IRA FLATOW, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
If you want to clear out a room of crowded people, announce, hey, we're going to talk chemistry. But what if I say instead, hey, we're going to talk about viruses and obesity; how sewage can be used to monitor illegal drug use. You'd be interested then, right?
Well, we'll be talking about both of those stories later in the hour and others that were discussed this week at the meeting of the American Chemical Society. And joining me to talk about some of those is Catherine "Katie" Hunt. She's president of American Chemical Society. She's also the leader for technology partners at the engineering company of Rohm and Haas, and she's here with us. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Ms. CATHERINE HUNT (President, American Chemical Society): Well, it's wonderful to be here, Ira.
FLATOW: We're going to talk with you and with others later on about the research being presented at the American Chemical Society this week. And while most of us probably think of beakers and lab benches when we hear the world chemistry, for others it might bring to word - to mind words like methamphetamine or heroine or ecstasy.
Methamphetamine is an illegal drug sometimes called crystal meth. It's a huge problem in some parts of the country. And my next guest is working on a new way to track illegal drugs used in communities by sifting through the muck. Let me have her explain it to you. Joining me now is Jennifer Field. She is professor of environmental molecular toxicology at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. She joins us by phone. Thanks for talking with us today, Dr. Field.
Dr. JENNIFER FIELD (Environmental Molecular Toxicology, Oregon State University): Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
FLATOW: Tell us about your experiment. What did you do?
Dr. FIELD: Well, my graduate student, Aurea Chiaia, and I decided to create an analytical method that can detect minute quantities of illegal drugs in sewage from communities, and it takes a snapshot of drug use and abuse at the community level.
FLATOW: So you actually were able - do you took samples of sewage?
Dr. FIELD: Absolutely.
FLATOW: That will - where did you get the samples from?
Dr. FIELD: Well, we get them from a variety of locations. We've collected - or had samples sent to us from all around the U.S., from populations ranging from 17,000 people up to 600,000. It's really a great way to look at municipalities of all sizes and all locations.
FLATOW: And you could then - how much did you need? How big were the samples that you needed?
Dr. FIELD: The actual amount that we used for the analysis is about two milliliters, so somewhere around about a teaspoon or so. And we look at the entire contents of that sample in the process that we use.
FLATOW: And so you're looking for signs of illegal drug use in a community?
Dr. FIELD: Yes.
FLATOW: And did you find any?
Dr. FIELD: Oh, yes. Unfortunately - as my student puts it - it's always exciting to see signals coming from our analysis, but at the same time we recognize that it represents problems at the community level. We see or look for methamphetamine, as you mentioned, cocaine and its breakdown product. There's a class of drugs called rave drugs, ecstasy is one of those that you mentioned. We also see breakdown products of LSD and heroine, which, unfortunately, are on a rise again, as we understand it. So there's a variety of drugs that you can analyze for and you can actually observe in wastewater.
FLATOW: Can you tell which community has a bigger drug problem, by the sampling?
Dr. FIELD: Well, at this stage, we have put our analytical method together, and in that regard we're - we have a methodology that's ready to go. On the other hand, we're preliminary very early in our investigation. We're looking out to - forward, and this is where we want to work in partnership with municipalities and state and local health and law enforcement officials to identify communities for analysis. So we're looking for the application phase to begin. And from that information, we would like to put that together with more traditional methods of drug surveillance. And the power is in the combination of those methods.
FLATOW: Some of the drugs that you detected were not illegal.
Dr. FIELD: That's right. We do this - for example, we look for amphetamine and pseudoephedrine. These materials are legal, but they're also related to the methamphetamine problem. One is a breakdown product and the other can be used to manufacture meth. So we want to capture that whole envelope of drugs, if you will, because in the Northwest, in particular, it's a particular problem. We also look at caffeine, which you can think of as a human urinary biomarker. It's another way to look at materials that are being excreted by humans and entering the sewage.
So we're interested in this whole range of materials, and the real the power of the tool will be looking at these complex data sets as ways to gain inside into community drug use.
FLATOW: You know, there have been reports of - for years now - of the detection of the feminization of fish and some of the wildlife by all the birth control that gets flushed down the toilet. Did you look into any of those, hormonal pill?
Dr. FIELD: Well, that's certainly something that's being done. In fact, there's very - there're quite a few groups who do that. So that approach and those methodologies have a similar sort of technical basis. We don't include that in this screen, but that's something that could be out of this, one we're interested in that. But we all share the common factor in that we recognize that sewage or wastewater contains a whole complex mixture of materials, consumer products, legal and illegal drugs, and that makes wastewater very interesting environmental type of sample to look at.
FLATOW: Could you actually tell change in drug use, let's say from a weekend to a weekday?
Dr. FIELD: In fact, we did. We focused on one particular cooperative municipality. In over a 28-day period, for example, we looked at benzoylecgonine, which is the breakdown product of cocaine, and you do see a trend over time, over this three- or four-week period. You see an increase on weekends(ph), which would suggest the recreational use of this drug, which is consistent with how one thinks about cocaine use. On the other hand, methadone, which is a prescription opiate; used historically to treat heroine addiction, but is also prescription opiate - you really see a very constant use, and this is not a recreational drug and you wouldn't expect it to be.
Methamphetamine, on the other hand, is a very addictive drug - you don't see a recreational use. You see a very steady use over that time period. And so those differences are consistent with what we know about the drugs, and as we move forward from here, I think we'll be very interested in temporal or these changes overtime, in particular, drugs within the community. That's one of the strengths of this approach.
FLATOW: If these drugs are in the water going into a sewage treatment plant, are they still there when the water comes out of the treatment plant? I mean, could we be drinking back into our drinking water those drugs that are being excreted into the sewage?
Dr. FIELD: Well, certainly, wastewater treatment facilities are designed for removal of all - a variety of organic and inorganic components. These drugs will have certain behaviors. You would expect some of them to be removed. But others have shown that illegal drugs can pass - some levels can pass through wastewater treatment and enter river system. In order to be into drinking water, it would have to survive drinking water treatment processes. No work to the best of my knowledge - because this is very early in the communities look - the scientific communities look at illicit drugs at no reports to my knowledge in drinking water yet.
FLATOW: So, you're looking to supply this information and work with law enforcement officials to try to catch people using drugs.
Dr. FIELD: Well, we'd like to make this methodology publicly available. That's what we do as a land-grant institution, and that that methodology could be used by a variety of levels: municipalities, or regional health, and or law enforcement officials. We'd like to make that contribution to the public sector.
FLATOW: Would it be possible to go into the sewers and - next to anybody's individual homes and just tap what's coming out?
Dr. FIELD: Well, there's certainly have been people who have discussed that. Our particular group feels that the power of this technique is at the community level and by staying at the community level, meaning we capture the sewage as just before it enters the wastewater treatment facility. And this is the snapshot of a community. And we think by looking at this level, we can capture community drug use without invading individual privacy. And to go farther upstream say into individual lines, has raised some questions of privacy when this has been discussed by others.
FLATOW: Well, Dr. Field, I want to thank you very much for taking time to be with us.
Dr. FIELD: It was my pleasure.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Jennifer Field is a professor of environmental molecular toxicology at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Our number 1-800-989-8255. Still on the line with us is Katie Hunt, president of the American Chemical Society. Dr. Hunt, interesting work going on there.
Dr. HUNT: Oh, fabulous work. And actually, I just want to react to the first thing you said when we got on the phone. And you said you can say chemistry and you clear the room. As a matter of fact, we said chemistry and we filled the room.
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Dr. HUNT: And we had under hundreds…
FLATOW: Good for you.
Dr. HUNT: …we had over 15,000 people in Boston for our fall national meeting and it was awfully exciting.
FLATOW: And now, what's interesting is that we're talking to guests today - I don't mean to be sexist about this, but you're a woman and my first guest was a woman chemist. Are you seeing a trend up in female scientists these days?
Dr. HUNT: Well, we definitely have - about 20 percent of our membership is women. And when we go to our award ceremonies, we're really pleased that while 10 years ago, less than seven percent of the award winners were women, we're now actually up to about 19 percent, which is just about reflective of our membership. But certainly, there are more women out there and more underrepresented minorities. And we would love to see more of those people come in. So we certainly have committees focused on these areas and this was the 80th anniversary of our Women Chemists Committee.
FLATOW: And lots of interesting research being published this week.
Dr. HUNT: Oh, fabulous amount of research being published this week. We were actually focusing on biotechnology for health and wellness. And the idea of putting thematic programming together is to capture and to be able, not only to talk to each other about substantive societal issues, but also to capture folks like you to talk about it with us.
FLATOW: Well, I read something called a blood barcode scan. What is that?
Dr. HUNT: Well, what that's about is that really looking at your blood biochemistry, you can tell a lot about your metabolism. And hopefully, what we talked about this week was all kinds of biotherapeutics and treatments, because the more we understand our individual biochemistry, the more we could prescribe individual biotherapeutics and individual - it would really be personalized medicine.
FLATOW: And there was some research on hydrogen storage presented at the meeting?
Dr. HUNT: Absolutely. I mean, if you'll look at some of the big issues that we were looking at this week, energy, food and water - alternative energy is certainly right up there with issues of sustainability. And we were looking at - there was a group from the Pacific Northwest National Lab looking at, well, what if instead of using hydrogen gas as a source of hydrogen, you could use a solid material in a pellet that you could pick up anywhere and put into your fuel cell and have that generate hydrogen in situ and on demand.
FLATOW: Very interesting. We're going to take a short break and come back and talk lots more with my guest Katie Hunt, who's president of the American Chemical Society. Take your questions, our number: 1-800-989-8255. 1-800-989-TALK. Questions about chemistry. And if you'd like to talk about some women in science, fair game, too. Good topic - good time to talk about that topic. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.
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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour with Katie Hunt, president of the American Chemical Society, about some of the interesting research that was reported this week at the ACS conference. Let's talk about that hydrogen - those hydrogen pellets a little bit, because I was very interested in them and they seem to be tiny little pellets that could hold a lot of hydrogen, Katie?
Dr. HUNT: Nice project, but actually Rohm and Haas is part of that center for hydrogen storage. And what they're looking at is taking a - hydrogen in a solid form, as a hydride, or some other form and taking that, make it into pellets so you can just drop it in your fuel cell, and the reaction would go on within the fuel cell generating the hydrogen and driving your car.
FLATOW: So you wouldn't have to go to the gas station to fill up? You could buy a box of the stuff at the department store?
Dr. HUNT: I think, and that would be - where you would buy it is something we have to look into in the safest manner. But you wouldn't have to be refueling your tank with gaseous hydrogen, and there could be a lot of advantages to that.
FLATOW: But this is not something that's going to be happening real soon now?
Dr. HUNT: No. It certainly would be something that we have to look into from all of the safety points of view, how people would use it, how you would dispense it, how you would characterize it. And certainly, safety is one of foremost things in mind here.
FLATOW: Okay. Let me bring up another scientist to talk about another interesting piece of research that was discussed at the meeting. We've all talked about the epidemic of obesity in the U.S. More of us than ever are overweight or obese and there's been a lot of speculation about the cause of the rise in obesity - bigger portion sizes, more couch potatoes out there, more sugar in our diets.
But what if obesity was something you caught like a cold? A new work presented at the meeting shows that there is an association, some association, tantalizing association between obesity and a certain kind of virus.
Joining me now to talk more about it is my guest. Magdalena Pasarica is a postdoctoral researcher in viruses and obesity at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, that's part of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Welcome to the program, Dr. Pasarica.
Dr. MAGDALENA PASARICA (Postdoctoral Researcher, Pennington Biomedical Research Center): Hi.
FLATOW: Tell us about - is this something that - how can a virus be linked to obesity?
Dr. PASARICA: Well, viruses have been linked to obesity in animals since 1982. However, this is the first human virus, which is an adenovirus-36, which has been linked to human obesity. We have shown association with human obesity and also causality in animals.
FLATOW: Let's talk about the causality in animals' part.
Dr. PASARICA: Mm-hmm. So if you have animals, you know, we have experiments in mice, rats, marmosets and chickens. If you infect half of the animals with a virus and half of the animals, you just leave them uninfected, just control animals, the infected animals will become obese. They will accumulate more fat, although they will eat the same amount of food or similar amount of food as the uninfected control animals.
FLATOW: They're eating the same amount of food but they're getting fatter?
Dr. PASARICA: Similar amounts of food, yes.
FLATOW: How do you explain that?
Dr. PASARICA: Mm-hmm. Well, so far, we have studies in cell to identify mechanism by which this virus is acting. And in cell, this seems - in human cells - it seems that the virus is inducing a change in stem cells to commit -to become adipocytes or fat cells and accumulate more lipids, therefore becoming fats or fat cells.
FLATOW: So you coax these stem cells into turning into fat cells?
Dr. PASARICA: Yes, yes.
Dr. PASARICA: In a petri dish, in a petri dish. I got my experiments show that when you get stem cells from lipoaspirate, from adipose tissue lipoaspirate - you infect them and this is what happens, stem cells become fat cells.
FLATOW: Well, do we - I mean, so we now - and the virus you're talking about is very close to a cold virus?
Dr. PASARICA: This is an adenovirus and adenoviruses - are lots of types adenoviruses. But adenoviruses, in general, cause respiratory tract infections like colds or conjunctivitis like the pinkeye or diarrhea, so.
FLATOW: Well, is the link very solid? I mean it's not a one-on-one. There have to be other influences because not - everybody gets a cold sooner or later, but not everybody is fat.
Dr. PASARICA: Mm-hmm. Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, we're not saying all obesity is caused by the virus. Obesity absolutely has multiple causes. And also, we have - our study in humans showed that 11 percent of the non-obese are infected with the virus. So therefore, there are some people that, you know, are obese and they're not infected with the virus. Some people that obviously have been infected with the virus but they don't become obese. We don't know yet why and, you know, what's protective, what's not protective. We don't know yet why.
FLATOW: So this is just the first hint of some sort of avenue that might be further pursued.
Dr. PASARICA: Well, the first study was done in animals 1990s. And this is - my study showed, for the first time, the effect of the virus, the causality in human cells. And so this is the first step, you know, showing the causality in human cells and then next, we're going to identify the mechanism and help to reprove causality in humans. However, it's more difficult because you cannot infect humans with a virus and look for the effects, obviously.
FLATOW: But what - so what else can you do?
Dr. PASARICA: Well, we can identify the mechanism by which this virus enacts, is acting, what pathways, specific pathways is regulating, what molecules is acting on and then determine, you know, study (unintelligible) and study those fat rate precisely and make relations with, you know, how fat they are or what's their BMI or what's the percent fat.
FLATOW: Well, Dr. Pasarica, thank you for taking time to be with us today.
Dr. PASARICA: Mm-hmm. No problem.
FLATOW: Magdalena Pasarica is part of the Louisiana State University. 1-800-989-8255. Katie Hunt is still on the line with us. Interesting research, Katie.
Dr. HUNT: Oh, it's a very interesting research. And again, it comes back to the whole idea of personalized medicine. If we could understand what it is in each of our own biochemistry that's causing us to be sick or to be fat or to be -whatever those qualities are we don't want to have, personality issues, concentration issues, we can look at our individual biochemistries and search for ways to help us. Especially, for instance, in the case of something like Alzheimer's, - we've heard some really very interesting results this week.
FLATOW: We also - also another hot topic of discussion is nanotechnology. And one of the, you know, the red flags people are talking about these days -Everywhere there's nanotechnology in so many places in our lives, but we're really not quite sure how it affects our bodies.
Dr. HUNT: Yes, exactly. And so a number of the sessions at the conference, we're talking about looking at the properties of nanoparticles and looking at it in different matrices. And it was really wonderful to see very skilled groups looking at this type of work. And as yet, we haven't seen any negative correlations, but the point is that we need to be vigilant. And if anyone's going to find it, it should be those of us closest to the research.
FLATOW: Also, there've been a lot of products in the news lately that sort of give chemistry a bad name, you know, plastic compounds like these bisphenol A that is possibly is being harmful. Last week, there was a new report about some products that were found in the furniture and mattress paddings that may be harming cats. There was a story about building material used to make the Katrina trailers giving off potentially harmful gases. Can we avoid these kinds of products or these kinds of ingredients that are going to these products?
Dr. HUNT: Yeah. Well, actually, it's a very exciting part of chemistry that's been going forward and that ACS has actually been - ACS, being the American Chemical Society - has been championing, and that's green chemistry and green engineering. And what that is is that's at starting from friendly starting materials, friendly raw materials and therefore the final product you make is more environmentally friendly. And certainly - it's certainly one of the products that Rohm and Haas makes is an insulation that is formaldehyde-free. So it's made from starting materials that don't have chemicals in it that you don't want it to have when you have their final product.
FLATOW: Well, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today, Dr. Hunt.
Dr. HUNT: Well, it was very exciting to be here. Thank you so much.
FLATOW: Well, before you go, let me ask you where do you see the future of chemistry going?
Dr. HUNT: Well, I think the future of chemistry is that it's an enabling science and that is going to be the solution for us, for chemists to look at alternate energy and clean water and a sure food supply.
FLATOW: And before I let you go, I want to bring up one more topic we were going to talk about. And you were…
Dr. HUNT: Okay.
FLATOW: …something you were involved called Camp Invention. Invention is very close to my heart and I want to know what Camp Invention is like?
Dr. HUNT: Well, Camp Invention, that's something very special for us here as well. This year, actually, for the second year in a row, was able to sponsor at a level, $5,000 scholarships to this camp, which was started by the Inventors Hall of Fame out of Ohio because it was about bringing forward the next generation of inventors. And do you have time to hear a little bit of what they do?
FLATOW: Yeah, sure. Absolutely. Oh, go right ahead.
Dr. HUNT: Well, they bring in old different parts of toasters, and all kinds of old computers, and they have the kids invent new things. Come up with ideas and put together some kind of project, whether it's something that runs across the floor or floats in the air or pushes something else. It's a little bit like robotics but it's what their invention is, and then they talk about intellectual property and how to protect that.
FLATOW: yeah, yeah. It's something - I'm going to take a phone call or two, if I can, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Pat(ph) in Kansas City, Kansas. Hi, Pat.
PAT (Caller): Hi. I have listened to you for years and I just want you to know how much I appreciate SCIENCE FRIDAY. And - are you there?
FLATOW: Yeah. I'm here. Thank you.
PAT: Oh, okay. My phone is beeping. I think my battery is about to go. But I studied chemistry 28 years ago in undergraduate school and had over 40 hours of chemistry and biology. And didn't go into a science career, but I went into library science and became a reference librarian. And I used my chemistry in that job because I end helping people find information - things that they wanted to know. So I don't count all that sciences having gone to waste, even though I didn't pursue a quote, unquote, "science career."
FLATOW: Yeah. Well, we make use of those golden moments - the nuggets we pick up in college, I certainly have, even though I was not very good in, you know, in science. I make good use of them later in life.
PAT: Well, it has helped me to understand what was going on in my own body in regards to the medicine that I take, or illnesses. It's helped me understand global warming, species extinction, pharmacology.
FLATOW: Hey, you know, that's an awful lot to make use of. If you make use of that enough, your education was worth it even though you're not in chemistry. Thanks for calling, Pat. What do you think, Dr. Hunt?
Dr. HUNT: Oh, I think it's wonderful because it's not - not everyone is going to be a chemist or a chemical engineer, but I think being science literate will certainly make everyone's life a lot easier, especially when it comes to medical decisions.
FLATOW: Let me see if I can get another call in here. Let's go to Bill(ph) in San Francisco. Hi, Bill.
BILL (Caller): Good morning.
FLATOW: Good afternoon to you.
BILL: Yes. Obviously, the two hours I look forward to all weeklong are SCIENCE FRIDAY hours. And I have a question or a comment, sort of. I put a question at the end about women in science in general.
Dr. HUNT: Okay.
BILL: In the early '60s, when I was going to college, I had a female biology professor who had recently obtained her doctorate. And she told me that up until that time - this is 1962…
Dr. HUNT: Mm-hmm.
BILL: …that most female PhDs were in the so-called soft sciences: anthropology, sociology, psychology, et cetera. And then she was one of the very first hard science doctorates in the area. And I was curious what the status was now.
Dr. HUNT: Well, there is certainly, as Ira suggested, there are more women going into science these days. And actually, I know when I started - my dad was a chemist. And when I told him I wanted to go into chemistry he said, oh, my God. Chemistry is no place for a woman. But I have to tell you that, now, as I go to conferences and as I'm here at work, anecdotally, I know there are more women because it used to be I was the only one in the ladies room. And now, there's sometimes a line.
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Dr. HUNT: So it's certainly - there aren't enough. I'd love to see more. But we're definitely moving in the right direction.
FLATOW: We're talking about chemistry this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News, with Katie Hunt. We see more girls, young ladies, young women, winning science fair projects, the big ones, the small ones.
Dr. HUNT: Well, actually, at the last American Chemical Society regional meeting that I was at in Boise, Idaho, we had poster contest. And I wasn't the only one that noticed that the four winners up on stage were all young women. So we're beginning to compete.
FLATOW: Why? Why is it now? Do you have any idea why that is happening now?
Dr. HUNT: Well, I think, first of all that the women who are in science, they are - women in my generation have taken it very seriously to mentor younger women. I mean, we feel that it's time for us to give back. So that's one piece. And if you see more women in science, you get more women in science because - I saw it in graduate school. When - I went into a lab that had one woman, when I left, there were six women in the lab. And I think if they see a place that's family-friendly and women-friendly or diversity-friendly that you end up with more women there.
FLATOW: Don't you think that there must be something in the early education system that keeps girls from dropping out more like they used to.
Dr. HUNT: I totally, absolutely believe that. You need to get them before they hit sixth and seventh grade, because beyond that, you lose them. I've been going in to my son's class since he was 18 months old and doing experiments with him - from bubbles and moving on now up to nanotechnology. And at sixth grade, I could see that you really need almost to separate the boys from the girls to keep them interested. And I think that's because when you don't understand something, if you get to a point in seventh and eighth grade, you don't want to ask questions when you don't understand. So you have to get them excited before that time.
FLATOW: And the girls seem intimidated if they're not separated - by the boys?
Dr. HUNT: Well, I think what it is they don't want to ask the questions that they would ask. But if you have them curious - when they're in fourth and fifth grade, they're totally curious. And so if you can promote that curiosity - and that's what camp invention does. It promotes that curiosity. It starts with kids in first through fifth and sixth grade, so that you get them before they know that they don't know it.
FLATOW: And they're with other peers who are as exploratory as they are.
Dr. HUNT: Exactly. And so then they get the sense - wow, this is okay. And then they get the confidence. And that's, I think, the important word. When they feel confident that they can go into an area - and if they don't know it, they can learn it - that's the beginning of that inquisitive nature and that scientific mind.
FLATOW: I would also think that the teachers are important.
Dr. HUNT: Oh, teachers are extremely important. I mean, you can do it one kid at a time, but the teachers have the kids altogether. And that's why I was really especially happy to share to be working on that scientific legislation or legislation that was 10,000 teachers, 10 million minds. And actually, that's part of the American Chemical Society's charter, is to educate our congresspeople about science and technology, the federal charter.
FLATOW: Do they get it?
Dr. HUNT: Well, you know what? They really are. I've seen in the last 10 years since I've been going up to Capitol Hill and visiting state capitols, they are starting to listen. And some of that, I think, was going over and seeing what's happening in China and India and the number of students being educated.
FLATOW: That's coming home to us.
Dr. HUNT: There is nothing like competition to get the American spirit going.
FLATOW: Oh, Dr. Hunt, thank you for taking time to be with us. And good luck to you.
Dr. HUNT: Well, thank you very much.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Katie Hunt is president of the American Chemical Society. She's also the leader for technology partnerships at the Rohm and Haas.
We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we're going camping. Come on along with us. Bring your backpack, a little bit of bug juice there. And we're going to tell you how to, you know, summer is not quite over of you want to make the best use of the last couple of weeks of summer and go camping. We'll teach you how to camp. Have fun with science on camp. So stay with us. We'll be right back after the short break.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.