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BREAKTHROUGH THE ARMY BUILDS A MIND-READING MACHINE

Science, Technology, and The Future

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32 Crunching
the Universe
New sky surveys will catalog
billions of astronomical
objects. To digest all that
data, scientists are turning
to...well, just about everybody.
By PRESTON LERNER

40 The Fall
and Rise of
Douglas Prasher
His work revolutionized
biology, but he got no share
of the eventual Nobel glory.
The rocky career of Douglas
Prasher offers a lesson in
what it takes to succeed in
modern science.
By YUDHIJIT
BHATTACHARJEE

48 Silent Warrior
Neuroscientists are trying
to build a helmet that can
read and transmit a soldier’s
thoughts. The U.S. Army is
betting $6.3 million that they
can do it.
By ADAM PIORE

56 Ill Wind Blowing


Each year, thousands of tons
of mercury and other con-
taminants waft from Asian
factories across the Pacific.
Global winds make
one nation’s pollution
problem everyone’s problem.
By DAVID KIRBY
DR. JOHN DIMOS/PRINCETON UNIV. ART OF SCIENCE COMPETITION

66 The DISCOVER
Interview:
Lynn Margulis
Are humans really amalgams
of bacteria? Is AIDS really a
form of syphilis? One noted
researcher thinks so.

contents /// april 2011


Neural stem cells (pink) genetically modified with engineered HIV. Protein introduced by HIV is green; blue shows neuronal progeny.
By DICK TERESI

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the year in re-review


Give NASA Its Due methods. Her study relied on Boulder Dash
Entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, questionnaires that asked In “Roaming Rocks of Death
whose company is designing parents how they thought Valley” (#98), NASA scientists
space taxis and hotels, shared their kids were adjusting to showed that strong winds and
his vision of the future of pri- life. I don’t believe you can thin layers of ice are respon-
vate spaceflight in story #73 of get real results from just sible for boulders that mysteri-
our Year in Science 2010 issue. asking what a parent thinks ously glide across the desert.
The Robert Bigelow interview of her child. Judging by the straight path
left me disappointed; he and Eric Knode of the boulder pictured in this
discover were blatantly ramsey, mn story, it appears that when
belittling the success of the the conditions are just right
U.S. space program. I found Psychiatrist Nanette Gartrell for these rocks to slide across
Bigelow’s assumption that the replies: the desert floor, the wind

jan/feb Constellation program was It is unlikely that parental bias always blows in the same

2011 compensation for the Colum-


bia disaster insulting. Not
only does it degrade the noble
deaths of the astronauts on
the mission, but it also ignores
played a role in our findings
because they are based on
a standardized behavioral
checklist completed by both
lesbian and heterosexual
direction. You would think
that there would be some
randomness or deviation in
the boulders’ paths.
Larry Benson
the progress astronauts and mothers. The checklist is set enumclaw, wa
Send e-mail to engineers were making on up so that a parent is not able
editorial@discovermagazine.com. translating Constellation into to figure out which behaviors The editors reply:
a reality. As the daughter of indicate competencies and The photograph shows only a
Address letters to an astronaut who has seen which indicate problems. We small portion of the boulder’s
DISCOVER
90 Fifth Avenue
her mother dedicate her life also conducted interviews path. “Rock trails are curved
New York, NY 10011 to the space program, I think with and administered and include zigzag, switchback,
that Bigelow is trivializing questionnaires to the lesbian and figure-eight patterns,” says
Include your full name, the work and passion of nasa mothers’ offspring. NASA space scientist Cynthia
address, and employees, without which he Cheung, who studies boulder
daytime phone number.
would not even have the tech- BP Spill in Perspective migration in Death Valley
nology to build his designer DISCOVER’s #1 story of 2010, National Park. “We have found
spacecraft. “4.4 Million Barrels Later,” dis- rocks right near each other that
Meredith Baker sected the environmental and nonetheless moved in different
cambridge, ma energy policy impacts of last directions, possibly because of
spring’s 86-day oil spill in the varying temperature, humidity,
Parental Bias? Gulf of Mexico. and wind speed conditions even
A study in the journal Pediat- Your article says that oil over short distances.”
rics, described in “Same-Sex spilled at the rate of 51,000
Parents Do No Harm” (#88), barrels per day. If that cata- Erratum
demonstrated that adolescent strophic rate had continued “The Science Traveler’s Guide”
children of lesbian mothers for a full year, it would have (page 86, January/February)
experience healthy psychologi- totaled the consumption of mistakenly stated that Napoleon
cal development. oil by the United States in lived out his exile on the island
I have no issue with what only one day! of Elba. He actually escaped in
Nanette Gartrell is research- Tony Fricke 1815 and after Waterloo lived
ing, but I do question her calgary, alberta out his final exile on St. Helena.

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CONTRIBUTORS
Yudhijit Bhattacharjee wrote “The Fall and has long been drawn to historical ana- ing which she said the field of molecular
Rise of Douglas Prasher” (page 40) after tomical artwork. One of his most unusual biology is still unable to distinguish a live
spending three days at the microbiologist’s commissions came from film director Tim cat from a dead one. Teresi is the coauthor
home in Alabama. In 1990 Prasher made a Burton, who asked him to create Ichabod of The God Particle.
significant contribution to science when he Crane’s disturbing sketchbook for the 1999
isolated the green fluorescent protein (gfp) movie Sleepy Hollow. Burton suggested Preston Lerner first became interested in
gene. His misfortune was to run out of Rosen draw while in the mind-set of a late astronomy when he read about the discov-
funding. Other researchers, building on his 18th-century detective and amateur artist. ery of Pluto in elementary school. While
work, later went on to win a Nobel Prize, “It was the first time I’d ever drawn ‘in working on his article about the new field
while Prasher struggled to find a job. The character,’ ” says Rosen, who teaches the of astroinformatics, “Crunching the Uni-
most poignant moment of Bhattacharjee’s history of anatomy and medical illustration verse” (page 32), Lerner spoke with Matthew
visit came when Prasher showed him at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Rosen’s Graham, a researcher at the Caltech Center
form letters he had sent to scientists who work has been published in The New York for Advanced Computing Research, and
inquired after the gene. “He printed out Times, Rolling Stone, and Time magazine. was surprised to learn that kids in elemen-
these letters reading ‘Thank you for your tary school today are making astronomical
request for the gfp gene. I am no longer Dick Teresi lives in the same neighborhood of discoveries. Citizen-science Web sites such
sending these out myself, but if you’d like a Amherst, Massachusetts, as Lynn Margulis, as Galaxy Zoo now give anyone with an
sample…’ He responded to every scientist the controversial evolutionist who is the Internet connection access to sophisticated
without bitterness. I suddenly realized this subject of this month’s discover Interview data mining tools. “Graham’s 6-year-old
man was so noble.” Bhattacharjee is a staff (page 66). “She’s very fierce about her ideas daughter was on Galaxy Zoo. To her, it was
writer at Science and also writes for Wired and the ideas of those she feels are shut just a game,” Lerner says. “She didn’t realize
and The Atlantic. out for not being in the mainstream,” says she was doing science.” Based in Los Angeles,
Teresi, who interviewed Margulis more Lerner specializes in cars and aerospace and
Jonathon Rosen’s drawing of a man carry- than half a dozen times over a year. Teresi is a member of an amateur race car club.
ing a double helix illustrates “20 Things You is writing a book about science and death, He has written for Air and Space, Popular
Didn’t Know About dna” (page 80). Rosen inspired in part by a talk Margulis gave dur- Science, and Wired. amy barth

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EDITOR’S NOTE

pushing back the


darkness “The history of astronomy is a history of reced-
ing horizons,” Edwin Hubble once declared. He
could say that with considerable authority, since
he was responsible for two of the most dramatic
recedings in history. In 1924 he proved that the “spiral nebulae”—fuzzy, glowing patches scattered
across the night sky—were actually galaxies as expansive as our own. Then five years later Hubble
published the core evidence that the universe is expanding. The information he presented formed
the foundation of our entire modern Big Bang narrative of cosmic history.
And what meager information it was. To modern eyes, the diagram that forms the centerpiece
of Hubble’s 1929 paper looks like something a child might cobble together for a science fair. It
contains just two dozen solid data points, and a lot of the information in there did not even origi-
nate with Hubble. Much of it derived from the work of Vesto Slipher, one of the unsung heroes
of cosmology. Working at Lowell Observatory in Arizona under the watch of Percival Lowell, a
famous scientific eccentric, Slipher managed to analyze the light of the brighter galaxies and
determine that they were moving at enormous velocities, almost uniformly away from us.
Hubble built on Slipher’s studies, adding a crucial second piece of information: the distances to
those galaxies. (Slipher was unable to make such measurements, in part because he was working
with a much smaller telescope.) Now Hubble could make a simple but powerful plot of velocity
versus distance. Those 24 data points were enough to establish a mind-blowing trend: The farther
away a galaxy is, the more rapidly it is receding from us. That pattern is the defining trait of a
universe that is expanding in all directions. Extrapolate backward and you get an initial Big Bang.
Much of astronomy since then has essentially been dedicated to adding more numbers to
Hubble’s diagram. As Preston Lerner describes in “Crunching the Universe” (page 32), that pro-
gram has been wildly successful—in some ways too successful. Using electronic detectors and
computer software that go far beyond what Hubble could do, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey has
measured the velocities of an overwhelming 100 million deep-sky objects. Grander surveys are
now under way. The problem today is not lack of data so much as data overload.
Yet in a fundamental way, astronomy is the same today as it was in 1929. Hubble’s stroke of genius
was not just collecting the data but finding the pattern within it. That is still the challenge, although
with millions rather than dozens of data points to consider, human minds need a boost from their
computer software assistants. Likewise the limits of knowledge lie farther off than they did back
then, but they are still there, waiting to be pushed back again. Astronomy’s data revolution does not
take away any of the truth or poignancy of Hubble’s words in summing up that task:
“Eventually we reach the dim boundary—the utmost limits of our telescopes. There we
measure shadows, and we search among ghostly errors of measurement for landmarks that
are scarcely more substantial. The search will continue. Not until the empirical resources are
exhausted need we pass on to the dreamy realms of speculation.”

Corey S. Powell, editor in chief

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A MINE’S SECOND LIFE has contributed to science before: From 1965 until the
late 1990s, this cavern housed a Nobel Prize–winning
THE MOMENT Scientists and engineers inspect a cavern neutrino experiment. The lab recently expanded the
nearly a mile beneath the surface at the Sanford Under- space, removing 17,000 tons of rock to prepare for the
ground Laboratory at Homestake in Lead, South Dakota. installation of the Large Underground Xenon Detector,
Homestake once hosted the largest gold deposit in the which will search for dark matter particles.
Western Hemisphere and was the deepest mine in the
United States, reaching down more than 8,000 feet. After THE SHOT Photographer Steve Babbitt fought condensa-
the mine’s closure was announced in 2000, research- tion and temperature changes to capture this 30-second
ers successfully petitioned to turn it into a lab. The site exposure lit by a combination of flash and headlamps.

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04.2011
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WILD RIDE
THE MOMENT The Multiple Axis Space Test Inertial Facility at what is now the NASA
NASA. PREVOUS PAGES: STEVE BABBITT

Glenn Research Center in Cleveland mimicked the complex motions of a spacecraft


during astronaut training for Project Mercury in 1960. The rig, which consisted of three
aluminum cages powered by nitrogen jets, aimed to teach pilots how to regain control
of a tumbling craft. An operator set the apparatus rolling, pitching, and yawing; the test
pilot strapped into the center then used the jets to stabilize the simulator.

THE SHOT NASA photographer Bill Bowles used both double-exposure and long-exposure
techniques to create this image of the trainer in action.
10

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Big
Idea Accidental Paleontology in L.A.
in the fall of 2009, bulldozers says. Thomas Demere, curator of
digging in preparation for construc- the department of paleontology
tion of a new power station in arid at the San Diego Natural History
San Timoteo Canyon southeast of Museum, says that because these
Los Angeles unearthed some fos- fossils are from an earlier epoch
silized snails. Obscure provisions than most others found in the
in California’s tough environmen- region, they will “help flesh out the
tal laws require that scientists be tree of life here with what organ-
dispatched to construction sites isms existed, when they arrived,
in geologically promising areas, and how they evolved.”
so utility company Southern Cali- If not for the strong California
fornia Edison had a team of pale- laws protecting paleontologi-
ontologists standing by. As the cal resources at the site, the San
researchers sifted through the soil, Timoteo discoveries might never
the magnitude of the find slowly have happened. Most of us think of
became clear: The canyon revealed determined bone hunters digging
a trove of thousands of animal and up paleontological treasure on
plant fossils that were more than
1.4 million years old.
The fossils were quickly excavated,
jacketed in plaster, and shipped to

FROM TOP: COURTESY DR. WILLIAM A. BOWEN; SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA EDISON


a nearby lab for ongoing cleaning
and analysis so that construction
could continue. Among the larg-
est and most complete specimens
in the new collection are a giant
ancestor of the saber-toothed
tiger, ground sloths the size of griz-
zly bears, two types of camel, and
new deer and horse species. “It was
extremely exciting to come across
such a rare find,” says Philippe
Lapin, one of the paleontologists
with the Southern California Edi-
son team. “The number of fossils
was beyond our expectations,” he

NUMBERS

10,000 Amount of hydrogen

600
fuel, in tons, that the sun
converts to helium and
The Sun Temperature, in degrees Fahrenheit, at the sun’s
energy through nuclear
fusion every second.
That is equivalent to the
surface. The core, a giant nuclear reactor, oper- weight of all the coal
ates at 27 million degrees. Strangely, the corona, the burned in the United
sun’s outer atmosphere, is much hotter than its sur- States in seven months.
face, surpassing 1 million degrees. A study published At 4.5 billion years old,
in January offered a possible explanation, showing the sun has burned

BY JEREMY JACQUOT
that jets shooting out from the sun’s surface contain
gas that is even hotter than previously realized. MILLION through nearly half its
hydrogen fuel supply.

12

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dedicated expeditions in exotic site to continue digging this spring. the western region of the Bureau
locales, but the fact is that many “We find fossils about 85 percent of Land Management, one of the
fossils turn up quite by chance. of the time on construction sites,” federal agencies responsible for
Construction projects, which says paleontologist Lanny Fisk, enforcing the new law. “Now,” she
sift through tremendous amounts president of PaleoResource Con- says, “when you’re doing work on
of dirt and rock while digging sultants, an Auburn, California, public land in an area that’s likely
foundations or laying roads, are an outfit that specializes in preserv- to have fossil resources, you have to
especially rich source of these happy ing fossil remains. Fisk and other show how you’re going to deal with
accidents. In 2009, for instance, paleontologists estimate that more them,” a process known as mitiga-
builders erecting a seawall in than half of all new fossils in the tion paleontology.
Santa Cruz, California, uncovered country come from construction Geology is the best indicator of
three whales, two porpoises, and sites, and in states like California promising fossil beds, so before a
other marine life from 12 million to with powerful regulations, that fig- development project gets under
15 million years ago, while a recent ure may be as high as 70 percent. way, paleontologists assess the
expansion of the Caldecott Tunnel A 2009 federal law, the Paleon- location. Sedimentary rock such
near Berkeley, California, yielded tological Resources Preservation as sandstone and shale, created
extinct camels, rhinos, and giant Act, aims to protect fossils uncov- from layers of deposited material,
wolverines. In 2006 construction ered during development of feder- does an especially good job of pre-
for a parking garage for the Los al land. Previously, a patchwork of serving animal and plant remains.
Angeles County Museum of Art laws including the Antiquities Act The experts also review whether
revealed a prehistoric lion skull, of 1906 and the Federal Land Policy nearby or similar geological for-
dire wolves, and a near-complete and Management Act of 1976 pro- mations have produced impor-
mammoth skeleton from the last tected objects of historic and sci- tant specimens. Evaluating all this
Remains of a nearly Ice Age, roughly 40,000 to 100,000 entific interest on land owned by information, they give the site a
complete extinct horse years ago. And last October, a bull- the federal government, but there score for its fossil potential. If it
that lived around 1.4
million years ago (left) dozer operator working on a reser- was no clear directive for handling receives a high rating, the scien-
were discovered during voir expansion project in Colorado fossils. “The intent was to take the tists develop a mitigation plan for
the installation of a found a juvenile mammoth. hodgepodge of laws that we were cleaning, sorting, and analyzing
power station in the San Subsequent excavation in Colo- using and create a more uniform any fossils that turn up, and pro-
Timoteo Canyon near rado exposed at least eight mast- approach to managing paleontol- fessional monitors stay on location
Los Angeles (above).
odons, three more mammoths, ogy resources on federal lands,” to observe construction work.
extinct bison, and a 9-foot sloth; says Patricia Hester, a paleontolo- Still, the new law applies only
researchers hope to return to the gist in Albuquerque who oversees to federal land, which makes up

Buzz
Words
PALEONTOLOGICAL MITIGATION PALEONTOLOGY SHALE A type of sedimentary DIRE WOLF A carnivore slightly
RESOURCES PRESERVATION A specialty focused on protecting rock consisting of layers of fine larger than the modern gray
ACT A 2009 law requiring fossils discovered during construc- particles. It often contains fossils, wolf that roamed North America
development projects on federal tion, including preliminary site so construction projects in areas until about 10,000 years ago.
land to excavate and protect fossils evaluations, monitoring for fossils, containing shale receive special Workers found dire wolf fossils
uncovered during construction. and preserving them for study. attention from paleontologists. while digging a parking lot in L.A.

4x10 23
Total power output of the
sun, in kilowatts. In 2009
11 Duration, in years, of a typical solar cycle, natural variations in the number of sunspots and flares
that affect solar irradiance levels on Earth. Sunspots, marked by dark areas on the sun, indicate a
strong magnetic field. Solar flares are powerful explosions at the star’s surface. The current cycle
began in 2008, and a NOAA panel predicts it will peak in May 2013. In the past, large solar flares
have caused blackouts and disrupted communications on Earth.

1,000,000
researchers at NASA esti- Speed, in miles per hour, of the solar wind, a stream of charged
mated that 45 percent of the particles flowing from the sun in all directions. A mission called Solar
solar energy reaching Earth is Probe Plus, slated to launch before 2018, will dive into the sun’s
absorbed or reflected by our atmosphere to study how the wind achieves its astonishing speed. In
atmosphere. Earth’s surface September NASA selected the instruments, including a telescope and
absorbs or reflects the rest. a particle counter, that will make the unprecedented journey.

13

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04.2011
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about 30 percent of the country’s area.


Many states, especially fossil-rich
Science
ones like Colorado, North Dakota, and
Utah, have their own rules about fos-
News
sil salvage, but enforcement is spotty
at best, even on state-owned property,
Fisk says. And on private lands, fossil
finds are all but totally unregulated
nationwide. “We almost always make
major discoveries of new species
when construction sites are properly
supervised, which suggests that in
unregulated areas, we’re losing valu-
able resources forever,” he says.
Scientists point to California, which
boasts some of the most comprehen-
sive regulations in the nation, as a
model for other states. The California
Environmental Quality Act of 1970
requires an analysis and mitigation
plan for potential fossils on large-
scale construction projects regard-
less of whether the land in question EARTH SCIENCE BEAT
is publicly or privately owned. Exten-
sive recent fossil finds in the state con-
firm the value of such laws and under-
Charting Earth’s Chemical-Kissed Seas
score the need for tougher national Just about every naturally occur- These nourish phytoplankton and The R/V Knorr’s
rules to preserve these precious ring element churns through the drive yearly bursts in regional pro- last ocean
resources, Fisk says. earth’s oceans, yet scientists have ductivity. The sampling also includes chemistry
expedition
“Every fossil adds to our knowledge only a glimmer of understanding environmental contaminants such as
was cut short
of the evolution of life on this conti- of how these chemicals influence mercury and lead. While tougher by a broken
nent over the last 300 million years,” marine ecosystems. Now, a 15-year, regulations have driven lead levels driveshaft;
says Robert Reynolds, a mitigation 30-nation research collective called down globally since the 1990s, researchers will
paleontologist with lsa Associates, a Geotraces is embarking on an mercury levels in the North Pacific finish the job
this year.
consulting group based in Riverside, ambitious global survey of ocean Ocean have increased 30 percent
California. “They’re worth protecting chemistry to quantify trace elements over the last 20 years, potentially put-
as an essential part of our national and shed light on how chemical con- ting humans at higher risk of exposure

LEFT: SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA EDISON. ABOVE: WOODS HOLE OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTION


heritage.” linda marsa centrations fluctuate in response to from seafood (See “Ill Wind Blowing,”
changing environmental conditions. page 56). Researchers will also track
A horse leg Last October, 32 marine scientists radioactive isotopes such as tritium,
bone scarred set out from Portugal on a planned a form of hydrogen, to better under-
by a saber- 52-day trans-Atlantic expedition, the stand the ocean’s circulation systems
toothed
first American-led effort on behalf of and to learn how they might be shift-
cat, found
in L.A. the project. The crew collected 4,600 ing in response to climate change.
water samples in three weeks from Scientists are busy planning
depths as great as 2.8 miles before six more global expeditions this
mechanical failure brought the trip year. “There’s never been anything
to a premature conclusion. (A follow- like the breadth and scope of this
up cruise is slated for later this year.) project,” says Gregory Cutter, an
Of the 30 or so trace elements oceanographer at Old Dominion
Geotraces scientists are studying, University and one of three lead
some—such as iron and copper—are scientists on the recent trip. “It’s an
naturally occurring nutrients supplied inventory of the periodic table in
by dust storms and deep-sea vents. the ocean.” JEREMY JACQUOT

DISCOVER Keep your finger on the pulse of science as it happens with 80Beats, the
MAGAZINE
14 .COM DISCOVER news aggregator at blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats.

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NEUROSCIENCE BEAT

Monkeys BRAIN SCOPE


& Morality Mini Multi-Photon Microscope
the academic community
quaked last August when Harvard The laser in a tiny but powerful microscope head, the 1.5-inch plastic and titanium instru-
confirmed that it had found Marc is giving neuroscientists their best look yet ment allows the animal to move freely and
Hauser, a cognitive scientist at the at how the brains of rats work as they scurry captures in real time how brain cells interact
university, “solely responsible” for about their daily activities. Until now, the during everyday behaviors. One key to the
eight cases of scientific misconduct. ability of researchers to study the animals’ microscope’s success is its powerful
Hauser was a rising star whose brains while they socialize or look for food has 2-photon laser, which emits pulses that
studies of primate behavior seemed been relatively limited. The best method was probe up to 300 microns deep into the brain.
to show that the foundations of lan- to hook up a restrained rat to electrodes that Before researchers activate the laser, they must
guage and morality are hardwired monitor brain signals and then play images inject a fluorescent dye to highlight brain cells.
into the brains of humans and our on a screen in front of the rat to create the Then the laser bombards the dye with photons,
kin. But a document provided to illusion that it is roaming through a land- causing it to glow green when a cell is active. A
The Chronicle of Higher Education scape. But virtual reality can go only so far in miniature scanner guides the beam across
indicates that Hauser’s lab work- simulating natural movement. “To understand the cells. A plastic optical fiber collects
ers observed huge discrepancies how the animal’s brain operates, we need to the emitted light, which is converted into an
between his descriptions of monkey let it behave as naturally as possible,” says electric signal that appears as an image on a
behavior and the experimental Jason Kerr, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck computer screen, allowing scientists to track
results captured on video. Institute for Biological Cybernetics. cells without limiting the rats’ mobility.
In October, the journal Cogni- To that end, Kerr and his team recently Since rats and humans probably share
tion published a retraction of developed a 0.2-ounce multi-photon micro- similar decision-making mechanisms, this
a 2002 paper by Hauser; other scope that can track networks of brain cells technology could help us understand how
journals issued corrections to two and individual neurons. Mounted on a rat’s we make choices, Kerr says. WILL HUNT
of his 2007 publications. All the
same, Gerry Altmann, Cognition’s
editor, doubts the scandal will 2-Photon Laser
Plastic Optical Fiber
taint the areas of inquiry in which
Hauser made his name. “There
have been many other important
contributors to the field,” Altmann
says. “He has been among the most
prominent in part because of his
research, but in part because of
his ability to publicize.”
Although Hauser expanded the
idea of an innate moral grammar, he
did not originate the concept. More-
over, much related research does
not rely on monkey studies, which
may be particularly vulnerable to
confirmation bias—the unwitting
tendency to interpret observations
in a way that fits preexisting beliefs. Miniature Scanner
It is not clear if that kind of bias
is what caused Hauser’s troubles;
he is on leave and not talking.
Perhaps more answers will emerge
in his upcoming book, tentatively
KELLIE JAEGER

titled Evilicious: Explaining Our


Evolved Taste for Being Bad.
kristin ohlson

15

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04.2011
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Science GOOD NEWS

News ≥ Medical research-


ers in Japan report
that a trained dog
sniffing human stool
samples can detect
colorectal cancer
about as well as a
colonoscopy.

≥ NASA’s solar sail


mission is back on
track. Engineers tried
It took a sophisticated, to eject NanoSail-D
well-organized society to from its launch satel-
produce Prambanan, Java’s lite in December but
largest temple complex. initially got no signal
from the craft. In late
January, though, the
ANTHROPOLOGY BEAT
sail radioed back that
ing the complex Balinese society of Indonesia it had successfully
and the indigenous Iban people of Borneo. “It’s unfurled.
On the Origin of essentially the same way biologists use genet-
ics to see how species are related,” he says. They ≥ After a sharp
Societies then described each society’s political structure decline following an
invasion of zebra
societies grow through slow, incremental on a spectrum from loosely organized tribes up mussels in 1991,
change, but their collapse can be sudden and to complex states and began testing different native shellfish
dramatic. That is one intriguing lesson from a models of how they could have evolved to form in the Hudson
recent study of diverse cultures across South- the present-day tree. The most successful models River are making a
east Asia and the Pacific Islands by University were those that prohibited the skipping of steps comeback.
College London anthropologist Tom Currie. The during a society’s rise, with each one passing BAD NEWS
research aims to settle a major anthropological sequentially through all the stages of increasing
debate over whether political systems develop complexity. But it was possible to fall quickly, ≥ Environmental
the same way regardless of culture; the results devolving from a state to a tribe without hitting scientists report that
suggest that some aspects of political develop- intermediate levels on the way down. 45 percent of tap
water samples from
ment are in fact universal. Biologist Mark Pagel of the University of Read- 18 countries around
To study societal evolution, Currie and his ing in England says the finding makes intuitive the world contained
colleagues turned to the tools of evolutionary sense. “Cultural evolution is a lot like biological live amoebas.
biology. First they used linguistic similarities to evolution,” he says. “You don’t start with a sun-
create an evolutionary tree showing the relation- dial and move straight to a wristwatch. There are ≥ A road experi-
ment by a Dutch and
ships among 84 contemporary cultures, includ- a lot of small steps in between.” andrew curry French team found
that performance
impairment after
three hours of con-
MEDICINE BEAT tinuous night driving
was equivalent to
Smart Bandages Nurse Your Wounds driving drunk with
a 0.08 percent blood
Two new self-medicating bandages be particularly beneficial for burn ing bandage layered with antifungal, alcohol content.
promise to keep serious wounds free of victims—nearly 50 percent of all burn- antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory
infection. Toby Jenkins of the University related deaths result from infection. agents for use on a variety of wounds, ≥ A study of fast-
of Bath in England and colleagues are Fewer dressing changes will also reduce including deep cuts and punctures. In food restaurants in
designing a dressing that releases scarring and speed healing, he says. the initial prototype, a battery-powered Washington State
DALLAS AND JOHN HEATON/AURORA

antimicrobials from nanocapsules when The team completed preliminary testing time-release mechanism will dispense before and after a
bacterial toxins appear in a wound. The of the antibiotic release response in the medications, but ultimately the labeling law was
harmful bacteria also prompt the dress- December and hopes to begin bandage researchers hope to incorporate chemi- enacted found that
ing to change color, alerting doctors trials on pigs within two years. cal sensors that will trigger drug release posting calorie
to a potential infection. Jenkins believes Meanwhile, cell biologist Paul Dur- in response to changes in the wound. counts made no
a bandage that can spot and treat an ham and his team from Missouri State Durham expects to begin preliminary difference in how
infection faster than clinicians can will University are working on a multitask- human testing next year. NAYANAH SIVA much people ate.

16

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Science ARCHAEOLOGY BEAT

News Bronze Age


Brain Surgeons
You might shudder at the mere
thought of ancient brain surgery,
but recent studies of the prac-
tice at Bronze Age sites in Turkey
suggest that early neurosur-
geons were surprisingly precise
and that a majority of their
patients may have survived.
At Ikiztepe, a small settlement
near the Black Sea occupied
from 3200 to 1700 B.C., archae-
ologist Önder Bilgi of Istanbul
University has uncovered five
skulls with clean, rectangular
incisions that are evidence for
trepanation, or basic cranial
surgery. The procedure may
have been performed to treat
hemorrhages, brain cancer, head
trauma, or mental illness. Last
August Bilgi also unearthed a
pair of razor-sharp volcanic glass
PHYSICS BEAT blades that he believes were
used to make the careful cuts.
of times as much as those produced by Some high-
Lightning Unleashes normal lightning strikes. In fact, Tavani powered light-
There is ample evidence that
Bronze Age sawbones knew
ning strikes
Antimatter Storms describes a storm hurling photons into
agile’s detectors as basically a giant
produce
what they doing. Last summer,
biological anthropologist
unusual forms Handan Üstündag of Anadolu
the powerful blasts of particles particle accelerator in the sky. “It’s the of matter. University in Turkey excavated
and light energy known as gamma- equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider the 4,000-year-old trepanned
ray bursts come from violent cosmic acting in the atmosphere for a fraction skull of a man at Kultepe Höyük in

ABOVE: MIKE HOLLINGSHEAD/GETTY IMAGES; LEFT: IKIZTEPE EXCAVATION ARCHIVE. OPPOSITE: NEIL LUCAS/NATUREPL.COM
events in deep space, such as stellar of a second,” he says. Next, Tavani plans central Turkey. Üstündag says the
explosions and black hole collisions. to evaluate how tgfs might affect surgeon cut a neat 1- by 2-inch
incision, and “there are clear signs
But smaller-scale bursts called ter- aircraft flying nearby.
of recovery in the regrowth of
restrial gamma-ray flashes (tgfs) Researchers working on another bone tissue at the edges.” Judging
can occur much closer to home, mission, nasa’s Fermi Gamma-ray from the frequency of healed bone
erupting thousands of times a year Space Telescope, announced in in such skulls, anthropologist
in association with lightning strikes January that about 10 percent of the Yilmaz Erdal of Hacettepe Univer-
sity in Turkey recently proposed
during storms in Earth’s atmosphere. particles fired off by tgfs consist of
that about half of all Bronze Age
Two satellites originally designed positrons—the positively charged trepanation patients—and 60 per-
to observe gamma rays from space antimatter twins of electrons. Because cent of those in Turkey—survived
recently caught the atmospheric flares gamma rays can convert into electrons the procedure. WILL HUNT

in action, revealing that they emit far and positrons, physicists had predicted
more energy than previously thought the antiparticles’ presence in the
and release streams of antimatter par- bursts, but until now they had never
ticles, which bear a charge opposite been directly observed. Astrophysicist
that of their normal counterparts. Michael Briggs, a Fermi team member
In a study of 130 tgfs recorded by based at the University of Alabama in
the agile satellite, Italian Space Huntsville, hopes such findings will aid
Agency physicist Marco Tavani and in modeling how tgfs form. Currently,
colleagues report that the most he says, scientists do not understand
energetic particles released carry four why some lightning strikes produce
times as much energy as previous such mayhem while others do not. The 4,400-year-old skull of an early
measurements detected, and hundreds shannon palus neurosurgery patient.

18

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SLOWS COASTAL EROSION Following the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, a


study led by Danish ecologist Finn Danielsen reported that coastal areas flush
with mangrove trees were markedly less damaged than those without. The
Mangrove
findings suggest that the trees shield the coastline by reducing the height
and energy of ocean waves and offer hard evidence that deforestation could
result in increased coastal damage from storms.
Mangroves are survi-
vors, due to elaborate
root systems that
sprawl above and
below the waterline.
These so-called walk-
ing trees coolly shrug
off extreme heat and
muddy topsoil deficient
in oxygen and filter
the salty waters of
southern Florida and
tropical Southeast
Asia, where the major-
ity of the 73 known
mangrove species live.
Mangroves also help
other species survive,
forming dense forests
that shelter monkeys,
kangaroos, and tigers
as well as shellfish and
brightly colored corals.
Even humans benefit
as impoverished
coastal communities
exploit the tree for
CAPTURES CARBON food, lumber, and med-
Mangroves are expert
carbon scrubbers. icine. But mangrove
A global inventory forests are dwindling.
by McGill University Relentless deforesta-
environmental scien- tion and powerful
tist Gail Chmura found ESTABLISHES DEEP ROOTS tropical storms have
that mangroves pack The mangrove depends on its
away carbon faster reduced their habitats
complex root system for stability,
than terrestrial for- oxygen, and salt filtration. In by 35 percent since
ests. Every year they 2007 U.S. Geological Survey 1980, prompting
hoard some 42 million scientists analyzing mangrove ecologists to step up
tons, roughly equiva- roots and soil up to 8,000 years their investigations
lent to the annual old found that during periods of
carbon emissions of into the unique ability
rising sea level, the roots grow
25 million cars. faster and bolster the soil, which of mangroves to sur-
helps hoist the tree upward. vive and protect their
coastal environments.
AMY BARTH

SURVIVES EXTREME HEAT Mangroves love sunshine. Unlike many tropical plants that close the pores
on their leaves at midday to reduce sun exposure, mangroves remain active, absorbing heat to prevent
evaporation of the shallow waters they depend on. They also curb their thirst: A 30-foot mangrove sips
about six gallons per day, while a similar-size pine tree guzzles more than three times that amount.

19

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04.2011
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Five
Questions
for
Sada
Mire
when sada mire was just 12, her
father, a Somali police official, was
executed by the country’s brutal
Barre regime, which saw him
I have seen archaeology cause conflict
when it is used for political and religious
purposes, but I want to help Somalis
understand their past and accept differ-
ent people, religions, and cultures.

And you have recently discovered a major


ancient site in Somaliland? Yes. Dham-
as a political threat. In 1991 she balin is a rock art site in the desert, about
fled Somalia, reuniting with 20 miles from the Red Sea, where there
family in Sweden and eventually are 5,000-year-old paintings of ani-
pursuing graduate studies in Eng- mals in red, green, pink,
land. But while working on her Ph.D. white, brown,
in archaeology from University College yellow, and
London, Mire’s academic interests drew her black. It’s the
back to Africa. She returned to her homeland only site in the region decorated
for the first time in 16 years to carry out research with images of sheep, along with antelope
in Somaliland—a relatively peaceful, self-declared and ibex. Those animals haven’t lived there
state in the northwestern part of Somalia—where in many years, so the paintings reveal an
she discovered several prehistoric rock art sites. In environment that was once more hospi-
2007 she was named Somaliland’s Director of Antiq- table than today’s desert.
uities. Mire hopes to spur interest in the region’s
cultural heritage, using the past to foster peace and What was it like being one of the first
understanding among her people today. people in thousands of years to see
the rock art of Dhambalin? It was an
You are the world’s only active Somali archae- incredible feeling just to stand in front
ologist. How did you become interested in this of the paintings. Then I lay down to
career? When I was a refugee, I studied Scandina- take photos and heard a snake breath-
vian archaeology because I wanted to understand ing in my ear. My assistant told me
my new surroundings. After learning about Euro- he was thinking how he would cut
pean culture, I became interested in my own past. off my arm, leg, or wherever to stop
the poison if it attacked. I believe
What do you consider to be the most important he would have done it. I didn’t tell
ancient site in Somaliland? From an archaeologi- my mother. amy barth
cal standpoint, I would pick Laas Geel, a well-
preserved 10,000-year-old cave art site that is one
PHOTOGRAPH: GRAHAM TROTT. GROOMING: CLAIRE HANSON

of the oldest in Africa. The images in the cave are


mainly cows painted with big udders, apparently
to symbolize fertility. The cows are shown being
worshipped by human figures wearing painted
hides, who are perhaps idols themselves.

What challenges do you face in building


Somaliland’s Department of Tourism and
Archaeology from the ground up? Looting
and uncontrolled development are
major threats to the local sites.

20

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HOT SCIENCE
What to read,
view, and visit
this month

Movies

Source Code DVD

in his 2009 debut feature, moon, chance to change it? In the right hands,
Cool It
lionsgate
director Duncan Jones established him- time loops have motivated some of the
self as an impresario of mind-blowing richest stories in sci-fi cinema: A decade after becoming a

SOURCE CODE, COURTESY SUMMIT ENTERTAINMENT 2011; COOL IT, COURTESY LIONSGATE
science fiction. Now he is back, throw- Primer. Despite its puny $7,000 pariah to many green crusaders,
ing us for a different kind of loop. budget, Shane Carruth’s 2004 cult Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg
Source Code stars Jake Gyllenhaal classic stitched together one of the remains a polarizing force.
as military man Colter Stevens. Assisted trippiest movie visions of time travel. Cool It, a documentary based
by “source code” technology, he can Be prepared to watch it several times on his 2007 book of the same name, continues
experience the last eight minutes before to decipher the convoluted time line. Lomborg’s cry to rethink the world’s responses
a fatal bombing as seen through a dead Donnie Darko. A decade ago, the to global warming: Abandon toothless agree-
man’s eyes—and interact with a mysteri- psychological trials of a time-displaced ments about carbon cuts and instead invest in
ous woman named Christina (Michelle suburban loner put Gyllenhaal—and renewable energy, along with geoengineering
Monaghan, above, with Gyllenhaal). demonic rabbits—on the map. as a fail-safe. Lomborg delights a tad too much
Stevens must do it repeatedly until he Groundhog Day. “Well, what if there in casting himself as a voice of reason (and the
spots enough clues to find the culprit. is no tomorrow?” Bill Murray asks. anti–Al Gore), and his film is just as manufactured
Fans of Moon (available on DVD) “There wasn’t one today.” Along the as An Inconvenient Truth. But in the aftermath of
know that Jones loves to put a twist on way he learns about a hundred ways yet another blasé United Nations climate meet-
classic sci-fi plot devices. Source Code not to hit on a smart woman. ing, it’s increasingly difficult to ignore his call to
poses its own cosmic question: Can Source Code opens April 1. explore a different path. Available March 29 A.M.
reliving the past offer someone the andrew moseman

22

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Web HOT SCIENCE
Museum
A Geek’s Guide to the
Best Online Comics World’s Largest a 60-foot-long model of Mam- as much blood as the human
enchisaurus (below) reveal its body contains, visitors can use
xkcd. Randall Monroe’s consistent hilarity Dinosaurs dynamic interior: You can follow a hand pump to push a digital
—interrupted by occasional heart-wrenching american museum a bite of plant food on the long sauropod’s blood all the way to
seriousness and cosmic awe—has made of natural history, journey through the creature’s its lofty head. And if you simply
xkcd the top geek comic on the Web. In xkcd new york digestive tract and watch the wish to be awed by size, see
#482, the size of the observable universe action of its hard-working how your own thigh bone mea-
is shown on a logarithmic scale, all in one Despite the demands of their lungs. To appreciate the energy sures up to a Camarasaurus’s.
handy panel. www.xkcd.com enormous bodies, long-necked required for a sauropod’s heart Opens April 16.
sauropods—those largest of to move roughly 100 times SARAH STANLEY
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Zach dinos, including the iconic,
Weiner’s dark and zany strip deconstructs if misnamed, brontosaurus—
science and delves into other geeky humor flourished for 140 million
(below). www.smbc-comics.com years. This new exhibit explores
the biological machinery that
Ph.D. (Piled High & Deeper). Jorge Cham’s enabled the colossal creatures
dead-on portrayal of the grad student to thrive. Videos projected onto
life beautifully decodes the meaning of
academic language: “Remains an open ques-
tion” equals “We have no clue either.” Books along with his attempts to re-create centuries-
www.phdcomics.com old experiments, including extracting pure
Abstruse Goose. More absurdist and given Kraken phosphorus from his own urine.
to drawn-out jokes than the rest, Abstruse by Wendy Williams
Goose has science punch lines that deliver. In (abrams)
#320, The Flash learns a hard lesson about One day in 1873, millennia of sea monster Biopunk
relativity. www.abstrusegoose.com A.M. myths turned fascinatingly real when by Marcus Wohlsen
Canadian fishermen lopped off two arms of a (current)
giant squid that attacked their rowboat and A 23-year-old mit grad designs a genetic
brought them ashore as evidence. Williams’s disease risk-assessment test in her apart-
account of squid, octopuses, and ment. A 25-year-old converts an old ship-
other cephalopods abounds ping container into a mobile wet lab.
with both ancient legend and These vivacious characters are trying to
TOP RIGHT: MAMENCHISAURUS, COURTESY ANNESS PUBLISHING; COMIC, COURTESY ZACH WEINER, “SMBC,” SMBC-COMICS.COM

modern science. We learn, “increase the tinkerability of biology,”


for instance, that scientists as the father of one of Wohlsen’s char-
searched for the elusive giant acters explains. Even more amazing
squid Architeuthis by attaching and chilling: The real world-changing
video cameras to the heads of research is yet to come.
sperm whales. What Kraken lacks in
overarching narrative it makes
up in authority, wit, and poetry. Quantum Man
by Lawrence M. Krauss
(w. w. norton)
Periodic Tales Though far from the first biographer
by Hugh Aldersey-Williams to take on Richard Feynman, Krauss
(harpercollins) admirably interweaves parallel
With a distinct British wit and a tales of the brilliant physicist, the
zest for science history, Aldersey- womanizer, and the celebrated
Williams turns his boyhood pas- wit—and cuts through Feynman’s
sion for the chemical elements self-mythology. The author explains
into an insightful biography the development of quantum electro-
of the periodic table’s deni- dynamics with the same breeziness
zens. The author travels all with which he shows how the collab-
over the cultural map, from orative spirit of the Manhattan Project
golden statues of Kate Moss (and simultaneously losing his young
to the biblical obsession with wife) steered Feynman toward his legendary
sulfur. Be prepared to laugh discoveries. elise marton & a.m.

23

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Rich autobiographical memory is the essence of


our humanity and the base from which we foresee
BY CARL ZIMMER
the future—a key to our species’ success.

O NE DAY NOT LONG AGO A 27-YEAR-OLD WOMAN WAS BROUGHT TO THE


Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, sleepy and confused. Fani
Andelman, a neuropsychologist at the center, and colleagues gave the
first place. They are indeed “a base
to build the future.” And together,
our senses of past and future may be
woman a battery of psychological tests to judge her state of mind. At first crucial to our species’ success.
the woman seemed fine. She could see and speak clearly. She could under-
stand the meaning of words and recall the faces of famous people. She could endel tulving, a neuroscientist
even solve logic puzzles, including a complex test that required her to plan at the University of Toronto, first
several steps ahead. But her memory had holes. She could still remem- proposed a link between memory and
ber recent events outside her own life, and she could tell Andelman details foresight in 1985. It had occurred to
of her life up to 2004. Beyond that point, however, her autobiography was him as he was examining a brain-
in tatters. The more doctors probed her so-called episodic memory—the injured patient. “N.N.,” as the man
sequential recollection of personal events from the past—the more upset she was known, still had memories of
became. As for envisioning her personal future, that was a lost cause. Asked basic facts. He could explain how to
make a long-distance call and draw
what she thought she might be doing what I’ll do when I get home. You the Statue of Liberty. But he could
anytime beyond the next day, she need a base to build the future.” not recall a single event from his own
couldn’t tell them anything at all. The past and future may seem life. In other words, he had lost his
The patient, Andelman realized, like different worlds, yet the two are episodic memory. Tulving and his
hadn’t just lost her past; she had lost intimately intertwined in our minds. colleagues then discovered that N.N.
her future as well. It was impossible In recent studies on mental time could not imagine the future. “What
for her to imagine traveling forward travel, neuroscientists found that we will you be doing tomorrow?” Tulving
in time. During her examination, the use many of the same regions of the asked him during one interview. After
woman offered an explanation for her brain to remember the past as we do 15 seconds of silence, N.N. smiled
absence of foresight. “I barely know to envision our future lives. In fact, faintly. “I don’t know,” he said.
where I am,” she said. “I don’t picture our need for foresight may explain “Do you remember the question?”
myself in the future. I don’t know why we can form memories in the Tulving asked.

BIWA STUDIO

24

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P H OTO G A L L E RY

VIDEO

Changing Planet
How to Build the Podcast: StarTalk
Ultimate Laser Weapon
How will climate change alter our lives? Scientists, StarTalk bridges the gap between pop culture
business leaders, and citizens recently came The U.S. Navy wants to put giant lasers on its ships to shoot and pop science, covering subjects like space
together to discuss this question at a town hall down artillery shells and cruise missiles at the speed of travel, extraterrestrial life, the future of Earth,
meeting cosponsored by DISCOVER, the National light. But first researchers need to make sure the physics are and other breaking universal news. The weekly
Science Foundation, NBC News, and Yale University. right. Here’s a step-by-step guide to how they’re building a podcast is hosted by Hayden Planetarium
We bring you exclusive video of the conversation, powerful and seaworthy “free electron laser.” director Neil deGrasse Tyson and features
moderated by NBC’s Tom Brokaw. appearances by a wide range of stellar guests.
discovermagazine.com/web/laser-weapon
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RIGHT NOW @ BLOGS.DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM

Bad Astronomy The Loom Cosmic Variance


Back in September 2010, astronomers While you’re going about your business, Since 1983 the Tevatron particle accelerator
announced the discovery of Gliese 581g, viruses are attacking the bacteria living in at Fermilab has helped physicists probe the
an exciting exoplanet orbiting in its star’s your mouth, and the bacteria are fighting smallest building blocks of matter. In 2011
“Goldilocks zone.” Just one problem, back furiously. Carl Zimmer tours the it will be turned off for good. John Conway
Phil Plait says: It may not exist. battlefield. writes the particle smasher’s obituary.
Zimmer
discovermagazine.com/web/gliese discovermagazine.com/web/mouth-wars discovermagazine.com/web/tevatron
FROM LEFT: ISTOCKPHOTO; NORTHROP GRUMMAN; DAVID GAMBLE

Gene Expression Science Not Fiction Not Exactly


Rocket Science
After getting his genome sequenced by Kyle Munkittrick isn’t afraid of the
the personal genetics company 23andMe, Singularity—that theoretical future moment Oxytocin has been labeled the cuddle hor-
Razib Khan delves into the results when superintelligent computers begin mone, the chemical that promotes bonding
for insights into his ancestry and origins. to shape the world in ways we can’t and trust. But new research suggests it has
imagine. That’s because he doesn’t think a dark side. Ed Yong explains.
Khan discovermagazine.com/web/razib-genome it’s going to happen.
discovermagazine.com/web/oxytocin
discovermagazine.com/web/singularity

25

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04.2011
BY CARL ZIMMER
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“About what I’ll be doing
tomorrow?” N.N. replied.
twist to test the children’s fore-
sight. Instead of choosing a key In brain scans of mental
“Yes. How would you for the square lock right away, the
describe your state of mind
when you try to think about it?”
kids were first taken to another
room to play for 15 minutes;
time travel, scientists have
N.N. paused for a few more only after that were they offered
found that volunteers use
THE BRAIN

seconds. “Blank, I guess,” he said. a choice of keys, which they had


The very concept of the future, to take back to the room with
seemed meaningless to N.N. “It’s
like being in a room with nothing
the box. The children had to
anticipate what would happen
the same neural circuitry
there and having a guy tell you to
go find a chair,” he explained.
when they tried to unlock it.
This time Suddendorf found a to remember the past
On the basis of his study of sharp break between the 3-year-
N.N., Tulving proposed that pro-
jecting ourselves into the future
olds and the 4-year-olds. The
younger kids were just as likely
and to imagine themselves
requires the same brain circuitry
we use to remember ourselves in
to pick one of the wrong keys as
the right one. The older kids did in the future.
the past. Over the past decade, much better—probably because,
as scientists have begun to use with more developed episodic
fmri scanners to probe the activ- memories, they remembered to write down as many of the during these breaks the place
ity of the brain, they have found the square lock and used that listed words as they could. The cells became active again, firing
support for his hypothesis. Last knowledge to project into a students asked to plan a camping in the same order (but at 20 times
year, for example, Tulving and future in which only a square trip recalled more words than the speed) as they did when the
his colleagues had volunteers lie key would unlock the box. the others. Klein says his results rats were navigating the track.
in an fmri scanner and imagine Stan Klein, a psychologist illustrate the decision-making It seemed that the rats were
themselves in the past, present, at the University of California, value of memory: When students rapidly replaying their journey
and future. The researchers saw Santa Barbara, argues that the were actively planning the future, through the track in their heads.
a number of regions become intertwining of foresight and their memories worked best. David Redish, a neuroscientist
active in the brains of the volun- episodic memory may help at the University of Minnesota, is
teers while thinking of the past explain how this type of memory the precursor to mental exploring this process in detail.
and future, but not the present. evolved in the first place. In time travel may have evolved in He and his colleagues recently
Studies on children also lend Klein’s view, episodic memory mammals more than 100 million built a more complex rat maze, a
support to Tulving’s time travel probably arose in part because years ago. Scientists can get clues rectangular loop with a shortcut
hypothesis. Previous work had it helped individuals make good to its origins by studying lab running through its midsection.
shown that around the age of 4, decisions about what to do next. rats. When a rat moves around As the rats ran up the midsec-
children start to develop a strong For instance, it could have guided a space—be it a meadow or a tion, they had a choice to go left
episodic memory. Thomas our ancestors not to visit a local lab maze—it encodes a map in or right, with only one direction
Suddendorf, a psychologist at watering hole on moonlit nights its hippocampus, a structure leading to food. Using implanted
the University of Queensland in because that was when saber- located near the brain’s core. electrodes, the scientists eaves-
Australia, designed a series of toothed tigers hung out there. Neurons there become active dropped on the hippocampi of
experiments to see if foresight Klein has run a series of at particular spots along the their test rats.
develops with the same timing. experiments to test this hypoth- route. When the rat travels that As expected, the animals’
In one experiment, published esis. In one study published last route again, the same “place place cells fired along the way as
earlier this year, he showed year, he probed the memory of cells” fire in the same order. they were running the maze. But
3- and 4-year-olds a box with 224 undergraduates. Some of the In 2009 a group led by Tom sometimes when the rats were
a triangular hole on one side students were asked to recall a Davidson and Fabian Klooster- resting or deciding which way to
and demonstrated how to open camping trip they’d taken in the man, neuroscientists at mit, turn, the firing of the place cells
it with a triangular key. He past. Others were asked simply observed rats as the animals indicated that they were imagin-
then swapped the box for one to envision a campsite. A third traveled along a winding, ing running through the maze in
equipped with a square lock and group was told to imagine the 10-meter track. The researchers a different direction. In fact, the
gave the children three different process of planning a camp- were able to identify place cells signals seemed to cover every
keys. Most of the 96 subjects ing trip. Students in all three that fired at different spots all possible route, both forward and
correctly picked the square key, groups then looked at a list of 30 along the way. From time to backward. The rats were ponder-
regardless of their age. words—including food, trees, and time, the rats would stop on the ing lots of alternatives, Redish
Then Suddendorf ran the sadness—and, after spending a track for a rest. Davidson noticed concluded, projecting themselves
experiment again, but with a few minutes on other tasks, had something intriguing: Sometimes into different futures to help

26

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them decide where to go next.
A number of studies suggest that the
hippocampus continues to be crucial

  
to our own power of foresight. Damage
to the hippocampus can rob people of
their foresight, for example, and when
people with healthy brains think about
their future, the hippocampus is part
of the network that becomes active.
But our powers of foresight go far
beyond a rodent’s. We don’t just
picture walking through a forest. We
travel forward into a social future as
well, in which we can predict how
people will react to the things we do.
Scientists cannot say for sure Incredibly strong,
exactly when our ancestors shifted to tough and thick;
Gorilla Tape is
this more sophisticated kind of time made to stick to
travel. It is possible that the transi- rough and uneven
tion started in our primate ancestors, surfaces like wood,
judging from some intriguing stories stone, stucco,
about our fellow apes. In the 1990s, plaster, brick
and more.
for example, zookeepers in Sweden
spied on a chimpanzee that kept
flinging rocks at human visitors. They FOR THE TOUGHEST JOBS ON PLANET EARTH® Also available in a
found that before the zoo opened portable Handy 1" Roll.
each day, the chimp collected a pile of 1-800-966-3458 Made in USA © 2011 Gorilla Glue Company
rocks, seemingly preparing ammuni-
tion for his attacks when the visitors
arrived. Did the chimp see itself a
few hours into the future and realize

RELIEF FOR DRY HANDS


it would need a cache of artillery?
The only way we could know for sure

THAT CRACK & SPLIT


would be for the chimp to tell us.
The fact that chimpanzees can’t
explain themselves may itself be a
  
 
clue to the nature of time travel. Full-
blown language, which evolved only
within the past few hundred thousand
years, is one of the traits that make us
humans different from other species.
It is possible that once language
evolved in our ancestors, it changed
how we traveled through time. We
could now tell ourselves stories
about our lives and use that material
to compose new stories about our
future. Perhaps the literary imagina-
tion that gave rise to Dickens and
Twain and Nabokov is, in fact, a time
machine we carry in our head.

Carl Zimmer is an award-winning biology


writer and author of The Tangled Bank: An
Introduction to Evolution. His blog, The Loom,
runs at blogs.discovermagazine.com   
  
/theloom .        
1-800-275-2718 © 2010 The O’Keeffe’s Company for your feet.

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A 6-year-old girl cannot speak outside


her home. Is she simply shy, or is some bigger
BY MARK COHEN
problem keeping her from talking?

M
she’s a cutie!”
Y MEDICAL ASSISTANT PUT THE CHART ON MY DESK. “YOUR NEXT
patient is in room five, Dr. Cohen. Her name is Taylor and
“Thanks, Mary,” I said, pulling up Taylor’s medical record on my
thought she was shy and we encour-
aged her to talk, but she would just sit
there. So we just gave up.”
I turned back to the girl. “Hi,
desktop computer. I glanced at the consultation request: Six-year-old Taylor! That’s a pretty dress you have
girl with speech problem. As a developmental pediatrician, I am often on.” She looked at me with a faint
called on to evaluate children’s speech and language. Those are among smile. “I bet you like purple.” Her
the most complex tasks the young brain has to master, so it’s no wonder smile broadened. “Hey, your mom is
many childhood disorders express themselves in those areas. Kids with wearing a purple skirt. Is it her favor-
developmental delay or autism commonly show up in the pediatrician’s ite color too?” She nodded slightly,
office with a parent who simply says, “My child isn’t talking.” and then her smile faded and a wary
When I opened the door to the examining room, I saw a petite girl look came into her eyes. Realizing
with long, blond hair sitting very still on the exam table. She wore a I had made her uncomfortable by
asking a question, I quickly shifted
purple jumper over a short-sleeved disorders. But those conditions gen- gears. “Green Eggs and Ham—I read
white blouse, and her hair was tied at erally declare themselves before age 6. that when I was a kid. I bet you like
the back with a ribbon that matched Something was different here. to read.” She smiled again and nod-
her dress. She was deeply engrossed “Doesn’t talk?” ded vigorously.
in reading a Dr. Seuss book. She “No, not at all. At least that’s what “You see?” her mother asked with
looked up at me and smiled. her teacher says.” a worried expression. “This isn’t
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Dr. Cohen. What’s “Her teacher? So she doesn’t talk normal, is it?”
your name?” at school?” “No, it isn’t,” I said. “But I think
The girl continued to smile, but “Not a bit.” I know what’s going on here and
she didn’t say anything and quickly “What about at home?” what we can do to help.” Strictly
went back to her reading. Hmmm. The girl’s mother shook her head speaking, Taylor didn’t have a speech
Could just be a shy one, I thought. I with a rueful grin. “At home I can’t problem at all.
turned to her mother. shut her up! She talks a mile a min-
“I understand your daughter is ute.” She paused, and the grin faded. the telltale symptom was that
having some problems with her “I just don’t understand it.” Appar- Taylor talked perfectly well when she
speech. Can you tell me what your ently Taylor’s pediatrician had not was at home but went silent when
concerns are?” understood it either, but her mother she was away from her familiar envi-
The mother was also petite and had just given me the key. I was ronment. She had a classic case of
neatly dressed. She looked directly pretty sure I knew what was keeping a condition called selective mutism.
at me and said, “Well, she seems to this child quiet. Now I just needed a I’ve had a handful of patients with
have trouble talking.” little more information to confirm selective mutism in my 30 years of
OK, maybe I was wrong. This my diagnosis. practice, and I’ve seen our under-
was probably a child with some “How about when she’s some- standing of this condition increase
Mark Cohen is a articulation problems. “What kind of where else, like the mall—does she dramatically over that time.
developmental
pediatrician with trouble?” I asked. talk then?” When I was in training, it was
Kaiser Permanente The young woman grimaced “No, not a peep. When she was called elective mutism. The thought
in Santa Clara, Cali- slightly before answering. “Well, she, younger she talked all the time, and back then was that these children
fornia. The cases uh…she doesn’t talk.” everywhere. Then when she was had been traumatized in some way,
described in Vital Maybe I wasn’t so wrong after all. about 3 she started getting quiet. We and then decided (“elected”) not to
Signs are real,
but names and Not talking is a complaint I hear from would go out to eat and she wouldn’t talk in certain settings. In the late
certain details have parents of children who turn out to say a word the entire time we were 1980s, speech pathologists and psy-
been changed. have severe speech and language at the restaurant. At first we just chologists began to recognize that

DISCOVER Get more medical drama from our Vital Signs Podcast when you want it,
MAGAZINE
28 .COM on demand, only at discovermagazine.com/podcasts.

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these children often demonstrated contribution of each of these factors
other symptoms of social anxiety varies from child to child.
and that this was the root cause
of their not speaking. In 1994 the i referred taylor to our prac-
name of the disorder was changed tice’s child psychiatry department,
from “elective” to “selective” mutism, where her treatment would include
emphasizing that the child was behavioral therapy aimed at decreas-
not making a conscious decision ing social anxiety. This therapy
to remain silent but was actually takes advantage of the fact that the
unable to speak in certain situations. amygdala doesn’t respond just to the
Selective mutism is relatively rare: emotional neurotransmitter systems;
One study found it in less than 1 per- it also receives messages from the
cent of children referred to mental cortical centers of cognition and
health professionals. It is different judgment, which we can influence
from simple shyness. A shy child through rational thought.
may find it uncomfortable to talk One treatment method, called
with someone she doesn’t know, but cognitive-behavioral therapy, helps
she will usually manage to warm up, a person to rethink a frightening
given time and support. A child with situation and see it as something
selective mutism truly cannot talk in benign. When you can tell yourself,
some settings and will not improve “Oh, that shape is just a bush, not a
over time without treatment. dangerous assailant,” that message
Selective mutism is not a language is transmitted back to the amygdala
disorder, either, since children com- and your level of panic drops signifi-
municate perfectly well when they cantly. Done repeatedly, this type
are in their comfort zone. And it is of exercise can eventually help
completely different from autism. a patient overcome his or her fear
Although autistic children may of a particular situation.
interact more with familiar people Some children affected by
than with strangers, they have severe selective mutism have such severe
problems with communication and anxiety that in order to benefit from
social interaction no matter where cognitive therapy, they may first
they are. (Some children with selec- require treatment with a medication
tive mutism are mistakenly believed such as fluoxetine, which adjusts
to be autistic by friends and family Activity in the amygdala is the levels of serotonin in the brain.
who don’t see them interacting and regulated by at least three systems Since there are so many factors
conversing perfectly well at home.) of brain chemicals called neuro- involved in the condition, there is no
Selective mutism is now consid- transmitters—serotonin, norepineph- one-size-fits-all treatment, but some
ered by many clinicians to be a man- rine, and gaba (gamma-amino combination of behavioral therapy
ifestation of a type of social anxiety butyric acid). An excess or deficiency and medical treatment seems to
or social phobia. A certain amount in any of these neurotransmitters work for most children.
of anxiety is useful to keep us out of can affect the activity level of the There are no good long-term stud-
dangerous situations, but in anxiety amygdala and thereby influence ies of selective mutism, but I was
disorders the perception of what is how likely we are to perceive a given optimistic about Taylor’s prospects.
dangerous may be distorted. situation as threatening. For a child Published reports indicate that most
Some researchers suggest that with selective mutism, being in a children respond well to treatment
these disorders may be triggered by situation where she has to talk to and are able to speak in public
an imbalance of neurotransmitters in someone she doesn’t know induces within a few months, although some
an area of the brain called the amyg- a feeling of terror, exactly as if she of them continue to experience
dala. The amygdala helps determine were facing genuine danger. significant symptoms of anxiety.
the emotional significance of things In addition to an imbalance Taylor had been diagnosed and
WESTEND61 GMBH/ALAMY

we perceive: “Uh-oh, is that some- in neurotransmitters, genetics, referred for treatment relatively
body brandishing a knife—or just a temperament, family dynamics, and quickly. I was hopeful that within a
bush moving in the wind?” Direc- environmental factors may also play year she would be able to stand in
tors of horror movies are experts at a role in selective mutism, accord- front of her class and read out loud
manipulating this part of the brain. ing to recent research. The relative from Green Eggs and Ham.

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Robot cars will reduce accidents, ease congestion,


and keep others from interfering with my
BY DAVID H. FREEDMAN
excellent driving. Assuming I’m allowed to drive.

L AST YEAR A WOMAN LIVING DOWN THE STREET FROM ME BACKED OUT OF
her driveway as if she were Danica Patrick, without so much as glanc-
ing behind her to see if there were any Spandex-encased middle-aged men
on vintage racing bikes tooling down the road just then. It turned out there
in the car is the human brain,” says
Lexus’s Paul Williamsen, who trains
Lexus dealers on these systems. “Our
primary mission is to provide better
was one, and let me just say that an SUV hood makes a surprisingly cushy computer inputs to allow it to make
landing strip. My brief flight through space and time inspired me to think better judgments.” Translation: The
about this sort of alarmingly frequent stupid driving trick—specifically, how car tries to get numbskulls to wake
things like this should by now have been rendered obsolete by automation. up before all hell breaks loose.
I am plenty familiar with the arguments against giving up direct con- This brings us to what should be
trol of our cars. I personally eschew power windows and locks, never the state of the art in keeping your
mind automatic transmissions, and I proudly raise my Alfa Romeo’s car out of my way: autonomous
convertible top manually. (For a great upper-body workout, try raising a driving. With all these sensors and
top at 20 MPH. For a great YouTube video, try it at 30 MPH.) In fact, I trajectory calculators, programming
a car to auto-stop or auto-swerve in
wish my car had more things for waves in every direction, looking for the face of an impending crack-up
me to do manually. I would happily approaching vehicles; the Lexus ls should be a no-brainer. But it turns
set flaps, trim sails, position heat series even features a windshield- out carmakers may be unwilling to let
shields, and load torpedo tubes mounted camera that monitors the your car save your butt—and more
if only those features were avail- lane markings in front of you and important, mine—that way. Perhaps
able for my model year. No, I want gently nudges you back into your they know that if any damage occurs,
everyone else’s cars to be highly lane, via electric motors that assist you have a team of lawyers stand-
automated, so they will stay out of your steering, if you drift. ing by, ready to argue in court that if
my way when they ought to. But none of these intelligent the car hadn’t taken over, you would
You may feel the same way. People systems is intelligent enough to have gracefully swerved around that
tend to overestimate their skills cut dumb drivers entirely out of cement mixer you failed to see bar-
behind the wheel and underesti- the loop. “The smartest computer reling down on you after you ran the
mate the skills of the boobs and
psychopaths driving around them,
a phenomenon that psychologists
call “optimism bias” and the rest of
us simply call delusional overcon-
fidence. Statistics bear it out. The
Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention estimates that car crashes
killed nearly 40,000 people and cost
more than $70 billion in the United
States last year. To make matters
worse, the Virginia Tech Transporta-
tion Institute reports that nearly
David H. Freedman 80 percent of car crashes result from
is a freelance drivers’ lack of attention to the road.
journalist, author, Automakers, well aware of these
and longtime statistics, have introduced some
contributor to impressive driver de-idiotizing
DISCOVER.
You can follow systems over the years. Traction
him on Twitter at control helps prevent skidding;
dhfreedman. crash-avoidance systems fling radar

30

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DISCOVER
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stop sign while text-messaging. proved much safer than human
So the most that cars will do,
Imagine a car that calmly informs drivers, it may be downright
at least for the next few years, is immoral to let humans drive at
apply light braking and steer-
you of a homicidal maniac approach- all. Indeed, Google already has
ing and prepare the vehicle for a fleet of self-driving cars on
impact by, depending on make
ing the intersection at 30 MPH and public roads across the country
and model, tightening up seat that have logged 140,000 miles
belts, unlocking doors, and turn-
then calmly suggests that you stop. without significant incident or
ing on the hazard lights. (In Japan human intervention. The cars
the Lexus ls can also slam on the ment has been quietly backing can join in the conversation, and use a suite of cameras, radar,
brakes while on cruise control, in an “intelligent transportation that the auto industry agrees on and laser range finders to col-
deference to that nation’s spec- systems” scheme that would standardized equipment for all lect data on the surrounding
tacular highway congestion and support automated driving. It this chatter.) environment and then feed the
relative non-litigiousness.) would use a 5.9-ghz band (simi- To help inch things along, the info to artificially intelligent
lar to Wi-Fi but faster and more dot recently awarded a consor- computers that have been able
this unwillingness to let secure) set aside by the fcc to tium of automakers, including to make driving decisions just
computers override the terrible let cars “talk” to each other and Ford, gm, Toyota, and others, as well as humans.
decisions of terrible drivers is to traffic lights to avoid crashes $7.4 million to outfit cars with In a similar vein, Stanford’s
rather ironic, says Brad Temple- and congestion. Cars beaming compatible radio transmitters robotic Audi, Shelley, has
ton, an influential Internet short-range radio signals in 360 and test them on closed courses. proved it can navigate treacher-
entrepreneur and expert on degrees and broadcasting their Two years from now, if things go ous terrain by satellite alone.
civil rights in the digital age; exact position on the road at well, Congress could mandate In September the car raced
accident avoidance is one of the every moment could auto-drive that all new cars be 5.9 ghz 14,100 feet to the summit of
most appropriate ways to have together, bumper to bumper, at compatible by 2018. Pike’s Peak, handling 12.4
computers intrude into our lives. high speeds. Add gps coordi- miles of hairpin turns without
So Templeton is pushing for nates and such cars could even the european union, mean- human assistance. Instead of
self-driving vehicle systems. Sure, predict crashes before they hap- while, is taking a more collec- preloaded maps, Shelley relied
they may occasionally do worse pen. Picture a car that calmly tive approach to autonomous on differential gps to track
than a human driver would, he informs you of a homicidal driving. As part of its Safe its whereabouts to within 2
concedes, and their imperfec- maniac approaching an inter- Road Trains for the Environ- centimeters and used wheel
tions will inevitably even kill section at 30 miles per hour and ment project, known as sartre, sensors and gyroscopes to keep
people. But, he adds, when you then calmly recommends that automakers are designing vehicle tabs on its speed and direction.
consider those hard statistics you hang back when the light systems that would let cars safely The researchers involved in the
on dopey drivers and the trails turns green to avoid imminent tailgate on designated highways project insist that the objective
of destruction (not to mention death. Or perhaps it would simply in a trainlike procession led by a is not to replace human drivers
hyperextended middle fingers) make the decision for you. On the professional driver. Each car in but to give them smarter cars—
they leave behind, it is hard to flip side, picture a car that threat- the convoy would measure the smarter cars that will indulge
argue that automatic systems, ens to rat you out every time distance, speed, and direction of your optimism bias while keep-
once proved safe, will take more you inch past the speed limit. the car in front of it, allowing the ing you out of trouble.
lives than they will save. One Peter Appel, administra- “driver” to nap, text, or read the Many bored drivers, who
study conducted by the Insurance tor for the U.S. Department of paper without killing anyone. already seem eager to embrace
Institute for Highway Safety esti- Transportation’s Research and The catch is that they would any available device or food
mates that crash-avoidance tech- Innovative Technology Admin- be available only on certain item within reach, may wel-
nologies could reduce fatal car istration, says cars that talk highways and accessible only come the chance to relinquish
accidents by one-third, poten- to each other and to roadway to vehicles equipped with the driving chores to a computer.
tially saving many thousands of infrastructure have the potential right communications gear. No But the reason I can hardly wait
lives a year. “Human drivers set to eliminate 81 percent of 35-year-old Alfa Romeo convert- for automated cars is so I can
the bar pretty low,” Templeton traffic accidents. (Caveat: That ibles. Fine with me—you take finally drive around anywhere
says. Tell me about it. impressive figure, pulled from the high-tech road, I’ll take the without worrying that some
Even as the automotive a study commissioned by the low-tech road, the latter being lunkhead is about to—Hey, wait
ILLUSTRATION BY DAVID PLUNKERT

world has studiously avoided National Highway Traffic Safety blessedly clear of, well, you. a minute. I’d still be allowed to
introducing fully auto autos, Administration, excludes intoxi- I’m looking forward to the drive, right?
one chunk of the industry has cated drivers and assumes that even longer term, when all cars Oh well. At least I would have
been working hard to perfect everyone on the road is driving a self-drive all the time, every- a good excuse to hang onto
the technologies that make talking car, that every intersec- where. Templeton argues that my beloved Alfa: It will make a
them possible. The U.S. govern- tion and stop sign in America once auto-drive systems are great home gym.

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Digital sky surveys and real-time telescopic


observations are unleashing an unprecedented flood
of data. Buried in those numbers could be answers
to the greatest questions in cosmology.

by PRESTON LERNER

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Contrasting views of the
Lagoon nebula. Top: Infrared
observations from the Paranal
Observatory in Chile cut
through dust and gas to reveal
a crisp view of baby stars
within. Bottom: A similar view
in visible light appears opaque.

crunching
THE

UNIVERSE
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or kirk borne, the informa- as much data as the previous 15,000 discoveries might be in sight, yet hid-

F tion revolution began 11 years ago


while he was working at nasa’s
National Space Science Data
Center in Greenbelt, Maryland .
At a conference, another astronomer
asked him if the center could archive
a terabyte of data that had been col-
experiments. I realized then that we
needed to do something not only to
make all that data available to scien-
tists but also to enable scientific dis-
covery from all that information.”
The tools of astronomy have
changed drastically over just the
den within all the information.
Since 2000, the $85 million Sloan
Digital Sky Survey at the Apache Point
Observatory in New Mexico has imaged
more than one-third of the night sky,
capturing information on more than
930,000 galaxies and 120,000 quasars.
lected from the macho sky survey, a past generation, and our picture of Computational analysis of Sloan’s pro-
project designed to study mysterious the universe has changed with them. digious data set has uncovered evi-
cosmic bodies that emit very little light Gone are the days of photographic dence of some of the earliest known
or other radiation. Nowadays, plenty of plates that recorded the sky snapshot astronomical objects, determined that
desktop computers can store a terabyte by painstaking snapshot. Today more most large galaxies harbor supermas-
on a hard drive. But when Borne ran than a dozen observatories on Earth sive black holes, and even mapped out
the request up the flagpole, his boss and in space let researchers eyeball the three-dimensional structure of the
almost choked. “That’s impossible!” he vast swaths of the universe in mul- local universe. “Before Sloan, individual
told Borne. “Don’t you realize that the tiple wavelengths, from radio waves researchers or small groups dominated
entire data set nasa has collected over to gamma rays. And with the advent astronomy,” says Robert Brunner, an
the past 45 years is one terabyte?” of digital detectors, computers have astronomy professor at the University
“That’s when the lightbulb went off,” replaced darkrooms. These new capa- of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “You’d
says Borne, who is now an associate bilities provide a much more meaning- go to a telescope, get your data, and
professor of computational and data ful way to understand our place in the analyze it. Then Sloan came along, and
sciences at George Mason University. cosmos, but they have also unleashed suddenly there was this huge data set
“That single experiment had produced a baffling torrent of data. Amazing designed for one thing, but people were

ZOONIVERSE

DATA TO THE PEOPLE The interface was so scours infrared data from
In 2007, Oxford doctoral intuitive that even Galaxy the Spitzer Space Tele-
candidate Kevin Schawin- Zoo participant Matthew scope for evidence of gas
ski, exhausted from classifying Graham’s 6-year-old could clouds: Participants use
50,000 galaxies in one week, grasp it. “She thought it was their computers to draw
decided to solicit help from the a game,” he says. But Galaxy circles on cloud “bubbles”
robust community of amateur Zoo is much more than a thought to result from
astronomers, using a technique toy. It has produced two shock waves stirred up by

NASA, ESA, W. KEEL (UNIV. OF ALABAMA), AND THE GALAXY ZOO TEAM. PREVIOUS PAGES: ESO/VVV
known as crowdsourcing. The dozen scientific papers and extremely bright young
resulting project, Galaxy Zoo, identified several previously stars. Planet Hunters,
allowed volunteers to classify unknown objects, most meanwhile, puts citizen
images from the Sloan Digital Sky notably Hanny’s Voorwerp Hanny’s Voorwerp scientists to work analyz-
Survey on their home computers. (right), a peculiar interga- ing readings from nasa’s
Within 24 hours of its debut, lactic blob named after the Kepler space telescope,
the site was generating 70,000 Dutch schoolteacher who spot- Galaxy Zoo has since morphed designed to find Earth-like plan-
classifications an hour. An ted it, and a class of hyperactive into the larger Zooniverse, which ets orbiting other stars. Equally
upgraded Galaxy Zoo 2, launched galaxies dubbed the Green Peas. oversees more than 380,000 if not more important, scientists
two years later, collected 60 “Nonexperts end up discovering volunteers engaged in a variety are using the classifications
million classifications from weird things because they don’t of astronomical projects. Moon made by Zooniverse partici-
tens of thousands of users in know not to ask, ‘Hey, what’s Zoo is attempting to count every pants to develop more accurate
14 months. On the back end, a that over there in the corner?’ ” crater on the moon. Its volun- machine-learning algorithms so
statistical process called “clean- says Lucy Fortson, an associate teers have so far classified more that computers will be able to do
ing clicks” searched for and professor at the University of than 1.7 million images from this kind of work in the future.
eliminated the inevitable bogus Minnesota and project manager nasa’s Lunar Reconnaissance SEE FOR YOURSELF:
and mistaken classifications. for the Citizen Science Alliance. Orbiter. The Milky Way Project zooniverse.org

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The Antennae—a using it for all kinds of other inter- the moon in each 15-second exposure, data,” says George Djorgovski, an
pair of galaxies esting things. So you have this sea 2,000 times a night. Those snapshots astronomy professor and codirector
in the midst of a change in astronomy that allows peo- will be stitched together over a decade of the Center for Advanced Comput-
violent collision
62 million light- ple who aren’t affiliated with a project to eventually form a motion picture of ing Research at Caltech. “It’s not just
years away—seen to ask entirely new questions.” half the visible sky. The lsst, produc- data volume. It’s also the quality and
in a composite of A new generation of sky surveys ing 30 terabytes of data nightly, will complexity. A major sky survey might
X-ray, optical, and promises to catalog literally billions become the centerpiece of what some detect millions or even billions of
infrared data. and billions of astronomical objects. experts have dubbed the age of peta- objects, and for each object we might
Trouble is, there are not enough gradu- scale astronomy—that’s 1015 bits (what measure thousands of attributes in
ate students in the known universe to Borne jokingly calls “a tonabytes”). a thousand dimensions. You can get a
classify all of them. When the Large The data deluge is already over- data-mining package off the shelf, but
Synoptic Survey Telescope (lsst) whelming astronomers, who in the if you want to deal with a billion data
in Cerro Pachón, Chile, aims its 3.2- past endured fierce competition to vectors in a thousand dimensions,
billion-pixel digital camera (the world’s get just a little observing time at a you’re out of luck even if you own the
largest) at the night sky in 2019, it will major observatory. “For the first time world’s biggest supercomputer. The
NASA

capture an area 49 times as large as in history, we cannot examine all our challenge is to develop a new scientific

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TELESCOPES WITHOUT
BORDERS
To learn as much as possible about
distant objects, astronomers
observe them with telescopes
that “see” in various wavelengths.

VIRTUAL ASTRONOMICAL OBSERVATORY


Unfortunately, the resulting data
sets are archived in many locations
all over the world, which makes
them difficult to access; most are
also inherently incompatible, so
merging them requires a lot of
painstaking labor. About 10 years
ago, a group of astronomers started
talking about creating a unified,
global virtual observatory. Like the
Internet, the virtual observatory is
more a framework than a physical
thing—a research environment
linking data from a wide array of
telescopes and archives and pro-
viding the tools to study them.
In the United States, an experi-
mental version (the National Virtual
Observatory) launched in 2002,
but the lack of good data-analyz-
ing tools made it difficult to use.
“There was no science involved,
just plumbing,” says Caltech
astronomer George Djorgovski,
a member of the virtual observa-
tory’s science advisory council.
“People who wanted to do science,
myself included, got impatient and
went to work on their own projects.
No results to show, nobody wants
to use it. Nobody wants to use it,
no results to show.” The prospects
for virtual astronomy improved
dramatically last May when nasa
and the National Science Founda-
tion kicked in funding of $27.5 mil-
lion over five years to finally bring
the Virtual Astronomical Observa-
tory (vao) online and continue
to develop tools for sharing data
with astronomers worldwide.
The vao will not produce
breakthroughs on its own, but
it will make them possible. Kirk
Borne likens it to the http proto-
col used to surf the Internet: “The
Internet changed the world. But
http made it possible.”
ESO/S. GUISARD

SEE FOR YOURSELF: usvao.org

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complicated when you are trying to
make sense of billions of objects.
Research scientist Matthew Gra-
ham of the Center for Advanced
For the first time Computing Research at Caltech
recalls trying to identify a few hun-
dred quasars in 1996 for his doctoral
in history, we cannot thesis on large-scale structures in
the distant universe. He did it the
examine all our data,” says old-fashioned way—with pencil and
paper and laborious trial and error.
When the lsst is completed, it will
Caltech astronomer George be far simpler to assemble a data set
of millions of quasars.
Djorgovski. “It’s not just Setting algorithms loose on larger
samples not only makes it easier to
recognize patterns but also speeds the
the volume of data. It’s also the identification of outliers. “These days,
one in a million objects is a serendipi-
quality and complexity.” tous discovery,” Graham says. “You just
happened to have the telescope point-
ed at the right place at the right time.”
This is often the case in the search
methodology for the 21st century.” for “high-redshift” quasars, extremely
The backbone of that methodol- distant and luminous objects powered
ogy is the data-crunching technique by supermassive black holes. Right
known as informatics. It has already now, finding them is largely a matter
transformed medicine, allowing of luck. With computers powering
biologists to sequence the dna of through a billion objects, astronomers
thousands of organisms and look for can search more methodically for such
genetic clues to health and disease. extreme quasars—or for any other
Astronomers hope informatics will type of unusual object. This approach
do the same for them. The basic idea is not only faster but more accurate.
is to use computers to extract mean- The ability to say with statistical cer-
ing from raw data too complex for the tainty that something is out of the
human brain to comprehend. Algo- ordinary allows astronomers to focus
rithms can scour terabytes of data in on the exceptions that prove the rule.
seconds, highlighting patterns and On the flip side, informatics is a
anomalies, visualizing key informa- remarkable tool for collecting sta-
tion, and even “learning” on the job. tistics on the norm and using the
In a sense, informatics merely tools of probability to figure out what
enables astronomers to do what they the universe is like as a whole. For
have always done, just a lot more instance, astronomers have tradition-
quickly and accurately. For example, ally estimated the distances to remote
data mining is useful for classifying galaxies using a spectrometer, which
and clustering information, two criti- divides light from an object into its
cal techniques in an astronomer’s tool constituent wavelengths. But for every
kit. Is an object a star or a galaxy? If it spectrum produced by Sloan, there
Mosaic view of
the center of the is a galaxy, is it spiral or elliptical? If were about 100 objects without spec-
Milky Way, com- it is elliptical, is it round or flat? Not so tra, only images. So Brunner put astro-
posed from 1,200 many years ago, such questions were informatics to work: He developed an
images taken over addressed by eyeballing photographic algorithm that allows astronomers
the course of plates. Classification is not a big deal to estimate an object’s distance just
200 hours by
the Very Large when you are working with hundreds by analyzing imagery, giving them a
Telescope in Cerro of extrasolar planets or thousands of much bigger data set for studying the
Paranal, Chile. supernovas, but it becomes hugely 3-D structure of the universe. “This will

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SLOAN DIGITAL SKY SURVEY

GREATEST MAPMAKER IN THE UNIVERSE vast majority of the 2,000-plus scientific papers based on sdss;
The Sloan Digital Sky Survey (sdss), launched in 2000, heralded the they simply use Sloan public data as the basis of their research.
modern age of big-picture astronomy. For years, scientists who needed In one dramatic example, astronomers at Cambridge University
a global sense of what was out there relied on one dominant set of discovered the “Field of Streams,” a spray of stars stretching nearly
photographs—the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey—created in the one-quarter of the way across the sky. They seem to be the shreds
1950s. The Sloan Telescope (located at the Apache Point Observatory of small galaxies that were cannibalized by the Milky Way.
in New Mexico) retraced much of the Palomar Survey but replaced Data mining and other tools of informatics have been particu-
photographic plates with digital imagery that could be updated and larly helpful in extracting useful information from basic brightness

FROM TOP: M. BLANTON AND THE SDSS-III; TODD MASON, MASON PRODUCTIONS INC./LSST CORP.
analyzed electronically, anywhere. “Sloan was the single biggest player measurements. Such data were thought to be of secondary impor-
in converting people to embrace this approach,” says Caltech astrono- tance when Sloan began but actually enabled astronomers to iden-
mer George Djorgovski. “Sky surveys became respectable not only tify 100 times as many objects as expected. University of Illinois
because they brought in so much data but because the content of the astronomer Robert Brunner is still reveling in the Sloan’s expanded
data was so high that it enabled so many people to do science.” view of the universe: “Our techniques allow us to start inquiring
Sloan scientists have made some spectacular discoveries. In into the relationship between dark matter and supermassive black
2000 the project’s researchers spotted the most distant quasar holes and how they influence galaxy formation and evolution.”
ever observed. But independent astronomers have authored the SEE FOR YOURSELF: sdss.org

be really important with lsst,” he says, moment, the debut of the Virtual Astro- Astronomers are used to working at
“because we won’t be able to get spec- nomical Observatory. This interna- the limits of human imagination, but
tra for 99 percent of the objects.” tional network, 10 years in the making, even they have a hard time envisioning
The interdisciplinary marriage allows astronomers to use the Inter- the kinds of insights they will be able
between computer science and astron- net to assemble data from dozens to pull out of the bounteous new data-
omy has not been fully embraced by of telescopes. Then, in June, Caltech bases. “We’ve built the roads,” Djorgov-
either family yet, but that is chang- hosted the first international confer- ski says. “Now we need some Ferraris
ing. Last May brought a watershed ence on “astroinformatics.” to drive on them.”

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Smile: The Universe
in 1 Trillion Dazzling Pixels
Early this year astronomers with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey released the largest color
image of the universe ever made, a trillion-pixel set of paired portraits that covers
one-third of the night sky. It includes roughly a quarter of a billion galaxies and about the
same number of stars within our home galaxy, the Milky Way. The brownish image at far
left—dubbed the “orange spider” by one team member—is one of the portraits, covering the
Milky Way’s southern hemisphere. Each point in the image represents multiple galaxies.
A dive into the image’s densely packed imagery reveals astonishing detail. The orange
box at far left calls out M33, the Triangulum Galaxy, which at 3 million light-years away
is one of our closest galactic neighbors. Zooming in shows M33’s spiral form. A further
zoom brings into view green, spidery NGC 604, one of the largest nebulas in M33 and
home to more than 200 newly formed stars. “Astronomers can use the data we drew on
to create this image as a kind of guidepost,” New York University astronomer Michael
Blanton says. And so they are: In the first two weeks after the Sloan team made the map
available online, researchers queried the data about 60,000 times.

MOVIE CAMERA TO THE STARS


The Large Synoptic Survey Tele-
scope [lsst], being built atop Cerro
Pachón in Chile, is a $450 million
megaproject that will truly cement
the relationship between astrono-
my and informatics. It is designed
SURVEY TELESCOPE

to probe dark energy and dark


LARGE SYNOPTIC

matter, take a thorough inventory


of the solar system, map the Milky
Way in unprecedented detail, and
generally watch for anything that
changes or moves in the sky.
Armed with an 8.4-meter (27-
foot) optical telescope and a 3,200-
megapixel camera—the world’s
largest—the lsst will record as
much data in a couple of nights as
the Sloan Survey did in eight years.
“For the first time, we’re going to
have more astronomical objects
cataloged in a coherent survey than
there are people on Earth,” says Simon Krughoff, a member chairs the informatics and statistics team. The lsst will image
of the lsst data management team. (For those keeping the entire visible sky so rigorously that it will produce, in effect,
score at home, experts project 20 billion objects.) a 10-year-long feature film of the universe. This should lead to
The numbers are so big and daunting that the lsst is the tremendous advances in time-domain astronomy: studying
first astronomical project ever to formally incorporate infor- fast-changing phenomena as they occur—black holes being
matics into its design architecture. “I made the case that we born, supernovas exploding—as well as locating potentially
needed a group focused on data mining, machine learning, and Earth-threatening asteroids and mapping the little-understood
visualization research to involve not just astronomers but also population of objects orbiting out beyond Neptune.
computer scientists and statisticians,” says Kirk Borne, who SEE FOR YOURSELF: lsst.org

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Douglas Prasher
was driving a van for a car
dealership in Huntsville,
Alabama, when he learned

and that former colleagues

The Rıse had won a Nobel Prize for


the research he began.

Fall of By Yudhijit
Bhattacharjee

Douglas
Prasher
Photography
by Miller Mobley

In December 2008 Douglas Prasher took a week off from his job driving a courtesy van at the Penney Toyota car dealership in Huntsville,
Alabama, to attend the Nobel Prize ceremonies in Stockholm. It was the first vacation he and his wife, Gina, had taken in years. On the day
of the awards, he donned a rented copy of the penguin suit that all male Nobel attendees are required to wear, along with a pair of leather
shoes that a Huntsville store had let him borrow. ¶ At the Nobel banquet, sitting beneath glittering chandeliers suspended from a seven-story
ceiling, Prasher got his first sip of a dessert wine that he had dreamed of tasting for 30 years. When the waitress was done pouring it into
his glass, he asked if she could leave the bottle at the table. She couldn’t, she told him, because the staff planned to finish it later. His bud-
dies back at Penney Toyota were going to love that story, he thought. ¶ Prasher’s trip would have been impossible without the sponsorship

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of biologist Martin Chalfie and chemist and
biologist Roger Tsien, who not only invited
the Prashers but paid for their airfare and
hotel. Chalfie and Tsien, along with Osama
Shimomura, an organic chemist and marine
biologist, had won the 2008 Nobel Prize in
Chemistry. The three researchers were shar-
ing the $1.4 million award for the develop-
ment of green fluorescent protein (gfp), a
molecule that makes certain jellyfish glow.
Starting in the mid-1990s, scientists began
using gfp as a tracer for studying biochemi-
cal processes. The results were spectacular:
The luminous protein made it possible to
“ Prasher’s vanishing act
provides a glimpse into
what it takes to succeed
in modern-day science.”
glimpse the inner workings of cells, tissues,
and organs in unprecedented detail.
Had life turned out slightly differently,
Prasher could have been attending the cere-
mony not as a guest but as a laureate. More with a paunch that invites a fair bit of rib- earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Ohio
than two decades earlier, it was Prasher bing from his teenage son. When I visited State University, guided by nothing more
who cloned the gene for gfp while work- him at Penney Toyota on a hot and humid than a general interest in the life sciences. “I
ing as a molecular biologist at Woods Hole Friday afternoon, rows of new cars glinted didn’t know what else to study,” he told me.
Oceanographic Institution in Massachu- under the sun, festooned with balloons bob- After Prasher got his doctorate in 1979, he
setts. The cloning was the first step in using bing in the breeze. Prasher greeted me out- went to work as a postdoc at the University
gfp as a tracer chemical in organisms other side the dealership’s grubby-looking service of Georgia in Athens, learning how to clone
than jellyfish. Prasher proposed an experi- center, dressed in a blue golf shirt and khaki genes and get them to switch on inside bac-
ment to see if the gfp gene could make bac- pants—the company uniform. The courtesy teria. It was at the university that he met
teria glow, but he was not able to pull it off. In van was parked across from the entrance. his future wife, Gina Eckenrode, a Ph.D. stu-
1992, when he was about to leave Woods Hole Squinting through sunglasses and adjusting dent in biochemistry who was drawn to his
for another science job, he gave the gene to his his cap, he led me through a corridor to a kindness and wry sense of humor, which
colleagues Chalfie and Tsien. They went on to body shop in the back where he introduced was less cynical back then. One day when he
perform the experiments that made gfp and me to some of his colleagues. “They are all was in the lab, she sent him a “gorillagram”—a
its variants into a powerful research tool, the self-described rednecks,” he said with a laugh. love letter delivered by a person in a gorilla
foundation of a multimillion-dollar industry. Donny, a middle-aged man with a goa- suit. Prasher still feels embarrassed when he
Prasher had the vision before anybody tee and a golden locket, was bent over the recalls the moment. While at Georgia, he
else did. But he failed to make it a reality. headlight of a car with an open hood. He also met Milton Cormier, a biochemistry
If gfp’s progression from an obscure pro- stood up and thrust his blackened paw professor who was studying bioluminescence,
tein into a biological laser pointer is a quint- out at me with a grin. “We’ve been teach- the ability of certain organisms to produce
essential scientific success story, Prasher’s ing Douglas about the real world,” he said. and emit light. Through Cormier, Prasher
journey from Woods Hole to Penney Toyota Jim, another body shop worker, listed some learned about a species of jellyfish living in
is a tale of individual and institutional fail- of the things they had educated Prasher the cold waters of the North Pacific, Aequo-
ure. His vanishing act provides a glimpse about. They all happened to be local culi- rea victoria, which emitted a green glow
into what it takes to flourish in modern-day nary delights: “mountain oysters” (hogs’ tes- and was one of the most intensely biolumi-
science, where mentorship, networking, and ticles), fried moon pies, Goo Goo Clusters. I nescent creatures on the planet.
the ability to secure funding can be as impor- asked Jim if Prasher had taught them any- The fundamental chemistry behind the
tant as talent and intelligence. thing in return—say, about dna. “dn who?” creature’s glow had been worked out by Shi-
And then there is the role of luck. In life Jim asked, smiling. The comment evoked a momura and others in the 1960s. The jelly-
as in science, small underlying variables can chortle from Prasher, whose typical manner fish is shaped like an umbrella, and its light
translate into wildly divergent outcomes. combines irony and earthiness. comes from a ring of tiny, stemlike exten-
One misplaced base pair in a dna sequence Prasher was born into a working-class sions along the umbrella’s circumference.
can define the gap between health and dis- family in Akron, Ohio, where his father and Studying liquid squeezed out from these
ease. The paths leading to career success or maternal grandfather worked at the Good- luminescent organs, Shimomura identified
failure, too, can lie a hair’s breadth apart. year tire factory. He too worked at the factory two proteins—called aequorin and gfp—
for a summer during college; the experience that worked together to emit light. Aequo-
at 58, douglas prasher sports a beard was enough for him to realize that he was rin gives out blue light when it binds with
liberally flecked with gray. He’s six feet tall not cut out for a blue-collar job. He ended up calcium in seawater; this light is absorbed by

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gfp, which then emits an intense green glow. proteins. Since messenger rna is nothing beach in the nearby town of Falmouth. The
Cormier had a grant from pharmaceuti- but the imprint of the gene whose message couple had a young daughter, Emma, and,
cal giant Hoffmann–La Roche to clone the it is carrying, it is possible to use it to chemi- for the most part, Gina stayed home to
gene for aequorin. The company wanted to cally generate the dna sequence or gene it raise her. Money was always tight, but the
use it as a diagnostic marker for disease: If corresponds to. From the sizable collection family got by. Prasher, who likes gardening,
synthetic versions of antibodies could be of genes generated this way, Prasher hoped planted vegetables in the backyard. “We’d
tagged with aequorin in the lab, then when- to identify the specific ones responsible for collect seaweed from the beach to put on
ever they matched up with an antigen (or aequorin and gfp. the asparagus bed,” Gina said. “We grew
surface protein) of a specific pathogen in To search through his gene library, Prasher tomatoes to make spaghetti sauce.”
blood or tissue, the sample would glow. The relied on work done by Ward and others, Prasher soon received a $200,000 grant
only way to make aequorin on a commer- who had already partially determined the from the American Cancer Society to clone
cial scale, Cormier believed, was to culti- sequence of amino acids (units of a protein) his synthetic gene. But he hit a brick wall at
vate it inside bacteria that had been geneti- of which the bioluminescent molecules the National Institutes of Health and else-
cally engineered to contain the aequorin were made. Working backward, Prasher where as he tried to fund research proving
gene. But first he needed copies of the gene; created synthetic dna molecules that were the cloned gene worked in other organisms.
it had to be cloned. To do the cloning, he approximate blueprints of the actual genes. “It was a high-risk idea,” he told me. Many
hired Prasher, who quickly became fasci- He tagged each artificial gene with a radio- scientists in the field, including Ward and
nated by bioluminescence. active compound and then added it to a Shimomura, still doubted that only one
mixture of E. coli containing most of the gene was involved or that gfp could be

S
oon prasher was traveling genes extracted from the jellyfish. expressed in organisms other than jellyfish.
to the town of Friday Harbor, As he had hoped, his synthetic genes and
on an island in Puget Sound, to the real ones were similar enough for the as prasher describes it, his time at
catch jellyfish by the thousands as dna base pairs to stick together. Both the Woods Hole was a series of missed con-
they floated past the docks. After aequorin and gfp genes were now identi- nections, psychological roadblocks, and
catching the jellyfish with pool-skimming fied, but Prasher felt that just one—the bad breaks. He was one of only a handful of
nets, he and a group of other scientists gene for gfp—was biomedical gold. Most molecular biologists in a department popu-
would pin them down with a fork and spin light-emitting proteins found in nature lated by marine biologists and ecologists.
them across a razor’s edge to slice off the do not work alone. Instead they rely on a “Very few people cared about what I was
light-emitting photo-organs, which would chromophore, a light-producing chemical doing,” Prasher says. One day in 1989, he
fall into a bucket in a translucent linguini unit that is analogous to the filament of got a call from biologist Martin Chalfie at
heap. It was exhausting work that Prasher a bulb. Through a complicated biochemi- Columbia, who had heard about Prasher’s
dived into with esprit de corps. Once the cal process, the chromophore is added on attempts to clone the gfp gene. To Chalfie,
team members harvested the photo-organs, to the protein, generating light. Aequorin the fluorescent molecule was a potential
they were distributed like tomatoes from a was like that, able to light up only with the tool to help him investigate the sense of
community garden. help of its chromophore, a property scien- touch in roundworms and to explore more
Prasher would freeze some of this tissue tists today call bioluminescence. gfp, how- broadly how organisms react to stimuli. Like
right away to take back to his lab to extract ever, could stand alone. Scientists called Prasher, he also realized that gfp tags could
dna. Other scientists would process the same it fluorescent rather than bioluminescent provide a way to track the production of
tissue further to obtain the light-emitting because a chromophore was never needed genes and proteins writ large. Prasher prom-
proteins. They would add a liter of the tissue to produce the light. ised that he would get in touch with Chalfie
to two liters of seawater and shake the mix- Prasher immediately grasped the impor- once he had cloned the synthetic gene.
ture 75 times—no more, no less—to make tance of his discovery. As a single-unit light More than a year later, when Prasher fin-
“the individual light-producing cells pop source, gfp could serve as a perfect molecu- ished cloning the gene, he called Chalfie’s
out of the tissue,” according to Bill Ward, lar tag for tracking genes and proteins in an lab only to learn that the researcher was
a bioluminescence researcher at Rutgers organism. If a biomolecule of interest were on sabbatical at the University of Utah.
University in New Jersey who was a post- tagged with the gfp gene, Prasher thought, Prasher says he left voice mail for Chalfie
doc in Cormier’s laboratory. The cells were a fluorescent signal would show when and in Utah but never heard back; Chalfie does
filtered through mosquito netting and put where in the organism that gene or the pro- not recall getting any messages from him.
through another series of steps to derive tein it created was being put to use. “I knew Regardless, it wasn’t until September 1992
aequorin and gfp. gfp could be incredibly useful because it that Chalfie, now back at his Columbia lab,
Over the course of six months, Prasher would be much easier to use in living sys- pushed forward with his gfp research. He
built libraries of jellyfish genes from the tis- tems than what was available,” he said. lamented to a graduate student that he had
sue he collected. Every tissue in an organism All the signs looked promising for Prasher never heard from Prasher; then a search on
contains a variety of messenger rna mol- in 1987 when he got a tenure-track job at a computer database turned up a recent
ecules, single-stranded nucleotide sequences Woods Hole. He and Gina bought a house paper by Prasher reporting the cloning of
bearing instructions for the making of specific that was an eight-minute drive from the the synthetic gfp gene. Within minutes,

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“ He was so depressed by
the lack of support that his
daughter remarked, ‘Papa
doesn’t smile anymore.’ ”
produce light in any other colors. By design-
ing mutant versions of the gene that they
received from Prasher, Tsien and his col-
leagues were able to make variants of gfp
that glowed blue, cyan, and yellow, as well
as a brighter green than the original gfp.
The glowing roundworm from Chalfie’s
lab made the cover of Science in 1994.
Prasher was one of the coauthors on the
paper, now considered a landmark publica-
tion that helped establish gfp as a powerful
research tool. The paper would undoubt-
edly have boosted his chances of tenure at
Woods Hole, but by the time it appeared, he
had taken a job at a research center of the
U.S. Department of Agriculture down the
street, working on molecular detection of
exotic agricultural pests. “My frank assess-
Chalfie had Prasher on the phone. the University of California, San Diego, who, ment is that history would be quite differ-
Chalfie’s call could have been a scien- like Chalfie, had seen Prasher’s paper and ent if Douglas and I hadn’t lost track of each
tific lifeline for Prasher, but it came too late. contacted him. “He asked me if he could other,” Chalfie told me recently. “If we had
Doubtful that he would be granted tenure, have the gene; I immediately said yes,” done the experiment a few years earlier, he
Prasher had already made up his mind to quit Prasher told me. “I remember he sounded might have stayed at Woods Hole.”
Woods Hole. A seminar he had given at the very surprised.” The Science paper sparked a surge of
department earlier that year had not gone interest in gfp. Prasher received dozens
well. He had gotten so depressed by the lack leaving the post office, prasher felt of requests for the gene from around the
of funding and mentorship that his daughter, a wave of sadness. “I knew this was really world. Although he had quit the field, he
Emma, who was 3 at the time, remarked one the end of it for me,” he said. But passing the responded to every scientist who contacted
day to Gina, “Papa doesn’t smile anymore.” baton seemed like the only sensible option. him, initially sending out copies of the gene
The next day, Prasher told the tenure com- Chalfie and Tsien had “resources way himself and later forwarding the requests to
mittee to stop the review process and gave beyond mine, by orders of magnitude. They Columbia. Prasher and Chalfie were award-
himself a year to find another job. were both at hard-money institutions, and I ed a patent for the use of gfp as a marker of
“I just didn’t fit,” he said. “I was so iso- was struggling to get funding. I didn’t have gene expression; in total, it earned Prasher
lated.” He was convinced that he would graduate students, didn’t have postdocs.” just a few hundred thousand dollars in roy-
struggle even if he did get tenure; he did Chalfie had another advantage. He did alties over 15 years.
not have the strength to do his research in not have to apply for a grant specifically The money helped, but it was no substi-
solitude when so few cared about his work. to experiment with the gfp clone; he was tute for a stable scientific career. After three
“Doug doesn’t have the ‘Goddammit, you’re able to do the work as part of his project on years at the usda center in Massachusetts,
not going to stop me’ attitude,” Ward says. touch sensitivity in roundworms. Within a Prasher was transferred to Beltsville, Mary-
“He’s the kind of person who really needed month of receiving the gene, his group was land, forcing a move that was painful for his
a facilitator-type person or organization to able to make E. coli glow green. Chalfie’s lab family. “We were in the middle of the school
say, ‘Look, I think you’re doing a great job.’ ” did not own a fluorescence microscope and year,” he told me. “It was rough.” Prasher did
Along with withdrawing from the tenure needed to monitor the results; he solved the not get along with his new boss and found
process, Prasher decided to quit working problem in part by asking microscope sales- himself slipping into depression. But he
on gfp. “The area of bioluminescence was men to bring in demo models, which his lab plodded on.
esoteric work; nobody was interested, and hastily used for real experiments. It was the In the summer of 2004, Prasher got a
funding was very difficult,” he says. “I didn’t kind of resourcefulness that Prasher seemed new job with A.Z. Technologies, a nasa con-
want to have to struggle to find funding for to lack. Shortly afterward, Chalfie and his tractor in Huntsville. His assignment was
something that was so difficult to convince colleagues succeeded in inserting the gfp developing sensors to detect microbes in a
other people to support.” He decided to pass gene into the roundworm, making touch spacecraft cabin during long flights. His fam-
along his research to the few who seemed receptor cells fluoresce. The experiments ily moved to Alabama with him. Prasher liked
to understand it. A few days after Chalfie’s confirmed that the gfp gene could make an the work, especially because he was finally
call, Prasher drove to the post office with a organism light up without the need for any getting to collaborate in a team environ-
little tube containing the gfp gene, put it in other molecules unique to jellyfish. ment after years without it. But the unpre-
a padded envelope, and mailed it to Colum- Tsien’s lab, meanwhile, tinkered with dictable nature of science funding struck
bia. He also sent a sample to Roger Tsien at the gfp gene to see if it could be made to again. A year and a half later, A.Z. Technolo-

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gies learned it would be losing funding for his regular place behind the wheel of the how insulin-producing beta cells form in
the project because of a decision by nasa courtesy shuttle. the pancreas of an embryo, how proteins
to reduce support for life sciences. Prasher are transported within cells, and how can-
was laid off in the spring of 2006, and after after the landmark experiments with the cer cells metastasize through the body. In a
nearly a year of unemployment—Huntsville gfp gene in the mid-1990s, “all of a sudden press release announcing the 2008 chemis-
is not exactly a biotechnology hub—he took it became obvious that gfp was a wonder- try prize, the Nobel Foundation called gfp
the driving job at Penney Toyota. ful tool,” Chalfie says. With gfp, though, as “a guiding star for biochemistry.”
On the morning of October 8, 2008, as he with many scientific breakthroughs, the tre- The glow of the gfp gene may have illu-
was fixing breakfast, Prasher heard news mendous importance of the discovery was minated biology, but Prasher has remained
of the Nobel on the kitchen radio. His first not clear until many years after the initial in the shadows. Today he and Gina live
reaction was to call the local radio station work. Over the past 15 years, the gfp gene on a quiet block in northwest Huntsville,
to tell them to correct the newscaster’s pro- has enabled scientists to watch a plethora about three miles from the Toyota dealer-
nunciation of “Tsien.” Then he put on his of previously murky biological processes in ship. In the backyard is a small vegetable
Penney uniform, went in to work, and took action: how nerve cells develop in the brain, patch; the day I arrived, Prasher excused

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himself in mid-conversation to check on “a
groundhog problem” that had been plagu-
ing his tomatoes. Walking into the house,
I was struck by the handsomely furnished
interior, including two ovens and two dish-
washers; it didn’t look like it was owned by
a courtesy van driver making about $300 a
week. I learned that the Prashers had begun
building the house while Douglas was still
working at A.Z. Technologies. They ended
up using much of their savings to finish
construction and were now using it to pay
their monthly bills.
When he heard the announcement of the
2008 chemistry Nobel, Prasher felt angry
and disappointed, not because he had
missed out on the prize but because he was
“out of science and out of a job” that paid
enough. In media interviews days after the
prize was announced, he jokingly said that
he was accepting donations. A few checks
did come in from sympathizers, includ-
ing $1,000 from a lady whom Prasher had
driven in his van. Prasher put a sticker on
the back of his own car that said “Scientist
needs work” and listed his phone number.
He removed it only when Karl, his teenage
son, made a fuss.
On the second morning of my visit, dur-
ing which I stayed at Prasher’s house, I woke
to find my host padding about the kitchen
in sweatpants. He was making a semolina
porridge that he and Gina had first tried
at the breakfast bar of the Grand Hotel in
Stockholm, during his Nobel trip. A book
titled Winning the Games Scientists Play lay
on the kitchen counter next to a framed clip
from The Huntsville Times headlined “Local
Scientist Misses Nobel.”
The attention brought by the Nobel Prize
left Prasher in a strange emotional place:
pleased that his work had not been in vain,
yet sullen about the way things had turned
out for him. Despite his flippant request
for donations, he seemed inclined to rebuff
any pity with scorn. After the Nobel cer-
emonies, Tsien asked Prasher if he would
be interested in joining his lab at ucsd.
Prasher declined. It felt like a handout, he
told me; people would say, “Douglas can’t
go anyplace else, so Roger’s picking him up.”
Another reason, he said, was that he want-
ed to distance himself from gfp. “That’s in
my past. That’s over,” he said, as if the pro-
tein were an addiction he was intent on rid-
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A
n aura of “what if” hangs development company. Staffed by about 20
over Prasher’s career. “I don’t people, the company does work for nasa, the
know why Douglas didn’t get National Science Foundation, and the U.S.
help from his former mentor, Department of Defense. Prasher’s first task
Milton Cormier,” Tsien says. when he started in late June was to help devel-
Cormier, now retired, told me he “had no idea op technology to sense toxic industrial gases.
that Doug had given the gfp gene to Roger He began cautiously. “There was none of the
or Martin and that he had left Woods Hole tremendous relief you might expect,” he says.
until it was all over. This was too bad; if Doug “I had been so discouraged over the years that
had confided in me, I could have gotten him my attitude was, this may work out and it may
a position in the pharmaceutical industry.” not.” Gradually he settled into the job. At
What about reaching out to scientists at home he occasionally took science reading
Woods Hole, particularly Shimomura, whose to bed, something he hadn’t done in years.
work overlapped his own? “It never occurred “A lot of the hangdog is gone,” Gina told me.
to me,” Prasher says, betraying what seemed In December Prasher won a six-month,
like ignorance of the need to network in any $70,000 grant from the Department of
field, especially science. “He kept to himself Defense to develop a field technique for cat-
and I kept to myself.” It seemed like a strange egorizing tick specimens according to their
stance for somebody who didn’t want to work mitochondrial genes, in hopes of limiting the
in isolation. I also wondered if Prasher could diseases a doctor might diagnose. It brought
have sought help from some of the scientists a sense of accomplishment that had been
who contacted him for the gfp clone. “He missing from his life for a long time. In Janu-
doesn’t like asking for favors,” Gina told me. ary he told me that the cloud of depression
One of Prasher’s interests is Civil War reen- he had lived under for years was finally lift-
actments, and from his perch in 2011, he imag- ing. Science gave him a sense of purpose.
ines a reenactment of his early career: If only Still, there were things about Penney Toyota
he had networked with other scientists and that he would remember fondly, he told me:
institutions, especially when he felt isolated, the time he spent with his buddies in the body
he says today, he might have stayed in the shop, their amusement when he showed up for
field of bioluminescence or at least in science. his first day of work dressed in suspenders, the
Many of the challenges Prasher faced were endless teasing about Prasher’s liberal views
hardly unique to him. Scientific opportunities as they watched Fox News around the clock,
often appear only at specific times and places, the question one of them asked when Prasher
potentially a serious impediment for a parent was about to slice open a kiwi at lunch: “Are
who doesn’t want to relocate the family. Do you going to eat that fuzzy potater?” These
your work in the wrong place, or publish it in colleagues had broadened Prasher’s definition
the wrong journal, and it may vanish without of expertise. “Even though these people are not
a trace. And once someone drops out of sci- in a glamorous position, they are incredibly
ence, it is hard to get back in. After joining knowledgeable about what they do,” he says.
the Toyota dealership, Prasher applied for a In our most recent conversation, Prasher
couple of science-related jobs in Huntsville, told me he was busy reading up on a new
but nothing worked out. On one occasion he technique he could apply to the detection of
had an encouraging meeting with the hir- food allergens. “One thing I’ve always enjoyed
ing manager at a local company working on is browsing the literature,” he says, noting
microfluidics; when the interviewer learned that he prefers thumbing through journals to
that Prasher drove a courtesy van, his inter- doing keyword searches because it allows him
est cooled. There is no way to know how to discover concepts he hadn’t known about
many other potential researchers were driven before. For several years, he notes wryly, “there
from their studies for similar reasons, or how was very little motivation to do that.”
many potential discoveries were never made Now there was, a reason to step back into a
because of the psychological and practical dif- world of inquiry where the pursuit of an excit-
ficulties of the scientific lifestyle. ing idea is its own reward. After an untimely
Finally in June 2010, several weeks after and seemingly permanent exit from science,
my visit, Prasher’s luck changed. He e-mailed Douglas Prasher has made his way back in, a
me to say he’d been offered a science job at personal triumph no less meaningful to him
Streamline Automation, a local research and than a Nobel Prize.

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Silent
Warrıor
by Adam Piore illustration by Sam Kennedy
The U.S. Army wants to allow soldiers
to communicate just by thinking.
The new science of synthetic telepathy
could soon make that happen.

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on a cold, blustery afternoon the week impossible above the din of explosions.

O
before Halloween, an assortment of spiritual For a look at the early stages of the tech-
mediums, animal communicators, and astrol- nology, I pay a visit to a different sort of
ogists have set up tables in the concourse cave, Schalk’s bunkerlike office. Finding it is
beneath the Empire State Plaza in Albany, a workout. I hop in an elevator within shout-
New York. The cavernous hall of shops that ing distance of the paranormal hubbub, then
connects the buildings in this 98-acre com- pass through a long, linoleum-floored hallway
plex is a popular venue for autumnal events: guarded by a pair of stern-faced sentries, and
Oktoberfest, the Maple Harvest Festival, and finally descend a cement stairwell to a sub-
today’s “Mystic Fair.” terranean warren of laboratories and offices.
Traffic is heavy as bureaucrats with id Schalk is sitting in front of an oversize
badges dangling from their necks stroll by computer screen, surrounded by empty
during their lunch breaks. Next to the Albany metal bookshelves and white cinder-block
Paranormal Research Society table, a mid- walls, bare except for a single photograph of
dle-aged woman is solemnly explaining his young family and a poster of the human
the workings of an electromagnetic sensor brain. The fluorescent lighting flickers as he
that can, she asserts, detect the presence hunches over a desk to click on a computer
of ghosts. Nearby, a “clairvoyant” ushers a file. A volunteer from one of his recent
government worker in a suit into her can- mind-reading experiments appears in a
vas tent. A line has formed at the table of a video facing a screen of her own. She is con- ence’s long-held ambition to read what goes
popular tarot card reader. centrating, Schalk explains, silently thinking on inside the mind. Researchers have been
Amid all the bustle and transparent of one of two vowel sounds, aah or ooh. experimenting with ways to understand and
hustles, few of the dabblers at the Mystic The volunteer is clearly no ordinary harness signals in the areas of the brain that
Fair are aware that there is a genuine mind research subject. She is draped in a hospital control muscle movement since the early
reader in the building, sitting in an office gown and propped up in a motorized bed, 2000s, and they have developed methods to
several floors below the concourse. This her head swathed in a plasterlike mold of detect imagined muscle movement, vocal-
mind reader is not able to pluck a child- bandages secured under the chin. Jumbles izations, and even the speed with which a
hood memory or the name of a loved one of wires protrude from an opening at the subject wants to move a limb.
out of your head, at least not yet. But give top of her skull, snaking down to her left At Duke University Medical Center in
him time. He is applying hard science to an shoulder in stringy black tangles. Those North Carolina, researchers have surgi-
aspiration that was once relegated to clair- wires are connected to 64 electrodes that cally implanted electrodes in the brains of
voyants, and unlike his predecessors, he can a neurosurgeon has placed directly on the monkeys and trained them to move robotic
point to some hard results. surface of her naked cortex after surgically arms at mit, hundreds of miles away, just by
The mind reader is Gerwin Schalk, a 39- removing the top of her skull. “This woman thinking. At Brown University, scientists are
year-old biomedical scientist and a leading has epilepsy and probably has seizures sev- working on a similar implant they hope will
expert on brain-computer interfaces at the eral times a week,” Schalk says, revealing a allow paralyzed human subjects to control
New York State Department of Health’s Wads- slight Germanic accent. artificial limbs. And workers at Neural Sig-
worth Center at Albany Medical College. The The main goal of this technique, known as nals Inc., outside Atlanta, have been able
Austrian-born Schalk, along with a handful electrocorticography, or ecog, is to identify to extract vowels from the motor cortex of
of other researchers, is part of a $6.3 million the exact area of the brain responsible for a paralyzed patient who lost the ability to
U.S. Army project to establish the basic sci- her seizures, so surgeons can attempt to talk by sinking electrodes into the area of
ence required to build a thought helmet—a remove the damaged areas without affect- his brain that controls his vocal cords.
device that can detect and transmit the ing healthy ones. But there is a huge added But the Army’s thought-helmet project is
unspoken speech of soldiers, allowing them benefit: The seizure patients who volunteer the first large-scale effort to “really attack”
to communicate with one another silently. for Schalk’s experiments prior to surgery the much broader challenge of synthetic
As improbable as it sounds, synthetic have allowed him and his collaborator, neuro- telepathy, Schalk says. The Army wants
telepathy, as the technology is called, is get- surgeon Eric C. Leuthardt of Washington practical applications for healthy people,
ting closer to battlefield reality. Within a University School of Medicine in St. Louis, “and we are making progress,” he adds.
decade Special Forces could creep into the to collect what they claim are among the Schalk is now attempting to make silent
caves of Tora Bora to snatch Al Qaeda oper- most detailed pictures ever recorded of speech a reality by using sensors and com-
atives, communicating and coordinating what happens in the brain when we imag- puters to explore the regions of the brain
COURTESY DAVID POEPPEL

without hand signals or whispered words. ine speaking words aloud. responsible for storing and processing
Or a platoon of infantrymen could tele- thoughts. The goal is to build a helmet
pathically call in a helicopter to whisk away those pictures are a central part of the embedded with brain-scanning technolo-
their wounded in the midst of a deafening project funded by the Army’s multi-university gies that can target specific brain waves,
firefight, where intelligible speech would be research grant and the latest twist on sci- translate them into words, and transmit

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tist with a receding hairline and a neck
the width of a small tree, joined the Army
Research Office as a program manager in
2002. He had spent his 30-year career up
to that point working in academia and at
various military research facilities, exhaus-
tively investigating eyewear to protect sol-
diers against laser exposure, among other
technologies.
Left: A machine maps electrical brain activity by
measuring magnetic fields around a volunteer’s head. Schmeisser had been fascinated by the
Above: Black lines display the strength of the brain’s concept of a thought helmet ever since he
magnetic field over time. Above, right: A top-down view read about it in E. E. “Doc” Smith’s 1946 sci-
of the magnetic-field distribution over the entire head ence fiction classic, Skylark of Space, back in
in a split second, where red indicates the magnetic the eighth grade. But it was not until 2006,
field leaving the brain and blue indicates the field
entering it. Right: Lollipop-shaped markers tag electri- while Schmeisser was attending a confer-
cal activity in the brain’s auditory cortex. ence on advanced prosthetics in Irvine,
California, that it really hit him: Science
had finally caught up to his boyhood vision.
He was listening to a young researcher
those words wirelessly to a radio speaker or expound on the virtues of extracting signals
an earpiece worn by other soldiers.
As Schalk explains his vast ambitions, I’m
Special Forces from the surface of the brain. The young
researcher was Gerwin Schalk.
mesmerized by the eerie video of the ban-
daged patient on the computer screen. White
could creep Schalk’s lecture was causing a stir. Many
neuroscientists had long believed that the
bars cover her eyes to preserve her anonym-
ity. She is lying stock-still, giving the impres-
into the caves only way to extract data from the brain spe-
cific enough to control an external device
sion that she might be asleep or comatose,
but she is very much engaged. Schalk points
of Tora Bora to was to penetrate the cortex and sink elec-
trodes into the gray matter, where the elec-
with his pen at a large rectangular field on
the side of the screen depicting a region of
snatch Al Qaeda trodes could record the firing of individual
neurons. By claiming that he could pry
her brain abuzz with electrical activity. Hun-
dreds of yellow and white brain waves dance
operatives, information from the brain without drill-
ing deep inside it—information that could
across a black backdrop, each representing
the oscillating electrical pulses picked up by
communicating allow a subject to move a computer cur-
sor, play computer games, and even move
one of the 64 electrodes attached to her cor-
tex as clusters of brain cells fire.
without hand a prosthetic limb—Schalk was taking on “a
very strong existing dogma in the field that
Somewhere in those squiggles lie pat-
terns that Schalk is training his computer signals or whis- the only way to know about how the brain
works is by recording individual neurons,”
to recognize and decode. “To make sense Schmeisser vividly recalls of that day.
of this is very difficult,” he says. “For each
second there are 1,200 variables from each
pered words. Many of those present dismissed Schalk’s
findings as blasphemy and stood up to
electrode location. It’s a lot of numbers.” attack it. But for Schmeisser it was a magi-
Schalk gestures again toward the video. decoding full, complex imagined sentences cal moment. If he could take Schalk’s idea
Above the volunteer’s head is a black bar that with multiple words and meaning. But one step further and find a way to extract
extends right or left depending on the com- even extracting two simple vowels from verbal thoughts from the brain without
puter’s ability to guess which vowel the vol- deep within the brain is a big advance. surgery, the technology could dramatically
unteer has been instructed to imagine: right Schalk has no doubt about where his work benefit not only disabled people but the
for “aah,” left for “ooh.” The volunteer imag- is leading. “This is the first step toward healthy as well. “Everything,” he says, ”all of
ines “ooh,” and I watch the black bar inch to mind reading,” he tells me. a sudden became possible.”
the left. The volunteer thinks “aah,” and sure The next year, Schmeisser marched into
enough, the bar extends right, proof that the the motivating force behind the a large conference room at Army Research
computer’s analysis of those hundreds of thought helmet project is a retired Army Office headquarters in Research Triangle
squiggling lines in the black rectangle is cor- colonel with a Ph.D. in the physiology of Park, North Carolina, to pitch a research
rect. In fact, the computer gets it right “close vision and advanced belts in karate, judo, project to investigate synthetic telepathy
to 100 percent of the time,” Schalk says. aikido, and Japanese sword fighting. Elmar for soldiers. He took his place at a podium
He admits that he is a long way from Schmeisser, a lanky, bespectacled scien- facing a large, U-shaped table fronting rows

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MOTOR CORTEX
WERNICKE’S
ELECTRODE-LINED AREA
HELMET
ACTIVATED
ENEMY LEFT... ELECTRODES
ENEMY LEFT...
ENEMY LEFT...
OCCIPITAL CORTEX

AUDITORY
CORTEX

DATA
ACQUISITION
BOX

of chairs, where a committee of some 30 evidence that this could really work—that language, so when Schmeisser offered them
senior scientists and colleagues—division you are not just hallucinating it.” a $450,000 grant to prove the feasibility of a
chiefs, directorate heads, mathematicians, The committee rejected Schmeisser’s pro- thought helmet, they seized the opportunity.
particle physicists, chemists, computer posal but authorized him to collect more Schalk and Leuthardt quickly recruited 12
scientists, and Pentagon brass in civilian data over the following year to bolster his epilepsy patients as volunteers for their first
dress—waited for him to begin. case. For assistance he turned to Schalk, the set of experiments. As I had seen in the video
Schmeisser had 10 minutes and six Power- man who had gotten him thinking about a in Schalk’s office, each patient had the top
Point slides to address four major ques- thought helmet in the first place. of his skull removed and electrodes affixed
tions: Where was the field at the moment? Schalk and Leuthardt had been conduct- to the surface of the cortex. The researchers
How might his idea prove important? What ing mind-reading experiments for several then set up a computer screen and speakers
would the Army get out of it? And was there years, exploring their patients’ ability to in front of the patients’ beds.
reason to believe that it was doable? play video games, move cursors, and type by The patients were presented with 36 words
The first three questions were simple. It means of brain waves picked up via a scan- that had a relatively simple consonant-vowel-
ELISABETH KELLY

was that last one that tripped him up. “Does ner. The two men were eager to push their consonant structure, such as bet, bat, beat,
this really work?” Schmeisser remembers research further and expand into areas of and boot. They were asked to say the words
the committee asking him. “Show us the the brain thought to be associated with out loud and then to simply imagine saying

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cessor would apply pattern recognition
software to decode those waves and trans-
late them into specific sentences or words,
and a radio would transmit the message.
Schmeisser also proposed adding a sec-
ond capability to the helmet to detect the
direction in which a soldier was focusing
his attention. The function could be used
to steer thoughts to a specific comrade or
squad, just by looking in their direction.
The words or sentences would reach a
receiver that would then “speak” the words
into a comrade’s earpiece or be played from
a speaker, perhaps at a distant command
post. The possibilities were easy to imagine:
“Look out! Enemy on the right!”
“We need a medical evacuation now!”
“The enemy is standing on the ridge. Fire!”
Any of those phrases could be life-saving.
This time the committee signed off.

grant applications started piling up in


Think Quick!

G
Schmeisser’s office. To maximize the chance
As researchers conceive it, a military- of success, he decided to split the Army fund-
grade thought helmet would ing between two university teams that were
function like a wearable mind-machine taking complementary approaches to the
interface: When activated, sensors telepathy problem.
inside would scan thousands of electrical
The first team, directed by Schalk, was
signals from brain regions associated
with specific thoughts and bits of imag- pursuing the more invasive ecog approach,
ined speech. A microprocessor would attaching electrodes beneath the skull. The
apply pattern recognition to decode those second group, led by Mike D’Zmura, a cogni-
signals and translate them into specific tive scientist at the University of California,
sentences or words, such as “Enemy left!”
Irvine, planned to use electroencephalog-
After that, a radio would transmit the
message to another helmet, which would raphy (eeg), a noninvasive brain-scanning
show it as words on a heads-up display—all technique that was far better suited for an
in just the time it would take a soldier to actual thought helmet. Like ecog, eeg relies
think the message. on brain signals picked up by an array of
electrodes that are sensitive to the subtle
voltage oscillations caused by the firing
of groups of neurons. Unlike ecog, eeg
them. Those instructions were conveyed active. Although it was unclear why those requires no surgery; the electrodes attach
visually (written on a computer screen) with areas were active, what they were doing, painlessly to the scalp.
no audio, and again vocally with no video. and what it meant, the raw results were an For Schmeisser, this practicality was
The electrodes provided a precise map of important start. The next step was obvious: critical. He ultimately wanted answers to
the resulting neural activity. Reach inside the brain and try to pluck out the big neuroscience questions that would
Schalk was intrigued by the results. As enough data to determine, at least roughly, allow researchers to capture complicated
one might expect, when the subjects vocal- what the subjects were thinking. thoughts and ideas, yet he also knew that
ized a word, the data indicated activity in Schmeisser presented Schalk’s data to demonstrating even a rudimentary thought
the areas of the motor cortex associated the Army committee the following year helmet capable of discerning simple com-
with the muscles that produce speech. The and asked it to fund a formal project to mands would be a valuable achievement.
auditory cortex and an area in its vicinity develop a real mind-reading helmet. As he After all, soldiers often use formulaic and
long believed to be associated with speech, conceived it, the helmet would function reduced vocabulary to communicate. Call-
called Wernicke’s area, were also active. as a wearable interface between mind and ing in a helicopter for a medical evacua-
When the subjects imagined words, the machine. When activated, sensors inside tion, for instance, requires only a handful
motor cortex went silent while the audi- would scan the thousands of brain waves of specific words.
tory cortex and Wernicke’s area remained oscillating in a soldier’s head; a micropro- “We could start there,” Schmeisser says.

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“We could start below that.” He noted, for
instance, that it does not require a terri- “Show us the evidence that
bly complicated message to call for an air
strike or a missile launch: “That would be a
very nice operational capability.”
this could really work—that you
The relative ease with which eeg can
be applied comes at a price, however. The
are not just hallucinating it,”
exact location of neural activity is far more
difficult to discern via eeg than with many
the Army asked Schmeisser.
other, more invasive methods because the
skull, scalp, and cerebral fluid surrounding
the brain scatter its electric signals before out the need to remove part of a subject’s efference copy of speech in the auditory
they reach the electrodes. That blurring skull, and it is far more accurate than eeg. cortex. “When you plan to speak, you acti-
also makes the signals harder to detect at Poeppel and Tian would guide subjects vate the hearing part of your brain before
all. Th e eeg data can be so messy, in fact, into a three-ton, beige-paneled room con- you say the word,” he explains. “Your brain
that some of the researchers who signed structed of a special alloy and copper to is predicting what it will sound like.”
on to the project harbored private doubts shield against passing electromagnetic The potential significance of this finding
about whether it could really be used to fields. At the center of the room sat a one- was not lost on Poeppel. If the brain held
extract the signals associated with unspo- ton, six-foot-tall machine resembling a on to a copy of what an imagined thought
ken thoughts. huge hair dryer that contained scanners would sound like if vocalized, it might be
capable of recording the minute magnetic possible to capture that neurological record
in the initial months of the project, fields produced by the firing of neurons. and translate it into intelligible words. As

I
back in 2008, one of D’Zmura’s key col- After guiding subjects into the device, the happens so often in this field of research,
laborators, renowned neuroscientist David researchers would ask them to imagine though, each discovery brought with it a
Poeppel, sat in his office on the second speaking words like athlete, musician, and wave of new challenges. Building a thought
floor of the New York University psychology lunch. Next they asked them to imagine helmet would require not only identifying
building and realized he was unsure even hearing the words. that efference copy but also finding a way
where to begin. With his research partner When Poeppel sat down to analyze the to isolate it from a mass of brain waves.
Greg Hickok, an expert on the neuroscience results, he noticed something unusual. As
of language, he had developed a detailed a subject imagined hearing words, his audi- d’zmura and his team at uc irvine have
model of audible speech systems, parts of tory cortex lit up the screen in a characteris- spent the past two years taking baby steps
which were widely cited in textbooks. But tic pattern of reds and greens. That part was in that direction by teaching pattern rec-
there was nothing in that model to suggest no surprise; previous studies had linked the ognition programs to search for and recog-
how to measure something imagined. auditory cortex to imagined sounds. How- nize specific phrases and words. The sheer
For more than 100 years, Poeppel reflect- ever, when a subject was asked to imagine size of a meg machine would obviously
ed, speech experimentation had followed speaking a word rather than hearing it, the be impractical in a military setting, so the
a simple plan: Ask a subject to listen to a auditory cortex flashed an almost identical team is testing its techniques using light-
specific word or phrase, measure the sub- red and green pattern. weight eeg caps that could eventually be
ject’s response to that word (for instance, Poeppel was initially stumped by the built into a practical thought helmet.
how long it takes him to repeat it aloud), results. “That is really bizarre,” he recalls The caps are comfortable enough that
and then demonstrate how that response thinking. “Why should there be an auditory Tom Lappas, a graduate student working
is connected to activity in the brain. Try- pattern when the subjects didn’t speak and with D’Zmura, often volunteers to be a
ing to measure imagined speech was much no one around them spoke?” Over time he research subject. During one experiment last
more complicated; a random thought arrived at an explanation. Scientists had long November, Lappas sat in front of a computer
could throw off the whole experiment. In been aware of an error-correction mecha- wearing flip-flops, shorts, and a latex eeg
fact, it was still unclear where in the brain nism in the brain associated with motor cap with 128 gel-soaked electrodes attached
researchers should even look for the rel- commands. When the brain sends a com- to it. Lappas’s face was a mask of deter-
evant signals. mand to the motor cortex to, for instance, mined focus as he stared silently at a screen
Solving this problem would call for a new reach out and grab a cup of water, it also while military commands blared out of a
experimental method, Poeppel realized. creates an internal impression, known as an nearby speaker.
He and a postdoctoral student, Xing Tian, efference copy, of what the resulting move- “Ready Baron go to red now,” a recorded
decided to take advantage of a powerful ment will look and feel like. That way, the voice intoned, then paused. “Ready Eagle go
imaging technique called magnetoenceph- brain can check the muscle output against to red now…Ready Tiger go to green now...” As
alography, or meg, to do their reconnais- the intended action and make any neces- Lappas concentrated, a computer recorded
sance work. meg can provide roughly the sary corrections.
same level of spatial detail as ecog but with- Poeppel believed he was looking at an continued on page 76

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Made in China: mercury, sulfates,
ozone, black carbon, and flu-laced
desert dust. Even as America
tightens emission standards, the
fast-growing economies of Asia
are filling the air with toxins that
circumnavigate the globe.

by David Kirby
CREDIT TK TK TK TK

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highways are crawling with the newly
here is no place called away.” it is a statement worthy of

T
acquired cars of a burgeoning middle
Gertrude Stein, but University of Washington atmospheric chemist class. Still, “it’s unfair to put all the
blame on China or Asia,” says Xinbin
Dan Jaffe says it with conviction: None of the contamination we pump Feng of the Institute of Geochemistry
into the air just disappears. It might get diluted, blended, or chemi- at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a
government-associated research facil-
cally transformed, but it has to go somewhere. And when it comes to pollut- ity. All regions of the world contribute
ants produced by the booming economies of East Asia, that somewhere often pollutants, he notes. And much of the
emissions are generated from making
means right here, the mainland of the United States.¶ Jaffe and a new breed products consumed by the West.
of global air detectives are delivering a sobering message to policy makers Our economic link with China
makes all the headlines, but Jaffe’s
everywhere: Carbon dioxide, the predominant driver of global warming, work shows that we are environmen-
is not the only industrial by-product whose effects can be felt around the tally bound to the world’s fastest-rising
nation as well.
world. Prevailing winds across the Pacific are pushing thousands of tons of
other contaminants—including mercury, sulfates, ozone, black carbon, and dan jaffe has been worrying
about air pollution since childhood.
desert dust—over the ocean each year. Some of this atmospheric junk settles Growing up near Boston, he liked to
into the cold waters of the North Pacific, but much of it eventually merges fish in local wetlands, where he first
learned about acid rain. “I had a great
with the global air pollution pool that now emits more mercury than the science teacher, and we did a project
circumnavigates the planet. United States, India, and Europe in the Blue Hills area. We found that
These contaminants are implicated combined. “What’s different about the acidity of the lake was rising,” he
in a long list of health problems, China is the scale and speed of pol- recalls. The fledgling environmen-
including neurodegenerative disease, lution and environmental degrada- tal investigator began chatting with
cancer, emphysema, and perhaps tion,” Turner says. “It’s like nothing fishermen around New England.
even pandemics like avian flu. And the world has ever seen.” “All these old-timers kept telling me
when wind and weather conditions Development there is racing far the lakes had been full of fish that
are right, they reach North America ahead of environmental regulation. were now gone. That mobilized me
within days. Dust, ozone, and car- “Standards in the United States have to think about when we burn fossil
bon can accumulate in valleys and gotten tighter because we’ve learned fuels or dump garbage, there is no
basins, and mercury can be pulled to that ever-lower levels of air pollution way it just goes somewhere else.”
earth through atmospheric sinks that affect health, especially in babies and By 1997 Jaffe was living in Seattle,
deposit it across large swaths of land. the elderly,” Jaffe says. As pollutants and his interest had taken a slant:
Pollution and production have coming from Asia increase, though, it Could pollution reaching his city be
gone hand in hand at least since becomes harder to meet the stricter blowing in from somewhere else?
the Industrial Revolution, and it is standards that our new laws impose. “We had a hunch that pollutants
not unusual for a developing nation The incoming pollution has sparked could be carried across the ocean,
to value economic growth over envi- a fractious international debate. Offi- and we had satellite imagery to show
ronmental regulation. “Pollute first, cials in the United States and Europe that,” Jaffe says. “And we noticed our
clean up later” can be the general atti- have embraced the warnings of the upstream neighbors in Asia were devel-
tude, says Jennifer Turner, director of soft-spoken Jaffe, who, with flecks of red oping very rapidly. I asked the ques-
the China Environment Forum at the and gray in his trim beard, looks every tion: Could we see those pollutants
Woodrow Wilson International Cen- bit the part of a sober environmental coming over to the United States?”
ter for Scholars. The intensity of the watchdog. In China, where economic Jaffe’s colleagues considered
current change is truly new, however. expansion has run at 8 to 14 percent a it improbable that a concentra-
China in particular stands out year since 2001, the same facts are seen tion of pollutants high enough to
because of its sudden role as the through a different lens. significantly impact American air
world’s factory, its enormous popula- China’s smog-filled cities are ringed quality could travel thousands of
tion, and the mass migration of that with heavy industry, metal smelters, miles across the Pacific Ocean; they
population to urban centers; 350 mil- and coal-fired power plants, all crucial expected he would find just insignifi-
lion people, equivalent to the entire to that fast-growing economy even cant traces. Despite their skepticism,
U.S. population, will be moving to its as they spew tons of carbon, metals, Jaffe set out to find the proof. First he
cities over the next 10 years. China gases, and soot into the air. China’s gathered the necessary equipment.

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Devices to measure carbon mon- his answer in atmospheric circula- or coal is burned, some mercury is
oxide, aerosols, sulfur dioxide, and tion models, created with the help of released. It gets into the food chain
hydrocarbons could all be bought off data from Earth-imaging satellites, and diffuses deep into the ocean. It
the shelf. He loaded the equipment that allowed him to trace the pollut- eventually finds its way into fish,
into some university trucks and set ants’ path backward in time. A paper rice, vegetables, and fruit.
out for the school’s weather obser- he published two years later sum- When inorganic mercury (whether
vatory at Cheeka Peak. The little marized his conclusions succinctly. from industry or nature) gets into wet
mountain was an arduous five-hour The pollutants “were all statistically soil or a waterway, sulfate-reducing
drive northwest of Seattle, but it was elevated . . . when the trajectory origi- bacteria begin incorporating it into
also known for the cleanest air in nated over Asia.” an organic and far more absorbable
the Northern Hemisphere. He reck- Officials at the U.S. Environmen- compound called methylmercury. As
oned that if he tested this reputedly tal Protection Agency took note, and microorganisms consume the methyl-
pristine air when a westerly wind by 1999 they were calling Jaffe to talk. mercury, the metal accumulates and
was blowing in from the Pacific, the They were not calling about aerosols migrates up the food chain; that is
Asian pollutants might show up. or hydrocarbons, however, as con- why the largest predator fish (sharks
Jaffe’s monitors quickly captured cerning as those pollutants might and swordfish, for example) typi-
evidence of carbon monoxide, nitro- be. Instead, they were interested in cally have the highest concentrations.
gen oxides, ozone, hydrocarbons, a pollutant that Jaffe had not looked Nine-tenths of the mercury found in A factory worker
radon, and particulates. Since air for in his air samples: mercury. Americans’ blood is the methyl form, covered with
from North America could not have Mercury is a common heavy metal, and most comes from fish, especially coal dust in Inner
contaminated Cheeka Peak with ubiquitous in solid material on the Pacific fish. About 40 percent of Mongolia.
Previous pages:
winds blowing from the west , the earth’s surface. While it is trapped all mercury exposure in the United Tianjin Steel
next step was identifying the true it is of little consequence to human States comes from Pacific tuna that Plant, in China’s
source of the pollutants. Jaffe found health. But whenever metal is smelted has been touched by pollution. Hebei Province.
THIS PAGE AND PREVIOUS PAGES: LU GUANG/CONTACT PRESS IMAGES

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In pregnant women, methylmer- circumstantial evidence strongly central government with detailed data
cury can cross the placenta and pointed to China as the primary ori- on industrial production: how much
negatively affect fetal brain develop- gin of the mercury; the industrial coal they burn, how much zinc they
ment. Other pollutants that the fetus processes that produce the kinds of produce, and so on. “China is very
is exposed to can also cause toxic pollutants Jaffe was seeing on Cheeka good at producing statistical data. It’s
effects, “potentially leading to neu- Peak should release mercury as well. not always 100 percent reliable, but at
rological, immunological, and other Still, he could not prove it from his least it’s a start,” he says. Those sta-
disorders,” says Harvard epidemi- data. To confirm the China connec- tistics help the Chinese government
ologist Philippe Grandjean, a leading tion, and to understand the exact monitor the economy, but for Streets
authority on the risks associated with sources of the pollution, research- they also quantified China’s mercury-
chemical exposure during early devel- ers had to get snapshots of what was laden raw materials.
opment. Prenatal exposure to mer- happening inside that country. The numbers from the statistics
cury and other pollutants can lead to One of the first scientists with feet bureau told Streets the total amount
lower iq in children—even at today’s on the ground in China was David of mercury that might be emitted,
lower levels, achieved in the United Streets, a senior energy and environ- but he also needed to know how
States after lead paint and leaded mental policy scientist at Argonne much actually made it into the air. To
gasoline were banned. National Laboratory in Illinois. In the obtain that information, he turned
Among adults, University of Cali- 1980s he was at the forefront of the to pollution detectives—a group of
fornia, Los Angeles, neuroscience study of acid rain, and in the 1990s professional contacts he had met at
researcher Dan Laks has identified an he turned his attention to carbon conferences, along with graduate stu-
alarming rise in mercury exposure. dioxide and global warming as part dents who spent time in his lab. Most
He analyzed data on 6,000 American of the Intergovernmental Panel on of the time, Chinese factories turned
women collected by the Centers for Climate Change. Streets began focus- these “spies” away. “Factory owners
Disease Control and Prevention and ing on emissions from China about had nothing to gain and a lot to lose,”
found that concentrations of mercury 15 years ago and has since become Streets says. “They were nervous that
in the human population had increased such a noted expert that he helped the results would get leaked to the
over time. Especially notable, Laks the Chinese government clean up government.”
detected inorganic mercury (the kind the smoke-clogged skies over Beijing Yet some of Streets’s moles got
that doesn’t come from seafood) in the before the Olympics in 2008. through by guaranteeing that the data
blood of 30 percent of the women In 2004, spurred by increased atten- would stay anonymous. Once inside,
tested in 2005–2006, up from just 2 tion to mercury in the atmosphere, they took samples of raw materials
percent of women tested six years ear- Streets decided to create an inventory —zinc ore in a smelting facility, for
lier. “Mercury’s neurotoxicity is irrefut- of China’s mercury emissions. It was a example—and installed chemical
able, and there is strong evidence for formidable undertaking. Nobody had detectors in smokestacks. After a few
an association with Alzheimer’s and ever come up with a precise estimate, days of data collection, they passed
Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic and the Chinese government was not the information to Streets.
lateral sclerosis,” Laks adds. exactly known for its transparency. The statistics Streets collected
Nevertheless, Streets considered the were hardly airtight. Factory fore-
endeavor important because China men and provincial officials were not
He sent his spies into is full of the two biggest contribu- above providing inflated data to make
tors to human-generated mercury, themselves look more productive,
Chinese
se ffactories to metal smelting and coal combustion. and the managers who were willing
Smelting facilities heat metal ores to to let his inspectors take measure-
determine how much eliminate contaminants and extract ments were often the very ones with
the desired metal, such as zinc, lead, nothing to hide. “There’s still a lot of
mercury entering
cury was enter copper, or gold. Unfortunately, one of uncertainty,” Streets concedes, “but
the consistent contaminants is mer- we know more than we did before.”
the atmosphere. e. Usually cury, and the heating process allows In 2005 Streets and his team
it to escape into the atmosphere in reported their first tally of human-
they turned away,
y were turne gaseous form. Similarly, coal con- generated mercury emissions in
tains trace amounts of mercury, China, for the year 1999. The scientists
but every
ver so often a which is set free during combustion estimated the amount at 590 tons (the
at power plants. United States emitted 117 tons). Almost
manager let them in with Streets began by studying reports half resulted from the smelting of
from China’s National Bureau of Sta- metals—especially zinc, because its
the promise of anonymity. tistics. China’s provinces provide the ores contain a high concentration of

60

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sions (not only from industry but
SOUTH also from volcanoes, wildfires, and
KOREA dust storms), Asia drew Friedli’s
interest. China would never allow
him to do aerial studies in its air-
space, but in 2001 he heard about
JAPAN
research flights off the coasts of
Japan, Korea, and China designed to
track dust particles emanating from
the mainland. Friedli convinced the
research team to take him along to
measure mercury concentrations in
the atmosphere. Throughout April
2001, 19 researchers, professors, and
grad students took 16 flights aboard
a cavernous retired Navy C-130 plane
custom fit with 19 instruments for
measuring pollutants like carbon
CHINA monoxide, sulfur, and ozone.
During each flight, Friedli sat at
his station awaiting readouts from
his mercury sensor: an intake valve
TAIWAN that sucked in air and guided it over
a gold cartridge within the plane. Any
mercury in the air would be absorbed
by the gold. Every five minutes the
instrument rapidly heated the gold,
releasing any trapped mercury.
On the Pollution Trail Plumes of mercury-laced air near
the earth’s surface are mixed with other
This NASA satellite photo of East Asia documents a significant mercury readings on Mount Bachelor (the pollutants, but at 20,000 feet Friedli
common path for industrial pollutants once they enter highest concentrations are in red). The model indi- discovered concentrated mercury
the atmosphere; along the way, South Korea and cates that Asian mercury can reach western North plumes soaring eastward toward North
Japan can receive acid rain resulting from China’s America in as little as four days. Satellite images
sulfate emissions. The inset map is a computer and atmospheric models such as these have helped America. He concluded those plumes
model of Asian mercury emissions across the Pacific Jaffe demonstrate how mercury and other emissions must have circled the entire globe at
Ocean at an altitude of 20,000 feet in April 2004, from China feed into a complex network of air cur- least once, releasing more ephemeral
while atmospheric chemist Dan Jaffe was picking up rents that distribute pollutants across the globe. pollutants like carbon monoxide so
that the mercury stood out even more.
Eager to follow the trail of Asian
mercury plumes, Friedli set his sights
mercury. Coal-burning power plants churning out mercury, but he was left across the Pacific, off the West Coast
accounted for another 38 percent with a big uncertainty: What hap- of the United States. In a series of 11
of Chinese mercury emissions, and pened to it on its journey aloft? Find- research flights in 2002, he identified
that percentage may be going up. As ing the answer fell to Hans Friedli, a a plume that looked very much like
recently as 2007, China was build- chemist at the National Center for the ones he’d found near China the
ing two new power plants a week, Atmospheric Research (ncar) who year before. Specifically, the plume
NASA. INSET: ASHU DASTOOR AND DIDIER DAVIGNON

according to John Ashton, a climate had spent 33 years working for Dow had a carbon monoxide-to-mercury
official in the United Kingdom. Chemical. Friedli had found his own ratio that served as a fingerprint for
Streets’s team published a subse- path into the esoteric world of pollu- gases from the same source.
quent inventory estimating that Chi- tion forensics. Back in the early 1990s, What Friedli detected was just one
na’s mercury emissions had jumped a conversation with his neighbor, an detail of a much larger picture. Mer-
to 767 tons in 2003. “Mercury emis- ncar scientist, sparked an interest in cury plumes can wobble in latitude
sions in China have grown at about wildfires, a major source of mercury and altitude or park themselves in one
5 to 6 percent a year,” he says. “It’s emissions. By 1998 he had a full-time spot for days on end. Emissions from
pretty much undeniable.” job tracking the toxin for ncar. China—and from the United States,
Streets had shown that China was With its copious mercury emis- and indeed from every industrial

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country—feed a network of air cur- lodge they installed a small computer were a shock to many scientists, Jaffe
rents that, as equal-opportunity lab and extended tubes outside to says, because “they still couldn’t
polluters, serve up toxic mercury vacuum up the air. Later that year wrap their heads around the magni-
around the world. they conducted a similar experiment tude of the pollution and how dirty
in Okinawa, Japan. China’s industry was.” They were only
drawing insights from research by Back in Washington, they plotted starting to understand the global
Friedli and Streets, Jaffe looked at their analysis of mercury in the air nature of the mercury problem.
his data anew. If mercury were arriv- against satellite data showing wind Over the years, Jaffe’s Mount Bach-
ing from China, he should be able to currents. “My hypothesis was that elor Observatory has also monitored
detect it, yet his operation on Cheeka we would see the same chemicals, many other noxious pollutants waft-
Peak showed no such signal. Conduct- including the same ratio of mercury ing across the Pacific. One major cat-
ing reconnaissance from a plane, he to carbon monoxide, from Mount egory is sulfates, associated with lung
realized why. The peak, at 1,500 feet, Bachelor and Japan,” Jaffe says. and heart disease. When sulfur diox-
hovered below the mercury plume The numbers showed exactly the ide exits China’s coal and oil smoke-
line. Seeking a higher perch, he chose expected similarity. “This was a real stacks, it converts into sulfates in the
Mount Bachelor, a ski resort in central ‘aha’ moment for us, because the two air. “Sulfates are water-soluble and get
Oregon with an altitude of 9,000 feet. regions were phenomenally close.” removed from the atmosphere rela-
In late winter 2004, Jaffe and his It was the first time anyone had tively quickly, creating acid rain that
students huddled deep in their down decisively identified Asian mercury falls in China, Korea, and Japan,” Jaffe
jackets, bracing against a bitter gale in American air, and the quantities says. Yet some of the sulfates stay aloft,
that buffeted the chairlift ferrying were stunning. The levels Jaffe mea- finding their way here and contribut-
them and their costly equipment to sured suggested that Asia was churn- ing to smog along the West Coast.
the summit. Inside the mountaintop ing out 1,400 tons a year. The results Another Chinese import is black

China’s Green Army


In September 2009, a has led to more aggres- industries to adhere to
leather factory in Shang- sive action on pollution new national regulations.
hai owned by the Fuguo control,” says Jennifer Through a program called
company hosted an un- Turner of the Woodrow the Green Choice Alliance,
likely gathering: an open Wilson International environmental groups
house for residents, jour- Center for Scholars. publish lists of companies
nalists, and environmental The green movement in violation of environ-
groups to discuss the is empowered by China’s mental regulations and
company’s air pollution bottom line. It is esti- offer to conduct a third-
violations. In a country mated that the country party audit if a company
long known for secrecy is losing some 8 percent chooses to clean up its
and environmental disre- of its wealth each year act. Last year, under the
gard, such an event would to pollution, with the toll supervision of environ-
have been unheard of including everything from mental groups, indepen-
just a few years before. crops destroyed by acid dent auditors found that
But the company’s hand rain to spiraling health Fuguo’s Shanghai leather
had been forced by newly costs due to poor air and factory had rectified
assertive Chinese environ- water quality. With the its major violations and
mental groups, which scale of the crisis clear, reduced gas emissions.
reported the factory’s a government notorious From 2005 to 2009,
violations and brought for throwing activists China cut its sulfur diox-
them to the attention of in prison is allowing ide emissions by between
Timberland, the U.S. shoe environmentalists an 22 million and 25.5 mil-
and clothing seller that active role. lion tons. Clearly there is
is one of Fuguo’s biggest More than 3,500 envi- still a long way to go, but
customers. ronmental organizations Turner says these groups
Faced with an eco- now have legal status in will force the government
logical crisis, the Chinese China. While activists to keep its foot on the
government is slowly en- there are not as vocal pedal. “The challenges
QILAI SHEN/GETTY IMAGES

acting new environmental as their counterparts China faces are just mind-
regulations, but it is the in Europe or the United boggling,” she says, “but
country’s increasingly in- States, they have made these groups are pushing
fluential green movement an impact by encouraging the government in the
that is enforcing them. transparency and pressur- right direction.”
“Environmental activism ing local governments and ANDREW GRANT

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carbon, the soot produced by cars, heart disease, lung disease, and death.
stoves, factories, and crop burning Jaffe recently coauthored a paper
and a major component of Chinese
haze. The small diameter of the car-
on Asian ozone coming to America.
It found that ozone levels above
All the atmosphere
bon particles means they can pene-
trate deep inside the lungs, providing
western North America creep upward
every spring. “When air was coming
is interconnected.
absorption sites for secondary toxins
that would otherwise be cleared. This
from Asia, the trend was strongest.
That was the nail in the coffin,” Jaffe
People are still coming
compounds the danger, making black
carbon an especially potent risk factor
says. “The increase was estimated at
0.5 part per billion [ppb] per year. But
to terms with the
for lung disease and premature death.
The biggest pollutant coming out of
that’s huge. In 10 years that’s another
5 ppb. Let’s say the epa orders a 5
reality that it applies to
Asia, at least in terms of sheer mass,
could be dust from the region’s swell-
ppb reduction and we achieve that,
and yet, because of the growing glob-
industrial pollutants.
ants
ing deserts. “It’s not a new phenom- al pool, in 10 years that gets wiped
enon,” Jaffe says, but it has gotten out. We’ll have to keep reducing our ring to a dilemma in which indi-
worse with deforestation and desert- emissions just to stay even.” viduals act in their own self-interest
ification caused by poorly managed and deplete a shared resource. “If 20
agriculture. About every three years, the underlying message of jaffe’s people are fishing in the same pond,
a huge dust storm over China sends detective work should not be all that with no fishing limit, then you catch
enormous clouds across the Pacific. surprising: All of the world’s atmo- as many as you can because it will
“We can visually see it,” Jaffe says. “It sphere is interconnected. People have be empty in weeks. Nobody has an
usually hangs around for about a week. accepted this notion when it comes incentive to conserve, and the same
We’ve tried to quantify how much it to carbon dioxide or the chemicals that goes for pollution. ”
contributes to the particulate loading eat away at the ozone layer, but Jaffe is The discovery of the global mercury
here, and it’s a little under 10 percent of finding that they are still coming to cycle underscores the need for an
the U.S. standard on average each year. terms with the reality that it applies international treaty to address such
It’s a significant amount.” to industrial pollutants in general. pollutants. Under the auspices of the
Chinese dust has obscured vis- The fact is, those pollutants are United Nations, negotiations have at
tas in U.S. national parks, even on everybody’s responsibility, not just least begun. Jaffe, Streets, and China’s
the East Coast. The amount of dust China’s. The epa has estimated that Xinbin Feng are now consultants to the
is widely variable and can hit rare just one-quarter of U.S. mercury emis- U.N. Environment Programme’s Global
extreme peaks. The highest level sions from coal-burning power plants Partnership on Mercury Atmospheric
recorded was from a 2001 dust event. are deposited within the contiguous Transport and Fate Research, which
“It reached approximately two-thirds U.S. The remainder enters the global helped contribute data that led to a
of the U.S. air quality standard at cycle. Conversely, current estimates proposed U.N. mercury treaty in 2009.
several sites along the West Coast,” are that less than half of all mercury When it comes to some pollutants,
he reports. One study from Taiwan deposition within the United States China has taken important steps. For
tracked avian flu outbreaks down- comes from American sources. instance, recent policies encourage
wind of Asian dust storms and found Then again, the United States has desulfurization and other filtering
that the flu virus might be transport- spent considerable effort over the technology in power plants. But con-
ed long-distance by air spiked with past half-century trying to clean vincing developing nations to move
the dust. up its act. China is still much more aggressively on mercury may be at
Perhaps the most counterintuitive focused on production. To fuel its least as tough as mobilizing them
traveling contaminant is ozone, com- boom, China has become a pioneer in against carbon emissions. “This is not
monly associated with ground-level wind power but has also begun buy- considered a pollutant that urgently
pollution in cities. Volatile organic ing up huge inventories of coal from needs to be controlled on the national
compounds, carbon monoxide, and markets around the world. Streets level,” Feng says. “It’s not fair that you
nitrogen oxides from Asian cars and recently estimated that China’s use emitted so much mercury and other
industry mix in the atmosphere as they of coal for electricity generation will pollutants when you had the chance
cross the Pacific Ocean and convert in rise nearly 40 percent over the next to industrialize. You had 200 years,
sunlight into ozone, a main ingredient decade, from 1.29 billion tons last and now you want to stop other coun-
in smog, Jaffe explains. When air with year to 1.77 billion tons in 2020. That tries from developing too.”
high ozone concentrations touches is a lot more pollution to come. “We need to be concerned,” Jaffe
down in North America, it can pose “It’s a classic example of a tragedy counters in his low-key way. “There is
the classic dangers of urban smog: of the commons, ” Jaffe says, refer- no Planet B. We all live downwind.”

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04.2011
WorldMags
T H E D I SCOV ER I N T E R V I E W

Lynn
Margulis
A conversation with Lynn Margulis is an effective way to change the way you think
about life. Not just your life. All life. Scientists today recognize five groups of life:
bacteria, protoctists (amoebas, seaweed), fungi (yeast, mold, mushrooms), plants,
and animals. Margulis, a self-described “evolutionist,” makes a convincing case that
there are really just two groups, bacteria and everything else.
That distinction led to her career-making insight. In a 1967 paper published in the
Journal of Theoretical Biology, Margulis suggested that mitochondria and plastids
—vital structures within animal and plant cells—evolved from bacteria hundreds of
million of years ago, after bacterial cells started to collect in interactive commu-
nities and live symbiotically with one another. The resulting mergers yielded the
compound cells known as eukaryotes, which in turn gave rise to all the rest—the
protoctists, fungi, plants, and animals, including humans. The notion that we are all
the children of bacteria seemed outlandish at the time, but it is now widely sup-
ported and accepted. “The evolution of the eukaryotic cells was the single most
important event in the history of the organic world,” said Ernst Mayr, the leading
evolutionary biologist of the last century. “Margulis’s contribution to our understand-
ing the symbiotic factors was of enormous importance.”
Her subsequent ideas remain decidedly more controversial. Margulis came to

BY DICK TERESI PHOTOGRAPHY BY BOB O’CONNOR

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Q+
A
view symbiosis as the central
force behind the evolution of new
species, an idea that has been
dismissed by modern biologists.
The dominant theory of evolution
(often called neo-Darwinism) holds
that new species arise through the
gradual accumulation of random
mutations, which are either favored
or weeded out by natural selec-
tion. To Margulis, random mutation
and natural selection are just cogs
in the gears of evolution; the big
leaps forward result from mergers
between different kinds of organ-
isms, what she calls symbiogenesis.
Viewing life as one giant network
of social connections has set
Margulis against the mainstream
in other high-profile ways as well.
She disputes the current medical

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‘‘
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understanding of aids and considers every kind of life to be “con-
scious” in a sense.
Margulis herself is a highly social organism. Now 71, she is a well-
known sight at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where The world is like a
she is on the geosciences faculty, riding her bike in all weather and
at all times of day. Interviewer Dick Teresi, a neighbor, almost ran pointillist painting, and
her over when, dressed in a dark coat, she cycled in front of his car
late at night. On the three occasions that they met for this interview, the points are living
Teresi couldn’t help noticing that Margulis shared her home with
numerous others: family, students, visiting scholars, friends, friends bodies. Every life-form is
of friends, and anybody interesting who needed a place to stay.
a community of bacteria.”
Most scientists would say there is no controversy over evolu-
tion. Why do you disagree?
All scientists agree that evolution has occurred—that all life comes
from a common ancestry, that there has been extinction, and that you have hanging earlobes or attached earlobes? Are you female or
new taxa, new biological groups, have arisen. The question is, is natu- male? Mendel found seven traits that followed his laws exactly. But
ral selection enough to explain evolution? Is it the driver of evolution? neo-Darwinists say that new species emerge when mutations occur
and modify an organism. I was taught over and over again that the
And you don’t believe that natural selection is the answer? accumulation of random mutations led to evolutionary change—
This is the issue I have with neo-Darwinists: They teach that what led to new species. I believed it until I looked for evidence.
is generating novelty is the accumulation of random mutations
in dna, in a direction set by natural selection. If you want bigger What kind of evidence turned you against neo-Darwinism?
eggs, you keep selecting the hens that are laying the biggest eggs, What you’d like to see is a good case for gradual change from one spe-
and you get bigger and bigger eggs. But you also get hens with cies to another in the field, in the laboratory, or in the fossil record—
defective feathers and wobbly legs. Natural selection eliminates and preferably in all three. Darwin’s big mystery was why there was
and maybe maintains, but it doesn’t create. no record at all before a specific point [dated to 542 million years ago
by modern researchers], and then all of a sudden in the fossil record
That seems like a fairly basic objection. How, then, do you you get nearly all the major types of animals. The paleontologists
think the neo-Darwinist perspective became so entrenched? Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould studied lakes in East Africa
In the first half of the 20th century, neo-Darwinism became the and on Caribbean islands looking for Darwin’s gradual change from
name for the people who reconciled the type of gradual evolu- one species of trilobite or snail to another. What they found was lots
tionary change described by Charles Darwin with Gregor Men- of back-and-forth variation in the population and then—whoop—a
del’s rules of heredity [which first gained widespread recognition whole new species. There is no gradualism in the fossil record.
around 1900], in which fixed traits are passed from one generation
to the next. The problem was that the laws of genetics showed Gould used the term “punctuated equilibrium” to describe
stasis, not change. If you have pure breeding red flowers and pure what he interpreted as actual leaps in evolutionary change.
breeding white flowers, like carnations, you cross them and you Most biologists disagreed, suggesting a wealth of missing fossil
get pink flowers. You back-cross them to the red parent and you could evidence yet to be found. Where do you stand in the debate?
get three-quarters red, one-quarter white. Mendel showed that “Punctuated equilibrium” was invented to describe the discontinuity
the grandparent flowers and the offspring flowers could be identi- in the appearance of new species, and symbiogenesis supports the
cal to each other. There was no change through time. idea that these discontinuities are real. An example: Most clams live
There’s no doubt that Mendel was correct. But Darwinism says in deep, fairly dark waters. Among one group of clams is a species
that there has been change through time, since all life comes whose ancestors ingested algae—a typical food—but failed to digest
from a common ancestor—something that appeared to be sup- them and kept the algae under their shells. The shell, with time,
ported when, early in the 20th century, scientists discovered that became translucent, allowing sunlight in. The clams fed off their cap-
X-rays and specific chemicals caused mutations. But did the neo- tive algae and their habitat expanded into sunlit waters. So there’s
Darwinists ever go out of their offices? Did they or their modern a discontinuity between the dark-dwelling, food-gathering ances-
followers, the population geneticists, ever go look at what’s hap- tor and the descendants that feed themselves photosynthetically.
pening in nature the way Darwin did? Darwin was a fine naturalist.
If you really want to study evolution, you’ve got go outside some- What about the famous “beak of the finch” evolutionary stud-
time, because you’ll see symbiosis everywhere! ies of the 1970s? Didn’t they vindicate Darwin?
Peter and Rosemary Grant, two married evolutionary biologists,
So did Mendel miss something? Was Darwin wrong? said, ‘To hell with all this theory; we want to get there and look
I’d say both are incomplete. The traits that follow Mendel’s laws at speciation happening.’ They measured the eggs, beaks, et cetera,
are trivial. Do you have a widow’s peak or a straight hairline? Do of finches on Daphne Island, a small, hilly former volcano top in

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Ecuador’s Galápagos, year after year. They found that during floods called macromutation, and I was denigrated in 1967 at Harvard
or other times when there are no big seeds, the birds with big beaks for mentioning it. “You believe in macromutation? You believe in
can’t eat. The birds die of starvation and go extinct on that island. acquired characteristics?” the important professor Keith Porter
asked me with a sneer. No, I believe in acquired genomes.
Did the Grants document the emergence of new species?
They saw this big shift: the large-beaked birds going extinct, the small- Can you give an example of symbiogenesis in action?
beaked ones spreading all over the island and being selected for the Look at this cover of Plant Physiology [a major journal in the field].
kinds of seeds they eat. They saw lots of variation within a species, The animal is a juvenile slug. It has no photosynthesis ancestry.
changes over time. But they never found any new species—ever. They Then it feeds on algae and takes in chloroplasts. This photo is taken
would say that if they waited long enough they’d find a new species. two weeks later. Same animal. The slug is completely green. It took
in algae chloroplasts, and it became completely photosynthetic
Some of your criticisms of natural selection sound a lot like and lies out in the sun. At the end of September, these slugs turn
those of Michael Behe, one of the most famous proponents of red and yellow and look like dead leaves. When they lay eggs, those
“intelligent design,” and yet you have debated Behe. What is eggs contain the gene for photosynthesis inside. Or look at a cow. It
the difference between your views? is a 40-gallon fermentation tank on four legs. It cannot digest grass
The critics, including the creationist critics, are right about their and needs a whole mess of symbiotic organisms in its overgrown
criticism. It’s just that they’ve got nothing to offer but intelligent esophagus to digest it. The difference between cows and related
design or “God did it.” They have no alternatives that are scientific. species like bison or musk ox should be traced, in part, to the differ-
ent symbionts they maintain.
You claim that the primary mechanism of evolution is not
mutation but symbiogenesis, in which new species emerge But if these symbiotic partnerships are so stable, how can they
through the symbiotic relationship between two or more kinds also drive evolutionary change?
of organisms. How does that work? Symbiosis is an ecological phenomenon where one kind of organ-
All visible organisms are products of symbiogenesis, without ism lives in physical contact with another. Long-term symbio-
exception. Th e bacteria are the unit. Th e way I think about the sis leads to new intracellular structures, new organs and organ
whole world is that it’s like a pointillist painting. You get far systems, and new species as one being incorporates another
away and it looks like Seurat’s famous painting of people in the being that is already good at something else. This major mode of
park. Look closely: Th e points are living bodies—different dis- evolutionary innovation has been ignored by the so-called evolu-
tributions of bacteria. Th e living world thrived long before the tionary biologists. They think they own evolution, but they’re basi-
origin of nucleated organisms [the eukaryotic cells, which have cally anthropocentric zoologists. They’re playing the game while
genetic material enclosed in well-defined membranes]. Th ere missing four out of five of the cards. The five are bacteria, pro-
were no animals, no plants, no fungi. It was an all-bacterial toctists, fungi, animals, and plants, and they’re playing with just
world—bacteria that have become very good at finding special- animals—a fifth of the deck. The evolutionary biologists believe
ized niches. Symbiogenesis recognizes that every visible life- the evolutionary pattern is a tree. It’s not. The evolutionary pat-
form is a combination or community of bacteria. tern is a web—the branches fuse, like when algae and slugs come
together and stay together.
How could communities of bacteria have formed completely
new, more complex levels of life? In contrast, the symbiotic view of evolution has a long lineage
Symbiogenesis recognizes that the mitochondria [the energy in Russia, right?
factories] in animal, plant, and fungal cells came from oxygen- From the very beginning the Russians said natural selection was a
respiring bacteria and that chloroplasts in plants and algae— process of elimination and could not produce all the diversity we
which perform photosynthesis—came from cyanobacteria. These see. They understood that symbiogenesis was a major source of
used to be called blue-green algae, and they produce the oxygen innovation, and they rejected Darwin. If the English-speaking world
that all animals breathe. owns natural selection, the Russians own symbiogenesis. In 1924,
this man Boris Mikhaylovich Kozo-Polyansky wrote a book called
Are you saying that a free-living bacterium became part of the Symbiogenesis: A New Principle of Evolution, in which he reconciled
cell of another organism? How could that have happened? Darwin’s natural selection as the eliminator and symbiogenesis as
At some point an amoeba ate a bacterium but could not digest it. the innovator. Kozo-Polyansky looked at cilia—the wavy hairs that
The bacterium produced oxygen or made vitamins, providing a some microbes use to move—and said it is not beyond the realm of
survival advantage to both itself and the amoeba. Eventually the possibility that cilia, the tails of sperm cells, came from “flagellated
bacteria inside the amoeba became the mitochondria. The green cytodes,” by which he clearly meant swimming bacteria.
dots you see in the cells of plants originated as cyanobacteria.
This has been proved without a doubt. Has that idea ever been verified?
The sense organs of vertebrates have modified cilia: The rods
And that kind of partnership drives major evolutionary change? and cone cells of the eye have cilia, and the balance organ in the
The point is that evolution goes in big jumps. That idea has been inner ear is lined with sensory cilia. You tilt your head to one

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04.2011
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side and little calcium carbonate stones in your inner ear hit the
cilia. This has been known since shortly after electron microscopy
came in 1963. Sensory cilia did not come from random muta-
tions. Th ey came by acquiring a whole genome of a symbiotic
bacterium that could already sense light or motion. Specifically,
I think it was a spirochete [a corkscrew-shaped bacterium] that
became the cilium.

Don’t spirochetes cause syphilis?


Yes, and Lyme disease. There are many kinds of spirochetes, and if
I’m right, some of them are ancestors to the cilia in our cells. Spi-
rochete bacteria are already optimized for sensitivity to motion,
light, and chemicals. All eukaryotic cells have an internal trans-
port system. If I’m right, the whole system—called the cytoskele-
tal system—came from the incorporation of ancestral spirochetes.
Mitosis, or cell division, is a kind of internal motility system that
came from these free-living, symbiotic, swimming bacteria. Here
[she shows a video] we compare isolated swimming sperm tails
to free-swimming spirochetes. Is that clear enough?

And yet these ideas are not generally accepted. Why?


Do you want to believe that your sperm tails come from some spi-
rochetes? Most men, most evolutionary biologists, don’t. When
they understand what I’m saying, they don’t like it.

We usually think of bacteria as strictly harmful. You disagree?


We couldn’t live without them. They maintain our ecological
physiology. There are vitamins in bacteria that you could not live
without. The movement of your gas and feces would never take fungal spore. Lyme disease spirochetes become round bodies if
place without bacteria. There are hundreds of ways your body you suspend them in distilled water. Then they come out and start
wouldn’t work without bacteria. Between your toes is a jungle; to grow as soon as you put them in the proper food medium with
under your arms is a jungle. There are bacteria in your mouth, serum in it. The common myth is that penicillin kills spirochetes
lots of spirochetes, and other bacteria in your intestines. We take and therefore syphilis is not a problem. But syphilis is a major
for granted their influence. Bacteria are our ancestors. One of my problem because the spirochetes stay hidden as round bodies
students years ago cut himself deeply with glass and accidentally and become part of the person’s very chemistry, which they com-
inoculated himself with at least 10 million spirochetes. We were mandeer to reproduce themselves. Indeed, the set of symptoms,
all scared but nothing happened. He didn’t even have an allergic or syndrome, presented by syphilitics overlaps completely with
reaction. This tells you that unless these microbes have a history another syndrome: aids.
with people, they’re harmless.
Wait—you are suggesting that AIDS is really syphilis?
Are you saying that the only harmful bacteria are the ones that There is a vast body of literature on syphilis spanning from the 1500s
share an evolutionary history with us? until after World War II, when the disease was supposedly cured by
Right. Dangerous spirochetes, like the treponema of syphilis or penicillin. Yet the same symptoms now describe aids perfectly. It’s in
the borrelia of Lyme disease, have long-standing symbiotic rela- our paper “Resurgence of the Great Imitator.” Our claim is that there’s
tionships with us. Probably they had relationships with the pre- no evidence that hiv is an infectious virus, or even an entity at all.
human apes from which humans evolved. Treponema has lost There’s no scientific paper that proves the hiv virus causes aids. Kary
four-fifths of its genes, because you’re doing four-fifths of the Mullis [winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for dna sequencing, and well
work for it. And yet people don’t want to understand that chronic known for his unconventional scientific views] said in an interview
spirochete infection is an example of symbiosis. that he went looking for a reference substantiating that hiv causes
aids and discovered, “There is no such document.”
You have upset many medical researchers with the suggestion Syphilis has been called “the great imitator” because patients
that corkscrew-shaped spirochetes turn into dormant “round show a whole range of symptoms in a given order. You have a gen-
bodies.” What’s that debate all about? ital chancre, your symptoms go away, then you have the pox, this
Spirochetes turn into round bodies in any unfavorable condition skin problem, and then it’s chronic, and you get sicker and sicker.
where they survive but cannot grow. The round body is a dormant The idea that penicillin kills the cause of the disease is nuts. If you
stage that has all the genes and can start growing again, like a treat the painless chancre in the first few days of infection, you may

70

WorldMags
DISCOVER
‘‘
WorldMags
about 3 million years. And humans? You know what the index
fossil of Homo sapiens in the recent fossil record is going to be?
There will be a layer in The squashed remains of the automobile. There will be a layer
in the fossil record where you’re going to know people were here
the fossil record where because of the automobiles. It will be a very thin layer.

you’ll know people Do we overrate ourselves as a species?


Yes, but we can’t help it. Look, there are nearly 7,000 million people
were here because of the on earth today and there are 10,000 chimps, and the numbers are
getting fewer every day because we’re destroying their habitat. Reg
squashed remains of Morrison, who wrote a wonderful book called The Spirit in the Gene,
says that although we’re 99 percent genetically in common with
automobiles. It will be a chimps, that 1 percent makes a huge difference. Why? Because it
makes us believe that we’re the best on earth. But there is lots of
very thin layer.” evidence that we are “mammalian weeds.” Like many mammals, we
overgrow our habitats and that leads to poverty, misery, and wars.

Why do you have a reputation as a heretic?


stop the bacterium before the symbiosis develops, but if you really Anyone who is overtly critical of the foundations of his science
get syphilis, all you can do is live with the spirochete. The spiro- is persona non grata. I am critical of evolutionary biology that is
chete lives permanently as a symbiont in the patient. The infection based on population genetics. I call it zoocentrism. Zoologists are
cannot be killed because it becomes part of the patient’s genome taught that life starts with animals, and they block out four-fifths
and protein synthesis biochemistry. After syphilis establishes this of the information in biology [by ignoring the other four major
symbiotic relationship with a person, it becomes dependent on groups of life] and all of the information in geology.
human cells and is undetectable by any testing.
You have attacked population genetics—the foundation of much
Is there a connection here between syphilis and Lyme disease, current evolutionary research—as “numerology.” What do you
which is also caused by a spirochete and which is also said to be mean by that term?
difficult to treat when diagnosed late? When evolutionary biologists use computer modeling to find out
Both the treponema that cause syphilis and the borrelia that cause how many mutations you need to get from one species to another,
Lyme disease contain only a fifth of the genes they need to live on it’s not mathematics—it’s numerology. They are limiting the field
their own. Related spirochetes that can live outside by themselves of study to something that’s manageable and ignoring what’s most
need 5,000 genes, whereas the spirochetes of those two diseases important. They tend to know nothing about atmospheric chemis-
have only 1,000 in their bodies. The 4,000 missing gene products try and the influence it has on the organisms or the influence that
needed for bacterial growth can be supplied by wet, warm human the organisms have on the chemistry. They know nothing about bio-
tissue. This is why both the Lyme disease borrelia and syphilis logical systems like physiology, ecology, and biochemistry. Darwin
treponema are symbionts—they require another body to survive. was saying that changes accumulate through time, but population
These borrelia and treponema have a long history inside people. geneticists are describing mixtures that are temporary. Whatever is
Syphilis has been detected in skull abnormalities going back to the brought together by sex is broken up in the next generation by the
ancient Egyptians. But I’m interested in spirochetes only because of same process. Evolutionary biology has been taken over by popula-
our ancestry. I’m not interested in the diseases. tion geneticists. They are reductionists ad absurdum.
Population geneticist Richard Lewontin gave a talk here at
When you talk about the evolutionary intelligence of bacteria, it UMass Amherst about six years ago, and he mathematized all of
almost sounds like you think of them as conscious beings. it—changes in the population, random mutation, sexual selec-
I do think consciousness is a property of all living cells. All cells tion, cost and benefit. At the end of his talk he said, “You know,
are bounded by a membrane of their own making. To sense chemi- we’ve tried to test these ideas in the field and the lab, and there
cals—food or poisons—it takes a cell. To have a sense of smell are really no measurements that match the quantities I’ve told
takes a cell. To sense light, it takes a cell. You have to have a you about.” This just appalled me. So I said, “Richard Lewontin,
bounded entity with photoreceptors inside to sense light. Bacte- you are a great lecturer to have the courage to say it’s gotten you
ria are conscious. These bacterial beings have been around since nowhere. But then why do you continue to do this work?” And he
the origin of life and still are running the soil and the air and looked around and said, “It’s the only thing I know how to do, and
affecting water quality. if I don’t do it I won’t get my grant money.” So he’s an honest man,
and that’s an honest answer.
Your perspective is rather humbling.
The species of some of the protoctists are 542 million years old. Do you ever get tired of being called controversial?
Mammal species have a mean lifetime in the fossil record of I don’t consider my ideas controversial. I consider them right.

71

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04.2011
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recognition programs used by Schalk’s and lem with sticking this helmet on the head
D’Zmura’s teams and then adding, little by lit- of a pilot to allow him to send commands
tle, to the library of words that these programs on a plane. The problem comes when you
can discern. “Whether we can get to fully free- try to get detailed information about what
flowing, civilian-type speech, I don’t know. It someone is either thinking or saying non-
would be nice. We’re pushing the limits of verbally. That’s something else altogether.
what we can get, opening the vocabulary as The skull should remain a realm of absolute
much as we can,” Schmeisser says. privacy. If the right to privacy means any-
thing, it means the right to the contents of
for some concerned citizens, this my thoughts.”

F
continued from page 54
research is pushing too far. Among the more Schmeisser says he has been reflecting
paranoid set, the mere fact that the mili- on this kind of concern “from the begin-
tary is trying to create a thought helmet is ning.” He dismisses the most extreme type
hundreds of squiggly lines representing proof of a conspiracy to subject the masses of worry out of hand. “The very nature of
Lappas’s brain activity as it was picked up to mind control. More grounded critics the technology and of the human brain,” he
from the surface of his scalp. Somewhere consider the project ethically questionable. maintains, “would prevent any Big Brother
in that mass of data, Lappas hoped, were Since the Army’s thought helmet project type of use.” Even the most sophisticated
patterns unique enough to distinguish the became publicly known, Schmeisser has existing speech-recognition programs can
sentences from one another. been deluged with Freedom of Information obtain only 95 percent accuracy, and that is
With so much information, the problem Act requests from individuals and organi- after being calibrated and trained by a user
would not be finding similarities but rather zations concerned about privacy issues. to compensate for accent, intonation, and
filtering out the similarities that were irrel- Those requests for documentation have phrasing. Brain waves are “much harder” to
evant. Something as simple as the blink of required countless hours and continue get right, Schmeisser notes, because every
an eye creates a tremendous number of to this day. brain is anatomically different and uniquely
squiggles and lines that might throw off Schalk, for his part, has resolved to keep shaped by experience.
the recognition program. To make matters a low profile. From his experience working Merely calibrating a program to recog-
more challenging, Lappas decided at this with more invasive techniques, he had seen nize a simple sentence from brain waves
early stage in the experiment to search for his fair share of controversy in the field, would take hours. “If your thoughts wan-
patterns not only in the auditory cortex but and he anticipated that this project might der for just an instant, the computer is
in other areas of the brain as well. attract close scrutiny. “All you need to do is completely lost,” Schmeisser says. “So the
That expanded search added to the data say, ‘The U.S. Army funds studies to implant method is completely ethical. There is
his computer had to crunch through. In people for mind reading,’ ” he says. “That’s no way to coerce users into training the
the end, the software was able to identify all it takes, and then you’re going to have to machine if they don’t want to. Any attempt
the sentence a test subject was imagining do damage control.” to apply coercion will result in more brain
speaking only about 45 percent of the time. D’Zmura and the rest of his team, perhaps wave disorganization, from stress if noth-
The result was hardly up to military stan- to their regret, granted interviews about their ing else, and produce even worse computer
dards; an error rate of 55 percent would be preliminary research after it was announced performance.” Despite the easy analogies,
disastrous on the battlefield. in a UC Irvine press release. The negative synthetic telepathy bears little resemblance
Schmeisser is not distressed by that high reaction was immediate. Bizarre e-mail to mystical notions of mind reading and
error rate. He is confident that synthetic messages began appearing in D’Zmura’s mind control. The bottom line, Schmeisser
telepathy can and will rapidly improve to in-box from individuals ranting against the insists, “is that I see no risks whatsoever.
the point where it will be useful in combat. government or expressing concern that Only benefits.”
“When we first started this, we didn’t know the authorities were already monitoring Nor does he feel any unease that his
if it could be done,” he says. “That we have their thoughts. One afternoon, a woman funding comes from a military agency eager
gotten this far is wonderful.” Poeppel agrees. appeared outside D’Zmura’s office com- to put synthetic telepathy to use on the
“The fact that they could find anything just plaining of voices in her head and asking battlefield. The way he sees it, the potential
blows me away, frankly,” he says. for assistance to remove them. payoff is simply too great.
Schmeisser notes that D’Zmura has Should synthetic telepathy make sig- “This project is attempting to make the
already shown that test subjects can type in nificant progress, the worried voices will scientific breakthrough that will have appli-
Morse code by thinking of specific vowels surely grow louder. “Once we cross these cation for many things,” Schmeisser says.
in dots and dashes. Although this exercise is barriers, we are doing something that has “If we can get at the black box we call the
not actual language, subjects have achieved never before been done in human history, brain with the reduced dimensionality of
an accuracy of close to 100 percent. which is to get information directly from speech, then we will have made a begin-
The next steps in getting a thought hel- the brain,” says Emory University bioethi- ning to solving fundamental challenges in
met to work with actual language will be cist Paul Root Wolpe, a leading voice in the understanding how the brain works—and,
improving the accuracy of the pattern- field of neuroethics. “I don’t have a prob- with that, of understanding individuality.”

76

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japonica, a flowering plant native to Japan, has the long-

20 THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW


est known genome, nearly 150 billion base pairs. That’s
50 times as long as the human genome. 8. Aside from
bacteria, the smallest genome belongs to the intesti-
nal parasite Encephalitozoon intestinalis, with a trifling
2.3 billion base pairs. 9. Scientists are working to
create vaccines against hiv, flu, and hepatitis C from
ABOUT DNA snippets of synthetic dna; the dna tricks the body
into producing harmless viral proteins that train the
BY KIRSTEN WEIR 1. Sorry, Jimmy: James Watson and Francis Crick did immune system to attack real viruses. 10. dna vac-
not discover dna. That honor goes to Swiss biochemist cines for West Nile virus, melanoma, and hemorrhagic
ILLUSTRATION BY Friedrich Miescher, who in 1869 found the molecule in disease are already available for horses, dogs, and
JONATHON ROSEN the nuclei of white blood cells and called it nuclein. salmon, respectively. 11. At the Chinese University of
2. Nor did they figure out that dna is our genetic blue- Hong Kong, fetal dna was extracted from a pregnant
print; bacteriologist Oswald Avery and his colleagues woman’s blood plasma and tested for Down syndrome.
did that in the early 1940s. 3. What Watson and Crick Prenatal dna screening could someday replace amnio-
did do, in 1953, was decipher the double-helix structure centesis. 12. Telomeres, sequences of dna at the tips
of dna. Their discovery ran as a single-page paper in of chromosomes, get shorter every time a cell divides;
Nature. 4. Phosphorus is a key component of dna, but when they get too short, the cell dies. Some scientists
late last year a team of nasa scientists announced are trying to extend life by extending the telomere.
they had found a bacterium that could use arsenic 13. Good news if you’re a mouse: Researchers at
instead. “What else can life do that we haven’t seen Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston engineered
yet?” wondered lead researcher Felisa Wolfe-Simon. mice with telomerase (an enzyme that adds dna to
5. Don’t try this at home: If uncoiled, the dna in all the telomeres) that could be switched on and off. With
cells in your body would stretch 10 billion miles—from the enzyme activated, the mice grew new brain cells
here to Pluto and back. 6. Most of that dna resides not and lived longer. 14. Bad news if you’re a mouse:
in the cell nuclei, which control heredity, but in our Scientists at Osaka University recently developed
mitochondria, the organelles (units within cells) that mice that are especially susceptible to dna copy-
generate metabolic energy. 7. Puny humans: Paris ing errors, seeking to increase the rate of mutations
and see what new traits appear. 15. The results so
far include short-legged mice, mice with fewer toes
than normal, and mice that chirp like songbirds.
16. Guess who’s in your dna? At least 8 percent of the
human genome originated in viruses, whose genetic
code was integrated with ours over roughly 40 million
years of primate evolution. 17. Over the next five
years, the International Barcode of Life Project aims
to establish genetic identifiers for 500,000 species—
short sections of unique dna in the same location on
the genome, a bit like the upc on your box of Froot
Loops. 18. Already, forensic specialists can identify
criminals from traces of “touch dna” left in finger-
prints at a crime scene. 19. Next up: food forensics.
British microbiologists sequenced dna to identify
the bacteria in a round of Stilton blue. They found
that at least six microbial groups influence the flavor
of the cheese’s “dairy matrix.” 20. And scientists at
the University of Guelph in Ontario showed that dna
from the worm (actually an agave butterfly caterpillar)
traditionally placed in bottles of mescal leaches into
the liquor. So now we know: You don’t actually have
to “swallow the worm” to swallow the worm.

DISCOVER (ISSN 0274-7529, USPS# 555-190) is published monthly, except for combined issues in January/February and July/August. Vol. 32, no. 3. Published by Kalmbach Publishing Co., 21027 Crossroads Circle, P.O.
Box 1612, Waukesha, WI 53187-1612. Periodical postage paid at Waukesha, WI, and at additional mailing offices. POSTMASTER: Send address changes to DISCOVER, P.O. Box 37808, Boone, IA 50037. Canada Publication
Agreement # 40010760, return all undeliverable Canadian addresses to P.O. Box 875, STN A Windsor, ON, N9A 6P2.
Back issues available. All rights reserved. Nothing herein contained may be reproduced without written permission of Kalmbach Publishing Co., 90 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10011. Printed in the U.S.A.

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NBC News, DISCOVER, and the National Science Foundation present:

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The Most.
Fuel-Efficient.
And Fusion is the most fuel-efficient in America,
which is a pretty big place, with a lot of potential

Midsize.
competition. Or not much competition at all,
depending on how you’re measuring it.

Sedan. Either way, it’s definitely good news for Ford,

In. America.
for Fusion and for its drivers.

Think about it –
What does that mean exactly?
who wouldn’t love
the Fusion Hybrid
It means the
getting 41 city mpg?
41 city mpg Well, now that we think about it,
2011 Fusion Hybrid the 2011 Camry Hybrid, for one.
has a lot to say. Fusion beats it by a full 10 mpg in the city.

OK, so sure, Camry probably


isn’t one of Fusion’s biggest fans.
Seriously,
But, since Fusion is a hybrid,
just look at that claim, will you?
let’s hope we can find common
It’s quite the loaded statement.
ground in the fact that
Let’s
break
First off,
its superior
fuel economy
don’t overlook the fact that
it it’s a 2011. It’s easy to do,
down.
but 2011 means it’s new. (sometimes it uses no gas at all!)
Shiny and fresh, full of is better for the environment.
promise and possibilities.
So, in the grand scheme of things, the 2011 Fusion
Hybrid is doing some good for all of us. Even for the
Next
2011 Camry Hybrid. You’re welcome, Camry Hybrid.
– and this is a big one –
it’s the most fuel-efficient.
That means it has So there you have it. If you’re thirsty for more

FUSION
fuel economy info,
best-in-its-class mpg. THE
2011

you can find more of it,

HYBRID
And how many can say they’re
plus other exciting
the best in their category?
. Fusion news, at
Usually only one. And in this case,
The most fuel-efficient
it’s the Fusion Hybrid.
midsize sedan in America.* ford.com.
*EPA-estimated 41 city/36 hwy/39 combined mpg. Actual mileage will vary.
Midsize class per R. L. Polk & Co. vs. 2010/2011 competitors.

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