Oil Spill: Can Science Clean Up This Mess?

After a string of engineering failures, the most consistent mitigation strategy for the oil spill has been dumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of potentially toxic dispersant into the Gulf. Ira Flatow and guests discuss whether scientists should be able to provide better solutions.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

The junk shot, that didn't work. The top kill, that was dead in the water. The latest containment cap, which was lowered onto the well yesterday, hasn't stopped all the oil from leaking, either, and the only consistent mitigation strategy has been pouring chemical dispersants into the ocean.

BP has dumped nearly a million gallons of this stuff into the Gulf, according to the Wall Street Journal. Dispersants break the oil into small bubbles that sink and take the oil out of sight, and the hope is that the dispersant will keep the oil off the beaches and out of the wetlands.

But what about all the organisms living in the ocean? The EPA says the effects of this stuff on marine life aren't known. That makes its use, especially at unprecedented levels, a dangerous tradeoff, according to my next guest.

Sylvia Earle - she almost needs no introduction. She's an ocean explorer. She's a marine scientist. She's studied and spoken on behalf of the oceans for over 50 years. She once lived at the bottom, at the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, for two weeks. And she is well-known for all her interest in the ocean.

She has spent more than 6,000 hours underwater, and she's our guest here on SCIENCE FRIDAY. Welcome to the studio. Good to see you again, Sylvia.

Dr. SYLVIA EARLE (Explorer-in-Residence, National Geographic Society; Author): Good to be back.

FLATOW: Our number: 1-800-989-8255, if you'd like to join our discussion. You can also tweet us @scifri. We were talking a little bit before we went on that you say we really don't know what's really going on in that water now without actually going in there and studying it like you would like to do. Would you like to go in there with a little submarine?

Dr. EARLE: I would. In fact, it's baffling that actions hadn't been taken before this time right away to track and really come up with straight answers to straight questions.

I don't regard this as a mitigation kind of action. It's more an unmitigated disaster to add so much of this dispersant material. The idea is to do exactly what the name suggests, to break the oil up in small pieces.

Well, it would seem more logical to try to keep the oil in a place where you could gather it up and get it out of harm's way, get it out where it's not going to cause harm.

So there are various techniques for gathering the oil - application of straw and other things that will collect it - but there's this perverse other approach to try to break it up into little pieces and make it less easy, more difficult to capture.

In fact, it becomes, then, a part of the food chain, a part of the water column. And to actually be able to understand the size of it, the scope of it and the fate of it would seem to be a high priority, before putting even one gallon, let alone a million gallons - even if it weren't toxic, which it is, the dispersants that have so far been used, primarily this Corexit that doesn't correct anything, it seems to me.

I can understand, and I would endorse almost a surgical application of dispersants if you see oil coming, and no other means seems to be working to protect a critical marsh or a wetland or a bird rookery, but to just put it at the source of where the oil is coming out and to sprinkle it widespread over the surface of the ocean would seem to be compounding, not reducing, the problem.

FLATOW: Would it be better not to do anything at all with the dispersants and let the bacteria and the natural degradation of the oil occur?

Dr. EARLE: Oil is toxic, has toxic components, but it is a naturally occurring substance, and there are organisms that will break it down. The dispersants are - include elements that are not found in nature, and what happens to them ultimately, we should know. We should want to know.

We shouldn't be so ready to just make the Gulf of Mexico a big experiment and then afterwards say, well, I wonder how that - what the effect was?

FLATOW: Well, is there anybody in the Gulf looking at the effects of the dispersants in the water column, on the surface?

Dr. EARLE: There's some independent scientists doing this, but it would seem to be the proper role of the agencies responsible for looking after the health of the oceans on behalf of the country, the EPA and, of course, NOAA.

The Coast Guard has a responsibility for responding to oil spills. It's baffling, too, why all of these agencies have access to aircraft, to ships, but what about access to equipment that will go into the ocean? Where are the submarines? Where are - where's access to a fleet of private or publicly available ROVs and little submarines?

Our submarine fleet for science is pathetic at this point. The ones that exist have been doing a great job, but we've been increasingly reliant -relying on robots. Great. I mean, they do a wonderful job, and the oil industry has moved in that direction strongly.

They have, I mean, literally, hundreds of these camera-equipped, manipulator-equipped underwater vehicles, if you take the oil industry globally. In the Gulf of Mexico, I mean, there are just numerous such vehicles available.

The Navy contracts with Oceaneering, for example, to have the on-ready in case of an emergency. The Coast Guard doesn't have access to a similar kind of fleet of systems, and it would seem that they might even own some of their own. And - I don't know. It just - knowing what is at risk - I have spent thousands of hours underwater, and it really concerns me that people are apparently not aware, not conscious of what the real problems are with this spill.

They think about the beaches. They think about what you can see on the surface. They think about the livelihoods of fisherman. But what about the livelihoods of the fish, of life in the ocean itself? That needs to have primary attention. No fish, no fisherman. No healthy ocean, nothing else really can prosper as a consequence of a degraded system.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is there any silver lining, science or research-wise, to this spill?

Dr. EARLE: What has happened in the Gulf of Mexico is a big wakeup call. The ocean matters. The ocean is in trouble. I think that one, perhaps, silver lining, if you will, is the consciousness that people may gain from this of how inept we are to actually work in the ocean, to understand what's going on.

We have so many ways and means of going skyward, so much that we can do on the surface of the ocean and the land, but when it comes to really getting down into the sea 1,000 feet, 5,000 feet - and drilling is going on now in greater than 10,000 feet.

If we're having trouble getting down to understand and to react to this catastrophic event in a mile of water, what about two miles? What about the deep-sea mining that is going to - that is already underway in some parts of the world in 20,000 - not 5,000, 20,000 - feet? Shouldn't we know what's there before these actions are undertaken, and then shouldn't we be prepared to follow up and to take some kind of positive response?

One thing that I hope that this monstrous event will inspire is care for the ocean, to identify critical places in the Gulf of Mexico that can be protected as sources of renewal. Not all of the Gulf is going to be affected by this. So those healthy places that remain need to be regarded as what I might refer to as hope spots, places that if we can embrace them, can help not only protect the health of that immediate area, but restore health to places that have been affected.

FLATOW: And you think that - one of the things that you say that we're not doing is not actually getting in there and doing the field work.

Dr. EARLE: To look at it prior to whatever actions are taking place. Now, some deep-sea work in the Gulf of Mexico has taken place. Peter Etnoyer, a scientist who just got his Ph.D. from Texas A&M, the Harte Research Institute at Corpus Christi, has worked on deep coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico.

I don't mean like 100-feet deep. I mean like 1,000, 2,000-feet deep. He has amazing photographs. He's now working with NOAA and mapping where those deep coral reefs are. And they are, unfortunately, right under the pathway of that great slick. And...

FLATOW: And they could be - just being inundated with the oil that's being dispersed and sinking to the bottom.

Dr. EARLE: Well, the next step would be to go check it out. That would be the next logical thing to do. Baseline - at least some baseline information, does exist.

FLATOW: Do we have little submarines that could go that deep, like, and check it out?

Dr. EARLE: There aren't many that go to 5,000 feet. The Alvin, in this country, is one. In Hawaii, there is a Pisces sub that can go that deep. The Johnson Sea-Links go to about 3,000 feet. There's little systems that we used for five years with the Sustainable Seas expeditions, working with a focus on the Gulf of Mexico, went - go down to 2,000 feet. That certainly encompasses a major area of where this spill is having an impact.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And what's interesting is that you see in lean years, one of the first things that gets whacked off a federal budget is ocean research, isn't it?

Dr. EARLE: Oh, yeah.

FLATOW: And now it's like, you know, crying wolf. It's not there to depend on.

Dr. EARLE: Well, we now understand, increasingly, that taking care of the ocean, taking care of watersheds, taking care of nature is not just a nice thing to do. It's not just a luxury. It's not an option, really. It's vital to our survival.

And seeing the connection between the air that we breathe, the water that is generated out of the ocean and falls back on land and sea, the water cycle, if you will, the oxygen cycle, the things that make the world work, perhaps this stunning event in the Gulf of Mexico will alert people to the reality that we need a healthy ocean.

We can't squander or be complacent about the health of the waters of the world, most of them ocean waters. And the connection back to us is not just a matter of are the fish safe to eat.

FLATOW: It's our own survival.

Dr. EARLE: It's - right. Right.

FLATOW: Everybody's survival. We're going to take a break and come back and talk lots more with Sylvia Earle. Also joining us is - Lawrence Krauss will be joining us. He's a physicist, but he thinks these big thoughts, also. And we'll talk about the role - I'm going to have two of the world's best scientists sitting right next to me. We'll talk about the role of science in solving problems. Stay with us: 1-800-989-8255. We'll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

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

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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about mitigating - any ways that we might mitigate the oil spill in the Gulf, getting some thoughts, independent thoughts, talking about how science might use this as a lesson, is there some sort of scientific silver lining to studying what's going on in the Gulf, with Sylvia Earle. She's an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society in Washington.

And joining us now is Lawrence Krauss. He's director of the Origins Initiative and foundation professor in the School of Earth and Space Science Exploration - Space Exploration and Physics Department at Arizona State University. Welcome back, Lawrence.

Professor LAWRENCE KRAUSS (School of Earth and Space Exploration and Physics Department, Arizona State University): It's great to be back, Ira.

FLATOW: Good to see you. And we're also live-streaming our program on our website at sciencefriday.com. If you'd like to watch a live stream, go to sciencefriday.com and click on that little stream there.

Have you ever met Sylvia, Lawrence?

Prof. KRAUSS: No. We just met out there, and I was honored to do so.

FLATOW: What is the role of science in coming up with new thinking about - can all scientists contribute to this kind of disaster?

Prof. KRAUSS: In principle. Actually, I just discovered - I didn't know that the National Science Foundation apparently has some rapid - a program of rapid response that I hadn't even - I just got an email about, where apparently, they'll fund rapid responses to national disasters - which sounds interesting, but I'm a little dubious.

I think we have tended to give people the idea - and whenever there's a natural disaster, the good news is people suddenly realize, hey, science is potentially useful. And that's great. But the bad news is that I think things like "Star Trek" or "CSI" or whatever, we give people the impression that, you know, you say Scottie, you've got an hour to fix this thing, and it's going to be fixed.

And often the road from just learning how things work to actually producing something, an engineering product that works is a long time. It's not an hour. It's not a day or two.

So I think we give this impression that with technology, we can respond immediately. And I think we're seeing in the Gulf right now that that's - for difficult problems, where you really don't understand some of the fundamentals, it takes a long time.

FLATOW: And so we're not prepared to understand the effects, because we haven't really explored the bottom enough to get baseline data, Sylvia. And we are not, you know, equipped - even as the head of BP said: I don't have the tools I need when something happens. So we're caught short both ways.

Dr. EARLE: Right. The technology, alas, does exist to do some of the things that need to be done, but the investment has not been made in that technology. I mean, it'll take a year to build a submarine that could perhaps go to 5,000 feet, and it takes money to do that. But to do it for the sake of science, for understanding before a catastrophe, the funds just haven't been there.

Prof. KRAUSS: I think that's the key point. You know, where science can really help is telling you, hey, you really should plan for these things - and, in fact, plan that they are inevitable, not that they might happen, but these things are going to happen.

Dr. EARLE: Right.

Prof. KRAUSS: And, you know, science just tells us that accidents happen. And you should - if you want to try and deal with them, it's a lot easier if you start thinking about what possibilities are in advance rather than after the fact.

FLATOW: You know, I think Katrina was an example of that. We knew, sooner or later, there was going to be a hurricane, a five or whatever, that was going to put that city underwater if we didn't prepare for it.

Prof. KRAUSS: Exactly. And I think...

Dr. EARLE: Those levees. Oh, my. Yeah.

Prof. KRAUSS: And I think I was just hearing today that the head of BP was saying, okay, we want to make sure that this will never happen again. But, you know, that's not the way to think about it.

We've got to be prepared to respond to possible accidents. And really, that's where science is useful, because it can help you analyze risks, uncertainties and look at the possible scenarios - but in advance, where you have time to learn things and time to do the experiments on which you can base data and then use that to produce a workable solution. And after the fact, it's just very, very difficult.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. EARLE: Meanwhile, it's good enough to have the technology to access 5,000 feet, 10,000 feet. Why not full ocean depths? We could do it 50 years ago, but nobody's been back to that depth since. Now, that's just...

FLATOW: You mean like the Mariana Trench and places like that.

Dr. EARLE: Correct. Yes. We celebrated the 50th anniversary of having Jacques Picard and Don Walsh make a once - and so far - never-more descent, although a robot, two robots - one from Japan, one from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution - have been there. But there is no substitute for the human presence. It's just a qualitative difference.

FLATOW: It sounds like the same argument when we talk about sending people to Mars or sending robots to Mars.

Dr. EARLE: Ask the "Star Trek" guys.

FLATOW: "Star Trek" guys.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. KRAUSS: I think there's a big difference, because it's not that much more expensive to send people down in the trenches, whereas Mars, it's a heck of a lot more expensive. And I'm happy with the robots.

Dr. EARLE: That's true. Robots, I mean, there are places that are unrealistic to send humans, and then you have to have the robots. But where you can go, why not?

Prof. KRAUSS: I agree. I mean, it's amazing to think that the oceans are such a central part of the Earth, but so much has not been explored. And the point you made I think that's really useful, too, is that a lot of the important science that inevitably will deal with catastrophes like this is not on trying to say how we can deal with a catastrophe, but just curiosity-driven research, trying to understand how the oceans work, how the ocean floor works.

And so we need to realize that we have to fund fundamental research, not - for two reasons: one because it increases our knowledge about ourselves and the Earth, but more importantly, there are lots of applications in the end that are going to come from fundamental research that you won't know in advance.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. EARLE: We've learned more about the ocean, literally, in the last 50 years than during all preceding human history, but the magnitude of what we don't know is staggering. And it should just literally whet our appetite to need to know more, want to know more, now that we understand the basics: that the ocean drives climate and weather, that the ocean delivers most of the oxygen to the atmosphere, that the carbon cycle is driven by life in the ocean. Why would we not want to invest in knowing more?

FLATOW: What is the worst-case scenario in this oil spill, that we just don't cap it, and the oil just keeps coming out?

Dr. EARLE: That we don't learn from it.

FLATOW: We don't learn from it.

Dr. EARLE: That we just shrug it off as just another accident and that it's just the Gulf of Mexico and to keep on business as usual and to restore fishermen without taking care of the fish and the habitats, the life of the ocean itself, that we fail to use this opportunity to shift gears with respect to our dependence on our appetite for fossil fuels. This is a moment when we can rethink, seriously rethink the real cost of cheap fuel.

Prof. KRAUSS: You know, actually, someone said to me the other day that they hope this might be a Sputnik moment as far as, you know, energy use is concerned, something that galvanizes people to the dangers and causes, finally, people that begin to think about the real problems. And this is just one small example.

And I think that your point about learning is a key one, because the -we - in science, you know, you tend to think about the long-term and the medium-term plan, but when it comes to human life, we don't.

We just - we tend to go from risk to risk, and we tend to think that everything that happens to us is special and unique and has significance. But accidents happen all the time, and we tend to not - we - I think it's probably human nature. It's the way we survive, by not trying to assume, you know, that there's always going to be an accident around the corner. But when it comes to global issues, and this is one global issue, we have to change the way we think, I think. And we've talked about that in a number of contexts, of nuclear weapons, as well. We have to change the way we think.

FLATOW: Sylvia, I hear you saying all these things about the Gulf and the needs for the research and collecting the data, and I hear your outrage. I don't hear this from the head of NOAA, from Jane Lubchenco, anymore. She used to say things like this, when she was not part of the administration, remember? I don't hear that. Why isn't she screaming like she used to in the old days?

Dr. EARLE: When you become a part of the administration, you're a part of the administration, and you weigh every word carefully. I have great confidence, trust, admiration in Jane Lubchenco as a scientist, as a human being, and I'm confident she is doing the utmost that she can within the framework that she has available to her to do the right thing. I think she'll always choose to do the right thing and within the framework that is available to her, and she won't put you on, ever. But...

FLATOW: But wouldn't you like to hear her saying, you know, we need to do - we need to get these - not just take them out of mothballs, like the Alvin or whatever, but we need to create new vessels, new ocean-exploring vessels, find out about what's going on down there, create a -you know, this is an opportunity.

We talk about, you know, we know more about the back side of the moon than we know about...

Dr. EARLE: The bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

FLATOW: The Gulf of Mexico.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I mean, as you say, Lawrence, this is a - this could be one of those kinds of moments, a Sputnik moment.

Prof. KRAUSS: It would be great if it was. I mean, that would be - you know, it's a sad thing this happened, but if we learn from it, if it galvanized public opinion and government dollars in the same way Sputnik did, then perhaps, you know, there'd be something good that would come from it.

And I want to reiterate - not just for Jane, but also for Steve Chu, the secretary of Energy. As a scientist, he's first-rate, and I'm convinced he's working very hard to explore the possibilities. But politics is politics, and in a situation like this, it is as political as it is anything else.

FLATOW: So you think that he'd like to say other things...

Prof. KRAUSS: I suspect he would.

FLATOW: Well, you know him, don't you?

Prof. KRAUSS: Yeah, of course. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. KRAUSS: But, you know, it's - this is - well, I mean, he - they're not the - I mean, they have to report to their boss. And it's - and this is a sensitive political issue, and I - and that's why it's - that's why it's nice to have people on the outside being able to - like us, you know, being to criticize and propose. And I think that's - and that's the other aspect that's very important.

And then I have to say, at least in this administration, is a great improvement: Getting input from outside scientists who are independent, who don't have to report to anyone is really, really useful. And I think - I do suspect that both Jane and Steve are doing that as much as possible, getting access to as many good minds as possible in this regard.

FLATOW: But there was a point - I heard him on "The Rachel Maddow Show," where he said: I know what I know from reading the newspapers - part of it, you know. It wasn't all of it. But...

Prof. KRAUSS: Well, you know, but that's also - I mean, that's also important to know that, you know, he has expertise in a certain area of physics, and he's got - and he doesn't build oil well caps. And - but the good news is that he can assess, I think, what's sensible and what isn't. And that's a vital importance.

Dr. EARLE: I felt some of the constraints when I served as chief scientist of NOAA under Bush I, as a part of the administration. But I did, I guess, stepped over the line sometimes, especially with respect to policies concerning fish because, you know, somebody needs to speak for the ocean, for the fish, for the life in the sea. They started calling me the sturgeon general.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: But...

FLATOW: And you wore that proudly.

Dr. EARLE: I did, actually. But there were times when I was invited not to go to certain events as a consequence of my point of view, I suppose.

Prof. KRAUSS: Let me bring up one example. It's just - and it was out, I think, in the papers today. But at least - I mean, it's something that was - that should be discussed, but it's a very political issue. And that was, for example, the use of a nuclear device, for example, at the bottom of...

FLATOW: People were serious about suggesting that.

Prof. KRAUSS: Yeah. I mean, I think it's been - you know, I think -certainly, bombs have been used to try and close wells, and the idea was to fuse this - I was just reading about it. And, you know, the physics of it may make sense, for all I know.

But I think - but whether it will - but the ultimate determination if it was going to be used is not a physics argument as much as a geopolitical argument. And I happen to be - in agreement on the whole that one should be very careful, especially in the context right now, with trying to have a comprehensive test ban treaty of not exploding a device. But it's certainly, from a physics perspective, it - you know, it's probably worth discussing, especially if it was an emergency and you had to think about what you could do.

FLATOW: Talking about the oil spill and the possible remedies for this hour in SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

I'm Ira Flatow, with Lawrence Krauss and Sylvia Earle.

Sylvia, did you want to...

Dr. EARLE: Well...

FLATOW: I...

Dr. EARLE: So many of the solutions and remedies and so-called mitigations...

Prof. KRAUSS: Are worthless.

Dr. EARLE: Yeah. And they seem to just be looking at the Gulf of Mexico as salt water and rocks or oil or coasts or whatever - and, yes, the conspicuous wildlife. But what's missing from consideration - and it certainly would be missing from use of a, let's say, a big bomb to close the problem: Think of the impact on life. You might stop the oil flow, which has an impact on life in the water column. But what guarantees -what would be the impact? What would be the effect of that? We haven't a clue. And shouldn't we know before unleashing yet another unknown?

Part of what I find so troubling is that we are - we fail to think about the precautionary principle throughout all of this. I have tremendous respect for the engineering that has gone into developing the capacity to drill not just down to 5,000 feet, but, in some cases, 35,000 feet beyond that, through rocks into the substrate below to retrieve fossil fuels, the fossil materials that have accumulated over millions of years. This is a feat worthy of "Star Trek," for heaven's sakes. It is astonishing, the technology. And yet we're baffled by what to do when something goes wrong.

Where is the precautionary principle that would cause us to want to know, to need to know, to have in our back pockets the solution before the problems arise? Or how can we, in good conscience, just put a million gallons of toxic substances into the Gulf of Mexico and not know in advance what the effects on not just birds - although that is clearly not a good thing for them - not just turtles and dolphins, but the life in the water column itself, the living minestrone that drives away the ocean works and contributes to our lives, as well?

FLATOW: Well, I think if you have to rely - if a nuclear explosion is your back-up answer to something, that tells you how bankrupt you are of preparation, doesn't it?

Dr. EARLE: Exactly.

Prof. KRAUSS: It's really sick. Yeah. You haven't though about...

FLATOW: And you haven't thought about what someone else saying: You know, if they use that for that sense, why can't I use it for something else?

Prof. KRAUSS: Oh, exactly. And that there's all those problems. And the point that these - that this is being discussed now, after the fact, is so ridiculous. And I think Sylvia used the right word. I was trying to listen. It's when this happens, not if it happens. And that's the point. When you do something like this, you have to know it's going to happen. Just like when you build a space shuttle, you have to know it's going to - some of them are going to be destroyed and people are going to die, and you can't pretend it's not the case.

And so, if you're sensible and that's - you know, really the scientific method is you have to know that these things are going to happen a certain percentage of the time, and you have to assess the risks and anticipate not only the problems, but the solutions.

And I think, really, that's what science - you know, I'm educator, but that's really what we can do as scientists to some extent. It's not up to us to determine public policy, but what we can do is say, look, here are the problems. Here are the risks. And here's the information that you can use to decide whether it's - whether the risks are worth meeting. And that's really what the scientific community should be doing.

FLATOW: Sylvie, I've got about 30 seconds left. Are you hopeful about this turning out - about how this is all going to turn out?

Dr. EARLE: We'll make something good come of it. I mean, as some have said, we can't waste this disaster. We have to turn it to an advantage and look for the good that we can learn and not just let it slide by and continue business as usual.

FLATOW: Thank you very much. Lawrence, also, thank you for joining us.

Prof. KRAUSS: Sure. It's a pleasure.

FLATOW: Lawrence Krauss, the director of the Origins Institute and foundation professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Physics Department, Arizona State University, and Sylvia Earle, explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. Thank you both...

Prof. KRAUSS: Thanks.

FLATOW: ...for taking the time to be with us today.

We're going to take a break. And when we come back, we're going to - you know, all this bad news, we've been talking about it in our office. We're been talking about it everywhere else. Can we take a mental vacation somehow from the fatigue of hearing the bad news every day compounded by the baseball bad news that we heard this week? So what can we do? Well, we're going to have a psychologist come back and talk to us about some sort of mental vacation. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

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

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