Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Disclaimer: The Parliamentary Library does not warrant or accept liability for the accuracy or usefulness of the transcripts.These are copied directly from the broadcaster's website.
Science Show -

View in ParlViewView other Segments

Emission from ships

Emission from ships

Ships burn a very dirty fuel, with high sulphur content. When this fuel is burnt, the emissions
contain large amounts of sulphur dioxide, and sulphates in the solid particles. Global sulphur
emissions attributable to ships are close to 10%. Ships are supposed to burn cleaner fuel close to
shore to protect people who live there. Gerardo Dominguez measures emissions from ships and has
found specific isotopic signatures which allows them to be tracked.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: And so as we approach Copenhagen and those decisions about pollution, one source
that's been forgotten by some is ships.

Kimberly Prather: It's an enormous problem actually in that we've been doing measurements in
California for some time and we're starting to see that as the pollution limits...the restrictions
on cars and trucks are dropping, we're starting to see other pollutants that are turning out to be
from ships, and they're overwhelming at times when the transport conditions bring things down from
the port. We actually see really high levels in San Diego. So it's a growing issue, without
question.

Gerardo Dominguez: Actually we are looking across a channel here between the coast here at La Jolla
and an offshore island, San Clemente Island. And in between here and there is one of the major
shipping channels in the world. Ships go up and down this coast on their way to or on their way
from ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and because of that we're actually in somewhat of an
ideal location to study the emissions and their effect on air quality.

Robyn Williams: Gerardo Dominguez who is measuring the muck from shipping, and before him Kimberly
Prather who is a professor chemistry at the University of California, San Diego. Many, including
the IPCC, say it's a really big problem. Few are doing the science.

We never think much of the emissions from ships, although I'd imagine they'd be pretty substantial,
and most of the ports in Australia have got vast amounts of shipping going in and out. So what do
they produce?

Gerardo Dominguez: Ships burn a very dirty fuel that's essentially like a bunker oil, and this fuel
has very high concentrations of sulphur, sometimes on the order of 2% to 5% sulphur by mass. So
when these ships burn this fuel they release large amounts of sulphur dioxide and also fully
oxidised sulphate in the particulate matter, the solid smoke particles that come out of ships. In
local and regional areas like here we have found actually that they account for a much higher
fraction than the global average.

Robyn Williams: When they're close to shore aren't they supposed to burn a cleaner fuel?

Gerardo Dominguez: Recently the state of California has mandated that these ships burn a cleaner
fuel when they're within I believe it's 22 miles from the shoreline, the idea being that it's
supposed to help with their impact on air quality.

Robyn Williams: What do you think of that?

Gerardo Dominguez: I think in general it's a good idea. If you look at the emissions inventories of
what you would expect them to put out and then you put those emissions through models that track
what happens to that sulphur dioxide, you expect them to have a large impact on the air quality in
regions like this. Our research aims at understanding and directly measuring what that impact is.

Robyn Williams: How do you measure the particulates from smokestacks of ships?

Gerardo Dominguez: Not only can we measure how much sulphate there is per cubic metre in the air
but we can actually also measure the relative abundance of isotopes of oxygen in that sulphate. So
oxygen has three stable isotopes; oxygen-16 (which is by far the most abundant), 17, and oxygen-18.
Chemically they are supposed to behave very, very similarly but actually there are small
differences in the abundance of these isotopes in different samples.

So people from the California Air Resources Board took a sampler and directly sampled the emissions
from a ship, and we found that primary sulphate from a ship has a very specific isotopic signature,
like a fingerprint. So that, together with samples that we collected at the Scripps Pier just off
the coast here, by comparing those two samples and their isotopic composition we were able to tease
out the percentage of primary sulphate from ships that is found here in the air.

Robyn Williams: San Diego might be exposed quite substantially, but which are some of the worst
ports in the world, do you know, that are exposed in this way?

Gerardo Dominguez: If you combine the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, call them one, I believe
it's about the third largest port. Hong Kong is another major port, Seattle has a major port as
well. And so all of these sites, if we were to apply the methods that we've developed here, we
would expect to see similar signatures.

Robyn Williams: And if the pollution of sulphate is bad, what are the health effects, the suffering
that can be caused as a result?

Gerardo Dominguez: Yes, particulate matter in general, the smog that you breathe in, has been tied
to increased cardiovascular disease, asthma, and an increase in emergency room visits. So during
days when there is bad air quality in urban regions you see an increase in the number of people
complaining from asthma and visits to the emergency room. It seems to stress the immune system once
it gets into your lungs, and because the particulates that are hardest to get out of your lungs are
the ones that stay in your lungs tend to be the smallest ones, those particulates are the ones that
worry public health officials the most.

Robyn Williams: You mentioned before that ships tend to burn a cleaner fuel when they're near the
coast, but what about when they're out to sea burning the nasty stuff? Surely that material travels
quite a bit?

Gerardo Dominguez: That material can travel quite a bit. How far it travels will depend on whether
the sulphur ends up on very small particulate matter, on aerosols that are small, those tend to
stay up in the air the longest, or whether that sulphur gets taken up by sea salt particles. That's
actually one additional aspect of our isotopic approach, it actually allows us to see sulphate
that's made by dissolution or sulphur dioxide being taken up by sea salt particles and then being
oxidised by ozone. So those details I think are still in general poorly understood.

Robyn Williams: What can the ships do actually to clean their act up; using a different sort of
fuel, different sort of engines, or what?

Gerardo Dominguez: Maritime vessels, cargo vessels, cruise ships are run on diesel engines, and to
a large degree the amount of pollution they put up is basically a function of how much fuel they
use. So if you require them to use fuel that does not have as much sulphur then they're not going
to put up as much sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere.

So the reason why they don't, as of now, burn the cleaner fuel is that it's more expensive. It has
to be refined to separate the sulphur out from the active ingredients basically that give it the
propulsion. So these fuels are taken from geologic deposits, and if you want to think of it as the
remains of dinosaurs and vegetation, it's going to be there. The question is the more processing
you do to it to make it cleaner-burning, the more expensive it's going to be.

Robyn Williams: Dr Gerardo Dominguez at the chemistry department at the University of California
San Diego, developing a way to identify which ship is responsible for what kind of filthy
discharge. And here in Australia both the port of Brisbane and Fremantle in the west are doing
studies to find out emission loads from shipping. Results are expected at the end of the year. And,
as Kimberly Prather just said, it's a big problem.

Chemicals on the Great Barrier Reef

Chemicals on the Great Barrier Reef

Chemicals from land runoff have been traced to algae and sea grasses in river mouths and coastal
zones along the Great Barrier Reef. Flushing times vary and are contested. Effects include
retardation of photosynthesis and growth. Other pressures on the reef include high water
temperature and increasing water acidity.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: Another kind of chemical waste affects our marine life, not least the Great Barrier
Reef. Herbicides from agriculture can kill the algae on which corals depend. Stephen Lewis from
James Cook University and Andrew Negri at AIMS in Townsville.

Stephen Lewis: So to start with we've been tracing from the waterways, draining different land
uses, and we've picked up mainly six different herbicide products that are passing through the
waterways and actually reaching into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon, and we're finding these
chemicals going out quite a long way in the Great Barrier Reef lagoon on two inshore and midshelf
reefs.

Robyn Williams: Concentrations high?

Stephen Lewis: Getting out towards some of the coral reefs, the farther out you go the more diluted
the chemicals become, so they are quite relatively low, but in some cases as you go inshore areas
the most marine plants that would be impacted are more sea grasses that are close into the river
mouths, and maybe some inshore coral reefs as well where concentrations seem to be at levels which
pose a risk. But Andrew's the expert really, I look to Andrew to shine the light to see what it all
actually means.

Andrew Negri: Certainly the concentrations that Steve's been finding in river plumes are enough to
reduce the level of photosynthesis in the algae which live inside corals, for instance, or the
micro-algae which live in the river mouths. These are primary producers. In the river mouths
they're very important as the base of the food chain, and the corals in the near-shore environments
collect about 70% to 90% of their energy from these symbiotic dinoflagellates which live within
their tissues. And so herbicides can impact on them and that may then impact on the corals.

Robyn Williams: Do you see any variation in flushing, depending on the runoff from the rivers, for
example?

Andrew Negri: Typically you see the highest concentrations in the first rains that run off the
landscape. You see much higher concentrations, and then as the rainfall event continues the
concentrations quickly dilute. So the big question is we know they're out there at concentrations
that seem to have effects levels, but we don't know how long they persist for and what this means
in terms of exposure of these herbicide products.

Robyn Williams: What about the flushing of the reef itself? It's slightly controversial because
some people at your university imagine that it's extensive, that the water gets turned over quite
quickly, and other people say it lingers. What's your view?

Stephen Lewis: Well, certainly we see data from passive samplers that show that herbicides can be
detected in the Great Barrier Reef lagoon at very low concentrations, in the nanograms per litre
range, all year round. However, yes, I know there are two different parts from JCU that suggest the
flushing time could vary from maybe one month to as long as one year. I'm not an expert in that
area so I'm not too sure.

Robyn Williams: The effects. What we're concerned about is what is it doing to our reef and to the
creatures and the plants living on it. What's your view?

Andrew Negri: Well, that's one of the areas that we've been looking at recently. One of my PhD
students Marie Magnusson is just finishing a project up, and she showed that there are sub-cellular
effects caused by the inhibition of photosynthesis, but this correlated very well with effects on
growth. Another student of ours showed that this correlated very well with the amount of energy
that corals were able to obtain from their zooxanthellae.

One of the most recent projects that we've just started with MTSRF and the Reef and Rainforest
Centre is to look at the combined effects of both the herbicides and climate change. We know that
corals live very close to their upper thermal tolerance already, and one of the management
strategies of the marine park to maintain that resilience is to keep levels of herbicides and other
contaminants very low. But it hasn't been tested that well, so we're doing that in one of the
facilities that we've just developed at AIMS.

We've just received a very large government grant for infrastructure in the recent budget and we
hope to use that to build a facility in the next year or two where we can look at both climate
change from a temperature perspective and an acidification perspective and combine that with other
stressors which occur. When herbicides come down rivers they come down rivers along with high
turbidity and very low salinity and it almost always happens in summer months. So these stressors
all combine together and it could be that the herbicides may be causing some added effects.

Robyn Williams: Yes, I know that Tony Haymet who runs the Scripps Institution, he's in fact an
Australian living in America, he was saying, look, if you're asking for trouble give the reef three
things to have to deal with; there's the temperature and the bleaching that goes with it, the
chemicals, and the third one, the acidification. And it can't deal with all three.

Andrew Negri: I think that everybody would agree that reducing the anthropogenic effects on the
reef can only be a good thing, and I don't think we can run that experiment on the reef, I don't
think we'd get permission!

Robyn Williams: And Steve, when you talk to people involved in farming, as you might do, on the
mainland and talk to them about the fact that their herbicides end up on the Great Barrier Reef and
they should put out less, what's the politics of that? Do you get a good response?

Stephen Lewis: We've been presenting the results of our study over the last few years down in
different areas, particularly the lower Burdekin area, and most growers and farmers agree that it's
a problem. And there's quite a good news story to this as well, that the Australian government's
reef rescue initiative package is being rolled out for growers to adopt improved management
practices to reduce the runoff of herbicides from their paddocks to the reef. And there's been some
really good talks today at the pesticide workshop we were just at that have shown that we can
achieve quite large reductions by implementing these practices, and hopefully improve on farm
profitability from these measures as well.

Robyn Williams: Of course they won't have to waste the money on too many chemicals.

Stephen Lewis: Yes, too many chemicals, and fertiliser management as well, hopefully we can improve
on farm profitability. So I think it's quite an exciting time for the industry at the moment
because...in particular the sugarcane industry because there's a lot of really good options that
seem to be valuable for them now to adopt. So we should start to see a reduction in the runoff of
these herbicides, hopefully over the next few years.

Robyn Williams: Stephen Lewis from James Cook University with Andrew Negri from the Australian
Institute of Marine Science in Townsville, Northern Queensland, finishing a study of chemicals on
the reef. And a final thought from Steve Jones who has written a superb book on coral reefs, and
whose warning on their fate is stark. What's his present view?

Steve Jones: As far as I'm aware the forecasts I made and many other people made have not only been
proved to be correct they've actually been proved to be too optimistic. So that anybody who
poo-poos about greenies worrying about coral, does it matter, is completely and utterly wrong, far
more wrong than actually anybody realised I think even a few months ago. The recent stuff about the
acidification of the oceans and the way in which coral is actually, if anything, dissolving rather
than being laid down, I have to say is plainly alarming.

Robyn Williams: How do you account for the fact that so many people come out and say 'this is all
trash, it's just a bunch of lefties griping on'?

Steve Jones: As the man said when he fell off the Cairo ferryboat, 'I'm in de-Nile.' I think people
like to deny these things, they're fact-deniers. In some ways (I almost hate to say this), fact
denial is what scientists do. I mean, the motto of the Royal Society in London (of which I am not a
fellow) was invented quite recently, only about 20 years ago, and I'll show you my perfect Latin,
it is 'Nullius in verba', 'Don't trust in words', and that's what scientists do. If somebody says
that coral is dissolving and things are getting worse, a scientist's job is to go out and check
that, often with the hope of proving that that person is wrong, and sometimes that happens and that
really is often the way in which science advances, in a very negative way, it almost backs into the
limelight.

So there's nothing intrinsically unhealthy about cynicism and scepticism, but it has to be tested
against facts, and the point about science is that it moves on, and if you constantly deny the
facts which are now accepted you're wasting your breath, and the same is obviously true about
people who deny the fate of the reef, the fate of the planet, global warming, the evidence is
overwhelming, so why don't we move on and talk about something...perhaps what we can do about it.

Robyn Williams: Steven Jones is a professor of genetics at the University College in London, and
his book Corals: A Pessimist in Paradise is quite lovely.

Inoculating fish in Vietnam

Inoculating fish in Vietnam

Catfish is a major fish export in Vietnam. They are grown in ponds along the Mekong River. Peter
Coloe compares it to poultry production. The fish suffer from various diseases which Peter Coloe is
working on. Using live vaccines, the fish are inoculated in dip tanks. The vaccine invades through
the gills and stimulates the immune system. The ponds carry up to 30 fish per cubic metre.
Untreated infections travel fast and can wipe out stocks quickly.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: And so we turn to fish, in Southeast Asia and then in the Congo. Professor Peter
Coloe is Pro Vice-Chancellor at RMIT University, and he vaccinates fish. Doesn't that conjure up
some weird images? But in fact it stems from a relationship our universities are building
successfully with our neighbours to the north.

Peter Coloe: About nine years ago RMIT established a university campus in Vietnam, based in Ho Chi
Minh city, originally in central Saigon and now more recently we've got a new campus in Saigon
south. One of the things that I got involved in in Vietnam was opportunities for research,
particularly in biotechnology and vaccines, in food safety. One of the areas that's important to
Vietnam is their export market in tra basa or catfish, and they do quite a lot of fish farming,
particularly on the Mekong. And I got engaged with some of the people involved in that, in helping
them to understand and control some of the issues of disease in catfish.

Robyn Williams: This is in the farm, is it, it's not with wild fish?

Peter Coloe: No, this is in farmed catfish, although the difference between wild and farmed catfish
in Vietnam is relatively obscure because the catfish ponds are situated all along the edge of the
Mekong, water is pumped in from the river in a relatively crude process, the water goes into these
ponds which are probably around about an acre in size, and then the water is pumped out back into
the river.

So all the way down, for many, many miles along the Mekong are these excavations of one to two-acre
ponds where the catfish are farmed. They come in, they grow them up in relatively small batches,
and then seed them into these ponds and grow them for around about six months, and then harvest
them, send them off to market, and then they start again. So it's not unlike a poultry production
type facility. The only difference is that it's situated along the edge of the river.

Robyn Williams: How do you vaccinate a catfish?

Peter Coloe: Well, the ideal way would be to catch and inject the fish but of course that's not a
realistic option when you're dealing with 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 fingerlings. So the project that
we're working on (and it's still to come to final fruition) is development of live vaccines where
we can inoculate the fish in small dip-tanks or in ponds and then enable the organism to attach to
it and invade in through the gills and that will function very much in the same manner as, say,
live oral vaccines do in other animals. It invades through the gills, gets into the bloodstream and
then stimulates the immune response.

Robyn Williams: I suppose you've test driven it here in Melbourne?

Peter Coloe: No, we haven't done much in the way of work here in Melbourne but other groups have
used similar types of technologies, particularly in Noway in the salmon, and some of the work
that's done in southern Tasmania in fish vaccines is sort of informing the approach we're taking in
Vietnam.

Robyn Williams: I suppose if you don't do this, given the high populations, the density, once a
disease gets in it's rife.

Peter Coloe: Exactly so, that these catfish ponds can have anything from 10 to 30 fish per cubic
metre. That's an incredibly high stocking density, and so if infection gets in there there's a lot
of stress, there's a lot of competition for food. And in the past disease has been controlled
mainly by bucket chemistry, by the use of certain chemicals to try and restrict infections, and
what we're seeing is more and more of these high density farms are occurring and the farmers are
pushing the stock to the limit. Antibiotic resistance and the like is occurring, and so it's time
for a new generation approach to try to control disease, and in this case vaccine seems to be the
way to go.

Robyn Williams: What if those fish that are vaccinated escape to the wild? Does it make any
difference?

Peter Coloe: The vaccine that we're working on is not an organism that will persist for long
periods of time in the animal. So it will infect and vaccinate the fish but it will probably only
stay around in those vaccinated animals for two to three weeks at the most. Then it's crippled in
such a way that it's not able to replicate in the wild.

Robyn Williams: And what about when you eat the fish? Is it all gone?

Peter Coloe: Absolutely, the same way as most other animal vaccines are well gone before the
animals are sent for processing. In fact vaccinated animals are likely to have a lower bacterial
load than unvaccinated wild born fish where the wild type, the pathogen, may in fact be residing in
the liver and other tissues of the animal.

Robyn Williams: Yes, one of the problems with fish farming is not simply the matter of disease but
also the build up of wastes and so forth. It's really been a problem that's yet to be solved
properly, isn't it.

Peter Coloe: Absolutely. As you grow and expand the numbers of fish farms along any river, and this
is not just in Vietnam but it probably applies in many parts of Asia, that you're getting more and
more waste material and the like being churned back out into the river. One of the advantages of
fish farming in the Mekong is just the vast volume of water that goes down that river, and so the
material is diluted out as it goes back into the river. I guess the other advantage of the Mekong
is that it's relatively unpolluted, there's very little in the way of intense industrial production
upstream of the area where these animals are being farmed.

But in all food production areas, be it pig farming or chicken farming or fish farming, or dairying
for that matter, you've got waste materials that are going to become more and more an issue in the
environment, in particular if you've got chemical residues there. So part of what we're trying to
do with vaccination is to reduce the amount of chemical residues that are going into these farms,
and so that will lead to less load of waste material going out.

Robyn Williams: And that pilot study should be done quite soon, an example of burgeoning
relationships between our universities and Asia. Peter Coloe is Pro Vice-Chancellor at RMIT
University.

Fish in the Congo

Fish in the Congo

The Congo is a large meandering African River. The lower Congo is different. This occurs after the
river spills over the side of a raised plateau and flows to the Atlantic Ocean. From Kinshasa to
the ocean is about 200Km, and here elevation changes 280 metres producing very fast rapids. The
river drains central Africa and this river passes through a narrow gorge. It's an extreme river
system. Over 300 species of fish are found in the rapids. Melanie Stiassny says the gorge drives
evolution of fish in this region.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: and, as he said, the Mekong is vast. But so is the Congo River. Just listen to the
way Melanie Stiassny describes where she works and where she finds hundreds of new species.

Melanie Stiassny: Most of the Congo is a huge lazy, enormous river that flows and meanders on a
plateau. It goes through forest, it goes through savannah, it's the kind of classic big African
river, the kind of African Queen type of river. It's lazy and it's huge. And the part of the river
that I'm working on is in many ways a part that's kind of been forgotten or it hasn't been featured
in the same way that the rest of the Congo has, at least in people's imagination, it's called the
Lower Congo.

The Lower Congo is so different because basically what happens is the Congo flows over what's
called the high plateau of Africa, spills over a sill, as it were, and plunges down towards the
Atlantic Ocean. It's about 230 kilometres in length, so it's actually very, very small considering
the huge size of the Congo, but it drops from Kinshasa down to a town called Boma which is at the
mouth of the Atlantic. It drops in elevation about 280 metres. That's a huge drop over 350
kilometres. It's almost precipitous but it doesn't go in one single drop, it's kind of stepped. So
what that means is a whole series of just amazing rapids. So you have some of the fastest water in
the world, you have just the most spectacular rapid systems in the world. It's really, really an
extraordinary system, it's a very extreme system.

Where the Congo falls over this sill there's a huge gorge and it suddenly tumbles down into that
gorge. So you have all of the water that's basically draining most of central Africa, you know,
over 1.5 million square miles of drainage, so lots of water, is suddenly funnelled down through
this very, very narrow sill into a gorge.

Robyn Williams: It must be quite a challenge to work in for you.

Melanie Stiassny: It's a huge challenge, and I've been working there for quite a while now and I'm
really...I cannot tell you that I've even scraped the surface, and I'm collecting huge numbers of
species. I've recorded over 300 species so far, just in that tiny stretch. That's incredible. And I
think what we're seeing is how the river itself is really driving evolution, it's driving
diversification. We've got this kind of evolutionary playground.

Robyn Williams: Of course we're in your laboratory at the museum here in New York, and dozens and
dozens of bottles of fish which presumably come from there, you've collected. Are these all new
species or familiar ones or what?

Melanie Stiassny: Yes, I've got tonnes of dead fish here. All my friends say that I should be
moving on to chips any day. But yes, a lot of fish that you see around you, yes, a lot of them are
new species or species that are currently being described as new to science. Obviously most of
these fish aren't new to the Congolese people who rely on the river and its resources for their
livelihoods, but they don't have scientific names. So the rest of the Congo you can think of it as
a source, they get swept over that sill and they plunge down into the Lower Congo. Once they're
there, they can't get back, so they find themselves in this new environment, and some of them are
able to establish a population there and they're kind of fixed to a very local region because they
can't move around because the river is divided up by lots of rapids, and maybe they'll develop into
new species.

Robyn Williams: Any surprises yet? Any particular species that made you think 'wow'?

Melanie Stiassny: Yes, all of them make me think 'wow' because they're very, very cool and very
weird, many of them have extraordinary anatomical adaptations as a result of having to cope with
these highly, highly energy-rich habitats. But yes, one thing is that we're kind of putting to bed
is an old idea that a lot of these river fishes are very widespread, so something that can be found
near Lake Tanganyika, for example, thousands of kilometres away from my study site, was thought to
be the same thing as is found in the Lower Congo. But we're finding time and time again that these
so-called supposedly widespread species, when you actually look more closely we find that they're
not the same thing. There is much, much more localisation of fish populations than people had
previously thought. So that's one thing that's interesting.

The other thing that's kind of interesting but this is very specialised knowledge about African
river systems, but it looks as if quite a lot of the closest relatives of the fish that we're
finding in the Lower Congo are not found up in the main stream of the Congo as it rises up like
a...Joseph Conrad described the Congo as a snake with its head in the Atlantic and its huge body
curled up around the centre of Africa. So it's not on that huge backbone of Conrad's snake, we're
finding relationships actually with the Kasai, and the Kasai is a big southern tributary of the
Congo which actually reaches down and shares headwaters with the Zambezi. So we're beginning to
maybe get some inkling through looking at the fish about the deep geological history of Africa's
rivers.

Robyn Williams: Any of the local people helping you in the way that they say, 'well, here's one we
caught last week and you probably haven't seen it before but we find it over there if you're very
lucky we haven't seen it more than once every five years'?

Melanie Stiassny: We rely very, very heavily on local knowledge. Fish is such an important source
of food, so people know fish, and villages have their prize fishermen and everyone has knowledge of
the local fish that are inhabiting the rivers they ply. So yes, we absolutely rely on fishermen, we
rely on our Congolese academic counterparts also and their students. And one of our big findings
that we really nailed last year on our last field season was we were able to show that the Lower
Congo is absolutely, hands down, the deepest river in the world. We found places in the Lower
Congo...it's not uniformly deep but there are huge underwater canyons that we've been able to
reveal using some pretty sophisticated Doppler equipment. And it's very interesting that the local
people kind of knew about these deep places. They didn't really know how deep they were, but
fishermen from villages a long way away are expending a lot of energy and a lot of time to come
downriver in their pirogues to certain places because those certain places apparently are very rich
in fishes. And what we've found is that those places very often correspond to these massively deep
canyons. I'm talking about canyons that are as deep as canyons in the ocean, deep, deep, deep, for
a river, unheard of deep.

Star Trek - the prequel

Star Trek - the prequel

Lawrence Krauss discusses Star Trek - the prequel. Various alterations to physical laws disturb
him. But maybe viewers just need to accept the film as they accept the weird nature of quantum
mechanics. As we search for the basic particles of matter, Krauss asks whether another universe is
needed to understand our own universe.

Transcript

[excerpt from Star Trek]

A bit from the latest Star Trek movie, and I've been ever so keen to ask Professor Lawrence Krauss
what he thinks of it because he's written a book about the science of Star Trek. Lawrence..

Lawrence Krauss: I thought it was a fun movie. For me what was great was the characters; by the end
of the movie they were all in character. However, when it comes to 'red matter' and the like it's a
little embarrassing.

Robyn Williams: The physics was slightly askew, was it?

Lawrence Krauss: Yes, I was trying to think if there was anything that was right. Like diving from
space into the ground, you'd get kind of hot if you did that freefall from space, you know, you'd
end up 20,000 miles an hour and kind of crispy. And the red matter, someone asked me...in fact I
was lecturing the other day and someone asked me, 'Why is the red matter red?' And I said, 'because
it looks good on TV or movies, why else would it be there?'

Robyn Williams: Of course it doesn't exist, does it?

Lawrence Krauss: No, no, but they have dark matter and I suppose they didn't want to have black
matter, so they had to have some kind of matter to make this ridiculous thing happen, right? Just
think about it for a second; so when you put it in a planet it makes it implode, but if it's in a
syringe nothing happens.

Robyn Williams: Of course John Lennon had yellow matter custard which preceded them all. Compared
to the first television series, as you wrote in the book, there is some credible science in that.

Lawrence Krauss: Absolutely, there's definitely some credible science, some of it is accidental. I
think in particular when it comes to medical technology they really anticipated things. You've got
to remember when Star Trek first came out there wasn't even ultrasound, and someone had the bright
idea, look, if I want to diagnose you, wouldn't it be a good idea not to have to open you up, and
so of course they had a tricorder. And since then we have ultrasound and MRI scanning and CAT
scanning. Did one produce the other? Absolutely not. It's just creative people saying 'wouldn't it
be a good idea', and of course in Star Trek it's a lot easier, you just build a little box. In the
real world you actually have to do something. And then the other thing that I think about...I know
you're a big fan of cell phones, Robyn...

Robyn Williams: Not!

Lawrence Krauss: My first cell phone and for many years flipped open, and I'm sure the only reason
it flipped open is the communicator in Star Trek that did just that, I'm sure there was no other
rational reason for it to do that.

Robyn Williams: In this latest Star Trek, the prequel as it is, they kind of perfect 'beaming up',
Scotty finally gets it right, but they use it in such a way that it's almost like magic, you're
conjuring yourself from place to place. Is there any physical basis using quarks or re-establishing
the nature of matter so that you can design it and move it around, upon which that could possibly
be based?

Lawrence Krauss: I wish there was, that's actually the reason I wrote The Physics of Star Trek, I
hate airports and I've been in 12 in Australia just this last week, and unfortunately not.
Unfortunately it's one of those things that it would be great if we could do it. And we can do it
for individual atoms, we can do it for individual molecules, we can use the weird laws of quantum
mechanics to set up a configuration which sounds just like a transporter, where you destroy a
configuration here and recreate it there instantaneously, using what's called entanglement in
quantum mechanics.

It sounds just like a transporter, so why can't you and I do it? The answer is you and I are not
quantum mechanical, we're rather classical. If we were quantum mechanical you could run into that
wall next to us and eventually after a few times you'd appear on the other side. But now if you
want to try, you could try from now until the end of the universe, you'd still bang into the wall
because we are not carefully prepared quantum mechanical states and therefore we can't exploit the
laws of quantum mechanics to do those strange things, and therefore we're subject to the real
problem of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. I can never know where every atom is in your body
and what it's doing at the same time, and clearly if I want to recreate you at the atomic level I
have to know both those things. So I can make an approximation of you over there, Robyn, but I'm
not sure...well, you might be indistinguishable but I don't know.

Robyn Williams: As long as I feel as if I am me...there's no point having someone over there who's
another guy.

Lawrence Krauss: I know, absolutely, you have to feel like you're you. Someone asked me, 'How would
you know if you're you?' And I suppose someone would have to ask you. In fact actually when I wrote
the book I talked about one other thing because someone said, 'What happens to the soul when you do
a transporter?' I said that's one of my main reasons for wishing we had a transporter so we could
do the experiment to prove that we're just atoms.

Robyn Williams: I must say, what you mentioned just now, entanglement, the idea that a particle can
have a presence if it's somehow separated from another part of, say, an atom. Imagine you've got
two bits, one on one side of the solar system or on the other side of the galaxy, and one here on
Earth, and yet they're still in touch. I can't understand that at all.

Lawrence Krauss: First of all quantum mechanics is totally weird and you can't understand it,
that's part of the deal, as Niels Bohr said. But the way to really think about it is it's an
illusion to think that you have a particle over there and a particle over here, they're really part
of the same system. If you carefully prepare them in an initial state and you don't allow them to
interact with the rest of the universe when they're moving to either end of the galaxy, you
carefully isolate them, then the fact that they're entangled really means that they're not separate
particles, they're just a single particle or a single quantum mechanical state. So therefore it's
not too surprising that if you play with part of it then the other part is affected. But that
doesn't make it any less weird, I suppose.

Robyn Williams: Weird indeed. Lawrence Krauss is at the Arizona State University in Phoenix, and he
writes now for Scientific America.

Indian snake charmers

Indian snake-charmers

Bahar Dutt grew up living close to snake-charmers. As a journalist she investigated how this group
of people survive in modern India where laws disallow the use of wild animals. There are 200,000
snake-charmers. Bahar Dutt discovered the charmers take a scientific approach to their dealing with
snakes. The charmers look into snake behaviour, and observe micro environments. The cobra has a
hood which flares up. It's a posture of self defence in response to the stick which is waved in
front rather than a response to the music. Bahar Dutt developed the concept of snake educators,
teaching people about snakes. They also do animal welfare work getting snakes out of houses.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: Do you remember this voice from last week? Bahar Dutt and her snake-charmers.

Bahar Dutt: They were very unfriendly. It's a male-dominated profession and the fact that here was
this woman walking in asking them all these questions about their profession...it's also a very
scared community. These are people who've had raids conducted against them by animal activists, by
the Forest Department which enforces wildlife conservation laws in India, so they're extremely
suspicious of outsiders. So when I used to first go, I remember they put snakes in my bag to drive
me away.

Robyn Williams: What did you do?

Bahar Dutt: I was scared, I was very scared, and you know they de-fang the snakes but I didn't know
that, so as far as I was concerned here was a bunch of venomous snakes in my bag.

Robyn Williams: But without teeth, you were safe.

Bahar Dutt: Yes, I was safe, I didn't know that at that time, that was the only problem.

Robyn Williams: Well, I wonder what Health and Safety would have to say about that! Bahar Dutt, now
a journalist, got over her scare and persisted.

Bahar Dutt: So I worked with these people for seven years and I have to say I learned a lot. I was
all of 24, 25 when I started out, and gradually I started going out into the interiors, into
villages. This is a community which is spread across northern India, there are 200,000 of them, so
what is the future of this community if there's a law banning their traditional occupation? That's
what I was trying to find out.

Robyn Williams: Did they tell you any of their secrets, how they charm the snakes and what it's
for?

Bahar Dutt: Yes, they did. They have many secrets which they don't let outsiders in on, but I also
wanted to document their traditional knowledge because there's this preconceived notion that
because they're an indigenous community, they don't know much science, but what we actually found
was that there is a lot of science they follow. I used to go with them when they used to go out to
hunt the snakes, and for every species they look into the behaviour, they know what is the
microhabitat in which that species is found, they know that when it's winter they need to make sure
that the snake is warm. So there is a lot of traditional knowledge and that's when I said, hey, we
need to tap into this knowledge and see if we can use that for the conservation of snakes.

Robyn Williams: By the way, what sort of species did they have?

Bahar Dutt: Everything from king cobras to pythons. The cobra we found was most often used by them
because the cobra also had a hood which flares up when they're doing the snake performance.

Robyn Williams: How do they actually get the snake to do what they want? Because they're not
necessarily the brainiest creatures in the world.

Bahar Dutt: You know, if you notice at the end of the flute there's a long stick, so what they're
actually just doing is the snake is in a self-defence posture, and all that they're doing
is...obviously the snake is not responding to the music but to the movement. Most animal activists
would say that that is cruelty and what you're doing is actually making the animal very stressed
out, but I think that's debatable, and I have to say that this project was challenging for me
because do you look at the snake-charmers or do you look at the snakes? For me the challenge was
that as entities both of them are doing badly.

Some of them...this is an old tradition in the community, after they had used a snake for two
months or so in their performances would release the snake back in the wild. So that's an extremely
sustainable way to go about your occupation. This practice has now died, which is why animal
activists are extremely suspicious of this community.

Robyn Williams: Okay, so the law changed and the snake-charmers lost their profession, if you like.
What's happened since?

Bahar Dutt: A lot. There's a number of things we've been trying to do with them. So we came up with
the concept of snake educators, which is basically saying that here is a people who knows a lot
about snakes, can we use that? Can these people go out to schools and zoos and can they be like
extension workers teaching people about snakes? Because in India we have snakes all over the place.

We even tried to start a service in Delhi called Dial-a-Snake-Charmer service which is basically
you call up a snake charmer and say, 'There's a snake in my house, can you come and rescue it?' So
it's very similar to what, say, an animal welfare person would do, so why not pay these guys to do
the same? They're using their traditional skills, they have a sense of identity with the snakes,
they don't want to go out and become a driver or a teacher, that link to snakes is very strong for
them. So we keep that going and we also get them some income.

The second idea we worked on is we formed a musical band because what we found was the music was
very strong, so we formed a musical band called 100 Charmers and they've now performed all over the
world, they've performed in Italy, they've performed in the UK, and they still perform all across
India at people's weddings. We use a lot of music in our Indian weddings. So these guys go out and
perform and they're paid for it.

So this is the balance that I've been trying to achieve between wildlife conservation and
livelihoods. And as I was doing this project I had people write to me from Egypt, from other parts
of Asia saying they also had snake-charming traditions, so this is not something that is confined
to India, it was found in many developing countries across the world.

Slime moulds - Dictyostelium

Slime moulds - Dictyostelium

A handful of soil will contain thousands of Dictyostelium, amoeba-like separate cells which, when
challenged by adverse conditions, aggregate to form a migrating mass. These are slime moulds. The
mould has a front and a back and distinct structures. This aggregation is seen as a defence against
adverse conditions such as lack of food.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: Just as fascinating as snakes, although you'd need a microscope, is the slime
mould, Dictyostelium, squillions of them in the soil wandering like amoebae, until, almost
magically, they gather together like cells to form a body, a large animal, and off they go. Paul
Fisher at La Trobe University has a film of them doing just this, and it's a treat to watch.

Paul Fisher: We don't collect them ourselves from soil but if you pick up a handful of soil you've
have thousands of Dictyostelium in your hands and it doesn't matter really where the soil comes
from. There are more species in the tropics than there are in the temperate zones but wherever you
go you'll find slime moulds.

Robyn Williams: When you say you do work on slime moulds, do people recognise it and say, 'Oh yes,
tell me more,' or do most people look blank? What's it like?

Paul Fisher: Most people look blank or they focus on the word 'slime' and get a look of distaste.

Robyn Williams: But they really are fantastic creatures because this process of the unicells, the
amoebae, suddenly getting together to form a slug, going walkabout, and sometimes merging with
other slugs, you know like black holes eat black holes, and having a front end and a back end and a
sense of direction, is one of the great mysterious of nature. How does it work?

Paul Fisher: We don't really know exactly yet how it works but we do know that there are chemical
signals involved and that the cells in that mass are signalling to each other and some of those
signals are determining who will be the front and who will be the rear, and the guys in the front
basically keep everyone else under control.

Robyn Williams: How did you find that out?

Paul Fisher: There are a variety of things that you can do. Because they're really small and easy
to manipulate in the lab, so you can have thousands of them in a petri dish, you can do nasty
things to them, and one of the nasty things that you can do is you can chop off the nose and you
can transplant noses across different slugs. So you could take, for example, a mutant that doesn't
crawl towards the light properly anymore, and you can swap noses with a normal strain that does
crawl towards the light, and if it's got a normal nose it will crawl towards the light properly,
whereas if it has a mutant nose it will wander all over the place. So we know from that experiment
that the nose controls where it goes, and there are a whole heap of other experiments along similar
lines that have been done.

Robyn Williams: How long have you been doing this with them?

Paul Fisher: I've been working with them since 1978.

Robyn Williams: That's one hell of a long time. As a matter of interest, how much time do they
spend being independent amoebae and how much time of the year being slugs?

Paul Fisher: Basically they will stay as an amoeba as long as there's food. The signal to aggregate
together and make the multicellular form, become a slug, is starvation. So it's actually a way of
avoiding death by starvation. If you live in the soil, life is really uncertain. You have boom
times and bust times, and when the bust times come and they have a global financial crisis locally
in the soil, then instead of dying by starvation they will change into a different kind of cell,
they differentiate, they become attractive to each other, they aggregate together, a few hundred
thousand of them, they can make this little multicellular animal that we call the slug that you saw
in the movie, and it will crawl around.

One of the things that it does is it will crawl to the surface of the soil. It knows where the
surface is because the surface has more light in the daytime and even at night, and also in the
daytime the surface is warmer, night-time the surface is cooler and it can tell the difference. And
so it will crawl towards the surface and there it will stop migrating, and it knows it gets there
because there's a sudden drop in humidity and there's overhead light now. It then makes the
fruiting bodies so that the little slug stops crawling and it makes this little thing that looks a
bit like a tree or a mushroom standing up. And on the top of it is a little droplet of spores which
are resistant to death by starvation, resistant to drying out, resistant to heat. And they can then
be dispersed by a passing beetle or bug to other places where there might be food to eat.

Robyn Williams: Isn't that clever!

Paul Fisher: It's amazing, and actually there are many micro-organisms that have found ways to
avoid starvation, and as a consequence a lot of the differentiation processes that you find in
microbes, the signal to start them off is starvation. And I actually believe that in multicellular
animals like ourselves, what we've done is we've taken that primeval mechanism and we now use it to
control our own differentiation. That's why our differentiated cells are ones that have stopped
growing.

Robyn Williams: Yes, in other words so we can have tissues which become lung, which become skin,
which become eye, and all of that has got to be stopped and started and shaped even. So there's
another aspect of that that struck me even further back, that maybe that mechanism showed the way
to become multicellular in the first place, because you've got all these amoebae getting together
because there's a need, well, maybe they could stay together and become a larger creature, and that
was one route to form multicells.

Paul Fisher: Yes, that's absolutely true. The slime moulds in fact have done that independently of
us. So they discovered that during the course of evolution by aggregating together in a mass they
could actually move a lot further, and that meant they could get to the surface of the soil better,
better able to disperse themselves to places where there is food. So they become multicellular by
lots of them coming together, aggregating. The other way you can become multicellular is when you
grow and divide you just don't separate, you just stay stuck together, and if you do that you then
also have the opportunity for those cells to then specialise into different types, which is what we
do during development.

Robyn Williams: Yes, and of course if you're going somewhere you can have a front end and a back
end, and the next thing you're doing is being bilateral and you're recapitulating the whole of
life.

Paul Fisher: Yes, that's right. So there are aspects of the biology of slime moulds which are not
readily transferable to humans because they've gone off on their own path. So one of the things
that they've done is become multicellular in a different way, and so we don't expect that external
signalling molecules that they use to become multicellular will be the same ones that we use to
signal each other, but we do expect that the intracellular, the signalling processes inside the
cell, in response to those signals will be similar because they arose at the very beginning and
they formed the foundation to do these different thing later.

Robyn Williams: But after 30 years what do you still have to find out about these beasties?

Paul Fisher: There is so much. There's only about 100 groups worldwide working on slime moulds, so
we're a bit undermanned globally. And their biology is so fascinating, it offers so many
opportunities to study fundamental processes of cell biology, things that are related to disease as
well, but in general we've only got a couple of groups around the world working on each of these
major problems. It's because the organism is so tractable, we say, so easily manipulated that we
nonetheless make a lot of progress. If we had more manpower worldwide, the sky's the limit.

Robyn Williams: And so these little beasties are great models for you to investigate all sorts of
things, from nerves to the energy systems. But if people want to see something like the movie I've
just enjoyed in your laboratory, can they see it on the net? Do you get slime moulds turn up?

Paul Fisher: Yes, there's actually quite a number of sites, but the international Dictyostelium
community puts some of its resources into what we call dictyBase which is a website for people who
work on this organism and people who are interested in it, and on that site there are links to
photographs and also short video clips showing aspects of the lifecycle that you've just seen. So
if you search for dictyBase on the web, you'll find it.

Robyn Williams: The wonderful science of slime moulds, being applied by Paul Fisher at La Trobe to
investigate mitochondrial diseases, which we have too, so it can help us, this work. Paul Fisher is
a professor of microbiology. And I see a photo of a slime mould did well just now in the Eureka
Prizes, the New Scientist Eureka Prize for Scientific Photography.