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The Biggest Science Stories of 2008

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The Biggest Science Stories of 2008


The Biggest Science Stories of 2008

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. In just a few weeks, President-elect Barack Obama will take the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and he'll be accompanied by some world-class scientists. He's already appointed Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu as Energy secretary. Physicist John Holdren, an energy and climate-change expert who favors cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, is expected to join Obama as science advisor. Jane Lubchenco, one of the nation's top marine biologists, is expected to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. So, it's a heady time for science in Washington, D.C. And this hour, we'll be talking about these choices with an AU-gust - au-GUST? - au-GUST panel of distinguished science journalists who will, I hope, also weigh in with their opinions about the top stories of 2008, or I might not be able to stop them from weighing in with their opinions about this if I'd like to.

There were some great discoveries. Let's talk about a few of them. And there were experiments that fizzled out. There was the wooly-mammoth genome, the cancer genome, the synthetic genome. There was a drug that seemed to mimic the effects of exercise, for mice, at least, and a controversial study about cholesterol drugs. It was the first exoplanet spied in a snapshot and the Phoenix lander stuffing soil into its ovens on the northern plains of Mars. In 2008, cheap genetic tests hit the market, and Washington enacted the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act. Polar bears were finally listed as threatened, and a chemical in plastic frightened water-bottle owners everywhere.

And on the unlucky side of science this year, part of the Hubble telescope's 20-year-old computer crashed and the Large Hadron Collider had a - how shall we call it? - a premature hiccup? - and stopped working just a few weeks after firing up. There's also science in the arts world - a lot of science in the arts things that were going on this year. We had plays about Philo Farnsworth. There was a play and a movie in production about Hedy Lamarr. "Doctor Atomic" opened at the MET, a play about the atom bomb. So, there's a lot to talk about this hour about what was going on in science this year.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK, if you'd like to join us. And if you want more information about our topic, you can surf over to our Web site at And if you're on Twitter, you can follow us @scifri. That's - write to us with the @ sign followed by scifri. And we'll see if we can get a question in there, too, from you on Twitter. And in Second Life there's a gang of folks that are listening to us. You're welcome to ask questions that way, too. Let me introduce my guests. Sharon Begley is a science columnist from Newsweek. She joins us here in our studios in New York. Welcome back, Sharon.

Ms. SHARON BEGLEY (Senior Editor, Newsweek): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Steve Mirsky is a staff editor and writer for Scientific American magazine and host of "Science Talk" podcast. He's also with us here. Good to see you again, Steve.

Mr. STEVE MIRSKY (Editor and Columnist, Scientific American): Thanks. That's Hedley Lamar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Hedley to you. Paul Raeburn is a journalist and author of "Acquainted with the Night: A Parent's Quest to Understand Depression and Bipolar Disorder in His Children." He also writes the About Fathers blog for Psychology Today. And he joins us here in New York. Good to see you again.

Mr. PAUL RAEBURN (Science Journalist and Author, "Acquainted with the Night: A Parent's Quest to Understand Depression and Bipolar Disorder in His Children"): Nice to be here, Ira.

FLATOW: K.C. Cole is the only one in the outer hinlands(ph) out there and she's the author of "The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty" and she's also a professor in the Annenberg School of Journalism at UCLA - USC -

Professor K.C. COLE (Author, "The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty", Professor, Annenberg School of Journalism, USC): No, no, no.

FLATOW: No, no. University of Southern California, Los Angeles. I wanted to see if you're listening, K.C. University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She joins us from the studios of Marketplace Productions in L.A. Nice to have you back on Science Friday, K.C.

Prof. COLE: Nice to be here.

FLATOW: Let's get in to the Washington politics that's going on here. Let me go around the table and out to K.C. What do we think about, Steve, about all these appointments? Science is taking center stage again.

Mr. MIRSKY: Well, let's contrast with the campaign what's going on now. In the campaign, John McCain said that Sarah Palin knew more about energy than pretty much anybody else in the country. And here we have now the energy secretary's going to be an actual Nobel Laureate in physics and I'm pretty sure he knows that a joule is not a diamond, an erg is not, a real hankering to do something and a BTU is not a sandwich you get at a diner.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MIRSKY: You know, so, I'm pretty optimistic. I mean, look, just because he's a Nobel Laureate, doesn't mean he's going to be terrific in this political setting. He does have big administrative experience running the national laboratory out there. But you just have to be optimistic at this point about what these appointments mean.

FLATOW: Let's go out there. K.C., what's the reaction out in California?

Prof. COLE: Well, you know, I think everybody is very excited when you contrast this to what was happening beforehand, where you had tens of thousands of scientists protesting that science is being distorted. It continues for political reasons and decisions are being made not on the scientific basis but again, you know, for political reasons. We now have a President-elect who actually respects and believes in science and every single appointment he's made has been right on. So, I think it's really good news for everybody, including the space community - just everybody.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. Also mentioned is the fact that Lisa P. Jackson in going to be the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency - the second administrator from New Jersey, Sharon.

Ms. BEGLEY: Which gives her an excellent pedigree, since New Jersey is no stranger to pollution problems.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEGLEY: But Jackson...

Mr. MIRSKY: There go about 2,000 listeners.

Ms. BEGLEY: Hey, I'm a New Jersey girl, born and bred. But Jackson has not only her administrative experience with Governor John Corzine, but she was also in EPA as a regional administrator for a number of years. So, she knows the agency, she knows its issues, and it looks like she's going to have the ear of the incoming president.

Mr. MIRSKY: When you contrast this, again, with the last EPA administrator from New Jersey, Governor Whitman, who left the office because she really felt like she couldn't get anything accomplished.

FLATOW: Yeah. She left fairly early on, didn't she? She could see that handwriting on the wall or the memos being changed, actually.

Mr. MIRSKY: Right.

FLATOW: And we also have - Carol Browner is back as - in the form of a - well, she's been calling - being called the "Climate Czarina."

Ms. BEGLEY: Which is going to be interesting, because she's going to - she's tasked, as we now say, with coordinating all of the other voices who have something to say about climate policy. And that's going to include DOE Secretary Chu, it's going to include the EPA administrator. And she's sort of the environment or the climate equivalent of the, you know, national security advisor. She's going to have to butt heads together. She's going to have to make some sense out of the cacophony of advice that's rising up through the ranks.

FLATOW: It does look like all the appointees sort of have a climate bend to them, don't they?

Mr. RAEBURN: Yeah, I looked at John Holdren, who will be science advisor, responsible for all kinds of things. He published a paper in Science this year, "Science and Technology for Sustainable Wellbeing." You know, there's an environmentalist buzzword if there ever was one. Another one was called "Climate Change: The Sky is Falling." And I think it's important to emphasize here that this isn't a change of politics. We're not going from sort of corporate people to environmental people. We're going from ideologically-based decisions to factually-based decisions. I don't have any problem myself with somebody saying, you know, I represent the coal industry and I don't think we should worry about carbon. We want to burn coal. I think that's a perfectly reasonable point of view, we can debate that. But when somebody has that kind of position and tries to couch it in environmental terms, you know, clean coal, it's the hypocrisy that gets my reporter's instincts up, I have to say.

FLATOW: I've seen that commercial.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MIRSKY: No, really. Don't hand me a bowl of some brown substance and tell me, not only that it's ice cream, but that it's vanilla ice cream

FLATOR: Yeah. Of course, this one has not been confirmed yet, this is a proposed…

Ms. BEGLEY: Supposedly coming tomorrow in Obama's radio address. But Holdren is an interesting character because although, as Paul says, he's been, you know, quite visible on the climate issue, he's not a bomb thrower. You know, as a reporter, if you need the incendiary quote about how the world, you know, is going to heck in a handbasket due to climate change, Holdren is not the first one you call. He's very empirically-based. He's very - sort of a quiet, behind-the-scenes kind of operator. And one story I love about him, he - when he was younger - wrote a lot of papers with Paul Ehrlich, the eminent Stanford biologist, who is a bomb thrower, best known for "The Population Bomb." So, a friend ran into Holdren one day and asked him, you know, you and Ehrlich are getting all these criticisms from business, from the Republican right, whatever, saying that you're crazy, you're out to undermine capitalism, you know. Does that bother you? And Holdren said, you know what? They're attacking Ehrlich and "that other guy," so as long as I'm just "that other guy," it's OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MIRSKY: I was at a session that Holdren spoke at, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in February, and he did have caustic remarks for Michael Crichton, who at the time was still alive. I believe he used the phrase "colossal arrogance" for Crichton to take upon himself the role of advising the president and members of Congress on global warming.

FLATOW: It'll be…

Prof. COLE: I think…

FLATOW: Go ahead, K.C.

Prof. COLE: No, I was just going to say, I think, in terms of NASA policy in space, too, it's going to be interesting because a lot of the Earth-observing satellites that are at the end of their lives are not being replaced. And I think that's really going to change now, that we're going to have more of an emphasis - you may remember that, actually, Earth observing was taken out - I believe it was this year - of the NASA mission statement, so I think that's very optimistic in terms of climate, that we'll actually be able to look at ourselves again.

FLATOW: Are we going to have any money left to do any of these things is the question, especially, you know, in space.

Mr. MIRSKY: It's an investment. It's not overhead, it's an investment.

Mr. RAEBURN: Yeah, I mean, there are different things and space maybe a tougher sell than climate and energy, which is wrapped up with the economy, as are a lot of health issues, which could save us money, could cost us money. But some of the basic sciences may be in more trouble - cosmology and space science and so forth - we'll just have to see how it goes.

Prof. COLE: Yeah, they certainly have been.

FLATOW: Go ahead, K.C.

Prof. COLE: No, I was going to say, they certainly have been with the moon to Mars program, which was not something that the vast majority of astronomers and physicists were behind. In fact, it led to the pushing back of several really important missions like the - LISA, the Laser - how do you say it - laser interferometer gravitational wave observatory, which, you know, was going to allow us to - I mean, it will - to see actually back to the big bang itself perhaps - the gravitational waves from that. And a lot of that stuff got just pushed off and postponed. I would say, money wasted. So, it's possible now that we can go back to doing more real science in space.

Mr. RAEBURN: The comforting thing, of course, is that the space station is still up there, still going strong, still costing us billions of dollars while we can't do all these other interesting things. We've got to borrow a car to get there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Details, details, details.

Prof. COLE: But we're not speaking with the people who have the car, so we can't use the right kind of car.

Mr. RAEBURN: K.C., you have such a pessimistic look at it.

FLATOW: We'll get a zip car.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: All right, we have to take a break. We'll come back and talk lots more about the year in science with Sharon Begley, K.C. Cole, Paul Raeburn and Steve Mirsky and your calls. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Also in Second Life and you can twitter us @scifri, that's @ s-c-i-f-r-i. Don't go away, we'll be right back.

(Soundbite of Talk of the Nation theme)

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're looking back on the year 2008, talking about stuff that has been, might have been or shouldn't have been - we could throw that in - which should not have been with my guests, Sharon Begley, science columnist for Newsweek; Steve Mirsky is editor and writer for Scientific American magazine and host of Scientific American's "Science Talk" podcast; Paul Raeburn is a journalist and author of "Acquainted with the Night: A Parent's Quest to Understand Depression and Bipolar Disorder in His Children," he also writes the About Fathers blog for Psychology Today; K.C. Cole, author of "The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty," and she's also a professor in the Annenberg School of Journalism at USC in Los Angeles. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's talk about where I left off in the introduction about science and culture. There were lot of science and cultural events and I think one of those things that we talk about as a part of being science and culture - we like to throw that in - is science fiction in culture. And Steve Mirsky, you were saying you saw a remake of a classic movie.

Mr. MIRSKY: We'll call it a re-imagining of "The Day the Earth Stood Still." I went to a screening in preparation for interviewing the director, and it's not a good movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: No details necessary.

Mr. MIRSKY: But when it comes around to cable or NetFlix, you know, I think it's kind of worth watching as a reflection of what we now take for granted, culturally, about science. For example, what I found really interesting was, in this version - you know, Keanu Reeves is Klaatu. And in this version, when you first see Reeves, he's an Earth person, a regular old human, back in the 1920s and he's clearly - a sample of his skin is clearly taken by the aliens somehow and the Klaatu that we see later is a clone of him. And that's not explained because you don't need to explain that to a mass audience anymore. They see a scar on the back of your hand and then a reproduction of this individual and they understand it's a clone.

FLATOW: Interesting, interesting. But the first - the original - the trailers I have seen are so violent, you know. The original movie was so understated and now I see - this is what you must be implying - that they just hammed it up. Go ahead, K.C., have you seen it?

Prof. COLE: No, but something really exciting has happened and I can't remember the name of it now, but the National Academy of Sciences has just started a collaboration with Hollywood, headed by Jennifer Ouellette, who writes Twisted Physics blog and Cocktail Party Physics. And - but this is partly modeled on a successful program at the Annenberg School, actually, where the Lear Center started to give good medical information to shows like "E.R." and they found that it actually had an effect on people, so that what they're trying to do now is say, OK, we're going to have all these shows - "The Big Bang Theory" and these movies - why not make the science accurate? It will be better because science is always stranger than fiction anyway. So, I think that's really exciting.

FLATOW: It's only taken 30 years to do this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MIRSKY: Right.

FLATOW: You know, Leon Lederman has been going out to see Norman Lear himself ever since it was, you know, "All in the Family" days…

Mr. MIRSKY: "Maude" was on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Exactly - trying to talk them into - and actually to create - if you can do a show about a newsroom, like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," why can't you do one about a laboratory, you know, and have wacky things go on there? But it's at least in the laboratory. Maybe now, the National Academy's had more success with this, but…

Prof. COLE: Well, I think so. I mean, you know, in trying to catch up on the year in science, the things that I came across were just so bizarre.

FLATOW: Let's get into them. Go ahead. Start out with your most bizarre - top of the list.

Prof. COLE: OK. Here is the one I love, just because of the way it was phrased, in terms of seeing the most distant water - 11 billion light years away or ago, either way you want to put it - but this water is in the form of giant water masers. In other words, the water molecules are behaving like lasers and these things are huge and they're saying now they're even more common than they were before. And I'm thinking, yeah, giant water maser. I mean, that sounds like some kind of science fiction invention.

Mr. MIRSKY: Sounds like a Six Flags ride.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. COLE: Doesn't it? So, I thought that - that was my favorite.

FLATOW: Because it does sound like a Six Flags ride, it does bring into this discussion of popular culture, which is where it should be. You know, people'll talk about this "sounds like a Six Flags ride" around the dinner table.

Mr. MIRSKY: When you go to a party, people love to talk about this stuff - you know, civilians love to talk about this stuff.

Prof. COLE: The other thing that amazed me was the technology, you know, seeing the most distant gamma ray burst or - also this year. It wasn't, I don't know, 15, 20 years ago - it can't be that old - five years ago, when I was first covering this for the - I lied, but anyway - for the Los Angeles Times, I remember talking to an astronomer at CalTech who said, we have no idea what this things are. They could be Klingon warships, for all we know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. COLE: Well, now you have a telescope up there that sights them and immediately other telescopes go and look at it and then you get ground-based telescopes and now these things are very well understood and we're seeing them almost back to the beginning of time.

Mr. RAEBURN: You know, you can - there's some terrific - a story that really was an underreported science story - well, it's been going on for some years - is the Cassini mission to Jupiter and its moons. And the Cassini took a pass about 30 miles - now, you can imagine - K.C.can remind me how far Jupiter is from here, but it's far away. And the satellite passed within 30 miles of the surface of - I think I'm going to pronounce this right - Enceladus, one of the moons.

Mr. MIRSKY: I think you're talking about Saturn.

Mr. RAEBURN: I'm sorry, Saturn. Did I say Jupiter?

Mr. MIRSKY: I think so.

FLATOW: No. Well, yeah, sure.

Mr. RAEBURN: So, that's even farther, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEGLEY: They all look alike.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MIRSKY: Yeah, they all look alike, yeah.

FLATOW: I had a senior moment there (unintelligible) Saturn.

Mr. RAEBURN: In any case, the pictures for this thing - this is a must-Web trip, to go to the Cassini homepage - and the pictures are spectacular, you know, - geysers and close-up views of the surface of these places and Titan and, I mean, it's just incredible. So, I recommend that everybody...

FLATOW: And Cassini is - K.C., am I not correct - that's from the old school of robots, right? Wasn't that the last big one before they went…

Prof. COLE: Yeah, it was enormous and it dropped that little probe in there.

FLATOW: Not the smaller, faster, cheaper kind. It was they used to go other way.

Prof. COLE: No. No, that would be Phoenix. That would be the one that rose from the ashes and was made out leftover junk and, you know, managed to just produce these absolutely spectacular results.

Mr. MIRSKY: Well, it kind of had to be old school because it was launched, what, 10, 11 years ago.

FLATOW: Yeah, it was - I think it was the last one from the old school or whatever. Big probe.

Prof. COLE: I think another thing, in terms of technology, that really struck me was just how common gravitational lensing is as a tool, you know, - the bending of - warping of light by the curvature of space-time. When Einstein predicted this, he said that he never thought anybody would even be able to see it. Now it's routine in the discovery of almost everything. It's just another way of looking into space.

FLATOW: Sharon, let's talk about the Large Hadron Collider. What happened?

Ms. BEGLEY: Very disappointing. They turned it on in the fall after years and years of construction and testing and uncounted millions of Euros. This machine, of course, is at CERN, outside Geneva, and it was meant to duplicate or replicate the conditions that existed just a few fractions of a second after the big bang, maybe turn up evidence of supersymmetric particles, maybe even some vague confirmation of string theory. And instead, they had a big "oops" moment. Basically, the coolant leaked and - although they were always going to shut down for maintenance and figuring out how the test run went, instead, they're shut down at least till close to the middle of '09 and there are a lot of red faces over there.

Mr. MIRSKY: You know, one of the reasons - go ahead, K.C.

Prof. COLE: No, I was just going to say, I think with a machine this big and this complicated, it's the kind of thing that you expect to happen from time - I mean, it's the biggest, most complicated scientific instrument ever built, so I think the people working on it are really not that surprised.

Mr. RAEBURN: It's actually, I think - it's a telling thing about the way physics works. If I can go back as far as my physics lab in college, you know, I spent a whole semester building a little gadget to make an electron beam.

FLATOW: You and Tom Edison, I think.

(Soundbite of laugther)

Mr. RAEBURN: Yeah, that's right, yeah. Just about, yeah. Thanks, Ira. You know, at the end of the semester, the darn thing didn't work, you know, after all that effort. And that's actually the way physics often works. People are trying to measure things and test things at the absolute limits of what's possible and they don't work and they don't work and they don't work and then, they work and, you know, something cool comes out of it.

Mr. MIRSKY: An interesting thing about the collider is, one of the reasons it's shut down in the winter is, you can either run the collider or heat the city of Vienna.

Prof. COLE: Right.

Mr. MIRSKY: Because it takes so much energy to run it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, collider? Vienna? Collider? Vienna? We actually have a great Large Hadron Collider rap as a video on our Web site at

Prof. COLE: Yes.

FLATOW: If you want to see it, it's a great, great - they put it together themselves and we put it on our Web site, if you want to see that. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's get a phone call or two in here. Sarah from Maryland. Hi, Sarah.

SARAH (Caller): Hi. How are you all?



SARAH: I saw the L.A. Times quoted Holdren as saying that climate change is like being in a car with bad brakes driving towards a cliff in the fog. And my question to the panel is, is this comment in conflict with Obama's softer stance on climate change? This is a much darker outlook than Obama led us to believe. So, will Holdren retreat or will Obama meet the bar that Holdren set?

Mr. RAEBURN: Well, I would say that - what I hope Holdren will do and I think he will do - you're focusing on something he said, you know, a metaphor. I think what he will do is stick to the science and the facts. And that's what we ought to press him to do, if he doesn't do that, as citizens. So, you know, the really crucial stuff in climate change is not those kinds of comments, whether they're "fer it or agin it" but what the data shows and what the facts are and making policy based on those facts.

FLATOW: Will science come back to the White House?

Mr. RAEBURN: Right.


Prof. COLE: Yes.

FLATOW: It's a good point. Sarah, what do you think?

SARAH: Well, it's questionable. I think climate change is a serious problem and I think that it's a lot more imminent than we might be giving it credence for.

FLATOW: Well, he has surrounded himself with all these people who are in agreement on the, you know, I don't think - well, it'll be interesting to see if the agriculture secretary, you know - listen to Michael Polland talking about food is really climate.

SARAH: Mm hmm.

FLATOW: You know, whether he jumps on a bandwagon...

Mr. MIRSKY: You know, that also might be Obama's style. He just seems to be - play everything very cool and he might not want to seem alarmist about this issue even if he feels that way.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Sarah.

SARAH: Thank you. Have a good one.

Mr. MIRSKY: You, too.

FLATOW: Have a happy holiday. Bye.

SARAH: You, too.

FLATOW: Well, let's talk about energy a little bit more. You know, it started out with everybody - 2008 did - with everybody talking about ethanol, alcohol as the future and we don't hear anything, Steve. No one is really talking about corn - growing corn anymore. People just said, well, we made the wrong choice or the lobbyists are taking over or what?

Mr. MIRSKY: Yeah, corn ethanol just seemed to be a loser the more people looked at it. You know, there's - the reason, I think - and I was talking to Tom Friedman for the SciAm podcast and he confirmed it for me - the reason corn ethanol's on the table at all is because Iowa has the first caucus. And so it's big lobbying to get corn as your source of ethanol. I did a column about what if the - if every other state had the first caucus or primary, what they could pitch and we just had a caller from Maryland and they would be pitching references to Johns Hopkins as John Hopkins, Johns Hopkin or John Hopkin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And I've always said - and it'll be interesting to see what Jane Lubchenco says about this - that if Washington were in Florida, we'd have more research on hurricanes and if it was in San Francisco, we'd have more research on earthquakes.

Mr. MIRSKY: And in Florida, they'd be looking for sugar ethanol.

FLATOW: They'd be looking for - we're talking about top stories of 2008 this hour on Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. Go ahead, K.C. Did you want to say something?

Prof. COLE: I was just going to say, that's true of, you know, everything. I remember when I was actually working for the design group of the superconducting super collider, which we lost because of politics. We would know all the answers to the questions the LHC is going to ask, maybe. But I remember that it was very important that it be sold in every single state and that that opportunity before they chose taxes was milked to the maximum. And now, even if you look at some of the space programs that are dubious and things, you'll find that it's because parts are being manufactured in a certain state. So, that's a very big factor.

FLATOW: Well, we - that started out with putting the space center in Houston with Lyndon Johnson, so it has a long pedigree.

Prof. COLE: Exactly.


Prof. COLE: And the Chinese - I think their rocket is called - correct me if I'm wrong - the Long March II.

FLATOW: You got us all on that one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MIRSKY: Long march to where?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: But let's talk about - well, you…

Mr. RAEBURN: The long march to dot, dot, dot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You brought up an interesting subject. Are we going to see China and India take over the lead in space exploration? What do you think, K.C.? How serious are they?

Prof. COLE: I think it's extremely exciting and a real wakeup call for the U.S. in terms of - what they've done is not on a par with what we're doing, but it's pretty cool. I mean, one of these Indian launchers went up and I think it let 10 satellites go in a period of 20 minutes or something, just one after another, just dropped them - a couple big ones and a bunch of babies. And, yes, a lot of this is about posturing. That's why we went to the moon, after all, in the beginning. But now that we don't have a way to get to the space station - and the U.S. is a bit crippled on this - it's a great opportunity for these countries to take over.

FLATOW: I thought what was most amazing about the Indian launch was how little coverage it got in this country. No one here, virtually, saw anything or heard anything about it except a little mention maybe on CNN or something like that. It's just like...

Prof. COLE: Yeah.

FLATOW: You know, it's - and they did something really monumental for them, you know?

Prof. COLE: Right. Well, you know, this is a little bit more technology but the tragedy in Mumbai - when a lot of the reporting came out of Twitter - people don't realize - Obama is going to do something about this - that we don't have a very good Web network here, Internet. We're, I think, about number 15 or something in developed countries. So, you know, that was really a case where you saw that they were quite advanced technologically.

FLATOW: Do we all - what do we think about all these new social communities? You think they got a future or are they just a flash in the pan? Or are we too old to make that...

Prof. COLE: I'm on Second Life, Ira, (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAEBURN: You know, I have to say - I'm too old to be in the demographic here, but I've been playing with these things and fiddling around and logging on to everything I can log on to and abandoning any thoughts of any personal privacy forever again and I'm having a great time. I'm having a lot of fun looking around. I think there's a huge future for these things, particularly, you know, talk about CNN coverage of the Indian launch, you know, we'll never see it again because CNN has laid off its space correspondent, so…

FLATOW: Miles O'Brien.

Mr. RAEBURN: Yeah, that's right. So...

FLATOW: And a whole crew that was...

Mr. RAEBURN: Yeah. I mean, newspapers are going under by the day. It's just - I don't think it's a question of, you know, are you interested in the online stuff or not. It's all that's - that's all that there will be in a very short time, I think. So, we're all going to have to be interested.

Prof. COLE: Yeah. You know, if I may talk about the competition, I actually just came from doing the BBC World year wrap-up, just an hour an a half ago, and I was amazed to find out they have a very substantial science pod of 15 or 20 people who are just dedicated to that. That's pretty impressive, I thought.

FLATOW: Well, we don't know. We're - you know, obviously everybody is keeping their fingers and everything - even NPR and us, we're trying to keep our fingers - we're doing Twitter during the show, we're doing Second Life.

Ms. COLE: Yup.

FLATOW: It's hard, you know, we don't get many people in Second Life because the technology isn't there. We max out the system with just a few hundred people. And considering we have over a million - at one point three million listeners, a few hundred people in Second Life is not very much of an audience, but who knows where any of these things are headed. We're going to talk - we'll prognosticate a bit more after we take a break. Talking with K.C. Cole, Paul Raeburn, Steve Mirsky and Sharon Begley. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. If you'd like to join in, as I say, you can Twitter us, @scifri - s-c-i-f-r-i - and in Second Life, have your avatar get a free t-shirt and ask a question. We'll be right back after this break. Stay with us.

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FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the past year in science. What do we know that we didn't know back in 2007 or what we overlooked or your favorite science stories of the year. Give us a call, 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. You can also write us on Twitter by writing the "at" sign followed by s-c-i-f-r-i, that's scifri.

My guests are Paul Raeburn, journalist and author of "Acquainted with the Night: A Parent's Quest to Understand Depression and Bipolar Disorder in his Children," he also writes the About Fathers blog for Science Today; Steve Mirsky, staff editor, writer for Scientific American magazine, host of Scientific American's very popular "Science Talk" podcast; Sharon Begley, science columnist of Newsweek and K.C. Cole, author of the university - the university - "The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty." Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Paul, what's on your list of interesting stories?

Mr. RAEBURN: Well, one of the interesting ones was a fairly recent one about the study that showed that statins, the cholesterol lowering drugs, ought to be given to - maybe ought to be given to a lot of people with normal cholesterol. And there were some wrinkles there. It turns out, these are people who have something called an elevated C-reactive protein and so forth, so not quite everybody but many more people than take them now. I thought, if I could step back a bit and say something about the reporting, I'd like to think if I had written this for the AP, I would've begun by saying, an industry funded study has found, although that was in the end of a lot of the news stories I read. It was AstraZeneca who funded it, which doesn't mean it's wrong, but we just ought to highlight that point. They sell the drug - the particular statin here.

The other thing was, a lot of the reporting - there were, depending on how you cut the numbers, you know, with a 40 percent, 50 percent drop in strokes or heart attacks or whatever it was but big, you know, big drops. However, the actual numbers were, you know, things like if you did not take the drug - if you did take the drug, you had a one point - there were 1.6 percent who had an event. If you didn't take the drug, it was 2.8 percent. So, that 40 or 50 percent drop, which sounds very dramatic, is actually about 1 more person out of a 100 avoiding an event. Now, maybe it's worth giving them the drugs for that. That's a policy that Obama and his people are going to have to figure out.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. RAEBURN: But certainly the reporting was questionable.

FLATOW: Well, and you could tell a sample size must not have been that big if - such a small difference.

Mr. RAEBURN: Well, it, you know, it's this thing that we try to be aware of as reporters - the relative risks versus the absolute risks, you know? And if you go from two percent to one percent, that's a, you know, that's a 50 percent drop, but in terms of actual people and what it means, it doesn't mean so much.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. 1-800 - anybody want to jump in and comment? Feel free to do that. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to the phones because we have Bruce in Richmond, Virginia. Hi, Bruce.

BRUCE (Caller): Hi there. Thank you for taking the call.

FLATOW: Hi. Go ahead.

BRUCE: Within the last month or two, Professor Steven Hawkins, whom I hold in high regard, made a couple of predictions. One of which was a discovery of a new source of energy within the next 20, 40 years. Seems I remember hearing on NPR sometime between 18 months and two years ago that Norelco had done a controlled bleed between matter and anti-matter and had a violent but highly successful reaction. I would love to hear your guests speak to that.

Mr. MIRSKY: Yes, you get the closest shave ever.

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BRUCE: …resources that will be out there lying in wait. The only question is, when are we going to find it? I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.

FLATOW: OK. Thanks for calling. And Steve, you were...

Mr. MIRSKY: The anti-matter shaver.

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FLATOW: This holiday season, get one.

Mr. MIRSKY: It's got no blades.

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Mr. RAEBURN: Three blades, four blades, no blades.

FLATOW: What was it - what was he talking about in general?

Ms. COLE: I have no idea.

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Mr. RAEBURN: But I have an energy story. I don't know that one either but I have an energy story. I wrote a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review blog, called the Observatory, about a week ago. I was at the gym minding my own business on the treadmill and I saw a story on CNN about this company, BlackLight Power…

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. RAEBURN: …in New Jersey.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. RAEBURN: …claims to produce energy made from water, a form of salt and a few other common materials unspecified. And it's - whatever this means, it's supposed to be 200 times more powerful than gasoline. There was only one problem, as the correspondent said, there's only one problem - this would violate the laws of quantum physics. And she went right on cheerily recounting the rest of the story and how, you know, as if she'd said, you know, there's only one problem - it gets dirt on the bottom of your shoes.

FLATOW: Right. Right.

Mr. RAEBURN: You know, something, so…

FLATOW: Small detail.

Mr. RAEBURN: Yes, small detail. So, anyway, that was from CNN, which has disbanded its science and environmental unit. Do I sound like I'm on a bit of a rant here?

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FLATOW: Well, you know, when we went through cold fusion and all these other energies years ago, you always heard the one - what is the one test for anything in this world on those things and including this is...

Mr. MIRSKY: Right. It's the second law.

FLATOW: Well, no. It's actually even cruder than that - is if you're so smart, why ain't you rich?

Mr. RAEBURN: Yeah, right. Exactly. Yeah.

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Ms. BEGLEY: Well, but BlackLight has actually been attracting a lot of money. I think they're up to the, at least tens of millions, I've read.

Mr. RAEBURN: Well, they claim to have raised about $60 million and Robert Park, who you may know as a physicist at the University of Maryland who's very - who follows these kinds of things, said the company - here's the quote - "is dependent on investors with deep pockets and shallow brains."

FLATOW: I actually was approached - I was handed a spec sheet by the BlackLight people also. I haven't looked at it yet, but I was a little, you know. And I gave them the question about the rich part and they weren't answering it.

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Mr. MIRSKY: But they drive hydrogen electrons into a lower-than-ground state configuration. Is that right?

Mr. RAEBURN: Lower-than-ground state, yes. Hence, the - they misnamed ground state because this is the underground state of hydrogen.

Mr. MIRSKY: Must take a lot of energy to do that.

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Mr. RAEBURN: There you go.

Prof. COLE: If we want to talk about, you know, faith-based science and wasted money and bad reporting, I think one of the things highest on the list would be the sort of straight-face reportage of the conflict over putting missile defense sites in Eastern Europe when you don't even hear anymore the fact that the physics community - I mean, it's pretty clear that this stuff does not work. And this was all exposed 20 years ago. I heard - we had a visitor at Annenberg who was referring to this forgetting of reporters to mention this as "newsheimers," but, you know, it almost never is mentioned.

FLATOW: Well, I think that that there's a dearth of science reporters. Science reporters just are a dying breed and people who know how to ask the follow-up question. That's the most important thing - the follow-up question, and it just doesn't get asked very much.

Mr. MIRSKY: Well, you make me think - speaking of movies, I had the misfortune of sitting through Ben Stein's "Expelled" twice last - this year. And it brings up - you know, I think, reporters when they ask, it's become popular to ask presidential candidates, do you believe in evolution or do you believe in intelligent design? I would like to see them ask do you know what evolution is? Do you know what it means? Do you know what intelligent design purports to be? And see if they really understand what they're about to try to enact legislation on.

FLATOW: Yeah, we had people diagnosing Terri Schiavo from you know…

Mr. MIRSKY: Right.

FLATOW: …far away places.

Mr. MIRSKY: And he was a Harvard Medical School graduate who derailed his presidential bid with that.

FLATOW: Yeah. 1-800-989-8255. Let's change gears a little bit. Sharon, do you think the Cancer Genome Atlas is going to be helpful to medicine?

Ms. BEGLEY: You know, if it is, more power to it. But the problem with the myriad of things that go wrong in malignant cells is that there are a myriad of them and the Cancer - the Human Cancer Genome Atlas tries to find every single one of those things - every single genetic mutation in liver cancer and kidney cancer and every other kind of cancer that there is. And the question that they're going to be facing is which of these changes are causal? I mean, one of the hallmarks of malignant cells is that their chromosomes are hugely unstable and once one thing starts to go wrong so does everything else. But only a few of those things actually cause the cell to become malignant, to be a cancer. So, it's going to be a huge challenge for bioinformatics and I have to say, you know, it really harks back or is reminiscent of the Human Genome Project, which we're all happy it took place. But, you know, does anyone else think that the salesmanship was a little bit ahead of the reality? I mean, it was great for things like anthropology, but not so much for medicine.

FLATOW: Yeah. Any comments (unintelligible)?

Mr. RAEBURN: Well, it's interesting - I think that's exactly right. It is interesting, though, that this year there was a report that a continuing downturn in cancer deaths and increase in diagnoses and number of new cases declining is now about a 15-year trend. So, this is the kind of thing that may, you know, affect that trend line 15 or 20 years in the future.

FLATOW: Well, that will be interesting to see if at least any life expectancy changes.

Mr. RAEBURN: That's right. Yeah. That's right.

FLATOW: I mean, the downturn in cases diagnosis, but will anybody live any longer?

Mr. RAEBURN: Yeah, yeah. That's right. But it's reasonable to think some effects are coming out to some of this. Go ahead, Sharon.

Ms. BEGLEY: No, I mean, you know, the problem with the war on cancer is that we've been fighting it for - I mean, when did Nixon do his thing? - almost 40 years now. And when you measure success by five-year survival or 10-year survival, you know, one of the concerns is just as Ira said. Are these people actually living longer or is simply the clock starting earlier? Are we diagnosing them earlier? And as you're saying, yeah, for a few cancers, people are indeed living longer and some of them are living until they die of something else, which is exactly where we want cancer to go. But honestly, it's been an awfully lot of decades with very little show for it.

FLATOW: Let me ask you something, Paul. I know you study this - follow it closely - the Mental Health Parity Bill that passed…


FLATOW: …as part of the bailout. Tell us about that.

Mr. RAEBURN: Yeah. That was - the bailout of the nation's mentally ill…

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Mr. RAEBURN: …which you didn't read about. It was actually - we can argue about the, you know, financial and auto bailouts forever.

Mr. MIRSKY: That was the financial bailout.

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Mr. RAEBURN: Yeah, that's right. You know, the one good thing that came out of that bailout bill, with no qualification, was a measure that it had been hanging around for 10 years or longer…

FLATOW: Yeah, a long time.

Mr. RAEBURN: …to treat mental illnesses the same way for insurance purposes as other illnesses, so same number of hospital days allowed, same caps on expenditures and so forth. This would seem to me to be sort of a trivially obvious thing. Sick is sick and whether it's the brain or the gut, it's sick. But the politics was very complicated and…

FLATOW: Was it attached to something else?

Mr. RAEBURN: It was a - it was part of the…

FLATOW: We had - William Moyers was on talking about this….

Mr. RAEBURN: Yeah, it was part of the financial bailout bill - the big bill, the $700 billion bill.


Mr. RAEBURN: And there it was on page 28 or something. And so, it's a huge thing for people and families with mental illness.

FLATOW: And it allows you to get - give us some detail - compensation equal to other kinds of illness.

Mr. RAEBURN: Right. In the past, in many, many insurance plans - I think there's something like a hundred million people who have had this problem and will get a better shake because of this legislation - many plans you got, you know, let's say 100 - up to 100 hospital days a year or whatever it was, you know, that you were allowed and so many doctor's visits and so forth, but all those limits were smaller for mental illnesses. And the only explanation that I can come up with really is that somehow people were thinking these weren't real illnesses or something. But, you know, have a family member with bipolar disorder, as I do, and you lose that notion very quickly.

FLATOW: I have time for one more question before I go to our Science Friday Pick of the Week and let me remind everybody that this is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. And that comes from a Twitter from Power Tripoli (ph), who wants to know, could you elaborate on the earlier conversation about string theory and could the Hadron Collider help prove it? Could it help prove it? K.C., you have any way...

Prof. COLE: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. I'm glad you mentioned that because we were talking about the Large Hadron Collider but we never talked about what it was going to do. One of the really exciting things that could happen that - well, there are a couple in terms of string theory. One is that it's possible that we could see energy disappearing, which might be going into another dimension. So, that might be the first evidence for that. The other thing would be a supersymmetric particle, which is part of string theory. What does that mean? It just means that, you know, the more we look at nature, the more things that seem to be different are actually the same. So, it's possible that every particle has a partner, which have all been given funny names that we haven't found yet. Well, if we find the lightest one of these at LHC, that might be an explanation, or one explanation, of dark matter. And that's really important because that makes up most of the matter in the universe.

FLATOW: All right.

Mr. MIRSKY: I think - you can have supersymmetry without string theory though, can't you?

Prof. COLE: Yes. Yes, you can. Yes, you can. But it would be a confirmation along the way, yeah.

FLATOW: All right. We have to end it here. We all had a good time today, I hope. K.C. Cole, author of "The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty;" Paul Raeburn, author of "Acquainted with the Night: A Parent's Quest to Understand Depression and Bipolar Disorder in His Children," he also writes the About Fathers blog for Psychology Today; Steve Mirsky, staff editor and writer for Scientific American magazine and host of the Scientific American "Science Talk" podcast; Sharon Begley, science columnist for Newsweek. Have a great holiday. Good to see you all again. We'll meet back here a year from now, OK?

Mr. RAEBURN: Same time, same place.

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Prof. COLE: Thank you. Take care.

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