Looking Back On A Year In Science
IRA FLATOW, HOST:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Ira Flatow. Happy New Year from all of us at SCIENCE FRIDAY, hoping your 2013 will be a happy and healthy one. This hour we're going to look back at some of the big stories of 2012 and some that might not have made the front page of your local paper or your favorite blog but were big stories, as well.
There are, of course, some obvious choices: the unique combination of events that made Sandy a superstorm and the engineering challenges that followed it; there was the discovery of the Higgs Boson, maybe, or something like it; or the growing influence of social media on our lives. We're ready to talk about it with our panel of journalists, and maybe there are some stories that flew under the radar, as I'm saying, and you think should have received more attention.
What do you think? What do you think were the big stories of 2012, some that got under-covered? Give us a call, 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK, and as always you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Let me introduce my guests: Mariette DiChristina is editor-in-chief of Scientific American and senior vice president there. She's here in our New York studios. Welcome back, Mariette DiChrstina.
MARIETTE DICHRISTINA: Thanks, Ira, great to be here.
FLATOW: Ivan Oransky is executive editor at Reuters Health. He's also co-founder of the Retraction blog. Thanks for coming back, Ivan.
IVAN ORANSKY: Good to be here, thank you.
FLATOW: The Retraction Watch blog, I should say.
ORANSKY: Correct. You'll have to retract that now.
DICHRISTINA: He just retracted it.
FLATOW: We had an instant retraction. But is that a record, maybe, for retraction?
ORANSKY: I think you've just said it.
DICHRISTINA: Did you see how effective this is?
FLATOW: That's true. Mark Frauenfelder is co-founder of Boing Boing and editor-in-chief of MAKE Magazine, on the phone with us from L.A. Thanks for joining us again, Mark.
MARK FRAUENFELDER: Thank you very much, Ira.
FLATOW: Let me just start out the year by saying one story that did not get a lot of press, at least - is a story that's recurring all the time, which is the space elevator, which we did not see a lot of in...
DICHRISTINA: But we did have a Sky Crane on Mars...
FLATOW: All right, Mariette, let's start off. Is that one your picks, the Sky Crane?
DICHRISTINA: That was - actually, you know, one of the things, I was - this is the time of year of course you're looking back, and you're saying what are the themes, what the things that sort of popped out at you. And, you know, you mentioned social media, Ira. We had several Twitter followers between the last couple of days telling us about what they were thinking.
And I was looking at all of these things, and I was thinking, you know, science is such a human endeavor. So this year we probed from, you know, all the way out to Mars, we just mentioned that, the Sky Crane, which I'll get back to in a second, down to the foundations of the universe, you mentioned the Higgs Boson, all the way up to miles high in the atmosphere and all the way down miles below to the bottom of the ocean.
And I think we learned, you know, also a lot more about what makes us tick and life in general. And I love, personally, the awe and wonder buttons that you can, you know, there's this row of invisible buttons in front of my shirt right now that nobody can see but me. And so some of the awe and wonder buttons are things like the, you know, the amazing landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover.
FLATOW: The Sky Crane.
DICHRISTINA: The Sky Crane, through a series of things. Right, there was this giant - does everybody remember the seven minutes of terror?
FLATOW: Seven minutes of terror.
DICHRISTINA: You know, there was the - and I remember watching that unfold both, you know, on Twitter and through the NASA live feed and all these things. The heat shield, the supersonic parachute, and then finally the Sky Crane, excuse me, that lowered this car-sized lab with 10 different science instruments to the ground. That was extraordinary. It was a complete blast.
FLATOW: If there was any way to follow that bouncing airbag (unintelligible)...
FLATOW: This is the way to do it. This is how you can top that. Ivan, what have you got on your list?
ORANSKY: Well, to me, I mean, I'm thinking about themes. Mariette and I were actually talking very briefly before we went on air here about the sort of - and I think it keys back to what you just said about science being a uniquely human endeavor, the idea that in fact science is done by scientists, and they are human beings.
I think sometimes people don't like to admit that, or maybe they don't know how to acknowledge it. But one of the things that came up a lot this year in particular fields but I think overall in science was this idea that maybe results don't always hold up as much as we'd like them to do, this idea of reproducibility. Can you actually, if you repeat the experiment or do it in a different sample set or do it in a larger sample that it doesn't actually hold up.
There are a lot of people publishing work, they've been doing it for a couple years, but I think this year for some reason it popped. And there's a woman, Elizabeth Irons, who actually came up with something called the Reproducibility Initiative, a little bit tongue-tied getting that one out but really important and very early days.
Let's not sort of say that it's successful yet, but this idea that in fact researchers can almost outsource the replicability, the reproducing of their own experiments to try and, you know, make sure the scientific record is more clean, is more self-correcting. I think that's sort of a big thing for this year.
FLATOW: Are things being retracted faster or quicker in their retraction?
ORANSKY: It's funny, you know, you set the record just now, in milliseconds, I think, Ira. We actually had a retraction record, a couple retraction records this year. One was the person who is likely to retract the most papers ever, that's an anesthesiologist in Japan named Yoshitaka Fujii. He's likely to retract 172 papers.
That's about 168-and-a-half more than I ever published. I don't know about you guys. But it's quite a lot. And again it was because people actually found statistical problems in all the work. The other record will be set, though, was - we didn't set it, but science set was the longest time from paper published to retraction, which turned out to be 27 years and a month, a little bit different from what you'd like to see in science.
But the number of retractions overall is about the same as it was last year, about 400 it looks like it'll be.
FLATOW: Mark Frauenfelder, what's on your list?
FRAUENFELDER: Well, I think the thing that really is interesting me about last year was - and this year are the affordable and really powerful tools and technologies out there that are allowing things like citizen science and personal manufacturing on a level that we haven't seen before. And that's things like 3-D printing, the Arduino electronic prototyping platform that's giving a lot of people the ability to create really cool, sophisticated electronics projects that normally would have required a degree in engineering, but now artists and designers and kids and anybody are able to make really cool things with these.
And I think things like the Safecast Project that was a joint project between a couple of hacker spaces, one in L.A. and one in Tokyo to do radiation monitoring, to create this amazing, inexpensive radiation monitoring network around the world that collected three and a half million data points so far.
These kinds of things are really exciting and weren't possible just a few years ago.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, somebody tweeted in that our calendars did not end on 12/21/12, was a big story, and that is tech to be praised. Yeah, the debunking of what really the calendars were about and the Maya and things like that. 1-800-989-8255. Let's see what other people are - we've got a few minutes before the break.
Oh, here's an interesting one, it happened toward the end of the year. Let's go to Mark(ph) in San Francisco. Hi Mark.
FLATOW: Hi there.
MARK: There was a study just out showing that fructose causes - with MRI studies that were showing that fructose causes addictive patterns in the brain, and if you combine that with Nora Volkow's work, where she's talking about addiction, maybe it's more biochemical brain rather than willpower. Do you have any thoughts on that? And I'll take my answer off the air.
FLATOW: OK, thanks for calling. Ivan, do you remember that study?
ORANSKY: I do remember that one vaguely. I have to admit that among the hundreds that I read every month, and I certainly remember it, and I think the caller is remembering it accurately. I think that it is - this is a year where people have started to on the one hand look at OK, well, just because something - and I'm going to be very, very sort of, you know, pop sci here a little bit and say just because something lights up in the brain doesn't mean it tells us anything.
On the other hand, people have actually started refining techniques so that when I see someone like Nora Volkow, you know, at NIAD(ph), come up with something, I say you know what, there's probably something here. And so there's sort of this - I wouldn't say pendulum because that's not actually how science works but the sort of progressive nature of learning about addiction as a disease versus a, you know, what other people sort of think about it I think is pretty important.
DICHRISTINA: I think one of the themes, just to add really quickly to what Ivan is saying, is one of the themes from science always is we had this understanding, but it's actually more complicated than that, and I think this study is representative of that. There are many subtleties in an organ as complex as the brain, with a billion cells and a trillion neural connections, and no one factor is going to probably outweigh all the others, but a collective understanding of all of them will eventually lead us closer to a path where we can correct issues.
FLATOW: I'd like to also say that Dr. Volkow is one of the - is a rising star in the scientists who will speak out about things, vocal scientists, scientists who really will tell you the way they think it really is. And it might have been this year, it might have been last year, she's been on the program so many times, and when we talked about - people asked if cell phones cause any problems in your head, she didn't say no. She said we don't know.
And I asked her: Well, what do you do? She says: I don't put it anywhere near my head. She was - here's the head of one of the institutes. She says I don't put it anywhere near any part of my body. I have it on an earphone plug because I don't know enough, and I don't suggest anybody does that, you know. It was very refreshing to hear somebody come out...
DICHRISTINA: I both like the candid answer and also the easy solution, the earplug.
FLATOW: Well, it was very funny because somebody said, well, why don't you put it in your pocket, you know, and she says: Do you know what's close to your pocket?
FRAUENFELDER: Although I have heard wearing one of those wired earphones acts as an antenna, the wire, for emitting radiation, too. So who knows if that's safe?
FLATOW: Yeah, well that goes, you know, to the idea that science is basically following a moving target in research.
DICHRISTINA: Right, and the problem with life is none of us gets out alive.
ORANSKY: Well, and the precautionary principle, right. I mean, there's no reason to put the phone in a particular place. So why put it there?
FLATOW: There you go. Mark, online was there a lot of activism online, at least in some circles?
FRAUENFELDER: Well, yeah I think that the big thing was the SOPA bill that - the Senate counterpart was called PIPA. That was the goal to stop online piracy by blacklisting Web domains that were suspected of piracy. And there was a huge protest online about this bill that was introduced on January 18. A bunch of websites went dark that day, including Wikipedia, and Google collected seven million signatures in a petition against it.
It was a really dangerous piece of legislation because it would have given the government the power to block an entire domain just because a commenter posted a link to an entirely different website suspected of having infringing content. And so there were a lot of different problems with the bill.
I think it was, you know, forcing search engines to delete domain names was a violation of the First Amendment. But because of this big protest that millions of people online participated in, the bill was shelved indefinitely.
FLATOW: All right, we're going to come back and talk a lot more about the highlights from 2012. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break. 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 2012, the year in review in science. My guests are Mariette DiChristina, editor-in-chief at Scientific American; Ivan Oransky, executive editor at Reuters Health; and Mark Frauenfelderm editor-in-chief of MAKE Magazine. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Alexandra(ph) in San Francisco. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
ALEXANDRA: Hi, thanks for taking my call.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
ALEXANDRA: I was really excited when the Russians found that under-glacier lake in the Antarctic that hadn't been exposed to any type of elements for 500,000 years or 500 million years. They were trying to drill down into it. I thought that was profoundly fascinating, what would it be like to be an organism and have you sky drilled into, you know, after all those years.
FLATOW: It was a fascinating story, that stuff could survive that long and where they found it and that they did get to it and what they found, yeah.
DICHRISTINA: I think that's a great observation, and maybe that'll be a big 2013 story when we find out what is under there, you know, because they're still digging along.
FLATOW: Yeah, thanks for calling.
ALEXANDRA: You're welcome. Thanks for taking my call.
FLATOW: I remembering in - I was in Antarctica years ago when they - I actually watched them drill into one of these lakes and watching them go scuba diving into this big hole. And I was a scuba diver at the time. I said I'm not going down into that hole, which only had about four feet of water under it, the ice was so thick. But I think there was more in there. But it was - it's quite exciting. Who knows what else there is lying around in Antarctica?
Give us another pick on your list. How about medicine? Anything in medicine this year that...?
ORANSKY: I mean, I think one of the things that I don't know if it has any direct, if you will, scientific or clinical application yet, but obviously I think the big story is the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known even by many in the Obama administration now as Obamacare. They've sort of embraced that.
How that's going to all play out is obviously unclear, and a lot of it isn't going into effect until 2014. Some of it is coming online now. But again, one of the things that I think to watch for is whether or not things like comparative effectiveness research, looking at comparing two different drugs or two different surgeries or not doing anything at all, which is obviously an option in some cases, in many cases, whether or not that's going to be translated into whether doctors get paid more and other health care providers get paid more or less.
A lot of doctors are obviously a little concerned. A lot of insurance companies are sort of saying they're concerned but are actually quite happy. Again not really a science story, but it's pretty big thing that we kind of can't ignore.
FLATOW: There is a tweet coming in from Jose Canerio(ph), who says: What about the science of fracking? What is safety versus advantage really in the process of fracking? And it's amazing how fracking just exploded, so to speak, this year in the news. And in fact I was watching a news story last night about a company that's going to export natural gas.
We are now going to become a supplier. We have so much natural gas surplus that we're going to become a - I mean, the U.S. is going to be an energy exporter of liquid natural gas. And who knows what kind of implications that has for health, for the environment, for all kinds of commerce, all kinds of things.
ORANSKY: And just this - I think was it today that I read that New York state said something about it was going to be OK to do fracking, or it's safe to do fracking. Is that...?
FLATOW: They had a study. They commissioned a study, and they said that the study didn't find a problem with it. Now it's up to the governor and whom else.
DICHRISTINA: I mean, here's a case where - you know, many times people say the science or the technology is neutral, and it's up to society to determine how to use it. And here's a case where science has been following hot on the heels of what society is doing anyway to try to sort out whether this is safe to do, what are the risks, how can you mitigate them. There are various ways to do that. The technologies are improving all the time, although many people still have a lot of questions about fracking.
FLATOW: All right, let's go to the phones, let's go to Ryan(ph) in Nashville. Hi Ryan.
RYAN: Hey, how's everything going up there?
FLATOW: Hey there.
RYAN: I would like to nominate, maybe not as a highlight but a lowlight, when a U.S. congressman, and I don't remember his name, stands in front of the (unintelligible), and he sits on the Science Committee, and he says the Earth is only 9,000 years old. I think it points out that we have a lot of work to do.
DICHRISTINA: I think that is a lowlight. I remember the quote, science's lies from the pit of H-E-double-hockey-stick, as my kids would call it. I think this is unfortunate that in fact the board of editors at Scientific American spent some time discussing whether we should have a - some kind of recommendation for minimal standards for congressional leaders to have if they want to serve on science committees.
ORANSKY: And, you know, not to sort of put that together with making light of something which, you know, 9,000 years old, but they were quite serious, sort of a failure to understand science, things that happened on the congressional floor. Women who are raped can block, you know, fertilization. You know, this sort of - you know, that's where, and again looking at it from a health point of view, these have - this has a real impact.
Even if it only distracts us from what we really should be looking at, that has a real impact.
DICHRISTINA: Well, and here's something just to add really quickly to what you're saying, Ivan, because I think that's a great point. There are now a set of common STEM or Science, Technology, Energy, Medicine Learning Standards up for consideration up for consideration in various states around the country. Some states have adopted; some have not. All should adopt them so that people can learn about science from a young age, and then they can evaluate the evidence as it comes in, and then they will understand whether - what the difference is between 9,000 years or whatever.
FLATOW: Mark, do you have another topic you'd like to throw in there?
FRAUENFELDER: Yeah, one thing that I think is really interesting is the way that the price of gene sequencing has been dropping so fast. I think the first human genome cost around $3 billion to sequence about 10 or 12 years ago, and we're getting at the point where it's going to be about $1,000 and take like 15 to 20 minutes to sequence your genome, your personal genome.
There are already cool services out there like 23andMe and then programs you can get online that will analyze your 23andMe data to show you what kind of genetic predispositions you might have towards different kinds of food intolerances or things like that.
So that is really exciting, the personal genomics movement that's happening.
FLATOW: That's going to be a big story this year, too, because personalized medicine, and what do you do with the data? What do you do with this knowledge? Do you want - and if you don't want to know what kind of...
FRAUENFELDER: That's true.
ORANSKY: Or you don't want someone else to know.
FLATOW: Or - and what if your doctor knows, and you've been a patient your whole life? Is he under any ethical obligation to tell you even if you don't want to know it, you know?
FRAUENFELDER: Employers, insurance companies, it goes on and on.
ORANSKY: Well, I think we're still at a point where a lot of that information isn't necessarily useful. And that doesn't mean we shouldn't know it. It doesn't mean we should block it or pretend it doesn't exist. I think we just have to be very clear about what we can actually say. And some of the most advanced sort of personal genomics, personalized medicine is really about determining whether or not you will respond, say, to a particular kind of chemotherapy if you have breast cancer or to another kind of drug, you know, based on what your liver, what kind of enzymes your liver likes to make.
Those things are really important. Is it important to know whether or not you have a 19 percent or a 27 percent risk of getting a particular disease by the time you're 80? That's going to have to be up to everybody to decide, but we can't paint these things as binary.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Joey(ph) in Denton, Texas. Hi, Joey.
JOEY: Hey, how are you doing?
FLATOW: Hey there.
JOEY: Yeah, I was just - first and foremost, thank you very much for the show. It's awesome. But it's more about the oldest galaxy that we recently have found. It's about 200 million years after the Big Bang and what if any implications that really has for the progression of science? And, I mean, is that really going to, you know, be able to finally - how far back can we actually reach and/or see in doing this?
DICHRISTINA: You know, it's so funny that you're talking about that. What a timely comment that is. Good for you. Because just this morning, right before I came here, in fact, I edited a piece which is now up on Scientific American's website about our top 10 list for space stories. And one of them was seeing some of the most remote objects that have ever been observed by instruments so far.
And indeed we are getting close to the edges of the observable universe. After that, physics starts to get in the way of seeing further. And what does it mean? Well, we can get more clues about how the universe came to be and the state it is today. We can learn more about how things formed and how they evolved.
And I - you know, I talked to you guys about the awe and wonder buttons before. I mean, this really does it for me, this sort of thing. It's quite amazing to take an armchair journey with these researchers out to the edges of the known universe.
FLATOW: I also think it's exciting in totally the opposite direction, of finding these exoplanets that are so close to us.
DICHRISTINA: Yes, absolutely. The new one around - well, new one.
FLATOW: A bunch of them.
DICHRISTINA: Recently discovered.
FLATOW: Yes. But to think that they are so close, that we - if there was intelligent life, we could have a discussion in a lifetime, in one person's lifetime, a message going back and forth.
DICHRISTINA: Right, because these are barely four, you know, light years more distant and...
DICHRISTINA: ...of course, radio waves travel at the speed of light. So.
FLATOW: Thanks, Joey. That's a good topic.
DICHRISTINA: Great topic.
FLATOW: Have a Happy New Year.
JOEY: Yeah. You, too.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's see - Mariette, do you have something on...
FLATOW: ...one of your buttons are lighting up, there?
DICHRISTINA: You know what? One of my buttons has been waiting very patiently...
DICHRISTINA: ...for a while now. Can we not have a conversation about 2012, and can we have a conversation and exclude the Higgs boson that you mentioned...
DICHRISTINA: ...at the beginning of the show? We can't exclude this...
DICHRISTINA: ...for a couple of reasons. For the folks who haven't somehow - maybe you haven't heard about this, you know, this is - every field has an associated particle, and there's this field, the Higgs field, that is thought to - by theoretical physicists - to exist throughout the cosmos. It's kind of like - I think of it as the force, only real.
DICHRISTINA: And it imbues certain particles with mass, and it is - has been, for 30 years or so, a missing block of something called the standard model, which is our best explanation yet of how - of particle, you know, modeling. And this year, at last, it looks - we found what looks like a - they call it a Higgs-like particle...
DICHRISTINA: ...because the - if I could only explain to you how hard it is to sort through these data decay...
FLATOW: We've got half an hour. Go ahead.
DICHRISTINA: ...symbols - yeah, yeah, yeah.
DICHRISTINA: ...it's just, you know, and how you have to race these protons - you know, this is, of course, at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, and racing these protons at high, high speeds and smashing them together. And then you hope, you hope, you hope you see the fleeting residue of a Higgs boson, because, of course, nobody can observe one quite directly. And then you pile on data after data after data result, and you hope you get a clear signal. And it's like a - I think it's like your friend - one of the - I heard one physicist described it like this: It's like your friend is in the distance, and you're not quite sure yet. Is it your friend, Ira? You know, it's a guy with dark hair. He has about (unintelligible).
FLATOW: That's far enough.
DICHRISTINA: Yeah. And then he comes...
DICHRISTINA: ...he comes a little closer, and you begin to see that it is, in fact, Ira, or you begin to see that is, in fact, a Higgs boson. And it looks like a Higgs boson. And this is the capstone of the standard model, and it tells us a fantastic thing about how the universe works. And I think it's just amazing that humans can do things like this.
FLATOW: Yeah, and the kind of boson Higgs it was, you know.
DICHRISTINA: Right, because...
FLATOW: It was this vanilla, little Higgs.
DICHRISTINA: Well, you know, the - yeah.
DICHRISTINA: We're not getting into gigaelectron volts too much.
DICHRISTINA: I could just...
FLATOW: Oh, please.
DICHRISTINA: ...say that, you know, the relative...
DICHRISTINA: ...measure of this could mean one thing or another for whether there are new doors in physics that physicists can open after this discovery is finally wrestled to the ground.
FLATOW: Mariette, the most eloquent geek I know.
FLATOW: Thank you for...
FLATOW: ...for that.
DICHRISTINA: My pleasure, Ira.
FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. Here with Ivan Oransky, Mariette...
FLATOW: ...Mariette DiChristina and Mark Frauenfelder. Mark, if you - what about things that happened in the politics of the Internet? And I'm talking about maybe Apple and Google and all that kind of stuff. What was the highlight of the year, and the way they're fighting?
FRAUENFELDER: Well, I think the continued effect of patent trollism, where people buy up patents that are - that shouldn't have been granted in the first place, and then they start going after people and companies to try to collect back royalties from them is a really dangerous precedent that we're seeing more of that. I was just reading recently about some guy who - a company that's really hard to trace, who's actually doing it, but claiming to have a patent on scanner technology, and basically is trying to shake down every company that has ever made a scanner or individuals or companies that have used scanners. And this kind of thing has been going on for a long time. You remember when Amazon.com patented the one-click buy button...
FRAUENFELDER: ...which was ridiculous and caused an uproar, and I believe they still were able to keep that patent. But this is coming to a head, and we are going to have to see some kind of action taken, because it's really - otherwise, it's going to stifle innovation online and in the Internet, I think.
FLATOW: Yeah. The - this next coming year, especially with some recent court decisions that just came out this week, it's going to be interesting to see how this all shakes out, and whether Apple can keep its dominant position, you know, in innovation. It will be interesting to see.
FRAUENFELDER: Oh, yeah. That's been a big - I think that's been - a lot of people are talking about that. A lot of my friends who are journalists or analysts who are big Apple fans are thinking that their next phone might be the Galaxy S3 instead of the, you know, the iPhone 5. It's an interesting (unintelligible).
FLATOW: What - what concerns - what is in the history now that concerns them that - the loss of Steve Jobs? And I think this might be part of the story of the year, of a story of the year, is what has - we're now a year past the loss of Steve Jobs. Are we beginning to see, did we begin to see some of the fallout of his creativity and his vision, the lack of it?
FRAUENFELDER: I think it could be. I think that that's definitely part of it. He probably had a few years of things in the pipeline being developed, but Apple, you know, the stumble with their Maps, which was a huge, huge problem for them, really pointed the way towards them, you know, releasing something was just awful. And I think their bad relationship with Google has caused problems for them, too.
So it's, you know, there's other things that you can look at it. Another way to look at it is, though, that the other phone manufacturers and service providers are - have caught up now. And so we're going to see some healthy competition. And it might - Apple is no longer going to be able to kind of rest on this fabulous reputation that it had for, you know, the last decade.
FLATOW: Yeah. And we'll have to see what new toys come out by, you know, the spring, the summer. Will it be a mini-this? Or there was talk this week...
FLATOW: ...about a mini iPhone to have a lower price point, because there are other competitors that are a hundred dollars or more cheaper than what the iPhones are.
FRAUENFELDER: Sure. And they also crank them out much faster. The Samsung makes new handsets, like, every three months. And Apple, they're lucky if they get something out, you know, once a year or year and a half. So that's hard for them. Are they going to have to change their game and start cranking out stuff, new models every three months? That would be a huge change for them, and I don't know if they're up for that.
FLATOW: All right. We're going to come back and take lots more of your calls. 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri. We're talking about the year in review, and looking forward a little bit to 2013. 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 about the year in review. What were some of the big stories of 2013? One, I think, was having trouble answering how old the Earth was by some people. My guests are Mariette DiChristina of Scientific American, Ivan Oransky of Reuters Health, Mark Frauenfelder of MAKE magazine. Our number: 1-800-989-8255.
Mariette, let's talk about some big ethics stories of the year, like the guy who was finding - the guy - about the algae-bloom-soaks-up-the-CO2 trick.
DICHRISTINA: Oh. You know, like - actually, let's back up for one second...
DICHRISTINA: ...because I think that's a very interesting - that is an ethical issue. I think maybe 2012 might be the year that everybody finally woke up about the climate. And this is one expression of that. You know, one...
FLATOW: You think there's a paradigm shift, maybe?
DICHRISTINA: Well, I...
FLATOW: That the...
DICHRISTINA: ...you know, I'm going to hope so. It's kind of hard to see when you're in the moment. But looking back, we had the record meltdown of Arctic Sea ice this year, which has been - we've been losing Arctic Sea ice since, you know, for many years now. And since - I think we noticed it around 2000, and it's been shrinking even faster since 2007. So we're - just, you know, maybe there are some human benefits of navigation and so on. But what's happening was that - and part of the reason why I think that so-called rogue experiment happened was - it's exposing a lot of darker ocean water, which is having a - seemingly having a feedback effect on the climate that models didn't anticipate necessarily, and could potentially be a factor in changing things faster even than we expected them to change. And...
FLATOW: Certainly that Greenland melting, that things are...
DICHRISTINA: Yeah. And certainly, now scientists in, you know, around 2012 - it's hard to say exactly. But many people are stopping adding the caveat of, well, maybe these changes in climate can, you know, factor into a large storm like the Superstorm Sandy that we experienced along the East Coast, here, to saying that it has, because they can't see another reason.
You know, Superstorm Sandy got a big kick from the warmer-than-normal waters. And then, potentially, because of that Arctic Sea melt, which - ice melt, which is - has a way of shifting the jet stream than normally would occur, could have pushed the storm into making that left-hand turn, which storms are not supposed to make, and that was really odd.
So maybe, you know, this - I'm flipping it back to you a little bit, but the rogue experiments they try to solve this just go to show how people have, you know, of seeding the ocean with iron, and so on, and trying to create an algal bloom that can maybe soak up some carbon dioxide. Hopefully, you don't create, you know, an ocean dead zone where that algae soaks up all the oxygen of the water, or have other impacts. But I think they're just a symptom of people finally realizing that all this climate talk is not a joke, you know, and it's not maybe going to kind to happen in 10 years. It's happening now, and we're seeing the signs all around us.
FLATOW: It's quacking like a duck.
DICHRISTINA: Yeah, it's quacking like a duck.
FLATOW: It's quacking like a duck. Speaking of quacking like a duck, let's go to Tim. Sorry, Tim. Tim in Chicago, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
TIM: Hi. How are you doing?
FLATOW: Hi, there.
TIM: I just wanted to suggest the H5N1 story. The - I believe that was the bird flu being shown to be transmittable from birds to mammals, as well as the NSABB's inability to deal with the results of that research. I think, for me, as a microbiologist, it's one of the biggest stories of the year.
DICHRISTINA: Agree with you. I think that's a great observation. In fact, funny, last year's show, Ira, I remember, we talked about this, because at that time, the top journal editors in Nature and Science had held off on publication, and the publication has finally happened this year.
FLATOW: Yeah. I was going to say that the whole ethical question of should they release the knowledge about how, you know, the virus works so that - there was a fear that somebody could come and make them (unintelligible).
ORANSKY: Well, and it gets back to the dual use, you know, you were talking about earlier. I don't want to use that term, but that, you know, that's sort of consistent here. We're - you know, we're talking about something that could be used, obviously, in a very bad way, in a - whether it's terrorism or just some other way that we have. But on the other hand, we clearly want to understand it. So I think that's sort of key ethical issue.
FLATOW: We also had some very interesting people who passed away this year, scientists who passed away. Sherry Rowland who was actually on the first SCIENCE FRIDAY broadcast back in 1991, back there talking about something called an ozone hole or like that.
DICHRISTINA: And he has been a great success, actually. The ozone hole has shrunk because people listened to Sherry Rowland's research.
FLATOW: Sally Ride, Neil Armstrong and Rita Levi-Montalcini recently, the Italian Nobel neurologist who passed away. So there have been some notable deaths. Interesting anniversaries also. I think we just had one this week. I'll throw it into last year. It was the 30th anniversary of the Internet, of the public Internet, the first time it was opened up, about 30 years ago.
ORANSKY: And I think - was it last year or I think of 30th maybe around this time, first test tube baby or was that 1981? Was it '81 or '82? I don't remember. But she had her own baby or (unintelligible) was sort of a neat cycle.
FLATOW: That year, '81, was full of stuff, you know? The first shuttle launch is '81. I don't know why I'm trying to think of Dolly(ph), the name Dolly jumps into my head. I don't know if Dolly the sheep was - I don't remember what - no, she can't be (unintelligible).
DICHRISTINA: I think it was early '90s, right?
FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. Later. I don't know why. Maybe it was the ice cream.
FLATOW: But, Mark, this seems to be a big - that's the problem with doing a talk show. You got all this stuff in your head, and you don't know what year it came from and you go out there and throw it out.
DICHRISTINA: Especially people like us.
DICHRISTINA: We have a lot floating around in our heads.
ORANSKY: What we had for breakfast. Didn't that come up earlier?
DICHRISTINA: Yes. Exactly. And I didn't even know.
FLATOW: Mark, let's talk about the surge in crowd funding projects, small donations from lots of people who get special things off the ground, right?
FRAUENFELDER: Oh, yeah. That was huge, and that's really been an exciting development because this kind of crowd funding like you see with Indiegogo and the big one now, Kickstarter.
FLATOW: Kickstarter. Yeah.
FRAUENFELDER: Yeah, Kickstarter, it's an interesting space where people who have a great idea to either, you know, create a book, make some kind of an electronic gadget, fund a movie, if they can't do it out of their pocket and they don't have some well-heeled friends to do that for them, and they - the project is not that big that they are going to look for, like, venture capital or a large bank to supply, they can go to these crowd funding sites and get funding for their projects. And we've seen these examples of - like the Pebble Watch, I think, got about $10 million in funding, and these other multimillion dollar ones.
But I think the really interesting space is the one where it's between 5,000 and 25,000 to fund these kinds of projects that might never have seen the light of day because there wasn't a place for them. This is like a spot in the funding spectrum that didn't exist before at all. So we're going to see things that people are creating that didn't exist before, that kind of things. And so it's this - it's kind of disrupting technology that is, you know, one of my favorite things. Getting - enabling people to do things that they normally wouldn't have been able to do a few years ago.
ORANSKY: Well, I mean, that's what I think, Mark, is so interesting about this, is that there was actually a science project, right, just last month that was funded - I want to say about $25,000. And it, you know, again, it just sort of grew on Twitter and on all the places you would expect. In terms of science journalism, in fact, we saw Matter Magazine. It was funded and over - not overfunded. I don't want to, you know, they would be very angry...
FLATOW: Nothing is ever overfunded.
ORANSKY: ...because nothing is overfunded. But it exceeded their goal by quite a lot, and people do well there. So it's actually really interesting, and to me it also gets back to, you know, in a sort of different way, this sort of - the problems with some of our funding mechanisms and the fact that we have this winner-takes-all approach to getting grants and big money and all that.
DICHRISTINA: Also, do I remember - maybe you gentlemen will remember better - some obscene amount of time that scientists typically spend on writing, funding grant proposals? It's a giant block. It might be a third of their time. It might be even a little bit more.
ORANSKY: Yeah, I think P.I.'s might spend even more, yeah.
DICHRISTINA: Yeah, even more time, which is if you think about trying to get the most science for the dollar, spending that much of a block of time just trying to acquire the dollars is really inefficient. And you can do a lot of great science for a few tens of thousands.
FLATOW: I'm reminded of the Tesla Museum that got funded by...
FRAUENFELDER: Yes. That's right. Yes. So you just kind of posit something interesting, make a compelling enough video, and you'll get people who want to see this happen. I would love to see some people do some research about the psychology of funding these things and find out where this generosity is coming from. It's inspiring and pretty surprising.
FLATOW: When you said psychology and people getting to do things, it reminded me of something new that will happen during the election this year, last year's election, that you could actually go out using scientific methods and persuade people to vote, right? By using what - there's a whole book - the books have been written about this. The Obama campaign hired the people who wrote the books to find out how to persuade the voters in the key states to get them actually out to the poll using psychology. And I think that was a real - that's a real breakthrough, right?
DICHRISTINA: And how about all the mathematical analyses of - yeah.
ORANSKY: Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight.
DICHRISTINA: Yeah, Nate Silver. I love that.
ORANSKY: But, you know, when you bring up psychology, Ira, I thought you might have been going in the other direction, which is unfortunate, which is that social psychology sort of - a lot of real problems with it were exposed in that field this year, a tremendous amount of fraud, particularly in Netherlands. Diederik Stapel is the name that comes to mind. He had to retract 31 papers ad he had to retract many more. And social psychology to its credit, the field has really taken it upon themselves and said, you know, we've got - because that was a big deal to a lot of people.
FLATOW: Yeah. Let me get one call in from Susan(ph) in Louisville. Hi, Susan.
SUSAN: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I saw mentioned the meningitis from the epidural steroid injections.
FLATOW: Hmm. That's - do you think that was under-covered?
SUSAN: Maybe. Seems like a lot of people died and it just seems like that shouldn't be happening now.
ORANSKY: Well, I think we're going to sort of see the (unintelligible). I think that's an excellent thing to bring up. Again, not a positive story.
ORANSKY: One hopes that something positive can come out of that in terms of oversight and what have you. I think we're going to see the hangover of that. We're still seeing it, actually. There's even - there are more cases being described and discovered. But I think in terms of the FDA, and I know Congress is going to look at whether or not they could do more to regulate compounding pharmacies.
FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Susan. Have a happy New Year.
SUSAN: Thanks. You too.
FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.