Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina and staff editor Michael Moyer join podcast host Steve Mirsky (pictured) to talk about articles in the July issue, including: "The Dirty Truth about Plug-In Hybrids"; "How Babies Think"; and "Birds That Lived with Dinosaurs". Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites related to content of this podcast include www.scientificamerican.com/sciammag; http://bit.ly/cwcTtR
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American posted on July 08th 2010. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast…
Moyer: When we were thinking about the new introduction of plug-in cars, we got to thinking, "Well how are they going to get their power? You know, when you plug them into this outlet, kind of, what's on the other end of that outlet?"
Steve: That's Scientific American editor Michael Moyer who will talk about his feature in the July issue on where a plug-in electric vehicle's power really comes from. And Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina talks about some of the other articles in the new July issue. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First up, Michael and Mariette; the three of us sat down in the new recording studio at the Scientific American offices on July 6th.
Steve: Mariette, before we talk about the July issue, you just got back from Lindau.
DiChristina: I just got back from the Nobel laureate meetings at Lindau. These meetings were begun 60 years ago, and this was the 60th anniversary of them. And the sole purpose of them is to bring Nobel laureates together—and there were about 60 of them this year—with young scientists, roughly in their 20s, let's say, who have already begun publishing various pieces of research; and [to] give those young scientists encouragement and they came this year from 72 different countries all around the world. They go through a kind of a rigorous process to be filtered through their countries' candidate systems, and then the Lindau people accept a certain number, as many as they can accommodate. This year it was more than 600 young scientists, and I've got to tell you, the passion of these young people and the brilliance—these are some of, you know, in five years we'll be seeing their names in the headlines, I'm convinced—was just so completely amazing and refreshing. It was great to see, you know, the flow of science expertise from the Nobel level [down to] these folks and vice versa.
Steve: So all these young researchers get their own Nobel prize-winning mentors for a couple of days.
DiChristina: Actually how it works, there's lot of mentoring going around, but it is not as formal as that. The young scientists can decide in the afternoons what sessions they want to attend with which laureates, and I was privileged to be able to do some of that as well. And in the morning, [they have plenary] sessions where everybody is together. In the afternoons, they get really focused time where the young researchers can ask the laureates what they think. And at one point, through a panel that was run by our colleagues at the Nature Publishing Group, we let these Nobel laureates ask the young scientists questions in turn, which was really fun.
Steve: Were the youngsters, kind of, nervous about that? I would imagine they'd be.
DiChristina: I've got to tell you, none of the scientists that I saw, the young scientists, seemed to be nervous about anything. All uniformly expressed a real love of what they were doing and a real belief in the idea of exploring the world through science and the value of that. And you know, [another thing] I should mention about this Steve, for these young scientists, this is a once in a lifetime experience, unless they, in turn, win a Nobel Prize some day…
DiChristina: … along the line, you know, so I felt doubly humbled and privileged to be among such company.
Steve: And if there's anybody listening who is in graduate school or doing the postdoc or early faculty position in their career and they wanted to try to do this, do you know how they could do it?
DiChristina: I think the fastest thing for anybody to do would be to go to the Lindau site, and if you just go to Google and you type "Lindau Nobel laureate meetings", it will pop right up and it will tell you how to go about looking into it in various countries.
Steve: Very cool. So let's talk about the July issue of Scientific American. We have an article called "How Babies Think".
DiChristina: Right. So we're going to go from Nobel laureates, I think, to the tiniest among us or as Horton, the elephant, said in Dr. [Seuss], you know, a person is a person no matter how small, and indeed that is the big lesson about how babies think. Although they're tiny little people, they're not tabula rasa or blank slate, as we once upon a time thought. They're instead, speaking of little young scientists, they're mini scientists. And, in fact, the author of this article, Alison Gopnik at the University of California, wrote a book few years ago called The Scientists in the Crib, and that is what they are. They experiment with the world, they observe through either statistical analysis or cause and effect and they learn an amazing amount of stuff, just because they're not telling you because they're not verbal yet doesn't mean they're not observing.
Steve: Yeah, there's some really fascinating experiments described in the article that illustrate the fact that these little babies do have a statistical understanding of their environment, like there's the one with the different colored balls in a box.
DiChristina: Right. I love this experiment. Of course, any parent—I'll tell you about that in one second—but any parent will be surprised to hear this. Anybody who's seen a child in a high chair who drops a spoon and then watches in delight as the parents rush after that spoon time and time again knows that children very quickly learn cause and effect, but the surprise was that they also can do a kind of statistical analysis. And what we mean by that we don't mean that they're doing heavy duty math in their heads.
Steve: Right. They're not going to do standard deviations.
DiChristina: But an eight-month-old for instance, who is looking at a box of balls, let's say they're mostly white balls and there're a few red balls in that box. If the experimenter keeps taking out red ball after red ball, the baby will notice this and with babies, of course because they're not verbal, the way you notice, the way they know, the way they express that they know something is not quite right is they really stare at it, and they look really surprised; even you know, sort of cocking their head a little bit sometimes—how does that happen? And so if I'm the experimenter, and I have a box of mostly white balls and a few red balls, and I keep grabbing red ball after red ball, the baby will stare and show you that, "Hey, that is probably not right; something weird is going on here." And so the baby understands, in a rudimentary way, the statistics of those balls.
Steve: Right that the picks are not being done at random. So if they're being done at random; [or if they are being done at random], then something unexpected has happened here.
DiChristina: And by the time, the baby is say, 20 months old, the baby can draw an inference. For instance, in another experiment, where scientists were playing with yellow and green toys—which I have to tell you, I wish I was doing experiments with babies playing with yellow and green toys sometimes; as fun as it is to be on your podcast Steve. When the experimenter kept preferring a particular color, let's say the yellow toy, the baby would eventually realize that statistically the person prefers the yellow toy and try to hand that toy to him.
DiChristina: So they are, you know, analyzing in effect, statistical probability that you would like something by [what] your selections had shown beforehand.
Steve: And there was another really interesting experiment [in the article that], in a similar way, had to do with foodwith the broccoli and Goldfish.
DiChristina: The broccoli and Goldfish.
DiChristina: Okay. Leaving aside the fact that broccoli and goldfish, you might have some, you know, inner preferences anyway.
Steve: These are the cracker Goldfish.
DiChristina: The cracker Goldfish. Right [not] the slippery, wet kind. So imagine two [bowls], one with broccoli in it, and one with Goldfish, and if the experimenter expresses a preference in [one], let's say smiles when they're eating the Goldfish and bites into the broccoli and makes a frowny face, the baby will realize, well, that the experimenter really would prefer to eat Goldfish, and I might prefer those too. I had a similar experience with this with my daughter, Mallory, who's now nine. When she was a tiny baby, I picked up a particular stuffed elephant toy, and I smiled and I kissed it, and I saw her face locking on me doing that. She then preferred that elephant to anything else forever. In fact, she still, now we have two of them because we bought a spare. She still prefers this elephant. She no longer remembers why, but she remembered that of all the toys she had, I picked this elephant up and kissed it and handed it to her, and she's never forgotten it.
Steve: That made it special. With the broccoli and the Goldfish, what was really interesting was if the adult professed an interest more in the broccoli, the kid could then give the adult either one and would give the adult the broccoli—not because it was holding the Goldfish for itself, because to the kid it was like, "For some reason this other person likes the broccoli. I can't explain it myself, but I know from their behavior that they would really prefer to have the broccoli." But what was also interesting about that was, if I remember the article correctly, that kind of understanding of the likes and dislikes of the other person only kicked in at a certain age. The 14-month-old babies that were tested could not distinguish between what the other person liked and didn't like, but the 18-month-old babies could.
DiChristina: Right, 18 to 20 months. You're right, you're right. There are certainly stages where sophistication of processing becomes greater. When a baby is learning for instance—this is something we don't discuss in this article—but it's called object permanence. That's where you, maybe, hide a toy in a box and you close it up. To the baby that is less than eight months old, that toy has just disappeared; it doesn't exist and never existed. Babies older than eight months understand that that object still exists even though they can't see it. So there are certain stages of cognition or cognitive development. And one of the things that these experiments do is help us explore how does our cognition evolve, you know, develop over the first few months of life? And what does that say about our thinking later and how rational or irrational we are, just the way we explore the world in general?
Steve: And if I'm not mistaken, I think that the author, Alison Gopnik, is the sister of the famous New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik.
DiChristina: She is indeed.
Steve: So, it's a pretty well-written article because this runs in the family. Let's get Michael Moyer in here for a second. Michael, you're the author of an infographic and text piece called "The Dirty Truth About Plug-in Hybrids", and there's some amazing stuff in here that most people probably not only have never heard of but never even considered as data; that they didn't put into their car decisions. Why don't you tell us what this two-page spread is all about?
Moyer: Sure. So, this story came about, kind of, when we were thinking about the new introduction of plug-in cars that'll be coming this year. You may have heard about the Chevrolet Volt coming out later this year, which is a plug-in hybrid. It has a small gasoline engine in it, but it's really just a car powered by an electric motor and a battery and the gasoline engine just kind of works to recharge the battery. You plug it into your garage at night when you come home, and if you drive anything for less than 40 miles during the day, the engine never comes on; you just work on electric power. Then early next year, we have the Nissan Leaf coming out, which is all electric, no gasoline engine at all; and that, you can go for about 100 miles in that. So we got to thinking well, you know, these are great innovations coming out, and they'll help us be greener. But then we got to thinking, "Well, how are these cars going to get their energy? How are they going to get their power? You know, when you plug them into this outlet, kind of what's on the other end of that outlet?"
Steve: Right. We're not taking in gasoline anymore, but somewhere the energy has to get processed.
Moyer: That's right. It's not free energy that's, kind of, coming into these things, and we consider that well 50 percent of the U.S. energy supply comes from coal right now. And so we, kind of, looked into it and we found that the some researchers, a few, maybe a year or so ago had done a breakdown of region by region in the U.S.—California versus Illinois versus New York—kind of, what effect these automobiles were going to have on the electricity supply of the U.S. itself. And so let me explain that for [you] and unpack that a little bit. They imagine in 2020, you got to certain number of these cars that are out in everyone's garage, and people are going to plug them in, and they're going to have some sort of off drain on the electricity supply. And so they modeled each one of these regions to kind of see what additional sources of electricity we're going to have to turn on in order to supply these guys. And they didn't say "Okay, they're going to be pulling energy during peak hours" or anything like that; they said, "No, okay people are going to be drawing their electricity at night when demand is lowest, and prices conceivably are going to be cheapest, but even then there's going to be, you know, more than what [would] ordinarily be coming out of the sockets, you know. And so you're going to have these additional power sources that are going to have to come on and so what are those power sources going to be? And what they found, somewhat surprisingly, is that it is not our ordinary distribution of electricity. They found that in a lot of cases, you're going to have an increase in what they call marginal loads from natural gas and from coal. They found that nuclear sources and renewable energy sources contributed almost nothing to the power supply that is going into these cars.
Steve: So, the natural gas and coal are what [is] being used to create electricity at the power plants.
Moyer: That's right.
Steve: So ultimately, your car which doesn't use any gasoline is being run on coal or natural gas.
Moyer: Yes, ultimately that's where the energy is coming from. Your car is going to be run on coal or natural gas in the vast majority of cases across the U.S. And so what we've done is we then looked at all those different regions we kind of mapped it out, and we showed for your region how much of your energy is going to come from these different sources, mostly coal and natural gas; and then how will your emissions compare to the driver of an ordinary, hybrid, just say, an ordinary Toyota Prius, which is you know, a very efficient car. And we found that in about half the regions in the U.S., you're going to be emitting in total about the same amount of carbon dioxide as you would driving in an ordinary hybrid, if you're using one of these plug-in vehicles.
Steve: And in some regions you can actually be emitting more carbon than you would with just a regular old hybrid.
Moyer: That's right. In places such as the upper Midwest in Illinois and Ohio, and in the Southeast, they're going to get so much more of their energy from coal that they're going to be, that those cars per mile…
Steve: They're actually dirtier...
Moyer: …are dirtier, are dirtier than just a regular, old hybrid.
Steve: Now we don't compare at all to fully internal combustion engines automobiles that run on gasoline.
Moyer: That's right and in all those cases, we did the analysis but we didn't have the room on the spread to, kind of, show that. Those will always be dirtier. Right.
Steve: So it's an improvement over that but it's not necessarily an improvement to have an all-electric vehicle over a hybrid vehicle that does use some gasoline.
Moyer: That's right, for carbon emissions.
Steve: For carbon emissions, right.
Moyer: Now lot of people are concerned about oil consumption and petroleum consumption.
Steve: Those become security concerns or global foreign policy concerns, right.
Moyer: You know, deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico concerns; and for all regions, we found that those plug-in vehicles would be using substantially less petroleum in total. New York is actually the one kind of outlier there, where New York will get a lot of its marginal capacity from oil-burning power plants.
Steve: As opposed to natural gas or coal, right?
Moyer: Exactly, as opposed to natural gas or coal.
Steve: I mean it's really surprising data in here, it's a very data-rich couple of pages. But for example, the thing that really jumped out at me was Texas, which you always think of as, you know, chug-a-chug oil wells all over Texas. The power plants are 100 percent natural gas.
Moyer: That's right. The additional capacity that'll come online is a 100 percent natural gas for Texas. And you think a chug-a-chug oil wells, you also think Texas is the wind capital of the U.S. right now. But look, these power sources such as wind or solar, they're going to be used—their fuel is free, is cheap so they're churning all the time, nuclear the same way; and so those power plants are going to be always on, no matter if you've got a fleet of electric cars or if you don't. Also, those sources kind of don't count in this analysis. The researchers modeled what the power supply would be with a fleet of electric cars and they model what the power supply would be without the fleet and they subtracted one from the other, and that's how we get these numbers.
Steve: Yeah, it's a really interesting feature and it might even affect some people's choices about what kind of car to buy in the next few years. I know that I am still driving a 1992 Honda Civic because I keep figuring if I can only squeeze another couple of years out of it, there might be all these really different new cars available. And now this article is making me think about that whole calculus in a whole different way, actually.
Moyer: Yeah, I mean, you know, technology, it is like when do buy your new cell phone, right? There's always going to be something better in a year; so that '92 Civic, though, Steve, could probably use an environmental [upgrade].
Steve: Well, the air conditioner, it doesn't work, so I am saving a lot on being very green about never running the A-C. And if you go to our Web site there's a big multimedia feature that's [related] to "The Dirty Truth About Plug-in Hybrids" article.
Moyer: That's right. We've got a big interactive feature where you can, kind of, click on different regions and explore different scenarios; because it's online, we were able to get a lot more data in there, and you can really play with it yourself and, kind of, drill down to see where you live and how it's going to affect you and your car-purchasing decision.
Steve: Very cool. Thanks, Michael.
Moyer: Thank you.
Steve: Back to Mariette. We have an article on bird evolution, which is always a fascinating subject. And the accepted wisdom that's developed over the last few decades is that birds did indeed evolve from dinosaurs but it was also accepted that modern birds kind of evolved after the major extinction of around 65 million years ago. This article says no.
DiChristina: There are more than 10,000 bird species today, and they're extremely successful in so many different niches. And the accepted wisdom, as you said, was that they evolved in a kind of a classic adaptation radiation pattern from the newly freed niches once all the dinosaurs were gone, 65 million years ago. And it turned out, as it so often happens in science, that that is just too simple and cut and dried. There were some suspicions based on some earlier fossil analysis that maybe birds were around when dinosaurs were around and not just Archaeopteryx, which everybody has heard about right—this is the 145-million-year-old transitional fossil that had teeth and a long tail like dinosaurs, and it's pelvis was also shaped more like dinosaurs than the modern birds are today—but no, we speak of anatomically modern birds that were discovered, some fossils discovered, before 65 million years ago; so 67 million years ago and 70 million years ago, a couple of fossil species one called a Vegavis and one called [Teviornis] and these are partial skeletons that show, unequivocally really, that these creatures had anatomically modern tails and anatomically modern beaks.
Steve: So if you saw one today you would just, let's say you're not a bird expert, you'd just say "Oh! Look there's a bird."
DiChristina: "There's a bird."
Steve: It wouldn't jump out of as you being a very, very strange-looking bird; like if you saw an Archaeopteryx you would say, "What heck is that thing?"
DiChristina: That's it, right, [you'd say] "Look at those teeth", yeah. You know and these also jibe with recent molecular estimates that had been made by taking research into the genes of various modern birds and calculating what is their rate of mutation, sort of; you can think of it as a clock ticking, right, there's a certain rate, and calculating backward about when they might've diverged from a common ancestor. So, we [have] a couple of lines of evidence both physical evidence and this molecular evidence that indicate that birds indeed had risen when dinosaurs were still walking. And as the article's author says, it's kind of fun to imagine a bird perched on some dinosaur's back. You know, in the past we did not have that vision of the end of the dinosaurs period; now we do.
Steve: Now the question then is why did those birds make it through the dinosaur extinction?
DiChristina: Right, so if all the dinosaurs died out, and they did, this leaves us with an intriguing mystery about birds and what was it about them that enabled them to survive this mass extinction event and then keep on going to become the extraordinarily successful set of species that we see today with more than 10,000 kinds of them.
Steve: And there's a hypothesis that the birds that made it through that evolutionary filter were the ones that just had the most general ability to get food from different kinds of environments; they weren't really highly specialized.
DiChristina: Right, the flexibility.
Steve: So remember stay flexible, and you too might be able to survive. So let's wrap up as we always do. We talk about our 50, 100 and 150 Years Ago column compiled by Daniel C. Schlenoff—hat's off Daniel. And the July 1860 issue of Scientific American, it's a particularly appropriate remembrance from back then in light of, it's like 100 degrees in New York City today.
DiChristina: It is.
Steve: And this is what we had 150 years ago, this month in Scientific American:
"There are thousands of people in New York who seem to have quite forgotten the use of plain water as a beverage. In certain quarters of the city, 'lager' is the main staple of life, being for sale in almost every house, and the drink and even the food, of all the men, women and children. Lager is king! Lager is one of our most modern institutions. Ten years ago, it was only a vulgar German word of unknown import; then it was looked upon as an insipid Dutch beer; but finally, a majority, perhaps, will vote that it is 'the people's nectar.'" It's a people's nectar today out there. "Certain witnesses have testified and courts have decided that lager is not intoxicating. But, in view of the fact that a pint of lager contains as much alcohol as an ordinary glass of brandy, it might be suspected that those witnesses had indeed been indulging in lager just at the time they needed their sober judgment."
DiChristina: One thing I love about Scientific American is that even when discussing lager and alcohol content, the cooler heads prevailed among the editors suggesting that, you know, of course that can't be right just because some people saw that, you know, believed that there was no alcoholic content, [that is has] no ability to inebriate you.
Steve: Really. If there's alcohol in there, there's going to be some bit of effect.
DiChristina: Yeah, it must have an effect. I love that about Scientific American.
Steve: Well let's hope that the cooler heads prevail today, too.
DiChristina: Please drink lots of water folks.
Now it's time to play TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, but only three are true. See if you know which one is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: When a college football team wins a game right before an election, incumbents get more votes than when the team looses.
Story number 2: Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman has declined an award worth $1 million.
Story number 3: Fifteen monkeys at a primate research facility in Tokyo escaped by flinging themselves from trees over a 17-foot-high electrified fence.
And story number 4: A study in New York City found that men who lived within a five-minute walk of a pizza parlor were actually thinner than men who did not live close to pizza.
Story number 1 is true. College football wins apparently make people feel better about their community and incumbents up for an election get a two point bounce. [That's] according to research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [And] local college basketball wins translated to higher presidential approval ratings locally. For more, check out the July 7th episode of the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science.
Story number 2 is true. Mathematician Grigori Perelman has turned down a $1 million prize for his work in proving the Poincaré conjuncture, which you're far better off looking up than having me trying to explain it in 10 seconds. Perelman has turned down other prizes in the past. He told the Clay Mathematics Institute, which chose him for the honor, that he didn't think his contribution to the problem was greater than others who had worked on it.
Story [number] 3 is true: The monkeys did bust out but then they apparently didn't know what to do with their new found freedom so they hung out right outside and researchers got them to come back in by offering them peanuts. Or maybe they just wanted to show the scientists that they were living at the primate center by choice.
All of which means that story number 4, about guys who live near pizza being thinner, is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Because what is true is that a study done in Buffalo, New York, found that women who live[near] supermarkets were thinner than women whose nearest food shopping opportunity was a convenience store. The work appears in the Journal of Planning Education and Research. The study also found that the greater the number of restaurants within a five-minute walk, the higher a woman's body mass index. So apparently we are not just what we eat, we are where we eat.
Well, that's it for this episode. Thanks to Eric Olson for helping with the production this week, and get your science news at www.ScientificAmerican.com, where you can check out the interactive feature on "The Sometimes Dirty Truth about Plug-In Hybrids"; and follow us on Twitter, where you'll get a tweet every time a new article hits the Web site. Our Twitter name is @SciAm. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.