Year in Review: Science Stories of 2011
IRA FLATOW, HOST:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. When you look back on 2011, what will you remember, the Fukushima nuclear disaster following the tsunami? What about the death of Steve Jobs, founder of Apple and the pioneer of personal computing? How about the world's population reaching seven billion?
This year also marked the end of NASA's 30-year shuttle program, also the year that Android took lead over Apple in market share in smartphone tablet platforms. Google took on Facebook, it's become more friendly, and those and a lot of other science and technology stories made headlines in 2011.
What was most notable to you? You can share your picks with ours right here at SCIENCE FRIDAY. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Or tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. We have a panel of science journalists here to tell us what they think were the biggest science stories of the year, so let me introduce them around the table left to right on your radio here.
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FLATOW: Paul Raeburn, author of the forthcoming book "Do Fathers Matter?" He's a biology and medical writer at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at M.I.T. He also writes for Discover. Good to see you again, Paul.
PAUL RAEBURN: Nice to see you, Ira.
FLATOW: Right next to him is Mariette DiChristina. She is editor in chief and senior vice president of Scientific American.
MARIETTE DICHRISTINA: Hi, Ira.
FLATOW: Welcome. Steven Levy, senior writer at Wired.com and author of "In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives." Welcome back.
STEVEN LEVY: Hi, Ira.
FLATOW: And joining us from our studios in Washington, Matt Crenson, he's deputy managing editor for news at Science News, based in Washington. Welcome, Matt.
MATT CRENSON: Thanks for having me, Ira.
FLATOW: Matt, you're going to have to speak up for - to get a word in edgewise with us all sitting here. But that's all - I'll be courteous and give you the first up-to-bat. What was your favorite story or your pick of the story for this year?
CRENSON: Well, I think my favorite story was sort of a continuing Chapter Two in something that started last year. In 2010, they found that everyone who has any non-African descent has three or four percent Neanderthal DNA rattling around in their genome. In the follow-on story this year, it turns out that a number of groups, including Australian Aborigines and some people in Southeast Asia and the Philippines, have DNA from this other non-Homo Sapiens, but related species that's known only from a finger bone that was found in Russia somewhere.
So the idea of humans coming out of Africa and sort of taking over the world without interacting with anyone is deteriorating.
FLATOW: You mean the idea is deteriorating.
CRENSON: That's right.
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CRENSON: I mean...
FLATOW: Not the finger bone.
CRENSON: It's becoming clear that there were all sorts of other groups occupying the world not all that long...
FLATOW: Interesting story about all of that, where the origins of everything comes from, where we all come from. Mariette, what have you got on the top of your list?
DICHRISTINA: Hi, Ira. Well, I wanted to talk, briefly at least, about a tease. So we're not sure yet.
FLATOW: A tease.
DICHRISTINA: But I'm so excited about this, because literally, like many of us for decades have been watching as the various aspects of the best description we have of how the universe works, which is called the Standard Model, has been tested in numerous ways.
And now, so I'm going to go from inner space, right, with Neanderthals, to outer space and the cosmos beyond us and talk just for a second about the hints we had of the Higgs Boson.
FLATOW: Ah yes.
DICHRISTINA: And anybody who has hear these two words, Higgs Boson, and thought, well, what is that? Well, the Higgs is a subatomic particle, potentially, and one that scientists have been hunting for literally the longest time, have built - talk about big science, the biggest big sciences of all, a big particle accelerator deep underground around Geneva in Switzerland, and they've been smashing protons since the Large Hadron Collider was started, first in 2008 and then a break.
And we had a little, little teeny hint, potentially, of the Higgs Boson actually existing just a couple weeks ago, and I'm so thrilled about this because this is, we hope, the harbinger of finding the actual Boson. It will probably be in 2012. So I'm very excited about this, and it's so small.
FLATOW: We have talked about this a lot, and yeah, it is an interesting story. One of the angles that I find very interesting about that is at least, you know, two, three, four, however many scientists we've talked to on the program, there are a lot of them that hope they don't find anything.
DICHRISTINA: You know, Steven Weinberg, who won a Nobel Prize, in part for this description of the Higgs Boson, told me that. He said it would actually be more fun if we don't find it, even though for decades he's been hoping to find it but hoping not in a way.
LEVY: Some of the same people who think it would be actually more fun if nutrinos do go faster than the speed of light for the same sort of - physics is all hints and teases this year, it seems.
DICHRISTINA: It really is, and, you know, let's talk for just one second about this faster-than-light nutrinos, because I think that's fascinating, too. Another thing that that points out to me is how close we are as, you know, as people, as scientists to even being able to tease out these things at all because one of the tricks of the faster-than - the appearance of faster-than-light nutrinos, maybe it will be proved, or maybe we'll never prove it one way or the other because it depends on things as fine as how long are the cables that the electric signals are traveling through.
DICHRISTINA: And you have to get a perfect knowledge of that to be able to tease out - and it's such a small - it's just a few nanoseconds of timing off. Maybe we'll never know. I hope we will.
LEVY: One thing I learned from physics lab in - maybe the only thing I learned from physics lab in college is that physics is really about getting the instrument to work.
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LEVY: You know, once you get it to work, the experiment is easy: You just push the button and turn it on. But they're so at the edge of what's possible that trying to get these things to actually happen is an incredible challenge, and that's what we're seeing playing out with these hints.
RAEBURN: One really enjoyable part of the whole story unfolding was the speculation of whether just getting this collider going was going to end the world, you know, as we know it, end the world.
LEVY: Oh yeah, that's right, it's supposed to be over now.
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RAEBURN: I hope that Twitter would give me at least an advance warning. I was on my computer when they cranked the thing up.
FLATOW: Well, it also illustrates something to me that I found many years ago: the difference between theoretical physicists and the guys and women who have to go out and actually do the experiment. And I remember being down in a mine shaft in Minnesota in the Iron Range, where the guy was trying to find the decay of a proton, and he built a whole lab, and he said, you know, somebody up there in Cambridge goes to breakfast, and he said the proton lives 10 to the 23rd year.
He comes back after lunch, and he smudges that out, and he says oh, it's 10 to the 24th. For him, it's lunch, for me it's another five years down here.
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FLATOW: Building the equipment that these theoretical - now they're mathematicians, aren't they? They're mathematicians and physicists now doing these things. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's see if we can get some phone calls in here. Let's see who we - oh, let's go for this one. Let's go for Jesse in Grand Junction, Colorado. Hi, Jesse.
FLATOW: Hi there.
JESSE: Hi, my favorite story of the year is something that didn't make a whole lot of news, but it's a pretty big deal to me, it was when Congress approved the $8 billion for the James Webb Space Telescope to continue going ahead. And for me, it just was a very important news story because this is something that's going to show us right after that re-ionization period, right after the Big Bang, the formation of the first stars.
So it's really interesting, for a lot of people who know, it was almost scrapped. The budget was almost cut from it, but we ended up making it through, and it looks like it's going to be good for that 2018 launch.
FLATOW: Yeah, that was a big story, thanks for reminding us, Jesse, and have a happy New Year. Yeah, the fact that this thing, you know, is supposed to be even bigger and better than Hubble, right?
RAEBURN: And as the caller said, it was on the chopping block and almost didn't happen. You know, it's interesting. I might segue if I could to the Kepler story, which is one of my favorites of the year, and Kepler is about as successful as you can imagine any spacecraft mission could be.
You know, it's found all kinds of planets, the famous planet around the two stars, ala "Star Wars," and just within the last week or two, an Earth-like planet in the so-called - the technical term here is Goldilocks Zone, which means not too hot and not too cold. I mean, it's been an incredible mission, and like the Webb telescope, it faces an uncertain future.
Because of peculiarities of the stars that it's observing, it needs to go a few extra years to collect all the data it was intended to collect, unclear whether it's going to get that funding, $20 million a year, which in NASA terms is not a whole lot of money.
And then there were two follow-up missions that were planned and discussed, one of them I think $600 million was spent on it, and both have died away. Now, if you have a mission as spectacular as Kepler, and you can't afford to do the follow-up to look at those atmospheres and see if they show signs of life, then I think something's wrong with the space program, to tell you the truth.
FLATOW: Yeah, we talked with one of the designers, the original designers of Kepler last week and found out how many decades it took to get this thing going, you know, the fact that it actually survived through budgetary cuts.
RAEBURN: I mean, you do one or two of these in your career. I mean, I think people who go into that know that because it takes a long time, but the idea that you wouldn't run a follow-up on Kepler is to me incredible. So I've said my peace.
FLATOW: Like the idea like you'd never go back to the moon.
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FLATOW: The famous Arthur C. Clarke quote, right? And then the - well, ending the year with the news that's making news this week about China talking about becoming a major player in space, also.
RAEBURN: China has just sent a spacecraft up, and it has all kinds of plans, and actually it has a very slow, drawn-out space program, but it announced in the '90s what it was going to do over the next 20 years, and it's on track. It has continued to do that. So yeah, that's right. Japan is launching some missions, Europe of course.
So if the United States doesn't do much, there are others who will fill in to an extent, but I know there are a lot of things that we need to spend money on, and we could do hours of discussion on that, but when you have a mission that really works, you ought to go with, you know, what you know is good, it seems to me.
FLATOW: Of course it takes something like - you know, we all know that the space race was a political race to begin with. Maybe this, the Chinese stepping up again, might spur the politicians to say, well, maybe we should spending some more money on it.
RAEBURN: Well, politics is always important in these things. You know, if the science won't do it, the politics might.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Steve, have you got anything you want to jump in with before we go to a break?
LEVY: Yeah, yeah, I'm sure we'll be talking about Steve Jobs during the course of the program here. But what sort of was happening underneath the surface was some of the things that Steve Jobs was doing, you know, even, you know, working on - in his final days, which were really, really interesting.
One of the things that Apple was at the forefront of this year was sort of changing the way we do our computing. For many, many years, we were operating on a wave of computing that Steve Jobs was a pioneer at, was bringing us this interface called the GUI with the Windows and the mouse and all that stuff.
And with the iPad and the iPhone, Steve was at the forefront of changing the way we do that with something that's roughly called the NUI, which is the natural user interface instead of the graphic one, where we actually get our hands, and we stretch, and we...
FLATOW: Is that a technical term, NUI?
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FLATOW: It's like GUI, with NUI?
LEVY: Yeah, NUI, Natural User Interface.
FLATOW: All right. Well, let me hold you there because I have digest that a minute because I was in with GUI but not NUI.
LEVY: Yeah, but in June, Steve introduced new Apple operating system, which made it a computer thing as well as a phone thing.
FLATOW: All right, we'll come back and talk lots more about that. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. And this is the NUI we're working with today. So stay with us, we'll be right back after this break.
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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.
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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the top stories of 2011. My guests are Mariette DiChristina, Steven Levy, Paul Raeburn, Matt Crenson. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. And when I rudely interrupted Steven, as I do most people on this show...
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FLATOW: You were talking about the NUI, the new user interface. Does that include Siri?
LEVY: Yeah, it's the natural, yes, and Siri is definitely part of that. It's the idea that instead of using the keyboard and the mouse, we're controlling it through the gestures we use to communicate with each other or to just, like, naturally manipulate the world around us there.
FLATOW: Would that also be the - what's the game I'm thinking of, the..
LEVY: The Microsoft Kinect? Yeah, Microsoft, you know, is all part of that. So it's sort of merged in with using, you know, these very natural gestures not only for things from the mobile devices we use, which we use all the time now, another huge trend of the year is how pervasive those are, and, you know, doing it with some of the things that we do even to create documents and things like that.
And as I was saying, the new Apple operating system incorporates the kinds of stuff that Apple introduced with the iPad and the iPhone and put them into the computer itself, which is sort of a signal event to me in the transformation away from this interface we've been using for so many years.
FLATOW: Let's go to Scott(ph) in Jackson, Michigan. Hi, Scott.
SCOTT: Hi, how are you doing? Well, I've got two stories, really, or questions, you know, related to two major stories. First of all, well, hydraulic fracturing and artesian water and autism and heavy metals in children.
The first one, obviously hydraulic fracturing was a big story. The documentary "Gasland" won, you know, won the Oscar for Best Documentary, although technically that was for the year 2010, I guess. But I think one thing I see as missing from the discussions I've heard about hydraulic fracturing, this method of extracting the natural gas from the lower geological strata is artesian water.
There's water in the geological strata that's not near the surface. It comes from deep in the surface and flows up towards the surface, and in fact there may be a lot of artesian wells that never reach the surface but flow into groundwater, you know, surface water, aquifers. So again, I just want to raise a question: Could artesian water be a path of this - how this fracking fluid gets from the lower geologic strata because the artesian water is thousands of feet deep, not hundreds.
Is that how some - the fracking fluid could be getting into the surface water?
FLATOW: All right.
FLATOW: Well, one to a customer today because we've got a lot to go, but thank you for calling, Scott.
SCOTT: All right, thanks.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. That is - you know, this is an ongoing story about fracking since - not only that, since they've actually verified that they cause minor earthquakes, too, don't they, something that we hadn't thought about.
RAEBURN: Yeah, I think I could - I don't much about - I don't know anything about artesian water and what role that might play in this, but if I could put my media critic hat on for a moment, we read a lot of stories about fracking, particularly here in New York where it's a local issue, among other things.
And I don't see the answers to these questions in a lot of the copy that I read, and I think the - you know, the science writers to a certain extent, that's our crowd, are falling down a bit by not jumping on this story and writing the kind of stories that would answer Scott's question, which is what's going on with that.
You know, we get comments from the industry, we get comments from the environmental advocates, the critics. We don't get the sort of disinterested scientific information. Maybe there isn't much, but the stories aren't saying that, either, and we certainly as readers ought to know what's going on and what's the real science tell us.
FLATOW: Well, let me use your phrase to segue into something that you brought up, the disinterested scientific interest, because one of the trends in this year that I have noticed is that scientists are coming out of their disinterested shell a little bit more, especially with global warming and things like that. They're actually speaking out a little more, thinking that they need to put some attention to this. Have you noticed that also?
RAEBURN: Well, I think that's right. You know, the leaders in this I think were - probably 20 years ago were a lot of wildlife biologists who really wanted to spend their lives, you know, going off to some terrible place in the middle of South America and spending weeks and months trying to track an elusive animal.
But they found out that they couldn't do that because down the road, logging was approaching, you know, day by day. And they became, you know, conservationists and advocates of necessity to protect their scientific work, and I think that's starting to happen in other fields now, too, the same kind of thing. I think you're right.
CRENSON: And I think they're starting to see things, as well. I mean, a few weeks ago there was an Arctic report card issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, I think it was, that essentially said that the arctic is a completely different place than it was just five years ago.
The Arctic's ice minimum this summer tied for the lowest ever with 2007. So they're starting to see in the places that they study the kinds of changes that have been predicted over the last decade or two.
LEVY: It's interesting to see the degree to which, when the scientists do, on the basis of science, argue that we should take this course and that course, how readily they're often ignored by Congress. And in my world, in the Internet world, there's - they're talking about some pretty drastic legislation to stop piracy on the Internet, which would involve a lot of other things.
And you had a lot of people who were involved in Internet design, and, you know, the people who really know how the Internet works saying that, you know, this can't work because it's going to go way beyond what this law intends to do, and it's pretty much been ignored by the people who are doing the hearings.
FLATOW: There's a story that's just coming out now and being talked about that I think is going to be spilling over into next year. I know we're going to be covering it more, and I was reminded of it by a tweet from Devon Murphy(ph), who says: Huge story is the lab in Europe that created a pandemic-strength virus that was shut down and unpublished for security.
I mean, this is - you know, we had Harold Varmus on a few weeks ago, and he was saying this is the kind of thing, you know...
DICHRISTINA: That was huge, and - yeah, and sorry to interrupt, but part of what was so huge about it was how few mutations were needed to change that to - yeah, five, right, to change it to airborne transport, and I thought that that was - it was a very radical thing to ask the journals to withhold that publishing.
I mean, many publications have printed many things in the past, like when there were plans for how to build a nuclear bomb, that was famously printed by The Nation, right. And some of these things, we worry that, you know, printed or not, nature will do it anyway, sooner rather than later.
RAEBURN: Yeah, I mean, I would call myself an absolutist about information, you know, that - and really anti-censorship, but this one gives me pause, I have to say.
DICHRISTINA: It did make me pause, too, Paul.
RAEBURN: Because really, you don't - if you make the wrong call here, you don't go back. You know, if it's out, it's out, and they always get out.
CRENSON: Well, of course, just the fact that we know now that it takes so few mutations is sensitive information. Anyone who has the sophistication to follow the recipe might have the sophistication to do it on their own, just knowing that it can be done.
RAEBURN: But that's also a useful piece of information. So therein lies the dilemma.
FLATOW: And getting back to the NUI interface or the new ways of doing things, here's another tweet from Deb Conner(ph), who says: The most important science story of 2011 to me was the Arab Spring that was fueled by social media and the technology like Google Earth and other kinds of technologies. That's a huge change.
LEVY: Yeah, I agree. Just the way, the different ways that, you know, these new ways of communicating and the social means of communicating are super-powerful. The week before Mubarak was overthrown, the Twitter traffic coming from Egypt went up 100-fold to where it was before the protests started there.
And I think Malcolm Gladwell got in some hot water by saying that, you know, people overestimate this really, you know, bad revolutions before. But I really do think that social media had a lot to do with the Arab Spring and, you know, because it's no coincidence that now we're onto another issue of the morality of shutting down the Internet, which is what Egypt tried to do and some of these other dictatorships tried to do.
And we've seen the U.S. as well in isolated areas, where they see protests happening, you know, to stop this.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number, talking about big stories of the year, and I know, Mariette, that Sci Am has its own list of top stories all the time. That must be tough to put together.
DICHRISTINA: It is really tough to put together. In fact, I was a little bit laughing at our list this year because we anticipated many people critiquing it. So we had a few up at the top saying yeah, we thought about these, but here are the 10 we actually ended up picking. And one of them indeed was about the Arab Spring.
And another, of course, was the Japan earthquake and tsunami, Ira, which we learned about at Scientific American through tweets at three in the morning and began our coverage really early because of that. So it's had quite an influence, social media, in many ways.
FLATOW: And what happened to that story? That place is still leaking water, I'm sure, you know, and it's now off the pages. It's now - it's your problem, not ours anymore.
RAEBURN: Well, only a few news organizations could afford to send anybody over there in the first place, and they only stayed for a week or two, and they've come back. So here we are. You know, this goes back a little ways, but I remember covering the artificial heart in Louisville, it must be 20 years ago, and we all were there for a few weeks, and then we all left, and Larry Altman from the Times stayed on for about six months, you know.
He was the only one, and he had exclusive coverage of the thing because he was a good reporter, but the Times had the resources to keep him there. Now even the Times doesn't have the resources to keep people in those situations, so stories go away.
DICHRISTINA: Right. So here's the flipside or one of the flipsides of social media. Many news organizations have made those choices of not...
RAEBURN: That's right.
DICHRISTINA: ...having reporters in the field because they feel they can get that information by people who are tweeting or reliable sources (unintelligible).
FLATOW: Yeah. Well, Matt, let's talk about Mars a little bit. I mean...
FLATOW: ...give us what you thought was top - a lot of - always a lot of news from Mars every year.
CRENSON: Well, there's always - you always hear about water on Mars.
CRENSON: That's sort of a perennial topic for obvious reasons. It - you can't have life without water, at least as far we know. There was an interesting paper in the journal Nature a couple of months ago suggesting that that if there was water on early Mars, it was underground. This was a review paper by a number of really important people. So the - when the Mars Curiosity rover lands, it's going to be looking at all these geologic strata and might be able to find more signs of that.
And then, the other thing that came out this year, fairly recently, was about the discovery of gypsum, a mineral that can only be found or only be created in the presence of water. So it was definitely there. And the question is how do you go and find better evidence for it and do the follow-on research to eventually maybe even confirm the presence of past life on Mars, which we've been interested in for decades.
FLATOW: Yeah. And the continuing debate about speaking of Mars and space probes about where our space program should be headed. We talked - we touched about it before, but I think the jewels of the U.S. space program have been these robots, you know, everything from the Hubble to the rovers on Mars and things like that and...
DICHRISTINA: Right. Just this weekend, there's going to be gravimetric mapping of the moon...
DICHRISTINA: ...that was launched a while ago, and it begins this weekend.
RAEBURN: Also this mission to the asteroid Vesta, which was amazing. You know, another one of these things, they just intercept with this thing, and you may recall from some of the stories - I've looked this up because I couldn't believe it. They found on this thing a 300-mile-wide crater with a 70,000-foot mountain in the middle of it. Now, explain that one.
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FLATOW: If I could, I wouldn't be here.
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FLATOW: Our number, 1-800-989-8255. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Mariette DiChristina of Scientific American; Matt Crenson, who is following up - down, they're doing work in Washington for his - while we're all up here. He's from Science News; Paul Raeburn, author of the forthcoming book "Do Fathers Matter?"; and also Steven Levy, who's senior writer at Wired.com and author of "In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives." Is Google - I mean, Google a big story from this year?
LEVY: Google has always been a big story. The Google news this year is that one of the founders became the CEO, Larry Page, but the big thing - I think there are two big things. One was they bought Motorola Mobility, which was a giant purchase there, which shows, you know, how deeply committed they are to the mobile world and also to protect their patents, which is another big story this year about how important patents are to, you know, not just for - to nail down innovation but, you know, take on your competitors, you know, with intellectual property as opposed to innovation.
And the other thing that Google did was came out finally with their big social network called Google Plus, which, you know, plays into the other - another big trend of the year, which is the, you know, utter pervasiveness of social networks and the idea that Facebook finally has some competition now, in terms of Google doing an all-out social initiative.
FLATOW: When you were on last time talking, you floated a tantalizing idea that possibly Google could buy a phone company.
LEVY: Yes. Well, it's interesting. Now, yeah, you see...
FLATOW: There's one in play, right?
LEVY: There is one in play. Google has a little - I think with the money they've committed to Motorola now, they can't just reach into their wallet and buy T-Mobile. But a partnership actually could make a lot of sense, you know, again, everything Google does is constrained by the idea that the government is looking over their shoulder there. But the government also is very much committed to having competition in terms of a broadband and networks there. So they might like idea that there's another player instead of T-Mobile going into the hands of the biggest wireless company, AT&T...
LEVY: ...the idea to bring another big competitor in there would be attractive to the government.
FLATOW: I think another thing about Google, though, that we don't talk about and we have talked about but not enough in terms of what is happening in this area, and that is private entrepreneurship, funding major research, like Google and - funding solar energy and things like that.
LEVY: Right. Cars that drive themselves.
FLATOW: Cars, stuff like that that never happened before. We thought the government might be doing that or the car companies might be doing that.
LEVY: Yeah. We're talking about space. There's a lot of private space initiatives, a lot of entrepreneurs - Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, you know, Richard Branson...
RAEBURN: Well, do you think IBM and Bell Labs were precursors of that same kind of thing, or is this different?
LEVY: No. I think, in some sense, it's similar. You know, it can obviously - if you look at the transistor, there's a book coming out early in 2012, it's a history of Bell Labs that I'm reading and, you know, and we forget how the transistor, which is so integral to everything we do, was developed, you know, really to keep the phone system going and save money for AT&T. But in another sense, they really are going in areas further where the government goes, in terms of space and things like that, you know, I think that - because the government's not willing to go in some of these places there.
You look at something like Siri, which we mentioned earlier there. Like the Internet, that's something that came out of DARPA, the Defense Department's advanced research project, and then turned over to the private industry. But without those initiatives forthcoming in the future, the companies have to do it themselves.
FLATOW: Now, we have the energy DARPA version, right? The energy development company that the government is financing. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking about this year's top science stories, and we want to get your opinions on them. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, talking with Mariette DiChristina and also with Matt Crenson, Steve Levy, Paul Raeburn. Don't be afraid to get involved. We're going to go to a break and come back. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.
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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the big stories - important ones too, big sometimes are not important - of the year 2011 with my guests Mariette DiChristina, editor in chief and senior vice president of Scientific American; Steve Levy, senior writer at Wired.com and author of "In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives"; Paul Raeburn, author of the forthcoming book "Do Fathers Matter?" and biology and medical writer at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT; and Matt Crenson, deputy director - managing deputy - managing editor - maybe he'll soon be director at Science News...
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CRENSON: Well, thank you, thank you.
FLATOW: We can dub you that, and they can say no. 1-800-989-8255. And what we haven't talked about, and I know, Paul, this is special in your area. You've done a lot of medical reporting. What are some of the top medical stories of 2011?
RAEBURN: Well, I'm sad to say we can start with a couple of non-stories or un-stories or something. One is the famous XMRV virus and chronic fatigue which was - looked very promising. Chronic fatigue syndrome has been a real puzzle. It affects lots of people, and suddenly, a virus was found, all of which collapsed and imploded. And just before Thanksgiving, the lead researcher on this was actually imprisoned for five days for stealing - alleged theft of property and data. That was Judy Mikovits. And the research has fallen apart. The papers have been retracted, so really an unfortunate episode. The other sort of complicated story was on the arsenic-based life, which I think we've talked about last year...
FLATOW: Right, right.
RAEBURN: ...that was - I think it was December 2010.
FLATOW: We were all marveling it then.
RAEBURN: That's right. And now, we don't know. You know, there have been a lot of studies on both sides of that question, whether it exists. And most recently, I just saw a story that somebody has sequenced the DNA of this organism and found no arsenic, which apparently still does not resolve the issue of whether arsenic-based life can exists.
FLATOW: Matt, you want to jump in on that?
CRENSON: Well, that's one of those ones that's - that may remain a mystery. I mean, the original - the life on Mars story that broke in the late '90s were these microfossils...
FLATOW: Oh, yes.
CRENSON: ...from meteorites found in Antarctica appeared maybe to have microbes embedded in them. That sort of, you know, a decade, two decades later, I don't know that very many people still believe that, but it's never really been officially retracted. This may end up going the same way. We'll never know.
FLATOW: While we're on that Mars and it just tweaked something in my brain. It's going back to the original Viking experiment, to find life on Mars.
DICHRISTINA: Mm-hmm. I remember watching that.
FLATOW: Remember? Now, they're saying maybe there might have been life that was snuffed out by a chemical in the soil there.
DICHRISTINA: I saw that, yeah.
FLATOW: That's an interesting thing that got traction this year. Paul, getting back to medical a little bit. We keep - I keep thinking there are certain topics that are always 30 years ahead...
FLATOW: ...they're 30 years away. Nuclear fusion is always 30 years away.
FLATOW: I'm beginning to wonder about gene therapy. You know, gene therapy, we keep hearing promises and promises about that.
RAEBURN: Well, there was an interesting development this year and a couple of different places. Here's this new term, if you haven't heard it, zinc fingers or zinc finger proteins. Some research done with AIDS, this is a thing - a zinc finger protein is a thing that will go into a cell and clip DNA at a specific spot. And so in some initial tests with a handful of AIDS patients, they were able to clip some genes in the CD4 cells of the AIDS virus attacks and block the place where the AIDS virus hooks onto those cells. So it's - I don't know - six or eight patients but very promising.
In another study done in mice this time, they were able to - researchers were able to use zinc finger proteins to correct hemophilia by a similar sort of thing. They have the protein goes in clips, the mutated gene, they put in copies of the correct gene and the body uses the correct gene as the template to rebuild what was clipped. So it's very interesting, very different kind of approach. And I have to tell you I missed these stories until I was preparing for the show and looked back. And I see zinc finger popping up and so I...
RAEBURN: ...you know, it's an interesting story we'll hear a lot more about.
FLATOW: Yeah. One - did - Mariette?
DICHRISTINA: Yeah. I was just going to add to what Paul was saying. There actually was a small trial with - I think only six patients - human patients for hemophilia B, Paul, where they - four of the six patients actually did not - no longer needed a particular kind of factor that they couldn't normally produce. It's called factor 9. And the other two were able to reduce their frequency of treatments after this gene therapy was done. And also earlier this year, there was another really small handful of patients study with children who have something called severe combined immune deficiency, which basically they don't have an immune system. And I think it was 16 patients, and 13 of them did well, you know, or had...
DICHRISTINA: ...some immune response after gene therapy treatment. These are very, very intriguing findings, and those were human studies - small but human.
RAEBURN: Yeah. And very different from the previous experiments...
RAEBURN: ...which where they'd just take a gene and...
RAEBURN: ...shoot it in there and hope for the best, basically.
FLATOW: Hoping for the best. Let's go to Fort Myers, Florida, and Debbie. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
DEBBIE: Hey, I'm glad to be here. I was thinking, as you were talking, I was going to say the elephant in the living room was the extreme weather and the climate. But you know what? These things that you're talking about seem to me to be all connected: the extreme weather, the extreme population, extreme energy, extreme politics, extreme media coverage, big corporations, Occupy Wall Street. I'd like to see the solution. I like to see us start connecting the dots and get into the solution. I heard on "The Diane Rehm Show" about Jeremy Rifkin's new book, "The Third Industrial Revolution," and that seems to offer solutions based on (unintelligible), for one thing. So, again, it's all connected, but let's get into the solutions. What can your guests do to connect the dots for us?
FLATOW: Wow. That's a tall order you've given us, Debbie. Let me - Mariette is going to jump in with her big pencil to connect those dots.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DICHRISTINA: I do have a pen here, actually. I just wanted to add about the extreme weather events. This was a record year for that. At NOAA, the National Oceanographic - whatever - Administration, sorry...
DICHRISTINA: ...Atmospheric - thank you - said that there were 12 catastrophes this year, with more than $1 billion each. And just for - anything from - we're just looking at tornados. This was a record year for tornados. There were 500-plus in April alone, one of them causing more than $3 billion worth of damage. So, yes, to have - and some recent studies, including a couple released this month, point out that there are very, very high odds, 80 percent-plus, that certain of these extreme weather events such as the very high heat in Europe of a couple of years ago and in Moscow a couple of years before that, were associated with climate change. So 80 percent or greater chance, which is, you know, we're going to see more crazy weather.
LEVY: Well, one of the big buzzwords this year was big data. And that's, you know, because we have this ability to take, you know, a huge amount of information and put it in a forum where we could, you know, process it and understand things from all the amazing input we get from the world around us there. So, you know, maybe we're taking a step in dot-connecting by understanding all the stuff from sensors and from social networks and from all the information, you know, we could have now and compare to each other about how it works. I don't know how it's going to solve all those problems that were just listed there. But it gives us a lot more understanding into all sorts of phenomena both physical and social that we can start to find solutions or, you know, do something about.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. A tweet came in. It says something we touched on a little bit, from Nemaria(ph). It says: How about the way that Fukushima scuppered the nuclear renaissance of recent years?
DICHRISTINA: Well, again, we're talking about extreme weather and climate change. One of the great hopes of some people who would like to use non-carbon power generation was that maybe with new generation, next-generation nuclear power plants, we could, you know, we could find ways to make energy again that don't create so much carbon. And yes, Germany pretty much scuttled all of its nuclear plants. France is even dialing back, and they've used nuclear for a long time, and very successfully. So yeah, it has.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Rick in St. Louis. Hi, Rick.
RICK: I'm fine, Ira.
FLATOW: Hi, there.
RICK: I'm going to comment on the complete rejection of science by certain groups of politicians, particularly (unintelligible) party. But in some cases, science is viewed as being - as almost mocked. I'd like your thoughts on that.
RAEBURN: Well, that's a big...
DICHRISTINA: Yeah, that's a...
RAEBURN: That's a big - I'm puzzled by it. I don't understand. And as you may know, in the Republican primary, of the 436 candidates we've seen this year, the one, Jon Huntsman, that said anything reasonable was a few months ago, when he tweeted: Call me crazy, but I believe our scientists with regard to evolution and climate change - which he then, several weeks ago, retracted and said, well, maybe we don't have enough evidence. So that was the one glimmer in that group. I'm completely puzzled by it. I don't understand the phenomenon.
FLATOW: I think - you know, don't you think we should be asking the candidates to - for some base knowledge about how much science they believe in? I mean, how old do you think the Earth is...
LEVY: It appears to be counterintuitive that, you know, as Paul said, well, it's the opposite, to the degree that they deny science, they're attractive to some voters, at least.
FLATOW: Yeah. Well, I mean, that's the attraction. That's why they're out front with it. But they're going to be going into (unintelligible) - whoever the presidential candidates wind up being - and I know that this whole effort, you know, to bring science debates going on, you know, the debate 2008, not it's 2012, there's - how do we get to any of these people who ask these questions, the debaters? Couldn't you ask a couple of science and technology questions?
RAEBURN: We need to lean on our Washington press corps, because the people who cover these guys - which is not us - don't care about these things. They're far more interested in, you know, today and what's going to happen on Tuesday in Iowa and the next week, and what's going to happen in New Hampshire.
DICHRISTINA: But see, Paul, I would actually argue that a lot of what - I mean, if you look at any website, if you're still picking up newspapers, look in the newspaper, more than half of the front-page stories are science-related, whether we admit it or not. Energy is a science-related story. Climate is a science-related story. Cures for ailments that we were just talking about, these are things people care about and care about very deeply.
CRENSON: But this is - I mean, the problem with a lot of these stories is there's no science in them. So the Keystone Pipeline, is that going to cause a lot of damage? Some Democrats say yes. Some Republicans say no. Well, is it or isn't it, you know?
FLATOW: But I did see a story - and I've been trying to research before I got on, here - that Senator Inhofe has agreed to debate Ed Markey on climate. And they are working out the particulars about where this debate would happen. So you have two members of Congress...
CRENSON: Inhofe famously called climate change a hoax.
DICHRISTINA: Should be very interesting.
CRENSON: ...to have one person, you know, argue - who wins the debate is going to determine this issues, as opposed to scientific data that every scientist signs off on?
FLATOW: Let's invite them to come on SCIENCE FRIDAY. They can come right here if they want to have their debate.
DICHRISTINA: I mean, one of the great things about science is it's true for you and it's true for me, if we have a data result, and we can test that.
FLATOW: There was a - I remember a YouTube video I saw about debating whether, you know, the square root of 16 is four, and - because you can't prove that. It's sort of a fun thing like that. But...
CRENSON: It's interesting, as in my career as a science journalist, I've run into this, you know, countless times. And, you know, there's a fundamental difference in the way things work in science and journalism. There really aren't two sides of the story in science. You may - you know, there may be two legitimate theories at any given time. But ultimately, there's one correct answer. We may not know it, but it's not a two-sided thing.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is the number. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. And we're getting rapidly to the close of our program. Let's see if we can get - go quickly around the table and see if there's another science story you want to point out. Let me start from the right side of the radio, to the left. Steve?
LEVY: Well, you know, two things I wanted to mention. First one is the - I can't let this go by without talking about hacktivism, which is the practice of groups like Anonymous and LulzSec to pick targets to, you know, exploit their computer security, cyber security flaws, and attack and shut them down like they did with Sony. And there's a, you know, a company now that they're fighting, a security company. And, you know, that underlies our vulnerability in terms of cyber security. But it's also a fascinating phenomenon that could be - have written by William Gibson, you know, 10 years ago. And the other thing, of course, we haven't discussed, Watson, which was the IBM computer which won a "Jeopardy" contest, which underlies, really, one more milestone where we've come in artificial intelligence. The two really cool things that Watson did was it could parse a Jeopardy question, but it's also quicker to press the button than, you know - which I think was a big part of his success.
FLATOW: I think you're right. Mariette?
DICHRISTINA: It was a little unfair. I want to talk just briefly about maybe a thing that could be a helpful antidote to some of the things we were just talking about, about the problem of politicians saying one thing or another, or even the people not listening, and that is something I've been watching this year very eagerly, which is the rise of citizen science. And one thing specifically I wanted to mention - and citizen science is you don't need a science degree, but you can participate online or by any other number of means, maybe letting - donating some computer - extra computer time that you're not using, or things like that, but actively also to science research projects that are happening. And one of them that was kind of cool this year was a game called Foldit...
FLATOW: Oh, yeah.
DICHRISTINA: ...which a group of volunteers, playing a game, identified a kind of a protein that's involved with HIV, and solve this 10-year-old puzzle in three weeks, just by playing this game online. And citizen science, I think, if people could get more personally connected to science and research in these ways, maybe more of them would be more inclined to agree or believe or demand what the scientific evidence is about things, instead of just listening to one politician and the other argue about things.
FLATOW: Hmm. Paul?
RAEBURN: Well, I think the - keying off what we're just talking about, about the politics and people denying some scientific facts, that's one issue, unfortunately, I think we're going to see a lot more of. And also, the funding decisions, you know, I mentioned some of the things NASA is doing that seem crazy. Similar things are happening in biomedical research at NIH. There just doesn't seem to be a lot of logic to the way these decisions are made. Now, we know they're (unintelligible) by politics, of course.
FLATOW: Do you - got an example?
RAEBURN: Well, you know, National Cancer Institute gets a huge amount of funding, which it probably deserves. But many, many other institutes doing equally important things - basic research, for example - are not getting that kind of funding. And it is just a little sad that it's driven often by politics, not by the merits of the research.
FLATOW: Matt Crenson?
CRENSON: Well, I think that - one thing that we didn't mention was the success of the malaria vaccine that was being tested in Africa. It's really encouraging to see, although it certainly has a lot of drawbacks. It's not quite clear how well it'll work. It's encouraging to see that some inroads are being made against malaria, which kills almost a million - mostly children - every year.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. All right. We've run out of time. I want to thank all of you for taking time to be with us - being with us. Matt Crenson is deputy managing editor for news at Science News in Washington. Paul Raeburn, author of the forthcoming book, "Do Fathers Matter?" - he will answer that for us on the forthcoming interview, I'm sure - and biology and medical writer at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT. He's also a write for Discover. Mariette DiChristina is editor-in-chief and senior vice president of Scientific American, and Stephen Levy, senior editor at Wired.com and author of "In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives." Good to see you all again, and happy New Year to all of you.
DICHRISTINA: Thanks to you.
LEVY: Thank you.
RAEBURN: Thank you.
CRENSON: Thank you.
DICHRISTINA: Happy New Year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.