Scientific American magazine Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina talks about the January issue, including articles on the chances of conditions conducive to life elsewhere in the multiverse and the growing practice of virtual gold farming, in which legions of online game players in developing countries acquire currency in the game that they sell to other players for real money. Web sites related to this episode include www.snipurl.com/nobelfrank; www.redcross.org; www.pih.org
Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, posted on January 15th, 2010. I'm Steve Mirsky, and a new Scientific American magazine is out. Mariette DiChristina is our editor in chief. We sat down in her office to talk about some of the contents of the latest issue.
Steve: Mariette, it's 2010.
DiChristina: I love it.
Steve: And we have the January issue out. Fascinating articles, but there's this one article, and it's not the cover article on life in the multiverse that really just amazes me, but the one that really just blows my mind is the one about the virtual gold farming.
DiChristina: I knew you were going to say that.
Steve: Why don't you just explain everybody what it is: virtual gold farming.
DiChristina: Okay. Yeah, I love this article. It's actually, it's a fascinating area, and it's one of the ways, I think, that we see technology changing human life and yet not changing human life, because what it really reminds me of a lot is, and it's not funny, but sweat shops. Once upon a time…
Steve: Oh, that's exactly what came into my mind, too.
DiChristina: That's the same kind of the thing, but lets back up, Steve, and we'll tell people what this is about. So, you know, the ancient alchemists were trying to turn everything into gold. There are people, who mainly are in developing countries, who are turning virtual gold into real money, and the way they're doing it is really through the sweat of their brow. They're online playing virtual reality games like World of Warcraft and EverQuest II and they're getting on these games and engaging in activities that win them virtual currency, virtual money. You know, they're working in mines on the game, they're chopping down timber. And when they earn that virtual currency, they, sort of, stockpile it through the efforts of their labors. I mean, imagine, a sweatshop, where everybody is in front of a computer screen and their job is, the sweat is to run your fingers really fast over the keyboard and use your mouse to see if you can cut down more timber or mine more minerals in the virtual world and thus accrue more currency, which they then trade to people, who buy, you know, the use of the currency with real money, like $5 for so much in the virtual world. And there's exchange rates for this.
Steve: So you have a game player, here in the U.S., let's say, it's mostly here in the U.S., who wants to get a particular weapon or reach another level in the game and their own skills are insufficient.
DiChristina: Maybe they don't have enough time. You know, they just want to use it on in their leisure time and they don't have the ability to spend 10 hours a day acquiring the currencies, so they can buy the right sword or get to the next level. And these games, I thought I would just mention, they do, you know, the group name for them is Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, and I named a couple of them, World of Warcraft and the EverQuest II. And they enable people to step into virtual worlds that look, you know, like Second Life or things like that, look fairly realistic but stylized and they have their own kinds of commerce. So, if you want to buy a sword or a grenade or whatever for your war in World of Warcraft, you need virtual currency to do that, and this is where these, virtual gold farmers we call them, come in through the sweat of their brow acquiring virtual currency to then trade for real.
Steve: And, we have a photograph of a room where, I mean it really does conjure up images of sweatshops except, instead of sewing machines, there is one computer terminal next to another, they're elbow to elbow, the players, and they are just playing the game for 12 hours a day.
DiChristina: Right, and, when we say massively multiplayer, I mean, these are big engines of commerce at this point. We have a bunch of stats in the article, really interesting about how big the scope of these are. One of them that really rang home to me is that $200 million to $3 billion is the estimated amount of currency trading hands—you know, real currency trading hands for virtual currency for people to play these games—which is just astonishing to me.
Steve: It is, and yet I have been thinking about it in terms of the value that we put on anything. I mean, why does real gold have the value that it does? I have never really been able to figure that one out. So, why should make believe gold in the game players'world be any less real, as an economic entity, at least?
DiChristina: Right. I mean, I suppose we're surprised about this in some ways because they just sprang up in recent years, but in many ways, as we started to say at the beginning of our conversation, it's a human pattern repeating itself. There is a small group, which has money but maybe not enough time; or maybe they just don't care, maybe they just want to cheat and go the easy way out; and there is another group that does not have money, but has time and labor, you know. And when we speak of labor, the average monthly salary of the gold farmer in China, which is one of the countries where there are quite a number of these is only $150. So, we are talking about people who don't have a high level of income who can then benefit really. You know, maybe they wouldn't have had other opportunities. I don't really want to, you know, make some kind of moral judgment about [whether] this is good or it isn't good. What we are seeing here is a pattern that we have seen in humans before. Some people have resources, others don't, and they are trading for things that have value to each other.
Steve: Although, there are some very serious game players, who feel very free to make moral judgments about this. They think this is really bad because it is cheating.
DiChristina: Well, it is cheating. I mean, there is no doubt about it. But, you think about human history, people who have had additional resources have always cheated, and you know, probably elsewhere in the multiverse. I know, actually, I do know one, there are people cheating right now.
Steve: I was going to bring this to the multiverse; life in the multiverse is our cover story. Basically, we are talking about the notion that maybe this universe that we're in, which seems to be just so finely tuned for life as to make you think that there we're something special that went into its design—well, maybe it is not that special. Maybe there [are] a whole bunch of universes where life could have sprung up with different kinds of parameters.
DiChristina: As a long-time Star Trek fan, one of the [things] I love about this article was the latest talk about real science, multiple universes and life elsewhere in both our universe and others, and who can resist that, especially to kick off 2010?
Steve: It is like a door opening and then closing.
DiChristina: And then closing, so but the very real, you know the very real science behind this or part of it, is this, you started to elude [to it], Steve. People have got suspicions, and I think it's scientists'job to be skeptical, so perfectly reasonable to be so. Why, is the universe so perfectly suited to life, and why is it so, as you said, finely tuned? If the mass of a proton, for instance, were just 0.2 percent more than it is today, atoms wouldn't have come together in their complex shape. It wouldn't have the chemistry that enables life today. So if you tweak things just a little bit up or a little bit back; reminding me actually, I had a chat several months ago with Nobel prize–winning physicist Frank Wilczek, and we were chatting, we were talking about the universe in general, as he often does; and he said, "You know, if I were the one to make the choices about how, you know, the constants, the so-called the rules, you know, [the] things that don't change in the universe, if I were allowed to do that, I wouldn't have tuned it the way it is today." Now, this is a perfect conversation I should have with Frank Wilczek some day, but what this article does is let us see, through a series of thought experiments, what if you did change the constants here or there, and what if you change one, a[s] scientist do to eliminate variables and then kept everything the same and then, like a movie, reran the evolution of the universe and saw how it turned out. And one of the interesting things about the work that the researchers who wrote this article showed in it is, if you can eliminate one of the four basic forces that currently guide and govern the universe as we know it, you can create through tweaking, you know just that, removing that one thing and tweaking a couple of others, a universe where life again could arise. So, the problem of whether the life is unique to this universe, you know, maybe our universe is not so special if removal of even something as basic, you know, [one of] the four foundational forces is removed and you can still get the chemistry that could support life as we understand it. Then, what else could you change?
Steve: And that is really what we were talking about: the ability, under a certain set of conditions, for complex chemistry to take place because you can have atoms of different elements arise of heavier weights and eventually, those things would be the building blocks for anything that would be alive.
DiChristina: And, I want to say that multiverse theory didn't just pop up yesterday. This has been developing since the 1980s, partly in answer [to] the fine-tuned questions that we were raising before, which is called anthropic thinking, about the universe. Could it be, you know, tuned for people particularly? And so, theoretical, you know, cosmologists and others were studying, they think, what else could have happened, how could universes have also budded out from the vacuum that existed as the origination of everything?
Steve: To a certain degree, this is as much a philosophy article, as a science article.
DiChristina: In the sense, I think that philosophy is so often concerned with our origins and our eventual endings, I think that it is. But it is all really grounded in, what can you do within that; how does it actually work? If you take the systems that we don't know today and adjust them slightly, then run the movie again, then what happens? And I think if this is the way, this is kind of an interesting, quite actually if, this is the way that theoretical astronomers can try to put experiments to their ideas to be able to actually [take] them off and run it.
Steve: We would never actually, we could [never actually] make contact with another universe among the multiverse.
DiChristina: Oh, in this case, we are running it with computers.
Steve: Running a model.
DiChristina: Yeah. We're not creating—well that would be really fun, speaking of Star Trek, and we [could] create our own little baby universes out of a primordial vacuum, where that would be—but now we are running these [through] models which actually, you know, is how a lot of science is conducted. I think people don't give enough appreciation to the value of models and, you know, running [math] for various thought experiments.
Steve: If you did away with the idea of parallel universes, what percentage of Star Trek episodes would you have to throw out of the catalogue?
DiChristina: That is an excellent question, and I think we would need math [to solve] it.
Steve: [Either] parallel universes [or] parallel evolution of planets, but that is for another show. So back here on earth in this universe, we have a really tremendously sad state of affairs with neglected diseases, neglected [tropical] diseases in developing countries. And we do have an article about that in this issue in which the author talks about what we could do to try to alleviate that to a great degree and how doable it really is.
DiChristina: There are folks here who, [through lack] of a pill, you know, you could create a poly-pill for less than 5$ a person and solve probably, you know, I think there were seven diseases, mainly parasite related, that people get—they are called neglected tropical diseases, because we don't give enough money to solve them, we don't put aside the resources that are needed to treat the people; and also they are really hard to, you can treat the people and then it is hard to prevent reinfection because maybe I've acquired a parasite in water, and I take the pill and I get cured, and then I go back in the water again because I am going to have to go back in the water again, maybe I have wash my clothing, maybe I need the water to drink. So it is difficult to remove it entirely, and yet if we put these seven debilitating diseases together, they afflict an enormous number of people and as you say, a sad and astonishing number of them.
Steve: The [author's] name is Peter J. Hotez, and [let me] give a little plug to the profession of science writing, because he became interested in medicine when he was a kid and he read the classic Microbe Hunters by Paul De Kruif, which I am sure, you read when you [were a] kid, I read, and we all had to read that when we were kids and usually in junior high school and. But, you know, some of us didn't go as far as this guy, and he actually became a doctor and a researcher specializing in parasitology and what he calls "the grizzly seven". These tropical diseases are roundworm, whipworm, hookworms, schistosomiasis, lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis and trachoma. And let me just turn to the very end of the piece, and I [don't] want to give away the surprise ending, but you know, this is real life here and this is not a novel, so…. We are talking about neglected tropical diseases, which he abbreviates as NTDs, and he writes that big donor countries have chosen to focus primarily on HIV, AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, which are fatal unless treated. Other developmental programs, viewing NTDs as a symptom rather than the disease, have preferred to concentrate on what they see [a]s the underlying problem, such as poor sanitation, lack of access to clean water and poverty in general. Those are laudable aims, the writer says, but the empirical reality is that NTD drugs are the single most cost-effective way to improve the health education and well being of the world's poor right now.
DiChristina: We are talking about almost a billion people who are affected by these seven, the "grizzly seven," as the article calls them. Steve, another article in the issue that I would like to talk about briefly—at least speaking about being careful of the world as it currently exists and using science for the benefit of them rather than otherwise—many people think that nuclear war is not a problem to be concerned about any more. And I just want to call readers'attention [to], there is also an article in this issue about the effects of small, so-called nuclear engagements and/or local nuclear war. And this article explains the potential global cooling impacts and farming devastation that can unspool after even a limited engagement. I think it is particularly appropriate reading these days given the strife that has been ongoing between India and Pakistan.
Steve: Yeah, this article focuses on an India-Pakistan scenario where 50 nuclear weapons are detonated by each side and a 100 nuclear weapons, you know, it's a lot but we are talking about smaller weapons, not the mega tonnage of the U.S. and old Soviet arsenals. I mean, obviously, this will be unbelievably devastating with tens of millions of people dead, maybe hundreds of millions, but if you think that just because you're living in the comfort of the West Coast of the U.S.…
DiChristina: Right, in the U.S.. That is a natural concern. Yeah. To your point, even a limited engagement like that it might cause some unbelievable damage and destruction, and it might kill out right, let's say 20 million people or so in the scenario that the article discusses, [a further] one billion people [who] could then die from starvation that would follow as particles in the atmosphere clouded over the sun's light and made it so that the farming was impossible and also cool the climate and cause [early] frost and frost [that would] continue leading to [no growing] season where normally there would be a [growing] season.
Steve: We did a major kind of policy review of the India–Pakistan nuclear situation…
DiChristina: Yeah, we did...
Steve: …what, about 10 years ago?
DiChristina: I remember it was a December cover story, and we did, we did a review on policy there and how we might, you know, encourage a better resolution. It was a while ago, I think it was eight years ago.
Steve: That reminds me there, Frank Wilczek, [who] we brought up earlier, we had a podcast interview with Frank that is in our archives, and I believe it was in late spring of 2006, but at the end of this podcast, I will come back on and tell you exactly how to find it. We also have, it's a kind of a photo essay with a great deal of information in the captions, about the next 20 years in microchips. It is carbon nanotubes.
DiChristina: I was going to say, and as you might have summarized our favorite four letter word nano is the solution right? Nanotubes, nanowires.
DiChristina: Graphene, which is also at its fine layers, you know, it's carbon based but also nano in scale.
Steve: So, check that [out]. Because there is a lot of interesting information there, and it is not just nanotubes though. There is a plethora of ideas about where to go.
DiChristina: Right. It talks about memory, circuit elements, you know, and how does one process foster a variety of processing advantages for the next 20 years.
Steve: And as we often do, let us take a look at the 50, 100 or 150 years ago column.
DiChristina: Oh, it is a blast from the past.
Steve: January 1910, Scientific American wrote about automobiles, which were all the rage and we said, "Convincing evidence that the automobile of today is as far perfected as the materials of construction and mechanical ingenuity will allow. It is afforded by the fact that the cars shown in the two annual exhibitions this year exhibit no novelties of radical characters compared with the cars of the preceding year. The present floodtide of prosperity in the automobile industry is due to the fact that people of moderate means who have been waiting until a thoroughly serviceable car embodying the latest improvements was placed on the market at a low price are now being accommodated."And we have a picture of the automobile, the state of the automobile of 1910, which I don't think would pass current safety regulations. What, there is a complete lack of any side-impact air bags.
DiChristina: Or seat belts for that matter.
Steve: Seat belts.
DiChristina: Does it have windows?
Steve: Windows, there [are] no windows, but at least you know, as wrong as that might sound, at least we were correct in noting that the automobile seems perfected according to the available construction materials of the time.
DiChristina: That was very wise and prescient of the editors at that time. But also, after 100 years of engineering advances with internal combustion engines, this is a problem we're actually living with today. In many ways the engines we have now are much more efficient, they do a better job. So, it is actually making it difficult for us to abandon them in pursuit of new technologies. And the big thing this year that you will be hearing a lot more about and focus [on] in the next few months is plug-in hybrids. So, the hybrids where you would plug-in to recharge the battery overnight in theory in off-peak power grid times for your local utility, and those things are becoming more attractive. But the fact is after, 100 years of engineering improvements on the internal combustion engines, these other things, anything else we try to do sounds a little more expensive, and is a little more expensive. So our values have to change too, and what I mean by that is we have to decide that there is a high value, just like the people who were trying to buy the sword in the virtual games had a value on that currency. We have to decide that there is a value in reducing carbon emissions and thus encourage the purchase and use of these alternative vehicles.
Steve: That policy article on the India–Pakistan nuclear situation that we discussed was in the December 2001 issue of Scientific American; it is available [in] our digital archives SciAmDigital.com; and my interview with Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek and his wife Betsy Devine is available at our Web site. Navigate to the May 3, 2006, episode or just go to www.snipurl.com/nobelfrank. We will roll out the news quiz TOTALL……. Y BOGUS in a separate stand-alone episode, coming soon. Till then, get your science news needs met at www.ScientificAmerican.com [where you] will find Katherine Harmon's January 13, article on the seismology of the Haiti earthquake. To find ways to donate to the earthquake rescue and relief efforts, go to redcross.org or Partners in Health at www.pih.org or numerous other agencies. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.