IRA FLATOW, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
You know, this year saw no shortage of science, medicine and technology news, and much of it was on the front pages of your local newspapers. Here are just some of the stories. I'm running down just a few of them. There's so many from the past year.
Remember, there's the global warming stories, and probably the biggest global warming story is the publication of the Al Gore's best-selling book, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which hit the silver screen in May and it was also a bestseller on The New York Times list.
New studies were projecting that, by the year 2040, the summer ice in the Arctic Ocean would be a thing of the past. And we just heard this week, the U.S. Department - the U.S. government put the polar bear on the endangered species list, or is thinking about it. Even without listing it, it may go the way of the Dodo. So the polar bear is endangered whether we want to officially call it that or not.
In anthropology we have researchers able to actually pluck DNA from Neanderthal fossils and then analyze the DNA and sequence set, hopefully answering some of the questions about the connection between Neanderthals and modern humans.
We had E-coli outbreaks and bacterial outbreaks of other types that left scientists struggling to identify the sources of tainted food. The public is left wondering when they look at their salad at the salad bar now whether their food supply is safe.
We had a paralyzed man equipped with a brain sensor who was able to open e-mail and move a robotic hand simply by thinking about it - very interesting story. We had the first ever cancer vaccine, which was approved. It protects women and girls from the infections from the human papillomavirus, which causes most cases of cervical cancer.
And one of my favorite stories is that the state of Texas passed California as the king of wind energy, completing a trend that was set in place by none other than Texas governor George W. Bush, who does not, you know, rank wind energy as high on his list of things for the country while he did it as a governor. It's interesting. This hour we're going to review a lot of these stories, a lot of the top science, medical and technology stories of the year.
We'll hear why the solution of a long-standing math problem grabbed top honors as a breakthrough of the year at Science magazine. And we'll also talk about some of the infamous stories, like the South Korean cloning scandal that was the breakdown of the year.
So what stories topped your lists? Give us a call, 1-800-989-8255. Maybe we're going to miss one. I'm sure there are lots of stories, we can't cover them all, maybe the seminal one that you think we should put on that list that you're not hearing us talking about. Maybe one flaw under the radar on this. And you can always surf over to our Web site at ScienceFriday.com. Our phone number is 1-800-989-8255. 1-800-989-TALK.
We have an august panel of commentators, so august we may go into September on this. I'm sorry about that one. John Rennie is the editor in chief at Scientific American here in New York, and he joins us here in our SCIENCE FRIDAY studios in New York. Welcome back, John, good to see you.
Barron H. Lerner, Dr. Lerner is the author of “When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine.” It's published this year from Johns Hopkins University Press. He is professor of medicine and public health at Columbia University's Medical Center, Mailman's School of Public Health here in New York, a very famous place. He joins us today in our studios here in New York. Welcome to the program, Dr. Lerner.
Dr. BARRON LERNER (Author, “When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine”): Thank you.
FLATOW: K.C. Cole is a science commentator for KPCC in Pasadena. She's a visiting professor of journalism at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She's probably one of the great translators of physics. And I'm very happy to have K.C. back, joining us from KCRW in Santa Monica. Good to talk to you again, K.C.
Adam Rogers is a senior editor at Wired Magazine in San Francisco and correspondent for the upcoming PBS television show “Wired Science.” He joins us today by phone from - I'm sure, it's a vacation locale with plenty of screaming children and relatives - in Royal Grande, California. Thanks for being with us, Adam.
Mr. ADAM ROGERS (Senior Editor, Wired magazine): Thank you for pegging my mother-in-law's house perfectly accurately.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Well, let's give you a shot before, you know, people will get aware that you're on the radio. Tell us what would be one of your top picks, Adam, of this year?
Mr. ROGERS: Well, I guess I'll voice some of the tech stuff first just to give props to the wired side and talk a little bit about Google and YouTube.
I'm not trying to make that into a business story, but I do think that it's important and interesting for the future of the Internet that the king of searching for stuff on the Internet has now purchased the king of watching little bits of video on the Internet. I think that presages a total change in the way people consume television and media. And I think it presages what's going to happen in the Internet the next year, too, assuming Google can figure out some key technological issues.
FLATOW: Are you saying we're seeing the death of TV, this year might mark that as we know it?
Mr. ROGERS: Well, I do think it is a bit of a, you know, television is dead, long live television. I think people are - I think what we're seeing with things like YouTube and other places to watch short squibs of video online is that nobody any longer wants to sit in front of the television at a specific place for a specific time.
TiVo means the same thing, right? All of the sort of time shifting that we can do now includes media shifting or medium shifting, I guess, from television to the computer to iPod, to whatever you want to watch it on; and in shorter bytes, not just a half hour or an hour.
And with people making their own. I mean the key thing about YouTube, of course, is not just being able to watch, you know, Star Wars kids playing with, you know, special effect light sabers or watching bits of the Jon Stewart show from the night before, being able to put your own videos on it too.
So, you know, people making their own television. I don't want to give too much of a shout out to another magazine, but I think that some of what Time meant when they put - when they made you the person of the year, that's the sort of crowd sourcing of content on the Internet. It's something we saw more and more of this year, and I think we're going to see more and more next year. People making their own stuff and that being with television that people consume via YouTube, via Google, right?
FLATOW: Now what is the big deal of Google taking that over?
Mr. ROGERS: Well, I think what interests me about it - and like I said, the business stuff I don't particularly care too much about - what interests me is that, you know, right now if you're going to search for something, you Google it, right? It is a verb the same way that, when we copy things, we Xerox them. It is the default search engine for the Web.
But the one thing that nobody really knows how to do online is search for video. You can search for sort of tags on video. You can search for things that people have told you the video is about, right? But there's no way to search for - I want to see pictures of the following. And my kind of sort of prediction, sort of hope, sort of guess, is that if anybody is going to be able to figure out how to search video, it's Google.
FLATOW: Interesting. John, give us one of your top picks.
Mr. JOHN RENNIE (Editor in Chief, Scientific American): I think probably - from a scientific American standpoint, probably the most important story overall was the one you were referring that falls under the general heading of what's been learned about global warming and developments in that area.
Looking back over this past year, it's not that there was any one particular story that most stood out. It's the continuing trend of - obviously - the ongoing validation that global warming is a very real problem, that it is one caused in no small way by what human activity is doing, by putting more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. And the fact that some of the political standpoint that, unfortunately, the United States has really not shown the kind of leadership that it should in dealing with this problems seriously.
FLATOW: So the story is just that this is - would you say that the U.S. has finally bought on to this now, or are we still…
Mr. RENNIE: You know, it's funny. What we're seeing is an incremental buy-in to this. The very encouraging things that happened this past year, for example, were, as you mentioned, Al Gore's movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” I think that helped to convince a lot more people who'd maybe been on the sense previously that global warming is a very real problem, that something has to be done about it.
You know, maybe that's one of those sort of tipping point phenomenon. Another one I think is that we're starting to see the business community is starting to respond. We mentioned at end of year we have our own Scientific American 50 list in which we're acknowledging different technology leaders. And our business leader of the year was actually the Swiss reinsurance company, Swiss Re, because they have been encouraging a lot of the business community to try to factor global warming strategies into their long-term planning. But I think we can even see some sorts of movement at least even within the administration. If nothing else, the fact that the Interior Department now seems to be willing to recognize that polar bears are endangered by the loss of their Arctic habitat.
FLATOW: K.C. Cole, what have you got on your list?
Professor K.C. COLE (Journalism, University of Southern California): Well, in terms of physics, I would say mostly things that haven't been covered very much. I was surprised that there's so little being said about the preparations for the Large Hadron Collider, the LHC, that will become the world's most powerful particle accelerator either this year or next. What's happening is people are trying to figure out what could possibly be seen, extra dimensions begin one of them, new families of particles being another, all kinds of exotic stuff. Mini black holes. If you don't really work out what you might see and what the signature of it would be, then you won't see it if it's not right in front of your nose.
So a lot of it has been about clever new ways of actually looking for invisible things. In math, of course, as he said, I was delighted to see that science put Poincare Conjecture as number one. What I find fascinating about this is that there are all these problems in math that can be solved in dimensions one and two, and Dimensions five or higher. If you want to tie a nine dimensional not in a ten dimensional space - no problem. But Dimensions three and four are very, very complicated and there are these whole class of problems that haven't been solved. So this was quite an important breakthrough. Of course, important for us in a way because we live in three dimensions - four-dimensional space time - and so there's a lot of overlap between math and physics in these areas. And I can say more about this if you'd like but...
FLATOW: It was so important that it was made the number one story. I think it's hard for the public to understand how important that might be, that of all stories that one was chosen. Why was that? Can you give us a little more of that flavor?
Prof. COLE: Well, there are a lot of things, you know, that are fairly typical of the way things happen in math, and also science in general. Somebody finds a solution to a problem, whereas other people have found pieces of before and then puts it together in a unique way that eventually everyone looks at and says, yeah, well of course.
Let me just state what simply the problem is that he solved. If you're living in a certain kind of space, basically, how do you know what its shape is? And by shape I don't mean geometric shape, but shape - does it have holes in it. You know, they joke that a topologist someone who doesn't know the difference between a doughnut and a coffee cup, which is true because the only thing that matters is that it has one hole.
So you're basically defining families of kinds of objects in space, just like biologists do. Mathematicians do basically the same thing in terms of classifying.
FLATOW: K.C., I want you to hold that question because we've got to take a break and I want to get to the - you know, give you time to tell us what that question was. And we'll be back. As I said, we'll be back with all our guests talking about the big science, math, technology stories of the year. Also bring on our other guests to give us their ideas. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking about the top science, health, medicine, technology, mathematics, you know, stories of 2006. I'm running them down with my guests John Rennie, Barron Lerner, K.C. Cole and Adam Rogers. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. And when I rudely interrupted K.C., as I want to do to all of my guests, she was explaining why the top prize for this year in Science magazine was a mathematics prize. You were about to tell us the significance.
Prof. COLE: OK, what I was trying to explain was that this gave you a way of basically figuring out what kind of topological space you live in even though you're embedded in it, which is a very difficult thing to do. You might ask what possible practical application this kind of thing could have. Well, as usual, it's a lot of the tools that were developed leading up to it will become very important. For example, they teach us things about singularities, you know those nasty things at the parts of black holes that pinch off space time, and they pop up as problems all over the place in statistics and math. So this is actually giving a way to figure out whether or not they're there.
Basically, you imagine a space. If it's a sphere, you can tie a string around it and pull it closed and you won't encounter any resistance. If it's got a hole in it and you do the same thing - you pull the string, it will knot. It will get stuck. And so it's a mathematical way of seeing the topology of the space that you are living in.
FLATOW: Thank you. Barron Lerner, what would be your pick?
Dr. LERNER: I guess one story that you didn't mention was surrounding breast cancer. And interestingly this year, the rates of breast cancer for the last year that we have data, which is 2003, showed a major drop of seven percent of the new cases of the disease. And this was very striking because for years and years - for reasons that people couldn't explain - that rate of breast cancer was either staying the same or creeping up. And there were a lot of different hypotheses as to why that was happening, and then all of a sudden we see this very significant seven percent drop. And now it's being speculated that the reason for that is that women stopped taking hormone replacement therapy because of all the negative publicity about that.
So that was very, very striking because this would suggest that for years and years it was the medicine that was being given to treat the symptoms of menopause that indeed was causing more harm than good.
FLATOW: But it was certainly good news. I mean, what, they said 40,000 deaths were averted.
Dr. LERNER: Exactly. I mean it's very exciting news. And one would expect that this decline would continue because more and more women have gotten off hormone replacement therapy based on the study results.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones and get some listeners in. Tony in Nevada City, California. Hi, Tony.
TONY (Caller): Good morning. Yeah, it's a great show. I have it on the pod and listen to you as often as I can. So one of the things that I don't think you covered this year was the imaging of dark matter. And you can see a great picture of this at a site called BadAstronomy.com, and they did it through the use of gravitic lenses.
FLATOW: Yeah, it was the collision of two - like the bullet picture I think it was called. Right, K.C.?
Prof. COLE: Right. Yeah, and that's another great example of people being clever about how to figure out how to see something that you can't see - dark matter being essentially transparent, so it doesn't interact with anything. So, you know, they figured out, well, if two galaxies collide, the way that the matter clumps with each other is going to be different than the way the dark matter does and therefore it will be distributed differently. And bingo, they went out and looked for it and they found it.
FLATOW: That's interesting. John, one of the biggest stories of the year - I mean we think - don't think about it, but we remember that Pluto getting kicked out of the planetary lineup.
Mr. RENNIE: Right. But, you know, Tony, this is probably in many respects not the biggest or most important science story in a lot of ways, but it probably grabbed the public's imagination more than almost anything else. And it is a development that actually does have some real scientific importance to it. You know, there's been this question for quite some time when we were looking at Pluto as a sort of very small, oddball planet out sort of towards the edge of the solar system and the question of should it really be a planet. And it's position has been steadily undermined by the discovery of more and more things out in the Kuiper Belt, the ring of icy bodies out - farther out in the solar system, some of which are actually even larger than Pluto. So the decision was that this should actually be sort of relegated to a kind of a dwarf planet status.
And I'll take the maybe publicly unpopular opinion. I think they made the right call on this. Because I think in terms of what we actually know these days about the science of how planets form, demoting Pluto is actually more in keeping with that science even though it's a very sentimentally unpopular position to take.
TONY: Hopefully, this will teach Pluto not to miss meetings.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. COLE: I would like to offer, yeah, a counterargument, if I can. This business of re-categorizing things and renaming them - I mean historically we have so many silly names. We call electrons - we say they have negative charge even though it's a positive presence of some things just because people didn't understand at first that this was a presence instead of an absence. We draw these lines. Objects out in space come in a complete continuous spectrum of sizes and it's very difficult to tell sometimes whether you're dealing with a planet, a failed star. I mean they're not these clear lines. And when we put them out there, we imagine - it reminds me a little of that old Arthur Eddington joke where the astronomer gives a talk to a lay audience about stars and somebody asks him after, well, I understood how you find out about the temperatures of stars and how you find out how hot they were and so forth. One thing I didn't understand. What's that, he says. Well, how did you find out their names?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. COLE: In a way, that's what we're doing.
TONY: Nomenclature was a big story this year in a lot of places, right? Didn't the medical and biomedical community got busted for coming up with silly names for genes because now they're having medical applications as well, and nobody wants to tell a patient that they have a problem with their Sonic the Hedgehog gene?
FLATOW: No one beats physicists with silly names. (Unintelligible) all this kind of stuff like that. 1-800-989 - no, go ahead - 8255 is our number. Let's go to Wayne(ph) in Flagstaff. Hi, Wayne.
WAYNE (Caller): Hey, how you doing?
FLATOW: Hi there.
WAYNE: Good. You might think being from Flagstaff, Arizona, that my top story would be Pluto being demoted. But here in Flagstaff, Pluto will always remain a planet.
FLATOW: There you go.
WAYNE: My top story, believe it or not, was the decision by New York City to outlaw trans fats. And of course all science stories are important, but for some reason this really captures my imagination and my interest. And I just love seeing it when entities like a city like New York, or even a country like Denmark, completely outlaw things that only serve to benefit financially corporations. But everybody knows that trans fats and things like that are bad for us. And that really captured my attention this year.
Dr. LERNER: That was quite a story, and it's still an ongoing one. It really speaks to the degree to which we as a country want public health officials to be very aggressive about telling us what to do or what not to do. I think in this case it's a definite positive advance because trans fats, it turns out, really do not much of any good for anybody and do a lot of harm. There were some very important studies on monkeys this year that just showed a small amount of trans fat caused arterial plaque buildup and other problems. So if we want public health officials who are going to be very aggressive and take on business and take on people who want a more libertarian approach, we're going to see more and more things like this in the future.
FLATOW: Thanks for calling.
Prof. COLE: (Unintelligible) ban smoking. Sorry.
FLATOW: Yeah. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking about the top stories of 2006. Adam, what about all these videogames and the, you know, and then the melding of - I was fortunate enough to get a Wii for the holidays.
Mr. ROGERS: Did you wait in line for it or did you...
FLATOW: No, I had an inside-the-store connection - my cousin's girlfriend - my nephew's girlfriend, so to speak.
Mr. ROGERS: That's always good.
FLATOW: I'm addicted to it now because it's so different. And now I notice that there's a WiFi connection that allows me to go to the Web through my Wii, and will allow me to play things with other people on the Web and download other things like - it seems like they want a piece of what Apple seems to want, which is making that one device that's going to combine all the media.
Mr. ROGERS: First of all, let me just say you're doomed now. You're never leaving the house again. Get a replacement host. You're in trouble.
FLATOW: I'm only on level one of “Zelda,” so I'm pretty well intact, you know.
Mr. ROGERS: Here's what fascinates me about the Wii. So the Wii is the new Nintendo system. It's this very small little white box. It looks very much like an Apple design, right? It's a little kind of white thing, sits very prettily, glows blue next to your television. This is the first gaming system - I'm not a huge gamer, but we got one in the office and I went in and tried it out. It's the first one that I seen that made me think this is the thing that adults will take out at parties. This is a system that is designed to be - not to be used by sort of a, you know “Halo” obsessive, you know, who's going to sit in front of a really, really high-end $600 system, like what the Playstation 3 is, and try to be there for hours and hours and really gawk at how great the cinematic quality of the graphics and, you know, how great the blood explosions look because of the new physics engine.
This is a system where - you know, the game that I tried out was the tennis game.
FLATOW: I love the tennis game.
Mr. ROGERS: It's fantastic. And on the Wii the graphics are very cartoonish, intentionally so, because it's simple, right? But the controllers are motion sensitive and wireless. So you stand there and you play tennis as if the controller was your racket. You flick your wrist to hit a ball.
And it's really compelling. I mean it's like Tetris compelling because it's really fun. And you sort of stand there with another person standing next to you, and you're making kind of charades-like gesticulations and trying to get this, trying to win a doubles tennis match.
It really was kind of a journey back to simplicity for video games, for computer games, which is totally the opposite direction that most gamers - most game systems, most game software makers are headed. You know, it's almost like the difference between the Airbus A-380, the giant, you know, double-decker, 600 people, flies around the world, and Boeing's little 787. That's a smaller plane, more efficient, bigger windows and sort of a nicer experience.
The Wii is just a really pleasant experience as a game. And that's - it's something that, as people get more and more serious about the games, I have a suspicion that they get less fun. The Wii is actually more fun.
FLATOW: You actually hold all the sports equipment like you do in real life. I mean it's a little - the controller, they show you how to hold it in the golf game. You have to hold it like a golf club, stand sideways to the screen, and swing, like, the club. And someone imitates it on the screen.
Mr. ROGERS: Bend your knees, keep your back straight…
FLATOW: Yeah. And, you know, it's just - baseball it's as hard as somebody throwing in 95-mile-an-hour baseball, actually, when you don't have to hold the thing like a bat.
So you really, I think, as you say, you actually are part of the game instead of just using your thumb to manipulate it like you do in the other controllers. It's just quite amazing.
Mr. ROGERS: This is such an important thing that's going on now with the kind of computers and the online - I think this year was really the first year where you could seriously talk about online worlds and not the be totally geeking out. I mean places like “EverQuest” and “World of Warcraft” and “Second Life” and “The Sims” all really became places people go just as much as San Luis Obispo is a place that people go.
Mr. ROGERS: And that's a profound change in the way people I think interact with each other, and sort of think about themselves and their own personalities and where they are in space and time.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Another, I guess, watershed event, K.C., that happened is this political situation, how that affected science this year. And now the switch possibly, because the Democrats are coming back into power.
Prof. COLE: I'm glad you brought that up. I was afraid to because I know the last time I was on I talked about that a lot. But, yeah, what's interesting is it's finally gotten to the point where the scientists are fighting back and saying, enough manipulation, enough wasted money going in really silly programs like the moon to Mars mission, for example, which is just devastating many, many other fields.
And they are getting politicized. They found this - founded the Scientists and Engineers for America, an organization that's actually raising money to run advertising supporting candidates in various fields. Because, you know, it's gotten to that tipping point where people just could not stand anymore the fact that science does not seem to have an ear these days in Washington.
FLATOW: John Rennie, do you agree?
Mr. RENNIE: Oh, absolutely. I mean I think it's - what's unfortunate is that, because the scientists have now had to get sucked into a political process where they have to speak up to defend what should be rational courses of action and the rational interpretation of the scientific findings, it's that unfortunately it does make it possible for people who oppose some of the sorts of actions they'd like to see - for example, global warming deniers and the like - to be able to maintain that scientists themselves just represent their own kind of interest group, their own lobby.
And that I think does - it's a kind of - has a very corrosive effect on the way that the public views science. And there's going to be a lot of damage that's been done by the people who've been opposing this.
FLATOW: Talking about the top stories in science this hour in TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Hi, Barron, you want to jump it?
Dr. LERNER: Yeah, I just was going to echo that in the world of medicine when Michael J. Fox wound up doing political ads in favor of candidates who were doing stem cell research because of his Parkinson's disease - and that was another very interesting mixture of politics and science where, you know, I think Michael J. Fox was out there as a Parkinson's patient first and foremost saying, I want to scientists to be able to explore whatever they can. But at least the folks on the Republican side assumed that this was all a political ploy, which I really think it wasn't.
FLATOW: We also saw the states scientifically taking on the federal government.
Dr. LERNER: Right. I think, you know, this is an interesting point that the caller who was mentioning the way that New York City was taking action on its own with trans fats. I think it's been very interesting to see the counter reaction to that that you've seen, for example, California trying to take leadership on both stem cell research and also in global warming by setting its own greenhouse gas emission standards.
Prof. COLE: Well, I was going to say one of the most dangerous places, what you might call faith-based science, has been affecting us is in terms of national security. And we're spending billions and billions of dollars on a missile defense system which virtually, you know, a very tiny percentage of the physics community even think could possibly work.
But just in terms of general reports that scientific organizations have come out with telling us what makes sense to do is not what we're doing in almost every case. We're just not basing these decisions on how to spend dollars in any rational, sane way.
In fact, even trans fats - I mean I was when I was joking about the cigarettes - but even the dangers we tend to go after in the medical field a lot of times just don't make sense compared to other risk factors. It would be nice if we had a rational way of going out and really deciding what's dangerous and how to approach that.
Mr. ROGERS: Well, you know…
FLATOW: Go ahead.
Mr. ROGERS: Ira, at the top of the show you mentioned some of the food safety stories that we've seen this year, and how, you know, people sort of get a little nervous in the salad bar because you don't know whether the food you're looking at has E. coli in it or something like that.
And it just occurred to me that what we were told sort of publicly after the anthrax attacks in 2001 was that a new biosafety program, right - we were going to get really concerned about biological weapons being deployed against us, and that that was also going to help us deal with surveillance for food-based illnesses and figure out emerging diseases as well.
And, you know, none of that happened, either. I think that gets at some of what K.C. was talking about, too. It's that, you know, that even when there's a veneer of rational decision-making or, you know, decisions made based on sort of an immediate panic that we hope will have ramifications that are positive if they go forward; we tend not to be able to make that happen somehow. We still can't figure out how to keep E. coli out of the food chain, you know.
FLATOW: Yeah. We still have trouble making large decisions that will span decades, and moving large masses of bureaucracy and people.
Well, we have to take a short break. We'll come back and talk lots more with K.C. Cole, Adam Rogers, John Rennie and Barron Lerner. So stay with us. We'll take - go right to the phones when we're back and take your calls, get your suggestions for the top science health, medicine, technology, mathematics - whatever I'm leaving out, you put in. Stay with us, we'll be right back.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow, this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about the year's biggest science stories with my guests, K.C. Cole, science commentator for KPCC in Pasadena. Adam Rogers, senior editor of Wired magazine in San Francisco. John Rennie, editor in chief at Scientific American in New York. And Barron Lerner, author of “When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients And How We Look At Medicine.”
That's an interesting topic. We'll have to have you back and talk about that, because I think it's a truly interesting topic. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Barry in Boston. Hi, Barry.
Barry(Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call. Great show.
FLATOW: Thank you.
BARRY: My question is about physics, the year in physics. In previous recent years, I've gotten a lot of pressure from reading books about string theory, say, by Brian Greene. And it's really captured my imagination, putting together Einstein's gravity and quantum physics using a little tiny, teeny things.
Barry: This year, two books came out, I believe. One of them by Lee Smolin and I'm not sure of the other author, but it was titled “Not Even Wrong.” And you get from the title, books about string theory kind of debunking it or maybe saying it's barking up the wrong tree. What do the your physics (unintelligible)
FLATOW: Yeah, it's come under a lot of - string theory's being hit left and right. Let me go to K.C. and then John, and then go to my panelists. K.C., What do you think? Has it had its time and it's ran out?
Prof. COLE: No.
FLATOW: Has the string run out?
Prof. COLE: No, it's a very difficult set of problems that they're working with. But these two books did make a very big splash. And I have to admit that I wrote one of the most negative reviews, as was the New York Times review.
In that it is so easy to sit back and criticize - really, by people - the other author was Peter Voit who has a Web site, Not Even Wrong - by people who really aren't that much in the middle of it. Both of the books had a little bit of the flavor of I'm not invited to your meetings. I'm not in your club. Nobody is paying attention to my theories.
You get the impression that you have to be an insider. The thing about string theory is that even string theorists will tell you nobody exactly knows what it is. It's a way of solving this incompatibility between gravity and the large-scale universe and the small-scale universe.
But it had so many mathematical successes that most people are fairly convinced there is something there, even if they're not sure what. And what a lot of these books were also addressed at was basically poo-pooing math, as if, well, you know, it's just mathematics, just mathematics - which goes against the long history of math discovering real things, like anti-matter, for example.
So lots is going on in string theory. It's just that these two books coming out at the same time with the same complaint did get a lot of press attention.
BARRY: I keep reading about string theory.
FLATOW: Well, these are not the first critics of string theory.
Mr. RENNIE: No, that's right. I mean we'll continue to have a lot more in the future, you know. String theory is - it's the big one on the block. It's the theory currently that everybody would have to knock over - what they have to beat to come up with something that is a better theory.
You know, I think string theory - it does, it has contributed a lot and there are legitimate questions of course about, you know, string theory. There are many, many different formulations - never questions - of how do you settle on what is the best one. But, really, somebody's got to come up with a theory that clearly works better than string theory does to be a serious critic.
Mr. ROGERS: And so I'm not sure it's fair to criticize Smolin's book at least as being, you know, an outsider who just says, well I don't get to come to that party so they must all be jerks. I mean he had, you know, he had published in string theory. And also, that's a little bit - K.C., that's a little bit of an ad homonym, right? I mean the substance of the book is very solid.
Prof. COLE: Well, yeah. If you talk to string theorists, they would say that, throughout the book, the success of loop quantum gravity has been vastly exaggerated compared to string theory. I think one of his big complaints, which is something that bothers a lot of people in the physics community, is just what Ira mentioned - the fact that string theory has probably an infinite number of solutions. So you're left with the problem of, well, you know, is there a right solution? Why are we living in a universe that looks like this when it could look just about any other way?
And several physicists have come out in favor of the anthropic principle, which I'm sure we must have talked about it before. The idea is that we live in the universe we do because, if it were any different, we couldn't live here. And that is very bothersome. And he really does have a legitimate point on that.
FLATOW: All right, we're going to - we'll pick it up, Barry, later on because we love talking about string theory. Thanks a lot. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Palo Alto, where Stephanie is. Hi, Stephanie.
STEPHANIE (Caller): Yes. Hello, good morning.
FLATOW: Good morning. Good afternoon.
STEPHANIE: I wonder if I can explain this nice and clearly. Diabetics who are dependant on several injections of insulin are now freed from the constant jabbings of the needle. This year, a new product was approved by the FDA and by the European authorities whereby the patients take insulin into their blood stream through the lungs, by inhaling the insulin.
It took 15 years to develop this, or at least it took a great number of years to get the FDA to approve it because they were nervous about breathing this stuff in through the lungs, but it seems to have proved to be no problem at all.
And so diabetics, who frequently postpone taking the insulin because they don't want to keep jabbing themselves, hopefully will start on the medication sooner, before they start having serious side effects from the diabetes. So we think that this is a very exciting new development.
FLATOW: Dr. Lerner, do you want to comment?
Dr. LERNER: Yeah. It is very exciting, although one of the interesting aspects of it is that patients have not embraced it - and I think physicians as well -as quickly as we might have imagined.
And for years and years, for example, many of my patients have complained about the needles over and over again. And when I raised this, they were like oh, no, I wouldn't do that.
FLATOW: Is that right? Why - what's the - because it's new?
Dr. LERNER: Well, part of it it's new. There has been this discussion. It hasn't been around long enough. Are there possible long-term side effects in the lungs? And even though the FDA has been pretty reassuring about that, there are concerns.
FLATOW: Stephanie, are you a diabetic?
STEPHANIE: No, I'm not. Actually, I'm the mother of the man who developed it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. LERNER: Full disclosure. Wait a minute…
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Well, that's nice of his mom to come on.
(Soundbite of laughter)
STEPHANIE: Well, but I think that this is really an exciting thing. And it's going to take time, I understand from my son, to educate the patient population on the use of the product. And it has been in trials for quite a number of years, and so far there have not been any contra-indications, so it seems like a very exciting new technology.
FLATOW: Well, you're a terrific…
Dr. LERNER: I want my mom to call in.
FLATOW: Yeah, you're a terrific mom.
STEPHANIE: I'm a terrific mom. I'll tell my son.
FLATOW: Tell him to give us a call, all right?
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Thanks, Stephanie. Have a happy new year to you.
STEPHANIE: Thank you. Same to you. Bye-bye.
FLATOW: Bye. Another moment on SCIENCE FRIDAY. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go ahead to David(ph) in St. Paul, moving across the country.
DAVID (Caller): Yeah, Ira, how are you doing?
FLATOW: What kind of winter are you having this year?
DAVID: It's (unintelligible), I'll tell you. It's about 40-some-odd degrees. It's kind of freezing, not-quite-freezing rain. There's no snow on the ground, at least in the Twin Cities.
DAVID: So it's a very warm winter, actually. It's funny, you were talking about the Large Hadron Collider. I remember, I think when I was coming out of college, going in the military, they were considering building something called the Superconducting Super-Collider in Texas, which of course our government, in its infinite wisdom, decided to not fund.
I'm eagerly awaiting the tune-up and then the final configuration, the bean(ph) configuration from the LHC. But my story, I guess, is something that - I guess it broke in the last couple of months, and that's the recent evidence for either contemporaneous or recent aboveground water flow on Mars. I think that that's…
FLATOW: Those gullies, a picture of those gullies.
DAVID: Yes, exactly.
FLATOW: The stains on the gullies which had to be leftover mineral deposits in the water.
FLATOW: Yeah, they were amazing.
DAVID: That's something that I think is, I mean, there's going to be a lot of work on that going on. And the ramifications, of course, if they do confirm that there had been water flowing aboveground on Mars recently, I don't think those ramifications can be underestimated.
Unidentified Man: Yeah, I mean, that is certainly - that is one of the most exciting sorts of planetary science discoveries of this past year. You know, any water that's flowing across the Martian surface is very short-lived. Mostly, any kind of water that's there near the surface is frozen.
You may have something like permafrost, and you may get some periodic melting just below the surface, and then sort of an ice dam may break and you may see some sort of flow. It certainly is one more thing that reinforces the view we have that Mars was a much wetter planet at one time.
I think everybody would love to be able to take the jump and say this must mean, then, that the odds for life in the past or maybe in at least some primitive form on Mars must still be pretty good. But we really don't know much about that, I mean even beyond just the impossible-to-peg probabilities associated with life on another planet, anyway.
There's a very good possibility that, for example, the pH of that water may be way off. That water might be highly acidic, for example, too acidic to imagine that you would easily get life forms evolving in it. But that's something we'll find out about more over time.
FLATOW: Thanks for calling, David. 1-800-989-8255. K.C., did you want to say something?
Prof. COLE: Yeah. I just wanted to say that it was interesting when I had actually been forwarded news reports about that and looked at them, and they basically said this has been discovered and the interpretation is that there was water recently flowing. But if you actually read what was said, it was that that was one very probable interpretation.
So I think that's something you have to keep in mind. But also that, I mean, one of the really sad things about the way the budget priorities have been shuffled around at NASA is that if we're interested in looking for life, one, we should be funding astrobiology more; and they've been cut. I mean, those are the people who actually figure what life might be elsewhere and what it would look like.
And also, you know, the Jupiter moon missions, where you have, you know, a pretty good chance. Europa's a pretty exciting place to go, more exciting I think than putting a man back on the moon.
FLATOW: We're talking about science stories this hour, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Were those cut, all the Jupiter missions, K.C.? Or were they - just some of them?
Prof. COLE: (Unintelligible) they've been back and forth, Jupiter icy moon orbiter. They were gone, then they were back…
FLATOW: Well, maybe the new Congress will have something to say about that.
Prof. COLE: Yes. Yeah. I think they will. But in terms of what you can do in discovery, you can do so much more with robots.
FLATOW: Just a few more minutes to go. Let's go to Jerry(ph) in Mountain View, California. Lots of Californians calling in today. Hi, Jerry.
JERRY (Caller): Hi, how you doing?
JERRY: The new electric cars that are coming up, like the Tesla car that has zero to 60 in four seconds and a 250-mile range with lithium ion batteries. And the big thing is really that the improvement of the lithium ion, which is your gas tank. The car has been around for a while, but the lithium ion is a big thing.
FLATOW: Adam Rogers?
Mr. ROGERS: Yeah. This is awesome, right? I mean, it's a little outside my price point. But the interesting thing about the electric motor, right, is that - and batteries like lithium ion batteries - is they have a bearing on sports cars in a few things. First of all, like, you know, you want a sports car with a low center of gravity that sort of, you know, sits low and is heavy to the ground. So that's perfect if you're going to load in, you know, a couple hundred lithium ion batteries, right?
Then, one other that you want is low-end torque. Well, electric motors are really good at generating low-end torque, right? They spin up very quickly.
FLATOW: You just have to ride a subway to know that.
Mr. ROGERS: Yeah, exactly. And then get pushed back in your seat or lose your grip on the strap, right?
Mr. ROGERS: So, you know, all these things, especially when you add in, you know, venture capital billionaires and a lot of designers from Lotus, can produce a really nifty car which, you know, aside from just the - I grew up in Los Angeles, and so that means a lot to me right off. But it also does suggest, I think, a difference in approach, as John was talking about, an opinion about global warming and about green technology and climate change. That the idea now has become, look, this stuff is happening; what are we going to do about it? And that ranges from figuring out more-efficient photovoltaics to how do we build a really cool electric car.
And I think the important thing is going to be, you know, to make sure the Tesla doesn't turn out to be DeLorean, right? I mean, put aside the drug-scandal thing - but to see if they actually build some other cars, too, that might actually be in my price range.
FLATOW: Do you think that if more Silicon Valley engineers turned toward the automotive industry, things might change?
Mr. ROGERS: Well, it's pretty to think so. I mean I would hope so. But I think that, you know, they thought that about space, too, right? And a lot of the Silicon Valley guys, including Elon Musk, who's also involved with the Tesla, right? Elon Musk made his money at PayPal, is involved with Tesla and also involved in a known space venture, SpaceX. I think that, you know, the success that they have with their companies starts to make them think that they might try something in another field, too.
I would love to see more involvement by these kind of smart engineers in the automotive industry. But you already have a lot of smart engineers, right? I mean these folks are not constrained by their intelligence, they're constrained by some economics issues, I think, that maybe you start to overcome when the price of oil gets above $50 bucks a barrel, and photovoltaics get better, and lithium ion batteries get better, and, and, and.
FLATOW: I have about one minute to go. I mentioned at the beginning there was the story that didn't happen, being the hurricane season that we thought might happen. Any other story, one story, come to mind, John, that didn't happen that surprised you that didn't happen this year?
Mr. RENNIE: Yeah, I'll mention something. It was a story embedded inside a story that did get attention. There was a lot of headlines that went to the report that came out that suggested that, by 2048, we could basically collapse of all the ocean's fisheries.
But the story that didn't really get the right attention inside there was the fact that that collapse was not just from over-fishing or pollution, it was partly just the fact that you were seeing the biodiversity of the ocean start to drop off. That, in itself, caused more extinction events. That's a very important ecological finding and something that's going to be very important when we look at the kind of consequences for the future.
FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you all. K.C. - something in 15 seconds. You can jump in on that.
Prof. COLE: Oh, just following on that, how many of the stories had ethical consequences that we need to consider, whether it's in terms of environment, nanotechnology, anything, yeah.
FLATOW: We didn't even get into nanotechnology. I mean it's such a cutting-edge thing. We'll have to do this again soon. Thank you all for taking time to be with me today. K.C. Cole, senior commentator for KPCC radio in Pasadena, visiting professor of journalism at University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Barron H. Lerner. Dr. Lerner's author of “When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine,” also associate professor of medicine and public health at Columbia University Medical Center's Mailman School at Columbia.
John Rennie, editor in chief at Scientific American in New York. And Adam Rogers, senior editor at Wired magazine in San Francisco. All of you have a happy new year. We'll see you next year. Thanks for taking time to be with us.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.