How Google Grew Into An Online Goliath

Google's founders built a giant company based on certain principles: Make decisions based on data. Search should be fast and automatic. Keep as much company information private as possible. In his book In the Plex, Steven Levy discusses how these values shaped Google into what it is today.

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IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. I'll bet that you have a Gmail account, right, and you turn to Google Maps when you need to find your way to someplace new? Maybe you have an Android phone? Well, how did these products become such an indispensible part of our lives? How did two Stanford Ph.D. dropouts build a company that touches everything we do online?

My next guest, tech writer Steven Levy, has been covering Google for over a decade from way back in the early days when they were operating out of an office above a bicycle shop just off the Stanford campus. And in his new book, "In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives," he gives us a sort of biography of the company and its founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. And inside, he gives us a look at how Google grew so quickly from small startup to Internet giant with tens of thousands of employees, gobbling up companies like YouTube and Motorola for billions along the way.

But can Google hold on to its empire, or could Facebook be coming up next? Are the recommendations of your friends more important to you than the suggestions an algorithm spits out? Maybe you're already using Google's experiment in social media, Google Plus. We want to know what you think about Google.

Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Steven Levy is author of "In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives." He's also senior writer at Wired here in New York, and he's in our New York studios. Good to have you back.

STEVEN LEVY: It's great to be back.

FLATOW: Take - "In the Plex," having the title something to do with Googleplex in the old...

LEVY: Yeah, yeah, the name of their campus is the Googleplex, and it's a pun. The company likes to have their fun, and the name Google comes from a mathematical term, which is one followed by 100 zeroes, a big number. And they deal in big data.

So, you know, that represents it. But he also misspelled it, in part because it's fun to have those double-O's that the original word doesn't have and in part because they didn't get the domain name with the original spelling.

FLATOW: They didn't. Take us back to the late '90s. How did all of this get started?

LEVY: So we had the Internet. People thought that they searched it pretty good with the tools they had. There was a search engine called Alta Vista, which everyone was impressed with, but Larry Page, a Stanford graduate student, as you mentioned, thought there might be a better way to do it.

He came from an academic family, and he knew that one way to measure the popularity of academic articles was how many footnotes they have. And the World Wide Web had this tool that gave you a better way to search, which was these links. But in order to do that really well, you'd have to capture the entire World Wide Web on your computers.

And he convinced his professors at Stanford to let him do that, and his buddy, Sergey Brin, another graduate student, did some of the mathematics that helped him interpret that. And lo and behold, they found by seeing what people linked to on the Web, they could get better search results.

And that's what they did. They tried to sell it to the other search companies, but those search companies were attached to these things called portals, which saw themselves as destination sites that people would come to. And they turned them away. They said we don't want to buy this technology because it's too good. People would search for things, and they'd leave our website, and they wouldn't look at our headlines or finance product or whatever. So get out of here. We don't want search that's that good.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEVY: And what could they do but start a company?

FLATOW: They started their own company. Did they think that this was a money-making project, that's what they were going to do.

LEVY: Well, they felt that there was money to be made. They weren't 100 percent certain how it would be made. They thought, well, ads might be one way. But they had a problem with that because they hated advertising and wanted to figure out a new way to do advertising that wasn't intrusive, that users wouldn't blanch when they saw it.

And they thought maybe we'll license it to some other companies, and maybe we'll sell the technology to corporations that want to search within their own private internets or intranets. And it was a problem for a while. The people who funded them, they got a lot of venture capital money at the end of the boom, and then harder times came to Silicon Valley, and the venture capitalists began getting a little nervous, saying where's the money, guys. They were getting a lot of users.

And then they invented a new ad product, which turned out to be exactly what satisfied their standard for what advertising should be. They felt the advertising should be as useful to the user as the search results. And they came up with an amazing formula that let them do that. And it turned out to be the most successful advertising product in the history of the Internet, probably the most successful product in this century so far.

FLATOW: Okay, and they keep secret these advertising formulas and their Google search formulas and things like that.

LEVY: They keep a lot of secrets, but they've been a little more open. They don't like it when you call them black boxes. So - and I sat down with them. I spent a lot of time with all the search engineers and the ad engineers. So I could explain to people how this stuff works.

And as it turns out, if you learn how search works, if you learn how Google Ad works, you learn a lot about how Google thinks.

FLATOW: And how does the search work? Give us an idea what goes into a search.

LEVY: So we talked a little bit about the basic ingredient of Google Search originally, why it was so good, because it used these links. So if you figure it, on my website, I like the Philadelphia Phillies, and if I put the Philadelphia Phillies in something that I'm writing on my blog or something like that, and it's underlined, like a link, that's called anchor text, the place that I'm going to link it to, probably, is the home page of the Philadelphia Phillies.

And if other people do that, and if important sites, much more important than my blog, like the New York Times does that, that's an amazing way to tell that this is the most important term, important location for that term. And they could figure this out because they analyzed all these links on the Web there.

So that was the first thing. It was sort of a crowd-sourced way to know what's important, and the name of that technology was called Page Rank not on Web pages but Larry Page, the Stanford student.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Is that right?

LEVY: That's right. But as Google evolved, that Page Rank was still an important component but less crucial. It actually became sort of an artificial intelligence learning machine because Google got a lot of data from the way people searched, and they watched the way people behaved on the search engine, and they learned which searches were more effective, which locations satisfied which kinds of searches.

It even learned about the language. If someone searched for dog and didn't like what they like - didn't like what they found, they might then type in puppy, and the search engine, if enough people did that, figured dog, puppy, that's kind of alike.

FLATOW: So it's sort of an artificial intelligence that's going on.

LEVY: Yeah, it's sort of like one of the science fiction things, where you sort of like grow an intelligence in a big jar or something like that. Their search engine got to know things, and it learned more and more things, and, you know, it could even learn how to translate one language for another just by watching the way people operated and making use of the massive amounts of data available to Google.

So as things go on, you know, it really is something that learns by people's search, and the more people search, the better it learned. And it was a real virtuous cycle.

FLATOW: Now, you have spanned many of the greatest minds in Silicon Valley - Steve Jobs, (unintelligible) and now Larry Page and Sergey. And in your book, you talk about how Steve Jobs tried to mentor both Page and Brin. But the relationship changed when Google came out with an Android phone.

LEVY: That's right.

FLATOW: What happened there?

LEVY: For a while, it looked like, you know, Steve Jobs and Sergey were - it was like Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains, a beautiful friendship. And Steve was, you know, impressed by them, and he was especially impressed because this was a partnership he could have mainly to square off against Microsoft and other competitors where they were entirely complementary.

He figured he wasn't going to build a search engine, and they weren't going to build a phone. And then Google said, well, we bought this company called Android. It really isn't going to be the kind of stuff that you do.

But then Steve came out with the iPhone, and Google realized that we better shelve the rather rudimentary phone that we're working on first and go to our future phone, you know, and that looked a lot like the iPhone, behaved like the iPhone. And when Steve got wind of that, he felt personally betrayed, and he got very angry.

FLATOW: There was a falling out between them?

LEVY: There definitely was.

FLATOW: Would you consider he to be the new Steve Jobs? Would Google be the new Apple on the block here?

LEVY: There are some aspects that are similar. Larry Page, who is the CEO now of Google, he was the original CEO, and then after much pressure from the venture capitalists who wanted, quote, "adult supervision," they brought in someone.

First they wanted Steve Jobs. They thought that was the only guy that they would accept as a CEO. And that wasn't going to happen. But they settled on Eric Schmidt, who they liked because he was an engineer. He had been to Burning Man, which was, you know, something - an event that both Larry and Sergey had attended, and it showed something about him. And for 10 years, Eric did an excellent job of building it from a small company to a bigger company.

But now Larry came back. And I think there's some aspects, just in terms of being driven and determined and ambitious and product-oriented that are similar to Steve. He does not have Steve Jobs's personal charisma. You won't see him, you know, doing keynotes and saying there's one more thing, and then here's the next Google project.

FLATOW: So he's not going to fill a void as Steve leaves the stage now in public life?

LEVY: I think Steve is unique, and I think in his own way, you know, people like Larry, and, you know, you look at other people coming up, Jack Dorsey who's, you know, an important person at Twitter and Square, the payment thing, you know, that people are saying there's a lot of extraordinary people out there but only one Steve Jobs.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, talking with Steven Levy, author of "In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives." If I remember correctly, you also were author of "Insanely Great."

LEVY: That is true, yes.

FLATOW: And how do you get access to Steve Jobs, to all these great pioneers? Do they just let you in the door?

LEVY: Well, I've been doing this for a while. So I kind of got in before some of those guys were famous, and then I talked to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and then the other people figured, God, I guess he know Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, we have to talk to him, too.

FLATOW: Were they easy to talk to, these guys from Google? Or are they in a different world than you are?

LEVY: I think they were easier to spend time with in the earlier days. When I signed up to do the book, they let me get a great access to the company, and Larry and Sergey and Eric all had to sign off on it because I got amazing access.

I got to talk to virtually any person in the company. I got access to products while they were being developed. I got to sit in on some amazing meetings like the search launch meeting, where they talk about what changes they're going to make to the search engine.

And - but even though I'd run into Larry and Sergey quite often, I really had to push to get these long, sit-down interviews that were so useful to me.

FLATOW: We'll talk more with Steven Levy author of "In the Plex." Our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. We'll talk about Google. We'll also talk about does Facebook represent a challenge that they should worry about. What about all these other things Google's getting into with voice and the Google groups now, Google Plus. I mean, are you a Google Plus member? Do you like it? Does it work as well for you? Are you willing to trade off your friends in Facebook? Are they more worthwhile than a good search engine?

Some questions and answers coming up after this break. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about Google, a company many of us probably couldn't go a day without, at least for searching. Have you tried not using Gmail or Google search for a day or two?

Where's the company going now, and what's it up to? Well, here to talk about it and fill us in is Steven Lev. He's author of "In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives." He's also a senior writer at Wired here in New York. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

Google seems to be just growing horizontally. Is that a good thing? I mean, are they going to take on Facebook and become a social community like they're trying with Google Plus?

LEVY: Well, they figured out, after several products that really didn't work so well in the social world, that they couldn't fool around. They absolutely had to have a big, successful social product because Facebook was getting all this amazing information about people that people voluntarily gave to Facebook: who their friends are, what they're interested in, what their activities are.

And Google's mission is to access all the world's information and organize it, and this is really important information. If Google knew what you liked, they could give you better search results, they could do all sorts of things, show you better ads.

So they figured we have to do this because if Facebook builds this information sphere that we can't get a hold of, maybe they could do a search engine next. Who knows what they could do. So they put together a huge effort, one of the biggest ones in their history. It was code-named Emerald City. Originally, they thought they'd get it out in 100 days, but it was more ambitious. It took longer. And eventually, they did put it out a couple months ago in what they call a field test.

But what we're seeing now, you know, it has a couple pretty innovative things, like one thing called circles that enables you to determine what you share and who you share it with a little more easily than you can with Facebook.

But more is going to come online. Eventually, all of Google will be more social, and that's part of this wider experiment they're doing.

FLATOW: Of course, Microsoft bought Skype so that we can have voice things going on. Google has its own.

LEVY: Right, yeah, Google had an opportunity to buy Skype. I tell a story in the book how the guy in charge of the Google product which is sort of a competitor to Skype, Google Voice, didn't like the idea that Google was going to buy Skype. So he actually planted a trap in a big meeting. He got Sergey on his side and another powerful person at Google, a guy named Salar, who is now the CEO of YouTube.

And they basically went into the meeting pretending they liked the idea, but halfway through the meeting, they started asking all these questions. What about this? What about that? Isn't the government going to, you know, hold this up for a year before we do this? Who's going to go out to Europe to supervise these people?

And by the end of it, the deal was off. So Google did not buy Skype, and, you know, this other company bought it from eBay and then sold it to Microsoft there.

FLATOW: So you think there's going to be a battle in that arena, too, Google's girding for battle there in the voice telephony sort of thing?

LEVY: Definitely. Now they have - you know, they're buying Motorola. My suspicion is that eventually they're going to buy a network.

FLATOW: A TV network?

LEVY: No, no, a broadband network.

FLATOW: Oh, the whole like Comcast or something?

LEVY: Yeah. So if you remember a few years ago, they were bidding on broadband spectrum, but they were only doing it in order to lure other companies in because the way this particular auction worked, the rules were that if you bought the spectrum, you had to make it more open. You couldn't just control it. You had to let other people use their equipment on the spectrum, and you couldn't control it. And Google liked that idea.

But if no one bid on this auction, if no one met the reserve, then those rules would go away. So Google had to bid high enough for the auction to be official then was hoping that someone would bid higher. And after a few tense days, someone did top Google. It was Verizon that topped Google.

But at that point, Larry Page, who is a very ambitious guy, started asking: Well, why don't we keep going? Why don't we buy this spectrum? And, you know, Google wasn't ready to be a phone company. Everyone got - said no, Larry, we can't do that. And they backed down. But I think next time around, they might keep bidding.

FLATOW: Do you think this is in their five-, 10-year plan?

LEVY: Maybe, or, you know, one interesting possibility would be now that AT&T, it looks like it might not buy T-Mobile, Google might be interested.

FLATOW: Hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Which leads us to Cameron(ph) in Boonsboro, Maryland's(ph), question. Hi, Cameron.

CAMERON: Hi, Ira. I love Google. I use it every day. But honestly, I'm scared of it. Every click, every search I make is probably catalogued somewhere in my file, at least, with my ISP. And the other people I work with feel the same way. I mean, as Google grows, will what I search be someday in a court case against me? Will it someday be...

FLATOW: Yeah, can a government subpoena his Google messages and things?

LEVY: So this is interesting. I mentioned before how important user behavior was for Google to keep improving the search engine. So they keep that information, and the caller is right, Cameron's right, not by his name but by, you know, his ISP. They give him a number and say that this number behaves in this way.

That information is very important to them. They keep it for 18 months, and they think that that's the minimum they need in order to be really, really, really useful there. But they have also some other information about you, which is somewhat siloed, but if you sign in to Google and use that information, that information is accessible to you, and Google also keeps it.

And now people are suspicious of Google. When it was a young, feisty startup, people didn't have these fears, but in the years that I was writing - covering it for the book and really immersed in it, it was fascinating to see how the image of Google switched from, you know, a David to a Goliath. And now people are worried about this information. And I think they should be concerned.

FLATOW: You think they should?

LEVY: I think any company, even a well-intentioned company, because as the caller said, you know, what if Google keeps the information safe, but they get a subpoena for it. By keeping your information, by letting one company have so much information about you, a legal subpoena can get that information, whereas otherwise it might not be available.

FLATOW: Of course Google is famous for its motto: Don't be evil.

LEVY: That is true, and what I thought was fascinating was that a lot of the executives did not shy away from that even though a lot of people use it as a bludgeon. Every time Google makes a mistake, they all say oh, what happened to don't be evil, Mr. Google? How about that? But they still think that it was useful as a way internally to say is this - they would talk about it initially, and they'd say, well, is that evil?

And it's like, you know, the Supreme Court about obscenity. You know it when you see it. And sometime people would say no, I guess we shouldn't do that, it's evil. As you get to be a bigger company, things get a little fuzzier.

FLATOW: Let's go to Bill(ph) in Illinois. Hi, Bill.

BILL: Hi, thanks for having me. I have a question as to whether or not Google helps to reinforce people's political viewpoints, that is if somebody is a conservative, and they consistently visit conservative websites, and then they develop this history of visiting conservative websites, and then they type in a search term like global warming, will they be more likely to be guided to websites that take a conservative perspective on global warming? And thank you.

LEVY: So this is what's known as the filter bubble problem, you know, and there's a pretty good book about that recently. Google says - I imagine they probably have the data to prove it - that the degree to which personalization gives you search results is not so much that you would be blocked from sites that disagree with you there.

And you can turn it off. You can, you know, log into Google without any kind of sign-in, and you can get a clean search without personalization there. And I think you can argue the opposite, too. You could say because Google gives you such a wide range of things, if you were open, and you want to learn about different things, it's easier to find things that are opposed to your point of view.

If our tendency is to want to read things that we agree with, Google will indulge you on that, but the opposite is true, too.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Google now is involved in an anti-trust investigation with the Federal Trade Commission, correct?

LEVY: Yes.

FLATOW: What's the problem? And are they going to be testifying in Capitol Hill?

LEVY: Yes, yes. They've asked for either Eric Schmidt or Larry Page, and Eric is going to go and defend Google's practices before a Senate committee there. It's not directly related to the FTC probe. And the European Union is also investigating them.

The problem, there's two problems. There's search and ads. The search problem is that some people complain that Google might give favorable positioning to its own products. And they also say that it's got too much power, that if Google doesn't like you or determines your site is misbehaving, it could give you the death penalty. It could drop you in the standings. And for a lot of companies, where you are on those rankings is life and death. If people can't see you high in a search, they can't do business.

In ads, people complain that the formula Google uses isn't a straightforward formula, it's an auction, but the winner of the auction isn't necessarily the advertiser that bids the highest. There's a formula involved based on, in part, how good Google thinks the ad is. And, you know, the people who were the, you know, the losers in this formula say, similarly, that, you know, we can't get access to this. So the complaintants(ph), really, are companies that don't do well in Google search or Google ads, and they want oversight.

Well, Google's answer is, that this is an editorial opinion, where we rank things. And actually, a judge, actually, has ruled in - earlier, you know, the century, you know - I think in 2003 or 2004 - that it is protected opinion, where you rank things. Like a movie review. Google has to use some opinion, you know, it's the algorithm's opinion and they make the algorithms on where these things go. They can't give you the Web in alphabetical order. So they're saying, if you don't like it, go somewhere else who gives you better search results.

FLATOW: Let's go to Bruce in Danville, California. Hi, Bruce.

BRUCE: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. So Yahoo invented the original search when they were at Stanford, and then Google took that on. Apple invented the iPhone, which is an object that can also buy cool apps and then use it on the phone, which is pretty much what Android does. And then now with Google Docs, which I love, you know, I'm not sure I should say this, but I love it, they're basically taking on Microsoft's Office Suite, which is Word, processing, Excel, spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations.

LEVY: And now, with Skype and also with Facebook and their own Google plus, it seems like they're just taking other people's ideas and then just repositioning them under the Google, sort of, you know, umbrella. How do they do that? How do they get away with that? I don't think I can launch a Facebook competing app myself and then, you know, think I can, you know, just exist. So how does that - how does Google get away with this?

Well, I think you're right In terms of social, they're, you know, pursuing Facebook. And a lot of people in Google had mixed feelings about this. One person told me, when they were developing this, they said, this isn't really like Google. Google doesn't, you know, chase taillights. Drunks chase taillights. We go ahead. And I would take issue on some of the things you said. Yahoo's search was not an algorithmic search. They, you know, they curated(ph) the web. It was smaller and easier to, you know, to find interesting things and organize it in that fashion.

So the algorithmic way that Google took on the web was innovative and creative. And something like Gmail, it wasn't the first web-based mail, but they were creative in terms of - the first to recognize that they can give you more storage and make search an important part of mail. So I think, through its history, you know, Google has added innovations to existing products. You know, Microsoft had to follow Google in making its docu in making its applications web-based. So, you know, Microsoft did invent applications either.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. All right. Bruce, thanks for calling.

BRUCE: Thank you. Thank you.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Steve Levy, author of "In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives." Do you think you know how Google thinks?

LEVY: I have a pretty good idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEVY: I spent enough time there.

FLATOW: You've drunk from the Kool-Aid?

LEVY: I'm not smart enough to get hired by Google, but it sunk in after a while.

FLATOW: Yeah. And so can you predict where are they going, because you know how they think?

LEVY: I could predict sort of the way they'll go there. Exactly where they're going, maybe only Larry knows.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. And so (unintelligible) you don't think Larry, as you say, is going to replace Steve Jobs as the great Silicon Valley thinker?

LEVY: Well, again, he is, you know, there's only one Steve Jobs. But I think he'd say there's only one Larry Page too. You know, he has, you know, some personality traits and some quirks which are uniquely Larry.

FLATOW: If you want to be hired by Google, thinking the way that you do, is it better not to go to college, is it better to be drop out and have your own ideas and start your own start-up company, and then they finds you?

LEVY: No. No. No. No. They actually value an elite education. That's something very important. When they recruit, they care a lot about what school you go to. And actually, some people in their human relations department - it's called people operations - and - very Googly - they say we're missing out on people. But Larry and Sergey had elite educations and they see the world that way. They ask you your SAT score and your college GPAs. Even if your 40 years old, they ask you that. And (unintelligible) you know, say I don't remember what I got in college? Look it up. And Larry Page signs off on every single employee that Google hires - to this day.

FLATOW: He does his own interview or he just signs...?

LEVY: No, he signs off. They give him a little package with, you know, just the top information. And the way this works is that he can kind of (unintelligible), you know, like, use his mouse and drill down if he sees something he doesn't like. And sometimes, he'll say, well, what about this, and bounce them.

FLATOW: And does every employee have open door to Larry Page?

LEVY: No.

FLATOW: Did it used to be did it used to be...?

LEVY: It used to be more open. Now, where Larry is, there is actually, in the elevator, it says only Googlers with permission can go there.

FLATOW: It says that in the elevator?

LEVY: Yeah.

FLATOW: And you - how do you know if you have permission? You get a card...

LEVY: I think you find out if you...

FLATOW: You get a hall pass?

LEVY: I think you'd find out if you don't have permission.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Is that? But they did try to do away with the managers, you talk in your book at one point.

LEVY: Yeah. Well, Larry is obsessed with making Google work like a smaller company. He doesn't like the concept of middle management. And when the company got the 400 people, he thought this is too big. We got to do something about it. And he tried to get rid of all the middle managers. They had 100 engineers reporting to one guy, and that didn't work. And, you know, so they drew back from that. But I think that they try to do things which make it feel smaller. They try to keep groups small. And they try to keep the way that decisions are made on a consensus-based means, where people can't pull rank because of their, you know, seniority. And the decisions were made, ideally, by data. You can't get rid of politics, but Google tries, as much as possible, to hire smart people who understand that data should be the basis of decision, not politics.

FLATOW: Last question. Now with Motorola, is that phone gonna have Larry Page's signature on? Just like Steve Jobs used to check off on all the - everything that came out - the hardware that came out?

LEVY: He'll watch certain products pretty closely, and he'll watch this. And I'm sure he'll have product reviews before we see it released to the public.

FLATOW: How soon do you think we'll see a new Google phone come out there?

LEVY: They try to work pretty quickly. Well, not - maybe next year. Well, first, it's - actually, it's going to take a few months, minimum, to get that, you know, the acquisition approved.

FLATOW: Right.

LEVY: But after that, I think they might move pretty fast.

FLATOW: All right. You should know. Steven Levy is author of the book "In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives," also senior writer at the Wired here in New York. Always a pleasure to have you.

LEVY: Same here, Ira. I enjoyed it.

FLATOW: We'll have you back later. We're going to take a short break, and we're going to switch gears. When we come back, we're going to talk about - well, how can I say it? - panda poop. There. There you go. And why it's so interesting and important to the future, maybe, of alternative fuels. Yeah. I got you thinking about it. We'll be talking about it when we get back after the break, so stay with us. I'm Ira Flatow. This SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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