The Baidarka Reborn
Art of Science
An Olympic champion and his raring kayak help solve the mystery
of this ancient boat - and bring it back to its Aleutian home.
Also - the spider says "goodbye" with silk - but it says 'hello"
with flowers. Babbling babies - they can't speak, but they
can tell us how we talk. And a new cure for brain tumors -
it takes just twenty minutes. All coming up, on Scientific
FLOWERS Hi. I'm Woodie Flowers, and welcome to Scientific
American Frontiers. You know, a canoe is a nice boat Lightweight,
efficient, easy to paddle. But where did the canoe come from?
I don't mean who manufactured it, but where did the design
come from? The answer is - we really don't know! It's the
same with kayaks. Although nowadays we mass produce boats
like this, canoe and kayak designs were developed by Native
Americans so long ago - many thousands of years - that their
origins have been completely lost. This great boat building
tradition flourished all across the continent. But we're just
discovering that it was most refined was on the remote Aleutian
Islands, halfway to Siberia, a piece of America a thousand
miles from the mainland.
FLOWERS (NARRATION) A funeral for thirty native Americans.
But these remains are seven hundred years old. Ancestors of
these Aleut people who live in the village of Nikolski. The
nearby burial cave, discovered a year ago, contained the remains.
The Aleuts decided an investigation was justified. It meant
no disrespect for the dead, because the aim was so vital -
to rediscover their own history. To help reveal the past,
anthropologist Bill Laughlin has worked alongside the people
here for the past fifty years. These 1948 home movies show
one of Laughlin's earliest digs at the site of an ancient
village. His discoveries have steadily revealed a way of life
that has thrived here for 9000 years. The key to this achievement
was not on the land - it was out at sea.
LAUGHLIN "This is an especially good place to see the historical
panorama of the interaction between the Aleut hunters and
collectors and the sea from which all their resources came.
Everything they needed came out of the ocean. And the biggest
challenge of course is to go out on the open sea and harpoon
a sea lion or a whale."
The treeless tundra of these islands holds Little that sustains
life. While the surrounding ocean is rich in whales, seals,
fish of many kinds. But to hunt and travel year-round required
an ocean-going vessel that could stand up to the roughest
waters and worst weather in the world. The Aleuts developed
a sophisticated boat design that met these challenges for
thousands of years. Their invention was an ocean kayak, named
the baidarka by Russian explorers. Fast... sea-worthy ...
it was the crowning achievement of the Aleut hunters. Boat
builder George Dyson is out to learn the mysteries of baidarka
design and performance. Accounts by 18th century Russian colonists
describe extremely fast boats - but no examples survive. To
recreate how the high-speed baidarka worked, George's only
guide is this tantalizing sketch, two centuries old, of an
odd looking craft.
DYSON From these sketches and from what is being discovered
in burial cases and so on, archaeological evidence, how do
we reconstruct the dynamics of boat budding at that time from
what really is only fragmentary evidence. And the only way
to do that is by reconstructing the vessels themselves.
The original frames were made of pieces of driftwood, a scarce
and precious building material. In his workshop north of Seattle,
George Dyson has other choices. He's trying out aluminum tubing
while colleague Joe Lubischer experiments with the same design
made from wood. The flame presents some perplexing features.
A bow like an open jaw - was it functional or purely decorative?
The stern ends not in a point, but in a square. Why? Inset
in places - bone bearings where the parts rub together. The
ancient boat builders obviously didn't want a rigid structure.
They used loose lashings as well. The result is a very flexible
skeleton. Over this frame, Aleut Mike Lekanoff sews on a nylon
covering - a substitute for the sea lion hide his ancestors
used. A flexible skeleton wrapped in soft skin - just like
the sea mammals the Aleuts hunted. For the first test they've
chosen a calm fresh water lake, where it will be easy to measure
speeds on a quarter-mile run. Recruited to paddle is Greg
Barton, world record holding Olympic gold medallist. He'll
run the course first in his own racing kayak. Greys strength
roughly matches a typical Aleut hunter who, like Greg, kayaked
every day. But his kayak is radically different from the Aleut
BARTON This kayak is designed specifically for racing on calm
water in a straight line. It's very narrow, that's the main
difference between this kayak and the others. This is much
skinnier, it has much less resistance in the water.
Resistance is created when a boat pushes water aside, forming
waves at the bow and stern. The faster it goes, the larger
these waves grow. The paddler has to climb up his own waves.
So as the boat makes big waves, it reaches a sort of natural
speed limit that's tough to beat. Greg's racing boat is more
streamlined than the average kayak. You can see the small
waves it's creating. Full out, he hits ten miles an hour...
Olympic class sprint speed. Now the baidarka. Based on its
larger hull it's bound to be slower. But how much slower,
no one knows. Greg puts out all he has and hits nine miles
an hour - extremely fast for a kayak this size, matching the
best high performance commercial models. But the two-piece
bow seems to be doing little - it's right out of the water!
In fact what's happening is the boat is planing - skimming
the surface. It's a way to beat the speed limit of its own
waves, a trick well-known to modern boat designers. But it
looks like the Aleuts got there first. The trials were revealing
- but not realistic. Baidarkas were meant for different conditions.
BARTON If you took these same boats and put them in some six
foot swells, I'd be swimming ashore with my race boat and
I'd still be paddling the other boats. And also the speeds
may vary. The other boats probably wouldn't slow down nearly
as much whereas the race boat would be floundering and you'd
be spending a lot of time just trying to keep the boat upright.
So for the ultimate test, Frontiers has arranged to bring
the baidarka back to its roots in the Aleutian Islands. It's
high summer here but the weather is still cool and the waves
are still ominously large. We're going back to the village
of Nikolski, ancient center of traditional Aleut boat building.
They still depend on the sea for their livelihood. But no
one's hunted in a baidarka for 80 years. George Dyson and
Bill Laughlin are on hand for the baidarkas' arrival. The
boats will have come 3000 miles from Seattle - first by commercial
jet to the nearest fishing port, then three days at sea on
board a fifty foot trawler. Finally, they're transferred to
small boats out in the bay - and then the baidarka is home
at last. For the Aleuts it's a time of rediscovery.
LAUGHLIN That's marvelous. I think that's the first time now
since 1910 that real baidarkas have been brought ashore here.
It's a historic moment.
The young people have never seen a baidarka before - but for
the older men the memories come flooding back.
ERMELOFF They had a piece of sea lion hide about this wide
and about five feet long that they put in there and that's
where they sat They used grass for putting under their behind.
Did they carry a lot of stuff in the old time baidarkas?
ERMELOFF Yeah, they did carry quite a bit of stuff. They carried
provisions and stuff to eat. Sometimes two or three baidarkas
in a group would tie together and spend the night on the open
sea when they were hunting sea otters.
For George it's the moment of truth - the water is forty degrees,
and it's going to be rough out there - dangerous waters for
the boat's first ocean test. But he's a skilled kayaker and
this, after all, it's where the boat belongs. As it works
its way onto the open sea, the mysteries of the baidarka's
strange design will be mysteries no longer. The open jaw bow
has an obvious sanction: the lower section pierces the surface,
providing dean entry into the water. The wide upper bow gives
the boat lift as it crashes into swells. Without it the baidarka
would nose dive into the waves. So the ancient designers managed
to combine different qualities in a single craft high speed
during the hunt, safety and comfort cruising in big seas.
DYSON It feels real nice in the rough water, feels like it
was made for rough Water. The fact that it could achieve significant
times on a flat water race course and also cut into this sloppy
water as cleanly as it does definitely shows the real virtues
of a versatile design.
Another virtue is the flexible frame. Working in rough conditions
every day, a rigid boat would wear out quickly. But with a
shock-absorbing hull the baidarka can bend with the waves
instead of straining against them. The Aleut designers could
also turn the dangerous surf to their advantage. The wide
square stern catches the energy from following waves pushing
the boat on its way.
DYSON This thing would surf like crazy if you had the power
to get on top of these waves.
With an experienced kayaker like George making it look simple,
it isn't long before everyone wants a go at it.
PLETNIKOFF:: Let's try it out, eh? I'd like to try it out.
Larry Pletnikoff has never gone kayaking before. And remember,
this is an expert level boat - it's very tippy. But even a
tumble into the frigid bay doesn't phase the brave at heart.
PLETNIKOFF: Oh, it was great?
DYSON I couldn't believe he stayed up as long as he did! I've
never found anybody who's never kayaked before who stayed
up that long!
PLETNIKOFF: I did it today, ehhh?
In the hands of its inventors, the baidarka is back in home
FLOWERS Now that the baidarka has returned to the Aleutians,
the local people are determined to revive their boating traditions.
And it's not too late. As we just saw, there are still a few
older people who remember what it took, especially the extraordinary
physical skill and stamina. Young boys started training from
their earliest years - at age four or so. They played with
model baidarkas... They even had miniature harpoons like this
to get ready for the real thing. And all the time they did
exercises .... Like hanging by your fingers to develop the
muscles that hold the paddle.., and sitting with legs straight
out - like you would in a baidarka - and leaning forward,
to develop flexibility.., or stretching exercises like this...
All designed to ensure that the abilities of the Aleut paddler
matched the abilities of their wonderful boat, which is now
back in its original home.
In this tropical paradise, animals play.., raise their young..,
and wage the daffy battle of survival. Take argiope argentata,
more commonly known as the garden spider. Every morning, in
the hours just before dawn, she spins a new web. The raw material
emerges from silk glands inside her body. She is both architect
and master builder, as she weaves the silk into this stunning
tapestry. Its sole purpose: to snare insects for her to eat.
At daybreak, Yale biologist Cay Craig and her graduate student,
Cheryl Hayashi, track down the busy spiders. A mystery spun
into the webs has lured them to Panama: Why do these spiders
weave decorations, like this zigzag flourish? Usually, there's
just a single decoration, but occasionally there are fancier
patterns like this. How could decorations help in the spider's
struggle to survive?
Okay, this one's here from yesterday.
That's what Cay and Cheryl are here to investigate. They want
to find out if decorations catch more insects.
Oh, there's no decoration today.
To start they have to inspect an undecorated web. This one
has some holes. Cheryl sketches the damage onto what will
become a sort of baseline map of the web. Now Cay and Cheryl
can spend the next hour finding and mapping new webs, while
everything that goes on back at the original site will be
recorded in the web itself. A lot of bees fly into the sticky
net and then escape, musing only slight damage to the web.
But this bee is not so lucky. The spider wraps her prey with
fleshly made silk so it can't escape. Then she snips the strands
of the web that originally trapped the bee, and carries her
bundle back to the hub - she leaves a tell-tale trail of web
damage in her wake. The meal takes a long one - she has to
break down the bee with regurgitated digestive juices before
she can eat it. While she's busy digesting, a lot of bees
get a second chance. When Cheryl returns an hour later, she
can reconstruct the events of the hour by examining the web
and comparing it to her baseline map.
Looks like about three interceptions occurred. That the spider
actually caught the prey because they're cut out. There's
also a bee that's been caught and wrapped here, and you can
see that the spider went out along this line and came back
in. There are also a lot of other small line damages here
which are probably insects hitting the web and then fleeing
Now they're ready to tackle the mystery of the decorations.
Okay. I think it is from yesterday, right. I think this is
R - 24.
The small spider has spun a small decoration.
It probably has some growing to do.
Will it help her trap bees? During the hour, this spider catches
several bees.., and an unusual delicacy: a large grasshopper,
still alive, struggling to breathe through the thick silk.
This bee has been trying to escape for several minutes. Finally,
it's bound by just a single strand. The spider is not responding.
Then the bee gets entangled again. The struggle is over.
Oh my Gosh. What a mess. Look at this.
Big interception here.
The verdict that emerges from hundreds of these maps is unmistakable:
decorated webs catch more insects.
What these studies are showing is that they're really doing
fantastic things, that they're decorating their webs with
brightly-colored will to lure insects to them, to attract
insects to the web.
What is it about these decorations that make them so attractive
- and so fatal - to insects?
Stand by for a minute
Cay has a hunch - and to test it, she's going to take some
Ooh, perfect. Now perfect.
She photographs the web once in normal light, and once with
a special filter that blocks out all light except ultraviolet
light. Ultraviolet, or UV light, is invisible to humans. But
insects not only see UV light;, they see it as extremely bright.
The flowers of many plants, including these grasses, reflect
UV light, so the flowers look even brighter to bees than they
do to us. In fact, LTV light is a kind of beacon for bees,
drawing them to their food sources. So as they fly through
the air, the bees are looking for any surfaces that reflect
UV light. Maybe the silk the spider uses to fashion her decoration
also reflects UV light, just like a flower.
All the visible light has been cut out.
And it's this hunch that led Cay to take these pictures. Here
is a high contrast black and white version of how we see the
web. The decorations stand out, but so do the spider, the
leafy background behind the web, and the entire blade of grass
in the bottom center - both stem and flower are extremely
bright. But in UV light only, the kind of Light that bees
are attracted to, almost everything fades away, except the
decoration and the grass flower. This means that they both
reflect UV light. In fact in this light, the zigzag decoration
bears an uncanny resemblance to the flower. Viewed through
a video camera which has been speedily adapted to read only
ultraviolet light, the spider's strategy becomes dear: she
is decorating her web to look like a flower, trying to fool
hungry bees. But one more mystery remains. We know that spiders
are meticulous builders. Day after day, they weave their webs,
never varying the basic structure. But the decorations change
all the time. Sometimes a single arm pointed this way, sometimes
that way. Sometimes 2 arms, or even 4. Even more baffling,
on some days the spiders don't decorate at all. That makes
no sense, since decorated webs attract far more insects than
undecorated ones. Is this just random behavior? Or are the
spiders up to something? To fred out, Cay has devised an experiment
to ask the bees. Assisted by Jennifer Maas, Cay lures the
bees to the site of the experiment with a dish of sugar water.
Once the experiment begins, Cay needs to track the behavior
of each individual bee. That's a Problem. They all look kind
of similar. Solution: nail polish. Fortunately, these bees
Gold top, dark blue bottom. We haven't had one of those yet.
Each bee gets its own individual marking, so it can be recognized
later. Then Jennifer heads into the wild, to find the decorations
they need for the experiment. She carefully lays the decoration
onto a piece of sticky acetate. A web strung across this hoop
goes directly in front of the sugar water dish.
Are you ready, Jennifer?
Then it's decorated. The bees still want to get to the sugar
water. But now there's a decorated web in their way. How will
Gold top, pink bottom.
Cay looks for the individual bees that she's marked. Here's
the gold one.
Jennifer keeps track of what the marked bees do. Most of them
are getting caught. But since there's no spider to finish
them off, they always eventually escape. Do the bees learn
something from this experience?
We think that flying into a web is pretty traumatic. It's
kind of like if you slam your hand in a car door you're not
likely to do it again, because it's just a really strong signal
that will help you remember in the future.
Yeah, avoid, around, you're right.
After getting caught a few times, the bees do learn to avoid
the web and fly around it. Here's a slow motion replay. The
gold bee, who's gotten caught several times in the past, now
flies around the web. So the bees have learned to avoid a
web that's decorated like this. But what happens when Cay
changes the decoration by pointing it in a new direction,
Blue top, pink bottom. Caught.
Cay will have to repeat this experiment many times, to make
sure, but it looks like the bees are now flying right into
the web, as if they'd learned nothing at all.
Caught, caught. Maybe changing the decoration confused them.
Well the idea is that if the bees see the same decoration
day after day, they may be able to learn to avoid the web
more easily, then if the decorations constantly changing.
So that could explain why the spiders have evolved to spin
variable decorations, why every individual spins a different
decoration, and its unpredictable.
The spider and the bee are locked in a life and death struggle.
The spider comes up with a trick to trap the bee; the bee
either catches on or ends up as spider food. And when enough
bees catch on, it's time for a new trick, or the spider goes
hungry. This is the battle of the hunter and the hunted -
played out by individuals, but evolving over thousands of
generations. New moves keep the hunters ahead, new countermoves
keep the hunted alive.
FLOWERS (NARRATION) This is an example of the art of science.
This is not. It's a little drawing I made of a beach in California.
There's something funny about this drawing- aside from the
fact that I'm no artist. It might show a few yards along the
shore, or it might show the whole coast from Monterey to San
Diego. Without knowing the scale, you just can't tell. Realizing
that something can look. The same at different scales is one
of the key ideas behind a hot topic in math called fractals.
This is a fractal, and so is this. Actually, fractals are
mining up everywhere, from the patterns in clouds to the linings
of our lungs. And the study of fractals is also generating
something else - dazzling animation. Heinz Otto Peitgen and
Spektrum Videothek produced the hypnotic images you're about
to see. Keep an eye out for change of scale - but as always
on the "Art of Science," the main thing is just to sit back
FLOWERS This is Corey Rae, age 12 months. She's learning to
speak, and so far, she has one major accomplishment: "Hi."
But researchers at McGill University in Montreal are paying
less attention to her first word than to this:
Listen to that again.
MOTHER Mamamamama. Mamamama.
This is babbling, when a baby repeats a syllable over and
over. All babies do it - it's part of learning to communicate.
But according to psychologist Laura Petitto, babbling is not
language as we know it - as meaning and content - it's language
as a baby knows it- as forms and sounds.
The important thing about the way children use these forms
is that they don't mean anything. There's nothing in the world
that they're referring to. It is a stage of human development
where the child is simply playing with the raw form of human
language. How did you know when was babbling. What was different
Bababababa. She just started...
If Corey Rae doesn't mean anything when she babbles, then
why does she do it? Most linguists think that a baby like
Corey Rae babbles because she is establishing control over
the muscles that produce speech. Laura has a much more radical
idea. She thinks Corey Rae is babbling, not because her vocal
tract is maturing, but because her language ability is maturing.
This disagreement is fueling an intense debate about the nature
of language itself.
FLOWERS Here's the central question: Are language and speech
as intimately connected as they seem? We've evolved so that
our brains work together with our vocal tract to produce language
in the form of speech. But if our vocal tract hadn't evolved
this way, would we still have language? Many linguists say
no. Laura says yes - language is an independent part of the
brain which would find some way to come out, even in the absence
of sound. But in a world where language is expressed through
speech, how would you study that question?
Here's how: This is Rainy, 18 months old. Rainy is profoundly
deaf, and so are his parents. From birth, he's been exposed
to a language based not on speech but on signs, produced not
with the vocal tract, but with the hands. Both Rainy's parents
communicate to him in sign language. Children like Rainy are
a unique opportunity to test Laura's theory.
If you want to understand whether language is involved in
the production of babbling, or speech is involved in the production
of babbling, sign languages are the test case because they're
not based on speech.
If Laura's theory is right - if babbling is tied to language
and not to speech - then deaf kids like Rainy should babble.
Of course they wouldn't babble with their voices, they would
babble with their hands. Do they? And how would we know if
they did? student Paula Marentette are trying to figure out.
That's what Laura and graduate. Each hour of videotape that
she shoots takes Paula hundreds of hours to analyze it's hard
work to determine if Rainy is using his hands to babble. That's
because kids use their hands in a lot of different ways -
to point to things, to scratch themselves, to handle objects,
to express anger. And all kids do a lot of this kind of gesturing
when they're excited. To filter these out, Paula and Laura
study hearing children's hand movements as closely as they
study deaf children.
Given that Corey Rae is producing this open-close gesture
we sort of store that knowledge and when we see that in a
deaf child, we think - okay, this is a form that occurs, we've
observed this in hearing children. So it's probably a gesture
rather than a sign or a babble.
But even when Paula throws out all the gestures, and points,
and scratches that she knows are not babbles, there's still
a lot of hand activity left. This is Isabelle. Watch her hands
closely. This gesture has never been seen in hearing children,
and it doesn't refer to anything. Now Paula can move to a
new level of analysis. Is the hand shape and hand movement
that the baby is using commonly seen in adult sign language?
Watch as this adult makes the sign for "angry," and for "curly."
Notice the hand shape - an open hand with curved fingers.
The same as Isabelle's. And the movement, a kind of flapping
at the wrist. Reminiscent of this movement, a sign that means
"don't want," as in "I don't want an apple." Now, how does
what Isabelle is doing with her hands compare with this?
Dun, dun, dun, dun, dun.
For Laura, all the hours of screening and studying come down
to this question: Is what the deaf children do with their
hands the same as what this hearing child does with his voice?
Dun, dun, dun, dun, dun.
What the child did is he extracted out a sign that he heard
in his environment, a sound that's in world languages. It's
organized in relation to another sound, so there's a consonant
and a vowel. It's organized in a syllable and this syllable
is repeated again and again and again.
Now Laura turns to a tape of Vance, a 9 month old deaf child.
His sister and his mother are signing about what they did
earlier that day. Trying to get into the conversation, but
not yet able to sign, Vance puts his hand directly in their
line of sight and makes this gesture. Here they are - all
the same features of babbling that Laura has observed in hearing
children. And of course, this time the repeated syllable consists
not of a consonant and vowel, but of a hand shape and hand
movement. Vance is babbling. He's not actually signing, the
way his mother and sister are, but he's taking the first step.
None of these forms are the identical forms that a parent
produces. In the same way in vocal babbling. Not many parents
walk around the house going "dadada". Nonetheless, children
produce these forms. So the babbling is the child's active
attempt to master the form of language. To listen to the environment,
to look at the environment, and in little baby steps play
with these the forms of language in an attempt to build and
master a target language.
After analyzing hundreds of hours of tape, Laura has concluded
that deaf babies babble, just like hearing babies. And that's
vital evidence for the theory that language does not need
speech to express itself. It will find a way out, by whatever
means are available. But does this mean that sign language
is just a substitute for speech, something that the brain
turns to when speech is not possible? Here's a way to find
out. Simon is almost 2 years old. He's signing...
Et qu'est-ce qu'il fait?
...and he's speaking.
Ah oui. Et la, et la.
His mother is profoundly deaf and signs to him.
C'est quoi, ca?
His father is partially deaf, and speaks to him, in French.
Pour fair quoi?
Simon, who has normal hearing, seems perfectly comfortable
with this arrangement.
For Simon, it's very natural. He never gets frustrated with
it. He doesn't really make a distinction between the hearing
and the deaf. People are very surprised that he can sign.
He's like a model to the world.
Simon is learning both to sign and to speak. But does he find
speech more natural, easier to learn? Paula and Laura have
been videotaping Simon since he was 4 months old. And here's
what they've discovered: Simon is passing every major milestone
in language learning - in both sign and speech - at exactly
the same time. One of these milestones is putting 2 words
Parth' l'eau, l'eau.
"Partir l'eau, l'eau," he says in French. "The water's all
gone." A few minutes later in the tape, he's putting two signs
together. He signs "monkey" and then "same", meaning the monkey
in the room is the same as the one in the book.
It suggests that the brain doesn't care if one is a signed
language and one is a spoken language. That it can take input
from signor from speech equally wel and do what it needs to
make a fully productive language
Years of painstaking work on babbling and language learning
are bringing Laura closer and closer to the ultimate goal:
understanding that highly inaccessible par tof the brain which
is language itself.
(SIGNING) "Communicating with your hands works fine -- as
long as other people know the language."
FLOWERS "Communicating with your hands works fine - as long
as other people know the language." That's what Katie just
said in sign language, and it points to the practical follow-up
to this story. If Laura Petitto is right, then using your
hands is just as natural a way to communicate as using your
voice. But evolution has created a world in which hearing
is a given and speech is the norm. And that creates obstacles
for deaf people. For example, think how much you'd miss watching
television without sound. Actually, thousands of deaf people
see Frontiers and many other TV programs this way. These captions
are broadcast along with the regular TV signal, but you normally
don't see them unless you have a decoder. Captions help bridge
the language gap - and they're a great example of the way
technology should work: it doesn't get in the way if you don't
need it, but if you do, it's right there.
Ken Walker has a brain tumor. But the chances are that by
the end of tomorrow a new kind of radiation therapy will have
killed the tumor - in a single treatment.
Initially when the doctor said, would you like to try it,
I said "Absolutely!" The traditional radiation would probably
be every day for six to seven weeks, which is a couple months
from a life, going on with your life, difficult to work in.
This has the possibility of being a one-on-done, so it sounds
great to me. I'm ail for it.
Eight A.M. the next day, at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital.
It's a startling scene as doctors prepare to attach a metal
ring to Ken's head. Itís essential for the ring to stay in
position throughout the day, so they'll use blunt plastic
pins to clamp the supports tightly to his skull.
Mr. Walker, right?
This is the worst part of the day.
WALKER It may look like medieval torture, but Ken feels no
pain. In fact, the little lumps on his forehead are filled
with a liquid pain killer. Neurosurgeon Eben Alexander developed
this treatment, along with radiation therapist Jay Loeffer
on the right. They will use the ring and this metal cage which
fits onto it to find the exact position of the tumor. Eight-fifteen
A.M. Ken is going to have an x-ray called a CAT-scan.
Ken, now don't hold your head. Relax. Relax your neck.
It's routine for most large hospitals, but here the team will
add a special feature. As Ken's wife, Gloria, looks on nervously,
the metal cage has been fastened securely to the ring. Now
it will show up on the x-ray, and provide fixed reference
points for precisely locating the tumor. It's like putting
a grid of lines on a map to allow a map reference to be read
off. The x-ray procedure begins. In twenty minutes the machine
will take a series of pictures through the head. The pictures
are arranged in slices an eighth of an inch thick, piled one
above the other, Like the floors of a building. The tumor
shows up as a dark shadow just behind the left eye. It's clear
to the doctors, and to Ken's wife.
We'll probably target a little bit off center.
With these pictures the team will work out the exact shape,
size, and location of the tumor, and then plan the therapy.
The planning is going to take several hours so now for Ken
comes the most difficult part - just sit and wait, with the
ring still in place. It's the vital reference point needed
for the treatment later today. The team moves over to the
computer system at the nearby Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
Eben Alexander begins work.
ALEXANDER Right now what we're doing is just marking in the
contours as we see them here, of the tumor itself. What this
enables us to do is to come up with a three-dimensional reconstruction
Eventually the computer will have a complete picture, not
only of the tumor but also of the eyes and other critical
structures nearby that the treatment must avoid. Here the
optic chiasma - the delicate structure where nerves from the
eyes join together - is being mapped. And here they are marking
out one of the optic nerves, another critical structure. After
three hours spent marking out every x-ray picture, it's clear
that the tumor is dangerously dose to two crucial structures.
They have got to be left unharmed by the treatment.
ALEXANDER So here is our real challenge. It's right here.
Because here we have the hu'nor itself and then immediately
within four to five millimeters away is something that we
don't want to give any radiation dose to. The tumor we will
get maximum dose to. And the optic nerve and chiasma, very
It's two in the afternoon. The planning session is now being
led by physicist Hannah Kooey. It's his job to work out how
to direct the radiation at the tumor safely, using this three-dimensional
computer map. It shows the tumor in blue, and close by, the
crucial structures, all precisely located above the circular
metal ring which Ken is still wearing. If Ken were going to
have conventional radiation treatment, his entire head would
be given a small but damaging dose every day for a couple
of months. It only works because the healthy parts recover
more quickly than the tumor, which gradually dies. In contrast,
the new treatment is a single, concentrated dose. But the
radiation is continuously moving, so most of the brain gets
just a small exposure - the tumor is the only constant target.
In the planning session they are now trying out different
pathways for directing the radiation beams at the tumor. The
computer keeps track of places where a beam would pass through
a critical structure. And it becomes dear that getting enough
radiation in to kill the tumor will inevitably mean some exposure
of the optic nerve.
KOOE At this point we have to decide, given those set of beams
and placement of those targets, what is the actual dose we
will be delivering to the tumor, and what is the actual dose
that we will be delivering to a critical structure.
Here the computer shows in red the high-radiation dose area.
The tumor is covered but so is a small part of the optic nerve.
There will be some damage - but not enough, it's judged, to
harm Ken's vision. It's now late afternoon. excruciating headache.
And the constant pressure of the ring has given Ken an It's
turning into a very long day.
WALKER Well it's real hard to look at him like that with the
lights on. I'm not real good with needles or anything like
that, so I always have to look away with IV's or anything.
So this is not a real pleasant visual appearance.
WALKER This morning I, the anxiety had to do with putting
this contraption on. And I'm not at all anxious about getting
the radiation treatment. I'm just anxious about getting this
Finally, at six o'clock, it's time for the treatment. The
ring is locked into position. Now the tumor inside Ken's head
has become a precisely located target, that the beam from
the radiation machine will be able to reach with pin-point
accuracy. There's a quick run through of the moves which the
team spent the day planning. Then it's back to the control
room for the real thing. There'll be just twenty, minutes
2.91 going to the ....
Ken will avoid entirely the unpleasant side effects which
would go with conventional, long-term radiation treatment.
ALEXANDER When he leaves the room, the tumor has been altered
in such a way that it is now essentially dead. So this has
a very dramatic effect on the tumor, and just with this one
twenty-minute trip into that room, we are going to kill the
tumor. The treatment itself is virtually automatic except
for the tumor, nothing is going to change now. But somehow
it doesn't seem that way.
WALKER It's probably just that nerves are a part of the whole
thing. Just waiting and knowing that it's really going on.
That this is the whole reason why we came here. So, I'll be
glad when it's all over.
It quickly is. Now the moment Ken's been longing for.
ALEXANDER Take it easy for a moment. O.K.
Relief, though, is not immediate. He's got the worst headache
he's ever known.
WALKER One of the problems with the flame when it's on all
day is that you get used to it being on. And when you release
the tension of it, it's, that's the worst time for the headache.
And this kind of pressure headache will go away very quickly.
And the next day Ken had no problem keeping an appointment
with our cameras.
WALKER Just after I got the ring off I was feeling pretty
poor, but within, I guess the doctors said within an hour
or so, most of it would go away. By the time we got down and
got the taxi, got back to the hotel, I felt good enough to
go downstairs and eat dinner.
WALKER It's a good feeling to know it's all over and done
with and it was successful and he's feeling better and all
one piece. And it's great.
There are just a few places in the world where this kind of
high accuracy treatment is possible. But for Jay Loeffler,
that won't last long.
JAY LOEFFLER We're tired of having long-term complications
to radiation. 'You have to be more specific - get in the radiation
to where tumors are, and avoid normal structures on the way
in and out. I think this is just the beginning of a lot of
changes in radiation therapy.
FLOWERS It was a year ago that Ken Walker sat here and talked
to us about his radiation therapy. Today he's in perfect health.
That single treatment completely destroyed his brain tumor.
The technology that helped Ken survive is another advance
driven by the application of computers. And its now spreading
to hospitals all over the country. But, that wonderful innovation
is not a universal cure. If you get sick the best treatment
is one you and your doctor decide on for your individual case.
Next time on Scientific American Frontiers science meets the
good life in our spedal from France. Please come on back and