Handle with Care
NEWS REPORT It's the Inflation Reduction Act, but to me it looks a lot like the Clean Energy Act.
NEWS REPORT It's the biggest investment in addressing climate change in the history of the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. On this week's show, we ponder what our bodies, our planet and the cosmos have in common.
LUKE KEMP We can't look at climate change in isolation from everything else going on the world. Inequality. Misinformation. New destructive weapons. The modernization of our nuclear arsenals. Societal fragility writ large.
CHARLES PILLER The only way that the scientific community can maintain or increase its credibility with the public is to be honest.
GUIDO TONELLI Science tells us that there is an inner fragility in the entire universe. We share the same fragility.
BRYAN WALSCH Perhaps we have passed some line that will be impossible to come back from. But that hasn't happened yet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Life, the universe and everything after this.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. So we're in the dog days of summer, linked by ancient tradition to heat, drought, thunderstorms, lethargy, fever, mad dogs, bad luck and death from all of the above in the northern hemisphere, anyway. And it got us thinking about the fragility of life, the universe and everything. We thought we'd probe the profound and tender frailty of our minds and our planet and the universe, too. For signs that human agency is meaningful, I think maybe we found some. Anyway, that's what this show is about. So let's start with the Earth.
NEWS REPORT Senate Democrats rushing to pass their massive new spending bill.
NEWS REPORT Bill focusing on reforming the tax code, reducing prescription drug prices, and combating climate change.
NEWS REPORT It would also raise taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans. They're calling it the Inflation Reduction...
NEWS REPORT Inflation Reduction Act. But to me, it looks a lot like the Clean Energy Act. There's a lot of money going into ten year credits, into hydrogen and nuclear, into wind and solar.
NEWS REPORT We will be able to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by over 40% by 2030.
NEWS REPORT The package also greenlights several new drilling opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico.
NEWS REPORT Maybe it wasn't build back better, but it's built back pretty good. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But is pretty good, good enough? According to the United Nations Development Program. Numerous experts believe that we are living through or are on the cusp of a mass species extinction event. The sixth in the history of the planet, and the first to be caused by a single organism: us. This week, a study by an international team of climate experts published in the peer reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, warns that legitimate worst case scenarios are vastly underreported. They call for directing more research and attention on a, quote, climate endgame agenda, according to Luke Kemp, research associate at Cambridge's Center for the Study of Existential Risk and one of the study's authors. We know least about the scenarios that matter most.
LUKE KEMP These are plausible. They could happen and we should pay attention to them, particularly because the consequences are so extreme. We often don't do analysis of higher temperature scenarios, and we also don't look at the worst case potential risks in terms of knock on effects. Secondly, I think it's bad public communication. As soon as you put out a number 1%, 2%, 0.0003%, it gives people an undue sense of scientific precision. And what we're trying to say here is that these are plausible. But we need more research before we can venture out into the realm of putting numbers and probabilities upon these extreme scenarios.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are there ways that journalists can better share the information we have?
LUKE KEMP One thing that many journalistic outlets can do is to simply accurately portray the science in the first place. I've been astounded by some of the bad texts of this research thus far. I've seen at least one major outlet in the UK run the headline that climate change could result in an extinction level pandemic by 2070. And we say nothing like that in the article. And indeed, it's worthwhile noting here that if I or any of my coauthors really felt that this was inevitable, that we were all doomed, we wouldn't have written this article. I'd be on the beach somewhere. The entire point of this article in the climate end game agenda is risk management. It's not disaster voyeurism. It's about understanding extreme risks so we can prevent them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you do think there is a path to at least the degree of mitigation?
LUKE KEMP Of course.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You suggest that the current information that we get from institutions like the UN's IPCC kind of sugarcoat their status. Is that true? I mean, didn't the IPCC famously conclude a few years back that much of the damage is irreversible and that we should focus on resilience in the face of warming instead?
LUKE KEMP We definitely don't say that the IPCC sugarcoat anything.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Okay.
LUKE KEMP The IPCC analyzes the existing body of literature on climate change. The existing climate scholarship that is analyzed by the IPCC is under exploring both higher temperature scenarios and under exploring these more complex risk assessments in the case of higher end warming, when you look at the likelihood of three degrees and above relative to its mentions in different IPCC reports that each nutrient mismatch 1.5 and two degrees are overrepresented visibly in their probability, while three degrees and above are underrepresented substantially.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Uh-huh
LUKE KEMP The second study. We share that this seems to have gotten worse, most likely because we now have these international goals of limiting global warming to two degrees or 1.5 degrees under the Paris climate agreement. And so it's natural, but let's channel the scientific attention towards those scenarios. And it's worth noting here that just easier scenario is tomorrow. They also don't look at these risk cascades that we know do exist. In 2010, a heatwave in Russia led to Russia imposing a zero export ban that led to a spike in global food prices. And we had exactly the same of COVID 19 as well. If you were just worried about mortality, morbidity, you missed the biggest issue, which was that the sheer number of people infected could overwhelm and collapse the health care system. This is how risk actually works in the real world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You're talking about the knock on effects, the pressures, the inequality, the hazards. All of those conditions that could lead to catastrophe are already present to a degree, and we need to be concerned about tipping points.
LUKE KEMP Indeed, this is not just about the magnitude or the speed of warming. It's about societal fragility. And part of this is knock on effects, what we call risk cascades. Climate change by itself may not cause a global catastrophe, but it could potentially impede our recovery from another catastrophe. So think of nuclear war, for instance, if you have a nuclear winter, followed by what's called a nuclear spring. So essentially accelerated warming after the soot washes out of the atmosphere from a nuclear conflict. That's much, much worse if you have three or four degrees of warming rushing in at just 1.5.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You also reviewed the collapse of some ancient civilizations due to climate change and other things. What can we learn from that?
LUKE KEMP Collapse historically hasn't always been a bad thing. Historically, it's almost always been bad for elites. It hasn't always been bad for the vast majority of the population.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's fascinating.
LUKE KEMP I think one of the best collapse or transformation case studies is covered by my colleague Eric Klein, which is the late Bronze Age collapse. It can be dated to roughly 1177 B.C.. You had this collection of different states the Akkadian Empire, for instance, the Assyrians and many others like the [00:08:36]Mycenae [0.0s] Kingdom. They all exist in this one big system across the Mediterranean. Deeply, both economically and diplomatically integrated. It's a good parallel for globalization, but a much smaller scale. There wasn't just one big risk. We did have climatic variation. One of the big impacts appears to have been drought. We also had climate change causing migration from the north into the Mediterranean. It had these long term trends like increases in inequality increases in the interconnectedness of the network, which made it likely that if one city state fell, that could cascade for the entire system. It was vulnerable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you think that we're similarly vulnerable?
LUKE KEMP Yes. And there's good studies on this that have actually been conducted by some of my coauthors. Martin Schaeffer in particular, how these very large interconnected systems, whether they're in the financial space or the ecological. They're often very good at buffering against small disturbances, small shocks. But once the shock becomes sufficiently large enough, they amplify rather than dampen it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This hour is focused on existential questions, but we're also exploring the possibility of agency. I think it's fair to say that the phrase climate end game can be a little off putting. What is alarming has the potential to be paralyzing.
LUKE KEMP I disagree this is off putting. There is an enormous difference between talking about risks, potential adverse events in the future and saying that they could happen and saying they are inevitable. One thing to note here is that end game comes from chess or bridge. It's the stage of the game when you have few pieces remaining. It's not saying checkmate, you're done. It's saying the final moves can be played out. I think that actually, in a very subtle way does suggest agency. It does suggest that, yeah, we can think about the extreme risks and these worst case scenarios, these catastrophic risks. But we have agency in prevent and even potentially late stages.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What a perfect way to end this interview.
LUKE KEMP No worries. My absolute pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Dr. Luke Kemp is one of the authors of a new study called Climate End Game: Exploring Catastrophic Climate Change Scenarios.
Among the reasons we balk at considering the potential for long term catastrophe is that our brains are wired for short term problem solving. That's according to journalist Bryan Walsh, the editor of Vox's Future Perfect, who dug into the issue in a Time magazine piece on, quote, Why your brain can't process climate change. Welcome to the show, Bryan.
BRYAN WALSCH It's great to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You wrote about how we're wired to avoid thinking about doomsday scenarios, existential events that are maybe a little too far over the horizon. And you situate us into the narrow metal tube of a functional MRI.
BRYAN WALSCH Indeed, if you actually put yourself in that machine and you ask yourself to think about people close to you, your brain will light up and you ask yourself to think about people very far away from you. Your brain will light up less. Basically, the closer in proximity or relationship someone is, the more your brain is actively thinking about it. But what's really interesting is if you actually ask yourself to think about you in the immediate future, okay, lights up like I identify with myself. I'm thinking about that person probably too much all the time. Then if you ask yourself to think about you in ten years time, it lights up a little bit less. 2030 it lights up increasingly less. And what that means essentially is that we almost treat our future selves as strangers to ourselves, and that's your self. Imagine trying to think about a prepare for generations of people who haven't even been born yet. Think about something as simple as this. I mean, do you save enough for retirement? Are you financially secure for the future? Surveys would indicate that's not the case. You know, you often make choices based off your sort of present day needs. Multiply that by society and you've got – you've got where we are now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And maybe inevitably economists have their own term to describe this phenomenon. Right. The social discount rate, which quantifies how much value declines as we look into the future. Kind of the opposite of the compounding interest rate.
BRYAN WALSCH I think that is the way to think about it. It's, you know, would you rather have $1 now or $10 in a year's time? Basically how you answer that question is sort of how you set your own personal discount rate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right. You put that in explicit monetary terms. You calculated that with a 5% discount rate, it would only be worth spending about 2200 today in order to prevent $87 trillion of damages. That's the size of the total world economy now in 500 years. Now, this presents some problems. I don't know anybody who actually believes we're going to be around in 500 years.
BRYAN WALSCH I think you're absolutely right. It's really hard to wrap your mind around time length as long as 500 years. I like to start thinking about my five year old son, like I think about the fact that he could well be around by the start of the 22nd century, which is mind blowing to me. Then maybe you think that actually, yes, we do have a responsibility to what we owe that future. Like we do have a responsibility to try to create the best possible conditions for them, not just to survive, but to thrive. Those people don't have a voice. We have to be that voice, not just thinking about the future, but maybe even being prepared to make some sacrifices of our own welfare now to ensure that future is actually even better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah, right. That is a little bit like: "But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?"
BRYAN WALSCH Yeah, it's absolutely it's a big ask. And it's so interesting when you look at what's happened over the last couple of weeks with climate politics, we went essentially from one week. Joe Manchin was not going to support any kind of climate action. It was dead. Suddenly, a few days later, things change. Okay, he's on board now. But it's so interesting to me the way this was shifted in terms of how it was framed. This went from a climate act to something that's now called the Inflation Reduction Act.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That shifts you from future think to current think.
BRYAN WALSCH Exactly. Having reported on climate change now for more than 15 years and covering the cap and trade failure back in 2010 under President Obama, back then, those were really ideas that were based around limiting things. It was like we are going to cut carbon by a certain amount. It will cost more, it will create a better economy, so forth and so on. But really, it was leading with those ideas of sacrifice reduction. Now we've sit around being like, this is a bill that will help you with inflation. This is a bill that will expand the supply of clean energy, will make electric vehicles cheaper.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And cleaner air.
BRYAN WALSCH And cleaner air. Yeah, and that's interesting cause, like, cleaner air is one of those examples of an environmental problem where you actually get the effects immediately. You know, you don't get that with climate change. It's a problem where even if you're doing positive things, even if you're reducing emissions in the present day, that won't really change warming next year. Five years now, ten years now you really start to feel it until later on. So you don't get that feedback. And so you need to think about other ways to sell this to the public. If this is the way to sell it successfully, I mean, this is probably the best we can do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You talked about how the people of the future have no voice. You tend toward a writer of philosophy named Samuel Scheffler. And I haven't read his book Death and the Afterlife. But the descriptions make it sound as though he thinks we as a species actually do care about the future, even if our behavior suggests we don't.
BRYAN WALSCH He goes into thinking really about, well, what really matters to us in the present day. Like I just went on, said, like, well, we tend to focus on our present selves, you know, adopt habits that may not be better for us in our future selves. But we also do care deeply about the continuation of the human project, continuation obviously, of our families. You know, I think if tomorrow we were all to find out that, okay, you have a situation like that great novel and movie, Children of Men, where suddenly no one can reproduce anymore. You'd think on one hand, Well, your life is not really changing. You know, it's not as if an asteroid or a nuclear warhead and suddenly everyone dies at once. But what that book and film shows and I think what Sam talks about really is that without confidence in a future that will go beyond us, life starts to lose meaning. Really.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you wrote The problem is, in the words of the social philosopher Roman Krznaric, we colonize the future, treating it as a distant colonial outpost where we dump ecological degradation, nuclear waste, public debt and technological risk. This hour is about connectedness, frailty and agency. And the first part I think we can get – we are connected to the world. But how do we exercise that agency?
BRYAN WALSCH How do we exercise that agency...?
BROOKE GLADSTONE To make a better future or a sustainable one or any future at all?
BRYAN WALSCH I think every action around climate change is an effort to do just that. People take different routes to it. You can be an activist with the idea that you are trying to safeguard the future. You can be a politician who's trying their best to be pragmatic appeal, maybe a little bit to those present day biases to get legislation passed that will benefit the future. I think any spiritual movement really often relates to that. Having a family that relates that all these things to me works together. It does take an imaginative leap. I think it's trying to look to the whole sweep of humanity and look at the progress that we have experienced over the course of 500 years in the past, a thousand years – even further. As difficult as things might look in the immediate future. I wouldn't want to go back 500 years. We've we've come a long way since then. Perhaps we have passed some line that will be impossible to come back from. But that hasn't happened yet, and I have a lot of confidence. And as a journalist, I try to write about that as much as possible, that we can continue that even with all the setbacks we're likely to face in the future.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Bryan, thank you very much.
BRYAN WALSCH Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Bryan Walsh is the editor of Vox's Future Perfect and the author of the book End Times A Brief Guide to the End of the World.
Coming up, the excruciating frailty of the self and why we struggle to change direction on Alzheimer's research. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. So let's move from our convulsing planet to our convoluted brains. Roughly 3 punds of mostly fat with water, proteins, carbs and salt. The seat of ourselves. No one like any other. Each defined by memory. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that memory was the matrix in which all other faculties are embedded and that without it all life and thought were just an unrelated succession. That was, of course, before Dementia stole Emerson's self away. Millions of Americans live with Alzheimer's disease that robs patients of their memories and ultimately erases selfhood even as they live and breathe. A disease that still defies science after decades of dogged research. But in 2016, a full century after the disease was first described, scientists made what was hailed as a groundbreaking advancement.
NEWS REPORT Beta-amyloids are typically found in the brain and have been known to be linked to Alzheimer's. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Abnormally configured proteins that are long and sticky.
NEWS REPORT The brain lights up with amyloid plaque, suggesting a high likelihood of Alzheimer's disease. [CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Since then, the paper has been cited over 2000 times in other studies. It sparked a massive revival of research into the amyloid beta protein. Kindling, long deferred hopes of a cure.
NEWS REPORT Lisa is taking an experimental new drug, one that blocks amyloid formation. It's one of 50 drugs being tested in over 100 clinical trials nationwide. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Late last month, a whistleblower pointed out potential flaws in that groundbreaking 2006 paper. It all started when two prominent neuroscientists believed that some of the evidence related to an experimental Alzheimer's drug called Simifilam by the biotech firm Cassava Sciences may have been, quote, fraudulent. The neuroscientists, by the way, were also short sellers betting against Cassava and who, through their own attorney, retained the services of an expert in the field. That expert was Michael Schrag, a board certified vascular neurologist and assistant professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who was paid $18,000 to investigate Simufilam. He compiled a dossier of his findings, which included apparently dubious images related to the drug from dozens of journal articles. A petition was filed with the FDA to stop production of the drug. The FDA rejected the petition. Schrag also submitted his findings to the National Institutes of Health, which had invested tens of millions of dollars in the research. Cassava Sciences denies any misconduct. After completing his work on Cassava. Schrag then turned his attention to that 2006 paper.
CHARLES PILLER Well, just to be clear, Schrag does not state that his work is definitive. He does not say that fraud occurred. Nor do I. What he does is he points to red flags.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Charles Piller writes investigative stories for science. His latest is blots on a field, which he wrote after a six month investigation, which he says offers strong support for Schrag suspicions.
CHARLES PILLER He points to image after image in paper after paper where there are apparent signs of image manipulation. And it's sometimes unclear why, but what sometimes occurs is that people who conduct these complicated experiments are believing that their hypothesis is correct. They should see certain results in the images. And if they're not getting those results. A motive might be to change the images so that they reflect the hypothesis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That doesn't sound very scientific.
CHARLES PILLER No. Fortunately, this kind of manipulation is not common in science, but it clearly occurs and there's case after case of it that has been identified in other circumstances. Now, Schrag created this 100 page dossier involving 34 different papers, either by cassava sciences people or by scientists who were related to the company in various ways. And he presented to NIH because he said, look, this is potentially important. It's a potentially compelling argument that scientific misconduct might have occurred. And it's your responsibility to look at this more carefully. And indeed, certain investigations are underway, including one at the City University of New York, where one of the main players in the Cassava story is based.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's talk about the images now. I love what they're called: western blots. Apparently, it's a way of displaying different proteins in a sample. Basically, you get a sample, you kind of grind it up. You put it through a device that pushes proteins through a gel using an electrical current, right.
CHARLES PILLER Brooke, that is an excellent and correct description.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I think that's because you told that to our producer. Anyway, so take it from there. How is this stuff manipulated?
CHARLES PILLER Western blots. They look kind of like stacked blobs, stacked bands, you might call it in. The different bands within a blot represent different kinds of proteins. So it's very important to the experiment that the correct information is in these blots. Because it can make or break a hypothesis about what is associated with something like Alzheimer's disease. So the way in which they can be manipulated is through digital tools. Then there's of course, the old trusty Photoshop, and there's also other digital tools that are actually distributed by the National Institutes of Health that are similar, more oriented towards scientific purposes. These tools can be used to pretty up an image. It's pretty accepted in the scientific community that they usually use partial images. They cut out elements, and they show these as evidence of a certain finding. And it's perfectly permissible to do that. The journals only have so much real estate in their pages, and if you showed the entire image for every experimental finding, you might fill up a whole paper with them. So that's acceptable. What is not acceptable in what is considered possible misconduct is altering was actually in the image or greatly enhancing or changing the contrast in a way that you can't really see what's going on clearly, and then representing the image in a way scientifically that the experiment actually doesn't support.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So Matthew Schrag didn't explicitly say that any image in the data was doctored, but he did raise a lot of red flags. So how did that work? Lead him back to that 2006 landmark paper in Nature?
CHARLES PILLER There's a really interesting online forum for scientists called Pub Peer. And this website is a place where scientists, when they see things in studies that look funny to them, either images that don't look right or data that doesn't look right, they post a comment up on pub peer and essentially ask the authors of the study, Am I misinterpreting this? Is there something here that you want to share that can elucidate why this doesn't look right? Is there more to the story? And the reason that Schrag was looking on Pub Peer is that he was constantly trying to refine his how to look at these images, how to understand them. So he did a search for Alzheimer's on the site pub peer. Then he noticed that there were two or three studies popping up by a guy at the University of Minnesota by the name of Sylvain Lesne. So he took a look at them and he saw what was being claimed as alleged manipulations of Western blot images. He then looked at the original papers themselves and saw other images that also looked to him very suspect. And using his digital tools, he seemed to be able to show support for the idea that they were also manipulated. And then he did a broader search of papers by Lesne, and he ran across this 2006 nature paper that he immediately realized was extremely important because it had been cited by thousands of other studies. And lo and behold, image after image after image showed serious signs of image doctoring.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I got to ask, how is it in the 16 years since that paper, that landmark paper, appeared in Nature? No one else suspected that something might be wrong.
CHARLES PILLER Yeah, it's. It's a puzzle. There's an enormous amount of complacency in this realm. There's an enormous amount of lack of due diligence by journals to seriously check images for possible fakery. I think journals are doing more today, way more than they did in 2006. But still, the tools to do this were available back in 2006. And it's not rocket science. It is something that people can learn to do even if they don't have expertize in the field of study. So the journals haven't done a good job.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about the fellow scientists?
CHARLES PILLER Now, that's the part that is the most troubling to me. Lesne's close colleague in the 26 paper is a scientist by the name of Karen Ash, who's an eminent, highly regarded expert in Alzheimer's disease and has made major contributions to the field. She was the senior author in the 2006 paper, and in essence, she had to certify that the results were correct and that she had reviewed the data carefully. It's pretty obvious that she didn't put it through enough of a rigorous review. She now believes that there is a high amount of likelihood or credibility that Lesne may have manipulated those images. She said so in the press a number of times since my articles appeared. She says it's lamentable that it might have happened that way, but still strangely doesn't take any responsibility and doesn't believe that it had any impact on the findings of the paper, which I think the people who have evaluated the paper considered to be pretty bizarre because we're talking about six or seven images in that paper alone that strike at the heart of their hypothesis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You quoted a neuroscientist at Stanford University is Nobel laureate Thomas Sudduth, who's an Alzheimer's expert. And he said the immediate obvious damage is wasted NIH funding and wasted thinking in the field because people are using these results as a starting point for their own experiments.
CHARLES PILLER I think the question is opportunity costs. So really what happened with this paper is that at a moment when skepticism was rising about the ideas associated with the amyloid hypothesis, this paper gave people hope and belief that there were on the right track, and this paper supercharged NIH funding and corporate funding for drug development. What's so troubling is that other hypotheses, other possible causes of Alzheimer's have been starved for funding during the same period, and that dominance of the amyloid hypothesis has been such that money continues to flow to it, despite the decades of failure to turn it into therapeutic remedies for Alzheimer's disease.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I just wonder, where does this leave Alzheimer's research? This terrifying annihilation of the self. We've been led down so many rosy paths only to see nothing much at the end except failure and disappointment. What should the average listener take from it?
CHARLES PILLER I think it's important to understand that this set of problems was outed by an Alzheimer's scientist. There is an element of self-correction in the field. A lot of people in the field feel a deep responsibility to do the kind of due diligence that Matthew Schrag did. So that's message number one. The second is that this is a human endeavor. There are mistakes made and there's even corruption at times in any endeavor, including science. But the vast majority of the work that's being done is faithful to scientific integrity. It's these exceptions, these apparently big examples of possible misconduct that give the field an opportunity to look into the mirror. Why did they allow this to happen? What systems can be put into place to prevent this sort of breakdown from happening in the future? Unfortunately, there's a lot of people in the field who have staked their careers on the importance of following through on the amyloid hypothesis, who have been discounting the significance of this problem. In essence, saying, "Well, it's lamentable that someone might have altered images and experiments, but it really doesn't matter. Everything is fine." And I think that rings hollow with the public and generates the sort of backlash from people who feel they have reason to be skeptical of the scientific community and the public health community, for that matter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Charles, you did an important thing with that Science magazine piece. It was long. It was deep. It was fair. Do you ever feel any ambivalence about it? I mean, about your work as a necessary and essential buzzkill.
CHARLES PILLER Brooke. I think about that all the time. I really feel concerned that when I put out a story like this and it's picked up by the likes of Tucker Carlson and some of the other right wing media, it's used as an opportunity to say, okay, if this one set of studies was falsified, that means all the research is completely fake. The scientific enterprise can't be trusted. And even though I abhor that, I don't really feel I have any other alternative but to do the work that I do. I mean, let's face it, the only way that the scientific community can maintain or increase its credibility with the public is, to be honest, when mistakes are made or when corruption is found.
BROOKE GLADSTONE As you've said, you can't do good work if you're standing on the shoulders of corrupt evidence.
CHARLES PILLER Research when it's most effective, is replacing outdated assumptions and it's replacing them with new mysteries. It leads to all manner of breakthroughs. And that's why uncovering problems in the field, correcting them is essential to the process.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Charles, thank you very much.
CHARLES PILLER Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Charles Piller is an investigative reporter for science and author of the recent report Blots on a Field: A Neuroscience Image Sleuth Finds Signs of Fabrication in Scores of Alzheimer's Articles Threatening a Reigning Theory of the Disease. Coming up, what our bodies, our planet and our cosmos have in common. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. A few weeks ago, we got the best news we've had in, well, eons.
NEWS REPORT Today, science has made the distance between all of us and the cosmos just a little bit shorter, with perhaps one of the greatest scientific achievements in our lifetime.
A new era in astronomy NASA's releasing a full batch of images and data from the massive James Webb Space Telescope.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The photos are breathtaking, but the biggest achievement is bound up in the data that it's providing of the universe. As it looked soon after the Big Bang more than 13 billion years ago, the Webb telescope is giving us baby pictures of the cosmos. Guido Tonelli is a particle physicist at CERN and the author of the book Genesis The Story of How Everything Began. He's long probed with mind blowing success, the origins of everything, and seems to also have a grasp on how it all ends. But first, he wants us to understand how vital origin stories are no matter where or when they come from.
GUIDO TONELLI I think is a primordial issue. If you take a look to all tribes or small populations that sometimes have been found in the Borneo or the Amazonas, they all have a tale of the origin. It looks like we need desperately to locate ourself inside a tale, and once we have located ourselves inside the tale, then we can start organizing our societies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It serves, you believe, is the origin of art, science, philosophy, religion.
GUIDO TONELLI Because you locate yourself in a long tradition. And the group that owns a tale of the origin is a group which has culture, which is stronger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you touch on a multitude of creation stories prominently Hesiod's Theogony. The best existing notion of what we think the Greeks in the seventh century B.C. might have thought about these matters. And he begins with a deity called Chaos, a word that had a very different meaning then. Hesiod's chaos was not chaotic. She was a void, and that's kind of how your universe begins, right?
GUIDO TONELLI For me, as a modern scientist that believes that the entire universe is a transformation of the void. The void resonates with the old Greek word of chaos. So it's like closing a circle that was opened by Hesiod and closed today by modern science.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your world, collecting information on the birth of space time. How did you feel about the images coming from the James Webb telescope?
GUIDO TONELLI It's something difficult to describe because we know what is happening in the dark, just the side of our universe, because we have indirect evidence. But the power of an image is incredibly strong. It's amazing to see galaxies in collisions or to discover that even in the smallest and darkest portion of our universe, you can collect signs of hundreds, thousands of galaxies, each one containing hundreds or thousands of stars around which we know that we'd be orbiting an immense number of planets. We are really a very tiny object in an incredibly large structure, which is absolutely fantastic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you think that they'll enable you to attack some of the mysteries that we still have, like dark energy, dark matter? You've said that it's embarrassing for scientists to know only four or 5% of matter.
GUIDO TONELLI Yeah. I'm a bit embarrassed in admitting that our ignorance is still immense. In particular, there are two major questions. One is the dark matter, which is very important because it keeps together everything. Particular the galaxies. Dark matter is everywhere, including in this room, and we are not able to explain what it is. And dark matter count for something like 27–28% of the entire universe. Even worse is dark energy. Two thirds of the universe is made out of this strange form of energy, which makes everything expand at an increasing speed. The real hope that we have today is that the James Webb telescope will give some light in some of these mysteries.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you think it's possible will ever get a glimpse of the big bang?
GUIDO TONELLI Ha, ha. This is a very good question. We cannot go to the Big Bang because there is a limit and the limit is a sort of a wall. And the wall is the moment in which the radiation which is light. And most of the telescope use a sort of light or some frequency light separated from matter only 380,000 a year after the Big Bang. So we have reached already this point and we can see the baby universe. Unfortunately, we cannot go beyond this with electromagnetic radiation. But today we have understood how to use gravitational waves. So if we are able to improve the sensitivity of the gravitational wave detectors, then we might be able to really see life the very first instant of the birth of our universe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wow. You direct your vision to the astoundingly large and to the unimaginably small, the infinitesimal particles that make up everything. Do these two kinds of data work together to piece together our origin story?
GUIDO TONELLI So science uses basically two independent teams of pioneers. The teams of astrphysicist or astronomists looking at objects which are very far away. They see them back in time. We, the other team, the particle physicist, study the tiniest possible object, the elementary particle. We bring back to life particles that were extinct since billions of years. Our universe at the very beginning was extremely dense and extremely hot, very different from the the large and cold and dark universe we have today. In the expansion, the universe has become cooler and cooler. That means that these particles are not able anymore to leave. The temperature is too low.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mm hmm.
GUIDO TONELLI But in the particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, for example, producing collisions between protons, as we do. The density of energy reaches a value which is similar to the value of the original universe. This is why in this tiny portion, going high in energy, in temperature means that going back in time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ten years ago this month, after decades of building intricate instruments to probe the cosmic mysteries, you have an astounding breakthrough at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva. You and your colleagues announced the discovery of the almost mythical Higgs boson, known popularly as the God particle, because of its role in giving mass to all the other particles, basically creating everything.
GUIDO TONELLI This hunt for this elusive particle occupying the lifetime of that generation of scientists, the previous generation. Without success, they were not able to discover it. Now we know why. Because it is a particle which is extremely heavy. And the machines that were produced in the 60 or 70 years, they were not able to produce it. For a scientist like me, being aware that you are among the first humans to look at a new state of matter that was not available since the beginning of the universe, since billions of years, is something which is difficult to describe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is there any way to briefly explain the significance of the Higgs boson and how it contributes to our creation story?
GUIDO TONELLI Imagine that for a moment. We can fly there and see the baby universe sort of a fog of elementary particles, each one indistinguishable from the others. This universe could have expanded forever without forming nothing interesting. Would have been a perfect universe, but completely useless without the possibility to create the stars and galaxies, flower of human beings, rocks, etc.. And this is why is so important. Because after 100th of a billionth of a second, this tiny moment just after the Big Bang is the moment in which the universe cools down enough to allow the Higgs boson.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Higgs boson.
GUIDO TONELLI That was one of these particles flying around without any particular role. It started freezing because the universe became too cold. Now the universe is not any more perfect. Now each particle has a different mass. Now there is not the same density everywhere. There is differentiation. It is thanks to a few of these particles that we can form the first protons and around the proton you can never lepton, which is an electron flying around. So you can have the first atom, you can form the first the clouds of dust of hydrogen that will give birth to the first two stars. That will give birth to the first planet without this initial touch. Our universe would have remained forever a perfect but useless universe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There are creation stories. What about extinction stories? What are the best theories about the end? Many have postulated a big crunch, basically an expanding universe, changing direction, smashing into itself.
GUIDO TONELLI The big crunch is basically been abandoned because the evidence we have is that our universe is continuing its expansion at an increasing speed. One possibility for the fate of our universe will be that this expansion will continue forever. That means that after tens of billions of years, the universe would be too cold, everything will be too distant, and there would be no creation of new stars. It will become a very depressive universe full of black holes, neutron stars. It is called the terrible death of the universe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mhmm.
GUIDO TONELLI There is another possibility that is quite recent is in connection with the discovery of the of the Higgs boson, because the Higgs boson that is producing this mechanism, allowing particles to have mass and to aggregate any stable forms. So if the Higgs boson go to another transformation and disappear immediately, we have collected data that hints that this could be possible. That tomorrow at 4:00 in the morning, immediately in the entire universe, the field degrades. If this happens, the entire universe will become a huge bubble of the pure energy. So everything will disintegrate. There will be no possibility of adding stars of galaxies or planets or human beings ets. We come back to the original situation, the perfect sphere of elementary particles, all massless, that are not able to aggregate in any form. It will be a hotter universe with nothing to be described.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You talked at the beginning of how important it is to the development of culture and art and the strength of societies to understand their origins. To have some story about it. I just wonder if you think contemplating our end has value in itself.
GUIDO TONELLI We thought it was impossible to damage significantly the planet. Now we have realized that these mechanisms are quite finely tuned and if you intervene too strongly you might destroy equilibria which are there since millions of years ago. Now we know that the same is true for the entire universe. Imagine for a moment we have been in the last the 2500 years speculating that we are subject to death the while, the moon, the sun, the planet Earth was, eternal. Now, science tells us that there is an inner fragility in the entire universe, and so we as material beings share the same fragility. For us is 80, 91, under 20 years, for the universe is billions of years. But for me, it is absolutely amazing to discover that modern science tells us today that the fragility of the human beings is shared by the immense structure of our beautiful universe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much. Guido Tonelli is a particle physicist and the author of the 2021 book Genesis The Story of How Everything Began.
Okay. So we don't have much agency when it comes to the thermal death of the universe. But Guido's point about connection was one made in some fashion by all our guests this week, and that reminded me of a conversation I once had with Michael Pollan, who wrote How to Change Your Mind. He told me he was drawn to the subject of psychedelics, in part because of some work that was being done in hospitals with terminal patients. People who were terribly afraid of what was coming. They were offered psilocybin, which suppresses the part of the brain that governs separateness from our surroundings. It gave them direct experience of a connection to everything that most of us can't achieve on our own. It opened them up to the idea that all separate things come to an end, including their pain and themselves, even as all things come together. And they were less afraid. I'm not advocating drug use here. I wish there were a pill. All we've got is a little free will making the decision not to despair.
And that's the show. On the Media is produced by Micahl Loewinger, juror Eloise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clarke-Callender, Candice Wang, and Susanne Gaber with help from Savannah Collins. Thanks for all your help Savannah! On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.