: Yeah, exactly. I think it's got to be – I don't know if people are working on this, but I would imagine the younger generation, because we're still tethered – I'm an old-timer. I'm still tethered to the old world where I got these narratives from books or comic books. But screens, I've got to think – well, this is an interesting case. Are they amplifying imaginative work or are they preventing imaginative work?
Because one of the things that they – one of the criticisms that people are starting to see now is that if you're always on a screen – and you'll see this on public transportation, everybody on a screen – then you're not sort of doing as I did and I suspect many other people did in the old days is looking out the window and imagining Godzilla coming into the harbor or whatever it was. There was a lot of imaginative work that we did before our eyes were locked into these screens. So, that's an interesting issue.
Mirsky: Near the beginning of the book, you make some kind of reference to the power of the blank slate where your mind then has a chance to go through a bunch of different permutations and choose one. Maybe it's when you're talking about improvisation in music. If you're constantly on the screen, then you're probably keeping that from happening.
Asma: Yeah, I think that's probably right. There's even some growing neuroscience to suggest that that might be true. Because we've got these two different – well, many, many systems, obviously, in the brain, but two that are getting a lot of attention now are the default mode network and then, what's oftentimes called the task positive network. Sometimes it goes by another name but salience network. But it looks like these are specific areas of the brain that light up on fMRI machines when you're engaging in certain kinds of activities.
When you're trying to do something like – I don't know – it could be simple like dig a ditch or complete a form or write something, even sort of solve something navigational on your phone, your brain is in this task positive network. Then, when you stop sort of trying to solve a specific problem, the brain switches over to this default mode network, which is a little more inward. It's not sort of directed out to the world. It's more rumination. It's sort of where I think a lot of this imaginative work happens.
If you're constantly on your phone, what they're suggesting is you're never shifting back into this default mode network, which is where most of the really creative stuff happens. That's the kind of idea blender that we need to go to in order to get fresh ideas. We may be preventing ourselves, particularly younger people, from going to that mode of consciousness. That might be bad for the imagination down the road.
Mirsky: Talk a little bit about, what you talk about the book, about the body – we're not just this disembodied brain. We're a body and the body is a product of evolution as is our social construct. I just mean that in general. Human beings evolved in a social environment and we still maintain a lot of the behaviors and actual physicality that came from growing up as a species in that situation. So, before I go on for too long, talk about how the body has been neglected as part of the imaginative engine and what you mean by bringing it back into a consideration of improvisation and imagination.
Asma: That conversation's been missing. Most people have been thinking about the imagination as like ideas in your head, like you were saying. If you concoct some wonderful scenario in your mind's eye, you're imaginative. But really, if you think about the evolution of imagination, it must have been that we were doing our first improvisational and imaginative work with the body. It would have been before language. It would have been before concepts.
So, this leads you to sort of think about dance, for example. One of our earliest maybe artistic creations might have been tribal dancing. A lot of times, people think about the cave paintings of the upper paleolithic and that's great, but that's maybe 40,, 50,000 years ago. Dancing probably goes back way before that, possibly even to the early Pleistocene period. So, that could be 2 million.
Mirsky: Yeah, we'll let the – the sirens are coming. This is an issue we deal with in New York a lot when –
Asma: Yeah, Chicago. We're improvising.
Mirsky: We're in Chicago. Exactly. It's okay. So, 2 million years ago, we're talking pre-Homo sapiens, other Homo or even maybe different genus. But still that impulse, the dancing, the imagination, the improvisation is there already.
Asma: Yeah. I think if you look at Homo erectus, for example, you've got a social creature that was probably similar to early Homo sapiens in terms of small band families, nuclear families, small-band groups, 30, 50 people. There were ways in which they would have demonstrated to their competitors that they were a group to be reckoned with. We think – anthropologists suggest that dance, originally, was a way of demonstrating to your opponents, "Hey, we're together. This group can do these moves together."
Mirsky: West Side Story going back 2 million years.
Asma: That's right. Because you're not just saying, "We're a good fighting team." You're showing them that you can be together on this stuff. Now how did that stuff evolve? It had to be like certain kind of movements and then you're improvising and adding sequences within sequences.
This, I think, is exciting because human beings can do this thing that we call entrainment, which is if I start clapping my hands together like this, then you can quickly fall in with me and we can have a whole room clapping to some blues or soul music. But other animals can't do this. They're very bad at it. It suggests that there may be sort of brain prerequisites to this kind of all getting together and synchronizing and simulating each other. I think the origins of imagination go back into that kind of embodied simulation system.
I can copy what you're doing. You can copy what I'm doing. Other mammals can do that, too. But once you start adding things like social complexity and language, now the simulations start getting better and better. So, even the play among kids gets much more sophisticated than the kind of play that you get in animals.
In our closest relatives, in primates, you get rough and tumble play. Juveniles will wrestle each other. But once you get a simple system like language and once you get kind of a long, safe childhood like you have in Homo sapiens, now you get people playing cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians and this kind of stuff, or early paleolithic versions.
Mirsky: Yeah, you probably don't play cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians anymore. Paleolithic version, of course, very different.
Mirsky: I think I've had a couple of experiences usually playing sports where I physically did something that I didn't know I knew how to do. I think sports and music and what else is where you're going to find this kind of thing.
Asma: Those are great examples, sports and music. So, when you improvise in music or in sports, or really like we're doing now, in forming sentences, we're using the sort of rules of grammar and semantics and syntax. But we're appropriated those rules into this kind of embodied cognition. So, I don't have to think, "Am I applying the rule correctly when I say this to you?" I just do it through practice and habituation.
This is true in jazz improvisation, too. What you've done is you've mastered certain scales and certain chords. It's true in sports as well. But then you have to apply them in real time. So, you're composing and performing at the exact same time. That's different than other forms of like music or creativity. What I'm suggesting in this book is that when you do that – if I do that today, I'm actually, probably, experiencing something like what our ancestors experienced when they were thinking and moving through their environment with a kind of early, pre-linguistic cognition because it must have been something like this.
Mirsky: Especially when you're playing music and you're improvising. It really is pre-linguistic or extra-linguistic. I mean you're listening to each other and you know when something feels good or right, for lack of a better word. I don't know how you can say something's right, but it feels right in the moment. There's no language.
I mean the music kind of is the language and you're connecting with each other on a mental level. But you're also – I mean playing a musical instrument is a physical activity. You're not – it's not coming straight out of your brain. It's coming out of your fingers, which have long experience with interacting with your instrument. It's coming out of the way you move your body. I mean we've all seen musicians who look like they're in an ecstatic trance on stage. In some way, maybe they are.
Asma: That's true. It shows you that, as a musician, you're actually working in real time to solve problems. I think this is a better way of understanding human cognition, generally. What happens is people in psychology and philosophy and even in brain science areas will talk about the mind like it's a set of beliefs. You hold these beliefs that are like propositions and you access them and you use the to make predictions about the world.
But that's got to be a very late arrival in terms of the evolution of mind. That could only be there long after language has given us syntax and semantics and a system of language. All through hominid history and even, I would argue, human history, it would have been like you're describing, which is you've got to figure out how to get across this river and you don't know how to do it given what's around. There's crocodiles in this river. Thinking is a way of acting better in your environment.
Beliefs – this is something that pragmatists understood, the sort of American philosophers like William James and John Dewey. They said beliefs really are sort of guides to action. If we forget that, then we get stuck in this kind of head space. I'm trying to sort of show that the true roots of mind are embodied because you're always trying to solve a problem. But also, it's really interwoven with your emotional life.
This is another thing that people sort of forget when they're doing sort of cognitive science. They forget about the emotional brain, which is – if the limbic system is as old as mammals, then it's probably something like 200 million years old. Whereas the neocortex and certainly the linguistic prefrontal cortex would be somewhere between 50,000 to maybe half a million or a million years old. That's nothing.
Mirsky: We just slapped that on yesterday.
Asma: Exactly. Yes.
Mirsky: So, The Evolution of Imagination, what do you want readers to take from the book and why did you feel compelled to write the book?
Asma: I think imagination deserves to come back to the forefront of research and concern in psychology and philosophy and, I would say, even in neuroscience. It fell out of the picture because of the rise of behaviorism. The mind sort of fell out of the picture because we thought, "We can only study behaviors of animals and humans and we can't know what's happening in the mind." So, it really – it disappeared. But then, when the mind came back during the cognitive revolution, it came back on the model of a computer. So, computational mind, of course, very popular and did great things. Thinking of the mind that way has been productive.
But I think the downside here is that we've ignored the imagination. The imagination is, in many ways, the great connector between the perception and the emotional body and these higher level abstract forms of thinking that we recognize, things like conceptual knowledge and math and even playing chess. That's a sort of level of cognition that's very high and abstract. But, in some sense, it's wired. It has roots all the way down into this older brain and older embodied system. I think imagination is a great way to get at that stuff.
So, for those reasons, I'm hoping that I – I'm trying to sort of spawn a new interest on the part of the profession and the disciplines to look at it and not be – and not think of it as a kind of folk category of the mind. Because we think of imagination in popular cultures either – oh, it's like a miracle. Some muse comes into you and you just channel some mystical energy. We've romanticized our artists to such a degree that we think of the Van Gogh's and the Einstein's and the Picasso's as basically just opening up a current. It's a mystery to them how it happens. That mystifies the imagination. That's not really a helpful way to get at it.
Then, the alternative is you'll see people like in evolutionary psychology or in cognitive science thinking about the mind as a set of modules that are pre-set to solve specific problems. That, I think, is also incorrect. The imagination could provide us all with an alternative way of thinking about the mind that would be very productive for future research.
Mirsky: And for a lay audience?
Asma: Well, I think what's fun about the book is I try to start every chapter with – I'm telling this story about sort of being on stage in a band and what it's like to perform for people.
Mirsky: Yeah, you've played with some of the great blues artists.
Asma: Yeah, I've been lucky. I've played many times with Bo Diddley before he passed away. When he came to Chicago, they would call me, and I would be in his house band. So, I did that many times. Played with Buddy Guy.
Mirsky: What instrument, again?
Asma: Yeah. That's the kind of thing. I remember meeting Bo Diddley and it was – I tried to connect with him and say, "I know these songs. We could do this." But he just shows up on the night of the performance and just storms the stage. That's the first time I meet him. I'm like, "What do you want to do? What key?" He just starts playing.
Mirsky: Are you hanging on by your fingernails?
Asma: Oh, my god, so stressful. Even now, I'm sweating when I think about it. But that's the kind of thing. I have to figure out what key is he in, what chord is he playing, what's the rhythm here? But then, like you were saying earlier, music is its own language.
So, you begin to feel like, "Okay, this is right." There's a language for this. We call it like you're in the pocket. When you're in the pocket, you know everybody's gelling like an organism. So, I would like the lay audience to be able to read this book and see that they, too, are master improvisers. It's not just this thing that professional jazz people do, that even haggling at a marketplace for a good deal is a kind of improvisation or having a good conversation with somebody is a good improvisation.
Mirsky: Or making a meal.
Asma: Exactly, cooking. Exactly.
Mirsky: You might even have a recipe in front of you, but you don't quite follow it 100 percent. Buddy – I want to complete the list though. You played with Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, which is amazing. B. B. King.
Asma: B. B. King, yes.
Mirsky: Who else?
Asma: I played with a bunch of people that I don't know whether listeners will be as familiar with, but the Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Junior Wells.
Mirsky: Junior Wells? Wow.
Asma: Yeah. I had some lucky breaks early on in the '90s.
Mirsky: That is great. We have to keep in mind that you have to put a lot of hours of hard work into establishing y our fundamental abilities and then, you're free within the constraints, as you spoke about, but you're free to not think about it. If you try to play golf after a lesson, right after a lesson, forget it because you're thinking about everything except – Yogi Berra said, "I can't think and hit at the same time."
Mirsky: Tell me more, just what lay people would be interested in about reading The Evolution of Imagination, because, for one thing, you're a terrific writer. You're a very entertaining writer.
Asma: Oh, thank you. Thanks.
Mirsky: I mean, because I've read other stuff you've done. I think people will enjoy it. The cover illustration, did you have anything to do with that?
Asma: No. I do actually illustrate the book. So, all the drawings in it are my own drawings. I have a great love of visual art and drawing. I try to spend time talking about what's happening in the imagination when we draw. So, I think anybody who draws or is interesting in drawing would find a lot of good stuff in the book as well as – because I'm a musician, that's a whole other kind of imagination and improvisation.
I think there's actually – there's a lot of continuity between those, but also some differences. We think about great imaginative people like Walt Disney, for example, or the great Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki. You could look at that like, "Oh, isn't that miraculous. Walt Disney and Fantasia has thought of a hippy with a tutu dancing a ballet." There's something hilarious about that and very imaginative.
Or Hayao Miyazaki has a giant cat that's also a bus and you can ride inside the cat. So, many of our imaginative works are like this. But I try to show that they're not as mystical or bizarre or miraculous as you think. There are certain sort of – there's a kind of logic to the imagination. It involves things like combining two images that you've seen before in some novel way. That is a long way toward a creative creation.
Now, I argue in the book that this happens spontaneously and involuntarily every night you dream, because you've got this repository of these images in your head. Then, somehow, while you're asleep, you're pasting them all together and mixing them all together and ending up with some weird kind of hybrid creatures. What happens is that that kind of mixing happens in the associational mind. The executive control, the prefrontal cortex can now take this sort of mishmash of images and then edit it. "This is a good one. This is a bad one. Let's put this in a story of some kind."
Oftentimes, really creative stuff is just what I call domain crossing. You take something that belongs like in the water, like a fish, and you put it on dry land and you've got something creative. You take something like a candlestick and you give is human speech and you've got Beauty and the Beast. Is that it?
Asma: But that's the kind of simply, logical adjustment that you're taking one thing, like an inanimate object, and you're giving it some animate property. All of a sudden, you've got something highly imaginative. That's one of the features of the imagination that I want people to appreciate but also see that they can do that work. It's not so miraculous. I'm trying to think of other examples of this. You do all kinds of domain crossing like this.
One of the things that is really interesting about this is when you create a bizarre hybrid, it draws your attention. Cultures sort of gather around these things. So, early religion is oftentimes like – think about Hinduism, for example, where it's part man and also has an elephant's head and has a bunch of arms. This is the stuff that – imaginative work was some of the earliest cultural formation because we were able to form stories around these images and then form culture around them.
Mirsky: I just started laughing, if you heard me in the background, because I was flashing back to an incident with my friend, John Rennie, former editor of Scientific American. We went to Popeye's Chicken. We bought chicken and we were sitting in my car. We had chicken and mashed potatoes. We didn't have any utensils.
Mirsky: So, what I did have in the car were golf tees. We wound up eating chicken and mashed potatoes – the chicken we could just pick up with our hand. We could have done the same with the mashed potatoes, but that would have been gauche.
Asma: There's a limit, yeah.
Mirsky: So, we used the golf tees to eat the mashed potatoes.
Asma: That's great.
Mirsky: It's a little bit silly and it's also a little bit – it's fun. It was fun. It made the whole experience more interesting, obviously.
Asma: Well, you tend to improvise better when you have, what I call, resource deficiency. When you're missing the right tool for this job, you are forced to think in a lateral way. That's one of the great things that brings out imaginative, improvisational thinking. If you have a kitchen where you have a device for every single thing, then you're not going to be a very creative chef.
Mirsky: I was thinking about, when I read that part about the resource deficiency, one of the best scenes I think in the movie Apollo 13 is when the guys have to improvise the carbon dioxide scrubbers out of the equipment they have at hand. It's kind of thrilling to watch them put it together and figure it out and then actually build it and make it work.
Asma: Well, that's right. It's the sort of MacGyver effect. I think every field surgeon has to solve these problems, too. You don't have all the equipment in a nice operating room, but you've got to do this task. So, improvisational thinking is really important in things like medicine as well.
Mirsky: You tell a story very early in the book about somebody in India looking for a particular medical tool that slices skin incredibly thinly so that you can do skin grafts.
Asma: Yeah. She's sort of new to this post. She turns to her colleagues and says, "I need that device." The guy just holds up a giant machete and he just says, "This is your device. This is going to do everything you need." It was a mindblower for her, but that's sort of what you have to do in a resource-deficient situation is you need this sort of sideways thinking.
I think this makes sense out of early cognition, too, because our species would have to solve all kinds of new problems, especially when you've got the kind of climate fluctuations that were happening during the development of Homo sapiens. Now there's some interesting neuroscience to suggest that if you put that sort of transcranial magnet on the prefrontal cortex, you can kind of shut it off. What they find is that if I do that to you – they've done this test where I do it to like ten people.
Let's say I put the transcranial magnet on their prefrontal cortex. The other ten, I don't do this procedure to. I ask them to solve some problem they've never seen before. It turns out that people who have had their sort of executive functions shut off by this transcranial magnet do much better on the creative problem-solving.
Mirsky: Because their filter is no longer stopping them from going places?
Asma: Exactly. It could be that the filter is stopping them from going places but it's also like – that's where the sort of routine thinking, the stuff that's worked before is – puts you in a kind of box. If you can deactivate it, sort of technically called transient hypofrontality, like you turn off that editor, then all of a sudden that more associative thinking starts to happen. That helps people solve problems fresh and in novel ways.
Mirsky: Very fun. Very interesting to think about. Thinking about your thinking is always –
Mirsky: I mentioned the cover illustration, but I didn't say what it was. It's what appears to be a human figure on a bicycle. But instead of a head, they have a lightbulb.
Asma: Yeah, this is a perfect example of like a hybrid domain crossing or hybridizing stuff.
Mirsky: So, the light bulb is a symbol in our culture for an idea. But what's the bicycle supposed to be?
Asma: I think like, if you'll see, the one bicycle is going this way and everyone else is going that way.
Mirsky: Oh, I missed that.
Asma: So, it's sort of against the grain. The imaginative person is oftentimes sort of against the status quo or not in keeping with how everybody else is doing it.
Mirsky: Or they get eaten by the lion and everybody else –
Asma: That's right. They were the sacrifice.
Mirsky: Right. There's often a good reason why everybody else is running that way. Maybe you should turn around. So, that's The Evolution of Imagination. That came out last year, 2017. You have a new book out that I have not yet seen about religion and its fundamental importance for humanity.
Asma: Yes. It's a kind of Darwinian argument for the value of religion. I'm certainly not the first guy to make that argument, but what's new, I think, in my book is I'm not just saying, "Well, religion helps people be moral or helps them cooperate or –"
Mirsky: Because you can do all that without religion.
Asma: Right. Exactly. What I'm arguing is that religion's main function is to provide a kind of system of emotional therapy for people. Historically, that's why it evolved. That's why it continues to stay around. So, the book is kind of – I'm an agnostic, basically, but I'm trying to appreciate the way in which religion helps us with our emotional lives, its therapeutic qualities.
Mirsky: I mean, clearly, there is a drive in humans, because so many people have it, to believe in something. So, examining it from a scientific point of view, I think, has value.
Asma: I think so, too. I guess what's new, also, is that I'm looking specifically at affective neuroscience, so emotional neuroscience, the kind of work that Jaak Panksepp, the late, great Jaak Panksepp, or Antonio Damasio did by showing there are these emotional pathways in the brain. We know there's a kind of rage circuitry. We know there's a lust circuitry. Panksepp thought there were seven of these. I basically, try to – each chapter looks at one of these emotional systems in the brain and tries to show what are the religious cultural activities and beliefs that speak to that emotional circuit.
Mirsky: From cross-culturally?
Asma: Yes, cross-culturally. So, I've done a lot of work not just in Western religion; Christianity, Judaism, Islam. But also, I've lived a lot in Cambodia, in China and feel pretty comfortable with Buddhism and some of the animism there. I try to show a different way of thinking about religion, not the kind of religion that maybe the new atheists would be scolding, but really the kind of religion that's functioning very well in the developing world.
Mirsky: Interestingly, you have seven and there are seven deadly sins. Is this just an accident?
Asma: [Laughs] Yeah, maybe that's what the great Jaak Panksepp was thinking of when he put it together. It's funny. There are sort of hedonic temptations that we're all drawn to that every good neuroscience could map out by talking about the ventral tegmental area and how the dopamine spikes in the brain. If you look at religion, in many ways, cross-culturally what it's trying to do is get you to not follow your hedonistic impulse, which is craving and desire. It's almost like our default settings are for sugar and fat and as much sex as possible, basically all this kind of quick-fix pleasure. But it's part of a cultural project to get you to resist these because it will undo you, end the social group you're in.
So, religion helps you to manage your emotions so that the cooperative work will be more effective. If you have a bunch of hotheads, then the group won't be effective. If you have a bunch of people who are afraid all the time, they won't be effective. What I'm arguing is that religion helps you focus. It calms you down if you're afraid. It doesn't automatically give you liberal values and virtues, because sometimes what religion is doing is getting you angry at a certain enemy.
We've seen that through the history of religion and culture. So, it's not that the therapies are always making you comfortable or making you feel better. They may not be. What religion does is it also directs some of your defensive aggression. Then it has to calm it down again. So, sure enough, you see in the stories and the activities and rituals of religion these emotional management systems.
Mirsky: Right. Any system can be co-opted by somebody with their own agenda so that you can have religion that, obviously, gets used in a way that we would find nefarious.
Mirsky: Again, we're talking about religion from an evolutionary and cultural, historical point of view but, also, still today.
Asma: That's right. These functions haven't gone away. I think they emerged because prior to living in nation states, we had to survive in larger and larger collectives. Many people have started to point out that the axial age religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity all emerge at a time when we're starting to live increasingly in cities. So, it makes sense that you have to – it's not a mystery that I'm going to try to help my brother if we're blood relations. But if we're living in larger and larger societies, I have to treat you with respect and we have to cooperate.
One of the things religion does it helps us to see strangers as what we call fictive kin or fictional kin. "That's my brother in Christ," or, "That's my brother in Buddhism," or whatever. That allows for larger groups of strangers to actually cooperate better. So, I think that's true but the reason why it works is because of this emotional management story. That story, I don't think, has gotten much attention yet.
Mirsky: One of the reasons that I wanted to talk to you and to let people know about your books was so that they could have the pleasure of spending time with your brain, because I've had that pleasure on a number of occasions. This is the first time we've met in person. But I just want to say one reason to read The Evolution of Imagination or – what's the religion book called again?
Asma: It's called Why we need Religion.
Mirsky: One reason to read either or both books is so you can spend a few hours with Stephen Asma and his brain. You won't get the whole – as we talked about before, the importance of the body and emotional existence and improvisation.
Asma: The wit.
Mirsky: Obviously, it's not – this is actually now written down, so it's set, but you as the reader will have – every reader's going to have their own set of stuff they bring in when they read it. So, you're going to have a unique experience and you get to spend four or five, six hours with Stephen Asma. I just highly recommend it. I think you're a really interesting thinker and you're a really pleasant person to spend time with.
Asma: Very kind of you.
Mirsky: So, I really hope that people will check out these books and have themselves a good time and learn stuff, too.
Asma: Thanks for this opportunity, Steve. I appreciate it.
Mirsky: I'll be back in a moment.
Male: Hey, everyone. Thanks for sticking around. We were about to hear about a plant that supposedly saved the earth from staying a hothouse climate.
Female: It was actually so hot that there were hippos in the arctic.
Male: So, lay it on us, Andrea. What was this plant that changed the world?
Female: That plant that seems to have driven so much of this huge change is what you might call pond scum. It covered the Arctic Ocean, soaking up mind-blowing amounts of carbon dioxide. Today, plant scientists are looking to a similar plant called duckweed to help control the climate once again.
Male: But we don't have half a million years to do this.
Female: Right. But we do have genetic tools. Scientists put them to use on Base Pairs, the podcast about the power of genetic information from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Find us on iTunes or wherever else you get your podcasts.
Mirsky: That's it for this episode. Get your science news at our Web site, www.scientificamerican.com, where you can also check out our coverage of the Parker Solar Probe on its way to the sun. It's going to be the fastest moving spacecraft in history, reaching speeds of 430,000 miles per hour. If you'd like to go from New York to L.A. in 20 seconds, that's the speed for you. Follow us on Twitter where you'll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the Web site. Our Twitter name is @sciam. For Scientific American Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.