Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina and podcast host Steve Mirsky talk about longevity differences in the sexes, the importance of music education, the pros and cons of the Kindle, and other content from the November issue. Plus, we test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include http://snipurl.com/larrydreams
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the more or less weekly podcast of Scientific American, posted on November 19th 2010. I'm Steve Mirsky. Why do women live longer than men? What is David Pogue's complaint about the Kindle? Why is Scientific American pushing for more music education? Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina and I will discuss all these questions related to content in the November issue of the magazine. We spoke at the Scientific American offices.
Steve: We are going to do a little different. We usually talk about the feature articles in the magazine, but let's talk about the departments, the columns and the other kinds of monthly—not featured articles but features to the magazine—and one of them is the monthly editorial which is now called…
DiChristina: …the Science Agenda.
Steve: And the agenda item this month might look a little strange to people if they open up a science magazine and they see this editorial from Scientific American all about the importance of maintaining our arts education, especially music.
DiChristina: Right, I mean, maybe C. P. Snow's Two Cultures has never been more prevalent in certain ways. Let me address Steve why an arts and music editorial in Scientific American is actually not a strange thing,[or] you know, not a surprising thing in a science magazine. The fact of that the matter is scientific studies have shown that music actually helps students learn in a couple of key ways. One is, first of all a lot of audience probably heard about the Mozart Effect, right, and there are millions of dollars made, I am sure on selling anxious parents on listening to classic music CDs.
Steve: Right: The image of a pregnant woman with headphones on their pregnant bellies.
DiChristina: That's actually a research image that Steve is referring to; it was really done. And the Mozart Effect as such didn't prove to be really, you know, a powerful effect at all; it was largely discredited in many ways. Although I have to say a lot of parents and kids listen[ed] to some beautiful music.
Steve: Right this is the idea, that if you just play classical music to a baby, or even to a fetus, that you're going to boost their intelligence, and that's really been discredited. But …
DiChristina: But real experience with—when I say real experience, maybe [that's] not a fair way to put it—let's call it interactive experience where students are actually playing an instrument; where you're physically engaging with it, not just listening to it and thinking about it. Although there are, I think, some lovely life benefits to listening to it and thinking about and contemplating it. But science has shown that music training, real training, any instruments you play can help your brain process in a couple of key ways that aid in learning. And with everybody's concern today about the state of U.S. education, nonetheless science education, this seems like a useful thing. And I will explain those; [theres] a couple of key ones that I think parents and others should keep in mind.
Steve: I mean if nothing else, you're gonna learn how to count to four.
DiChristina: (laughter) So one of them, speaking of learning to count to [four], is the brain, when you're playing an instrument of any kind learns to process sound better. And [that may] sound obvious but it has some interesting implications. It helps learning when you're trying to concentrate on a difficult task; for instance, if you're sitting in a biology class you are able to listen, absorb and process the sounds from your teacher's mouth better than you would have been without that interactive practice with an instrument.
Steve: We have actual data to back this claim.
DiChristina: There is actual data to back this up and in a world of multitasking, right, where so many of us are trying to do more than one thing at once, people who played a musical instrument, who are listening, processing the music and you know using the mechanics of their body and the mechanical processing areas of their brain to play that instrument are also able to multitask better. So, that's one process, and then a second one that I like to mention in particular is that students who learn how to play an instrument are better at absorbing and processing pitch and timing. Now that also may sound obvious, but the implication is not obvious. That is for instance that it would make easier for those students who learn a new language, in particular languages that are sometimes challenging for western speakers such as Mandarin, where a change in pitch and timing can create a whole different word meaning.
Steve: Right, the editorial talks about the word—and I don't know how to pronounce it correctly—but it's either "ma" or "maa" I think and one means "mother" and the other means "scold," so the example is, if your Ma "maas" you to practice the violin, it's probably a good thing.
DiChristina: Now speaking for myself, if only I had practiced more at the piano, I could have helped you with that pronunciation, Steve.
Steve: Thank you. You studied piano—any other instrument?
DiChristina: I did study a bit of piano and flute. I proved to be rather abysmal at keeping to my practice schedule, at least for the flute. The piano, when I was—maybe this dates me—[I remember] my father taking me aside and saying, "Mariette, I am very sorry, I have to stop the piano lessons for a little while because they cost four dollars a week." Well, I think that the larger point here is that, as you know, granted we are all under budget pressures, the economy hasn't done us any favors lately; but as we are considering what to do with programs, ways to keep or retain music training in schools can only benefit learning, and they shouldn't be the first places we look to cut.
Steve: You know that Meg Whitman spent almost as much money—I believe the figure was $161 million—in her unsuccessful campaign for the governorship of California as the entire annual budget for the National Endowment for the Arts.
DiChristina: That is a telling and rather disturbing statistic, Steve.
Steve: Now we mentioned last time we spoke that David Pogue has joined us as a columnist, and [he has] a really interesting take on e-books—Kindles, Nooks whatever else is out there, the Sony Reader—and why don't you talk about some of what he is concerned about?
DiChristina: Right. David Pogue writes for us TechnoFiles and you and others may know him also as a personal tech columnist for The New York Times and also an Emmy-award-winning correspondent for CBS News. What he wrote for us is an essay called "Trouble with E-Readers" and you might say, what is the trouble with e-readers? Well, a couple of months back, Amazon released some information that said that e-books were selling more than hardcovers for the first time in history. Now, as David pointed out, [there are a] couple of caveats there, one of them is that paperbacks sell more than both of them. So that's an obvious one. But the fact is that e-books are not ready yet, if they ever will be, to kill books and books themselves of the paper kind, you know, still have a lot of advantages over this technology and David goes through those.
Steve: The primary advantage is you can, after you read a regular book, a printed book you can give it to your friend.
DiChristina: Right and obviously if you have an e-reader with a certain kind of software for reading that book you can't easily pass that to another person who has a different e-reader.
Steve: Right, what you can't do is…
DiChristina: …or a different service.
Steve: You can't really do it at all. I think Amazon is instituting a new procedure where you can loan out your e-copy of the book to somebody else with a Kindle, for a couple of weeks though. So, it's not a permanent, it will just disappear from their Kindle after a given period of time.
DiChristina: Do they then charge library fines? Maybe they should.
Steve: Good question, and as you know when you've borrowed a book from somebody, chances are you don't read it within the first two weeks, if ever.
DiChristina: If you are like me, you put it on your night stand and you hope you get to it.
Steve: Right. And he also points out that the chances of an e-book in any format still being available even 20 years from now, he says, but certainly, you know, 200 years from now are virtually nil. Whereas if you have a hardcopy of a book that was published 200 years ago, it may very well be completely readable today.
DiChristina: You remind me Steve of a charming cover on the front of The New Yorker with a space alien sitting amidst the ruins of a metro area—I am going to take it to be New York because we are located there, and maybe I have a cognitive bias—and he is surrounded by broken pieces of software, CDs, DVDs, e-reader–looking things, and he is smiling and reading an old-fashioned book.
Steve: Nice. On the other hand in that Twilight Zone Burgess Meredith has, you know, he is all alone, he is [the last person] in the world and he has got all the books from the library, and he is excited because he will be able to finally have time to read the books, and then he breaks his glasses. That would not be a problem with the Kindle, because you can just change the type size, and so even Burgess Meredith without the glasses would still be able to read the books that are on the Kindle. So there are good properties. I know that I have had the experience, I really like the Kindle for certain things. And one of the great things about the Kindle is on a couple of occasions I've had the opportunity present itself very quickly to interview an author, and I was able to get the book [immediately]; I mean within two minutes I had the book. So I can review the book prior to talking to the author the next day rather than drive around looking for a book store that might have a copy of the book. So, you know, obviously everything has advantages and disadvantages. And one of the things that Pogue makes clear is he is not anti–e-reader. He is just saying we're going to have both.
DiChristina: And I think he is right. I mean just to go back to the pluses and minuses—hopefully Burgess Meredith does not drop the e-reader on the floor, just his glasses.
Steve: Well [that's a good point.]
DiChristina: (laughter)But still, you know, and the other lovely thing about e-readers as long as we're mentioning it is that they can hold in memory because they use little power, so Burgess Meredith doesn't have to get that much charge to keep his e-reader going for an awfully long time.
Steve: Yeah, you can charge the Kindle up and as long as you're not connected up to the wireless system whereby you can bring in new content, it will last for four or five days on one charge. It's the only time you're actually using any of the electricity is when you turn the page. Once the print is on the screen for that page you're not using any power at all.
DiChristina: Right, the wonders of the e-ink. So as long as you're talking about lifetime maybe it's a good time to take a quick look at another new column in the front of the magazine called "[The] Science of Health."
Steve: Hey, why don't we do that?
DiChristina: The Science of Health—I should back up and just introduce it—is a new column we've added recently because so many readers told us that they were really interested in health news, but what they get in the typical publication is the headline, do this or do that.
Steve: The new study: "Eating walnuts will lower your cholesterol."
Steve: Which is useless because you're not going to start eating walnuts.
DiChristina: Right get omega-3 in fish is a good thing but should you just be popping pills with them, does that have the same effect? I mean those kinds of things are often left mysterious in the day's headlines. So Scientific American we thought a service we could bring would be to give you the science [behind] those headlines. In this particular issue we have an expert writing, Thomas Kirkwood, and he talks about why women tend to live longer than men.
Steve: You know my father ever since I was a little kid one of his favorite jokes; I would hear this joke probably every other week while I was going out. "Hey you know why women live longer, because they're not married to women."
DiChristina: I love your father, actually, personally, but I have to disagree with him.
Steve: Of course he's wrong and …
DiChristina: … it's actually the other way around.
Steve: It's the other way around, and also data show that women live longer than men and men who are married to women live longer than single [men].
DiChristina: That's correct, so men who are married to women live longer than single men but women who are married to men don't necessarily live longer than women who are single.
Steve: Right, and now that we have same sex marriage, there could be a whole new data set that we could examine to see if my father's contention really runs false which, you know, I suspect it does. But anyway, let's talk about the real science that we're discussing in this section.
DiChristina: Right. What an interesting question though. But so, why do women live longer? We have lots of theories, your dad has a theory, other people have theories.
Steve: My dad also believes that ancient aliens built the pyramids, so let's not [put a whole lot of] credence [into] what he is thinking [about].
DiChristina: (laughter) Where do I take one. Okay you've made me cry now. So taking a look at the real science questions behind why women live longer than men or tend to live longer than men—because, obviously we're talking about on average: Not every single woman lives longer than every single man. Thomas Kirkwood—who I should have said to everybody is director for the Institute for Aging and Health at Newcastle University in England—[who authored] this article talked about a couple of studies that support the idea that there may be evolutionary reasons for women to live longer. Even if you take a look at it from [a] broadly pragmatic standpoint, you can say if one of the operating mechanisms of evolution is that in order to have your genes passed along, you must be successful [at] passing them along and then further successful at bringing those offspring, you know, to the ability to create the next generation, then there might be certain selective pressures that would encourage a particular kind of body type or body ability. One of the things that happens to all of us as we get older, and I look at Steve and me here aging away as the seconds tick by, is that there are insults and injuries that began to occur in our cellular—and in fact they're constantly occurring. But the fortunate side of that is that our bodies have also have cellular repair mechanisms that are constantly repairing whatever damage [results] from the insults that we hurl at each other and also that occur naturally from the environment. If you think about it, one could say it might be really useful if women's cellular repair mechanisms were particularly robust; probably less useful indeed than male's cellular mechanisms being quite so robust. Because if you want to put a cool practical eye on it, the male of the species, [once he's] fertilized the females, since the female is the one doing the carrying of the baby, the nursing of the baby—at least, in mammals—and the longer term nurturing more directly, that [that] would be of great benefit, to have that female body be very good at repairing damage.
Steve: Right, it's much more directly involved with the whole process than the male is necessarily, not in any particular individual case, but just as a general rule.
DiChristina: Right. We can say that the male reproductive role is maybe a little less reliant on the length of life, more reliant on fertility and finding partners, perhaps.
Steve: And it's helpful to put yourself into the point of view of the genes here rather than the individuals. The genes do live forever, in a sense. I am carrying the genes of my dad and of his dad and mom and the parents before them; you know, they're the same genes for the most part. There may've been some point mutations along the way, but these particular genes go back thousands and thousands and millions of years, some of them even longer than that. And so those genes as individual entities have achieved immortality. They do it by passing through our disposable bodies.
DiChristina: Right, and so now we have speculated on all the logical reasons for those genes to, or for evolution and selection pressures, let's say, to encourage systems where the females are a bit perhaps more robust and can last longer—what does the science say about that? So, in this essay there was a study done in Tanzania, where they wanted to see what happens to children who lose a parent before the age of 15 and which parent had greater influence on the outcomes. And one thing they've learned was that children who lost a father before 15 were a little shorter than their peers. So, obviously they're not getting maybe enough nutrition to grow as tall as those who have a father. Then what happens if you lose a mother before age 15? Kids who lost a mother were even much worse shape, not only were they much shorter, they were poorer and they didn't live as long as the kids who had lost their father. So there was a greater proved influence on the difference between whether a father or a mother was lost.
Steve: Right. Height being a, kind of a, generally good marker for overall health.
DiChristina: And in some other studies, these done in rats, it appears that [in] female rats, the mechanism for repair does indeed look more robust than that in male rats. And scientists typically use rats because they are very good analogue, among lab animals, for mechanisms that operate in a similar fashion to those of humans.
Steve: So there's good biological reason why females in general would live longer than males.
DiChristina: Right, and in those rat studies that I just mentioned, if the scientists remove[d] the ovaries of the animals, than those repair mechanisms were no longer better than those of the males.
Steve: Right, and there [were] some interesting comments towards the end of the article about the experience of males who [had] endure[d] castration, and the data aren't really good enough there, but there's some evidence that it looks like—I mean testosterone is poisonous. I mean just look at what it does to men's minds—but it is also, in the long run, it's not such a great thing to have coursing through your body, you know, in terms of the individual's health. And so these anecdotal looks at some of the life spans for castrati or also eunuchs in ancient Chinese courts; it looked like not having the testosterone increased their life spans; they spent a longer time missing what they didn't have perhaps.
DiChristina: They had a lot of extra time to read the papyrus.
Steve: There you go—without dropping their glasses. Speaking of men, one very successful man is Steven Weinberg Nobel laureate in physics and we have a Q&A with him in this issue.
DiChristina: Steven Weinberg, by the way, at the University of Texas at Houston, is an advisor, one of our scientist advisors for Scientific American, speaking of columns.
Steve: Speaking of columns we'll take a quick look at the 50, 100 and 150 years ago column compiled by, of course, Daniel C. Schlenoff of legendary Scientific American fame. This is pretty interesting; 100 years ago this month we had an item: The services of Eugene Ely with his Curtiss biplane were secured for the making of this first attempt to fly from the deck of a naval vessel to a designated spot ashore. As our image shows"—and there's an artist's rendering of a guy taking [off] off of what is in effect an aircraft carrier, although that's not what they were calling it then because they didn't realize that's what it was—"as our image shows, a platform was erected upon the bow of the Birmingham. Despite squalls of wind and rain, Ely decided to attempt to fly between squalls. He had his engine started; as the machine left the platform, it settled rapidly [until] it struck the water with a splash, which the spectators [supposed] marked the termination of the flight. Instead however, the machine rose again and continued on its way. It traveled straight for the nearest land where it descended without a mishap." I wonder what would have happened to the future of the entire aircraft-carrying idea had it[stayed] submerged; had it hit the water and not gotten back off the water surface.
DiChristina: I also wonder what would have happened if Ely didn't somehow get through TSA security.
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 1: When the Deep Impact spacecraft drew nearby the comet Hartley 2 a couple of weeks ago, it wound up flying through an ice storm in space.
Story 2: The Philadelphia Eagles football team plans to retrofit their stadium with wind and solar power to have it run on self-generated renewable energy.
Story 3: A species of lizard heretofore unknown to science was found in Vietnam when a scientist spotted it being used as the mascot for a local soccer team.
And story 4: There's an igloo on the street in Hamburg that's made out of 320 stacked and running refrigerators.
Story 1 is true. Deep Impact wound up flying through ice particles carried away from the Hartley 2 comet by carbon dioxide jets. About two tons of ice come off the comet every second according to Michael A'Hearn, Deep Impact's science team leader.
Story 2 is true. The Eagles announced they'll put up 80, 20-foot-high wind turbines on top of Lincoln Financial Field and 2500 solar panels. Together they will provide about 30 percent of the energy for the stadium. A 7.6-megawatt onsite heat capturing dual fuel cogeneration plant, using natural gas and diesel, will turn the stadium into a net provider of electricity to the external grid.
And story 4 is true. There is an igloo in Hamburg made out of 320 refrigerators. It's an art piece by Ralph Schmerberg to illustrate power consumption. The doors of the fridges all face toward the interior of the igloo and they are open which is making the interior of the igloo uncomfortably hot, which I guess is the point.
All of which means that story 3, about the lizard being found in Vietnam as a soccer team mascot is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. But what is true is that a newly discovered kind of lizard has been identified in Vietnam by researchers when they found it being served in a restaurant. The lizard is an all female species that reproduces only by parthenogenesis. The species has been dubbed Leiolepis ngovantrii which translates to, don't do that, don't do that and was described in the journal Zootaxa.
Steve: That's it for this episode. Get your science news at www.ScientificAmerican.com. You can check up the guest blog by our friend physicist Lawrence Krauss titled "Forgotten dreams? A call to investigate the mysteries of humanity". And follow us on Twitter where you'll get a tweet about each new article posted to the Web site. Our Twitter handle is @SciAm, that's S-C-I-A-M. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.