ALAN ALDA Viking ships like this sailed to America 500 years
before Columbus. On Scientific American Frontiers, we dig
one up, build another and set sail ourselves. We'll find out
how Icelandic sagas -- and Icelandic genes -- may help cure
diseases. We'll see how a volcano became home to a bird that
spits. Looks like a good spot to take a picture. I use a digital
assistant to make new friends. They're all saying, "Here comes
the jerk again". And I lasso a slightly radioactive reindeer.
I'm Alan Alda. Join me as we tell some Nordic Sagas with a
back to top
ALAN ALDA We begin our Nordic Sagas here at Roskilde Fjord
in Denmark, because it was from places like this that the
Viking Age was launched -- literally. The period from the
8th through the 11th centuries saw an explosion of Scandinavian
influence throughout much of the known Western world -- and
beyond, to Iceland, Greenland and even, briefly, to America.
And it was all made possible by a breakthrough in technology...
ALAN ALDA (Narration) I'm helping hoist the sail of the Helga,
an exact reconstruction of a Viking warship. About the only
thing here that would surprise a 10th century Viking is the
crew's strange clothing. Even the sweat's authentic.
ALAN ALDA Cinch!
ALAN ALDA (Narration) The Helga and it's sister vessel, the
Roar Ege, are both copied down to the last detail from Viking
ships found at the bottom of this fjord 40 years ago. In charge
of those excavations was
OLE CRUMLIN PEDERSON. For him the Viking Age began when the
kings of 8th century Scandinavia -- who until then had raided
each other in oversized rowing boats -- added to their ships
a mast and the characteristic Viking square sail.
OLE CRUMLIN PEDERSON Suddenly they found out, well, now we
can go much further away, now we can go to Normandy or we
can go to England, and raid there.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Ole found the originals of these two
ships about 10 miles farther down the fjord. They'd had been
scuttled centuries ago to block the main channel and protect
the royal city of Roskilde from unfriendly visitors. In 1962,
a temporary dam was built around the site, and water pumped
out to reveal the sunken ships. Ole and his colleagues spent
five years slowly revealing, and finally recovering, five
Viking vessels. Today all five are on display at the Roskilde
Viking Ship Museum. The timbers of each ship, chemically treated
to preserve them, have been reassembled. An iron frame provides
support and suggests the original form where pieces are missing.
But more than enough of the ships exist for Ole and his team
to have figured out the principles behind their construction.
ALAN ALDA Can you show me in this ship how those principles
come into play?
OLE CRUMLIN PEDERSON Yes. In the bottom you have the keel,
and then they build up the first four or five planks, with
the... just adding one plank at the edge of the other and
shaping it so that they got the lines they wanted. And then
they would insert the floor timbers across the bottom.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Employing this same bottom up construction
method, a new replica is now being built just outside the
museum. Ole is convinced the original shipbuilders worked
without drawings or plans.
OLE CRUMLIN PEDERSON To do that they had the concept in their
mind of the shape of the ship. You have the stem and stern
cut to their final shape before you even start planking up.
And you see that for each plank there is a step in the stem
piece to take up the plank and to indicate the lines of that
leading up to the very top of the stem.
ALAN ALDA So the flow of the boat through the water would
be assured by the way they could see it as they built it,
rather than as they designed it on paper.
OLE CRUMLIN PEDERSON Yes
ALAN ALDA It was sort of built from experience.
OLE CRUMLIN PEDERSON Yes
ALAN ALDA (Narration) The planks of the replica are fastened
together with the same style of iron rivets used in the originals.
And not only are the materials of the replicas authentic:
so too are most of the tools that are used.
ALAN ALDA What is he using here?
OLE CRUMLIN PEDERSON He's using what's called a Viking broadaxe.
That's sort of a tool of the trade of Viking shipbuilders.
ALAN ALDA But they're all cut with the axe aimed toward the
workman's feet. Do people have to take a break every once
in a while and get bandaged?
OLE CRUMLIN PEDERSON No. Once you get trained with it, if
you survive you will be a good shipbuilder!
ALAN ALDA (Narration) The builders of the replica Viking
ships have been astonished at their performance under sail.
ALAN ALDA How fast could they get one of these boats to go?
MAX WEINER This boat is a very fast boat, because it's a warship,
of course, and we have hit speeds of about fourteen knots.
ALAN ALDA What is it about the construction of the boat that
allows it to go that fast? MAX WEINER It's a very light ship.
We are right now displacing only about four tons, all of us,
ship, ballast and everything. We are skimming the surface,
so to say, and so we are not making very much fuss in the
ALAN ALDA (Narration) How the ships sail so well while only
skimming the surface fascinates
LEIF WAGNER SMITT, at the helm of the Roar Ege.
LEIF WAGNER SMITT This is a little merchant vessel. Only
a few people were sailing it and it was carrying goods rather
than people. It's a wonderful little vessel and I am intrigued
by the easy handling of the ship, how well she maneuvers.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) The Viking boats handle well even without
the deep keel modern sailboats rely on for stability and maneuverability.
Leif has been testing a scale model of the Roar Ege to explore
the consequences of having a keel only a few inches deep.
He's setting up the model in the tow tank of the Danish Maritime
Institute in Copenhagen, where he's the chief naval architect.
The model is being towed through the water at a slight angle
to simulate sailing.
LEIF WAGNER SMITT This is five knots, five knots. And this
is a very typical speed when beating to windward.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) This 750-foot long tow tank usually
tests the very latest in ship designs, not one over a thousand
years old. Leif is trying to replicate in the tank something
we saw when we were sailing in the warship, the Helga -- a
trail of bubbles streaming out behind us a foot or two beneath
the surface. And here's that same stream of bubbles behind
LEIF WAGNER SMITT As the water is flowing under the boat
it generates a rolling vortex of water. In the center of that
is very low pressure, and any air in the water will then collect
in the center.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Viking ships have their rudder at the
side, where they are often in the way of that tube of air
bubbles. This should in theory make the ship more difficult
to steer, as the bubbles boil around the rudder. In fact Viking
ships steer well -- and Leif now thinks he knows why. He believes
that a previously mysterious projection on the rear of the
rudder may help get rid of the bubbles before they cause a
ALAN ALDA So that was invented a thousand or more years ago?
OLE CRUMLIN PEDERSON That was invented at that time, in the
Viking Age, and forgotten after that, and only rediscovered
when we made these experiments with the working reconstruction
of the ships.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) But if the rudder design was important
to the Viking ships' performance, another innovation was critical:
the ability to quickly lower both sail and mast and switch
from wind power to muscle power. The real secret of the Viking
warships was their ability to strike almost anywhere along
a shore or riverbank. Here the ships' lightness, shallow draft
and oar- power as well as sail-power gave them unprecedented
speed and flexibility -- assuming an experienced crew!
ALAN ALDA Why do I keep banging you in the back like that?
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Our day of playing at being Vikings
ended with a row back to Roskilde harbor -- where, just a
few days after my visit, excavations began on yet another
group of newly discovered Viking ships. One lies out in the
harbor itself, where this section of bottom framing was among
the first pieces to be recovered. Another ship was found by
workers digging the foundation for an addition to the Viking
Ship Museum. Once again, as out in the fjord 40 years ago,
an almost complete Viking warship is being recovered after
having been buried for a thousand years. The first indications
are that this ship could be the biggest ever discovered, twice
as big as the Helga. Viking ships and their warrior crews
once conquered much of the known world. Now the ships' rediscovery
and reconstruction is giving us a glimpse of what made the
Vikings so powerful.
ALAN ALDA Do you feel a little closer to them as people?
Did you get a new look at them? MAX WEINER Oh yes, I think
we are in very close contact with them by doing, trying to
do actually, we are trying to do exactly what they do, but
we are pretty aware that we are not sailing these boats as
well as they did. And you know that gives us a certain respect
for our forefathers.
back to top
ALAN ALDA The most famous voyage by a Norseman in the Viking
age was that of Leif Erikson -- also known as Lucky -- who
discovered Vinland -- the land we call America -- around the
year one thousand. But this sculpture celebrates another,
even earlier voyage, by the Norseman Ingolfur Arnarson, in
874. Never heard of him? Well that means you've never been
here to Reykjavik, the city he founded as the official First
Settler of Iceland. Following Ingolfur -- who must have been
one terrific real estate salesman -- about 25,000 of his fellow
Norsemen and Norsewomen settled here in the next 50 years
or so. Most of today's Icelanders -- who number about a quarter
of a million -- are direct descendents of those early settlers
-- and they look like it, too.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) But it's not just the first settlers
and their most recent descendents who can be counted.
ALAN ALDA Is it actually true that you know about how many
people have ever lived in Iceland?
KARI STEFANSSON Yes.
ALAN ALDA How do you know such a thing?
KARI STEFANSSON Because we know the genealogy, we know the
ALAN ALDA You know the names of all the people who ever lived?
KARI STEFANSSON Yeah, we know the names. We know who were
their fathers and mothers and daughters and sons, we know
where they lived...
ALAN ALDA That's remarkable. How many people ever lived here?
KARI STEFANSSON Three quarters of a million or so.
ALAN ALDA But three quarters of a million -- that's about
how many people in the world are born every few days, probably.
KARI STEFANSSON Yeah, but they're not Icelanders!
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Kari Stefansson has brought me to see
first hand how the Icelanders' obsession with genealogy began.
Which turned out to be in another Icelandic tradition -- the
writing down of heroic tales -- sagas -- in books dating back
to the settlement of the country.
ALAN ALDA What is this book?
KARI STEFANSSON This is a manuscript of...one of the oldest
manuscripts of the Icelandic Sagas.
ALAN ALDA Now what's in the sagas?
KARI STEFANSSON The sagas are, according to the old myths,
are stories of the settlement of Iceland, the story of the
settlers. The books tell from very complex feuds, and it's
very important to know who is related to whom to understand
the story. Almost all of them begin with page after page of
genealogy which is sort of in my mind at least the beginning
of the great interest in genealogy that has prevailed in Iceland
ever since then.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) This book, for instance, is a copy
of the Book of Settlement, which lists the names of the original
settlers and their immediate descendents. And this young man,
whose name is Hreinn Stefansson, is one of the many present
day Icelanders who can -- astonishingly -- trace their ancestry
all the way back to the Book of Settlement. Hreinn Stefansson's
lineage, in fact, goes back 31 generations to the year 860
AD and one Bardur Vikingsson, the son of a Viking king. Both
Hreinn and the computer program that tracked his ancestry
are employed in a new company founded to capitalize on Iceland's
uniquely intimate genetic heritage. Called DeCode Genetics,
and employing most of Iceland's young genetics researchers,
the company is in the thick of the world wide hunt for genes
that cause human disease. According to Kari Stefansson, DeCode's
founder, it's already hot on the heels of several such genes,
including one involved in multiple sclerosis.
ALAN ALDA What are these people doing here for instance?
I see people working with vials. How are they finding out
about multiple sclerosis?
KARI STEFANSSON They have found genes, and now they are using
specific methods to find mutations in these genes that are
only found in patients with the disease and are not found
in individuals who do not have the disease.
ALAN ALDA What are they doing here, for instance?
KARI STEFANSSON They are isolating DNA.
ALAN ALDA Now this is the blood from one person? And you
know that person's medical history?
RESEARCHER I do, yes.
KARI STEFANSSON She knows this person's medical history.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) And this is where Iceland's genetic
isolation and detailed genealogies become invaluable. A mutation
causing multiple sclerosis in one Icelander is most likely
the same mutation that causes the disease in another -- because
each inherited it from the same ancestor. This makes tracking
and finding such a damaged gene much easier than it is in
larger, more diverse populations.
ALAN ALDA What happens if you find this gene, then what?
KARI STEFANSSON Then we know what causes the disease, and
our assumption is that knowledge of the cause of the disease
is always going to help us both find the cure for the disease
and ways of accurately diagnosing it.
ALAN ALDA How will the company profit from the work you're
KARI STEFANSSON I look at this company first and foremost
as a company of Icelanders for Icelanders. And the company
benefits by having an opportunity to do extremely good science
and contributing to curing diseases. Economically we will
benefit by contracting with large pharmaceutical companies
that are eventually going to develop the medications for the
treatments that will be derived from the discovery of these
ALAN ALDA (Narration) During my brief visit, I found Icelanders
to be a highly educated, caring people who -- because there
are so few of them-- all seemed to know one other. And now
these few thousand descendents of the Vikings may be giving
the rest of us on the planet something unique -- insight into
diseases that plague millions.
ALAN ALDA It seems that your ability to find the sources
of these diseases is connected to the kind of loneliness of
this island, the people on this island.
KARI STEFANSSON It's interesting if you think about this
in a social context, that is this isolation that kept the
nation genetically homogeneous was one of the major reasons
as to why the nation was so desperately poor for all of the
centuries. And now the consequence of this same isolation
has become a natural resource that we can mine. You could
argue that our work on genetics is a search for poetic justice
when it comes to this isolation.
back to top
ALAN ALDA Iceland is a very young country -- and not only
because people have been here only a thousand years or so.
The land itself is some of the youngest on the planet. Beneath
our feet is the crack in the Atlantic Ocean formed by America,
over there, pulling away from Europe, which is that way. From
that crack, molten magma wells up, and 15 million years or
so ago, just a blink of geologic time, magma broke through
the surface to create this, a whole island of volcanic lava.
Iceland still sits on top of a plume of magma, heating the
water that seeps down to it to the boiling point and above.
This hot water is one of Iceland's most important natural
resources, heating most of the homes through the long winter.
But the hot water here, and the pungent smell of sulfur, is
also a constant reminder of the magma just below us.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) On November 14th, 1963, the sea 20
miles off the south coast of Iceland exploded, as magma once
again surged through the crack in the Atlantic floor. The
eruption continued for almost two years -- and when it ended,
it had created a new piece of Iceland, an island named for
a legendary Nordic fire-giant -- Surtsey. Soon after Surtsey's
creation, it was visited by a scientist who saw in its birth
a unique opportunity.
STURLA FRIDRIKSSON has been going back to Surtsey for the
past 33 years. Today, at the age of 75, he is landing on the
island for the 35th time. Sturla was 42 when he first came
ashore here, in 1964.
STURLA FRIDRIKSSON It's always quite an experience to come
to Surtsey. Because Surtsey is always changing and you find
something new every time you come here. When I first arrived,
the island was completely nude, it was completely sterile.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) The opportunity that Sturla saw in
Surtsey was to see how life would arrive -- as he had no doubt
STURLA FRIDRIKSSON Here is a Mermaid's Purse, the shell of
the egg of a skate, the fish. And it acts like a float, and
it has been on the beach on the mainland of Iceland, and there
it has caught some seed of grasses, and it shows one way of
how nature goes about transporting seed to a desolated island,
even by the aid of fish.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Surtsey became a laboratory for studying
how life colonizes a new piece of earth. And it didn't take
long before the first seeds to wash ashore put down their
STURLA FRIDRIKSSON The second year that I came, I found a
plant growing, and that was quite an event, I thought. This
is a sea rocket. The very first plant ever to start growth
on Surtsey. It's amazing how nature goes about getting living
things to a desolate island. And I don't think there are any
islands in the world that remain for any length of time without
living beings conquering it.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Surtsey is now dotted not only with
plants but also study plots.
BORGTHOR MAGNUSSON And we have just over 20 plots like this
on the island. This is one of the oldest areas that was invaded
by the plants. And the first plant came here in 1973, and
we measure our plots every second year and follow the changes
to see what kind of species we have in each quadrant, and
what kind of cover they have.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Here the predominant species is the
sea sandwort, one of the hardy pioneers of Surtsey settlement.
It owes its success to what's beneath it. Borgthor Magnusson
is entering a lava tube, a sinuous cave that once carried
molten lava to the sea. The roof over his head is at least
8 feet thick -- yet here in the ceiling are the roots of a
BORGTHOR MAGNUSSON It has probably gone through three feet
of sand, three to four feet of sand, and then it has found
a crack in the lava that it has come down. But here it has
met a dead end.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) The plant was searching for moisture
and nutrients. And it's not alone down here in looking for
BORGTHOR MAGNUSSON These spiders probably drifted in on their
threads which acted like parachutes. And the reason they are
able to survive here on this stone is that we have a little
hole here in the roof and they will get some prey, some small
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Spiders and insects weren't the only
things on Surtsey to arrive by air instead of sea. Five hundred
feet up in the crater of the volcano, the lava is dense with
mosses and lichens. They've grown from spores carried here
by the wind. The cracks in the lava are deep and dangerous
to the occasional visiting scientist, but home to ferns, whose
spores also arrived here with the wind. For his first half
dozen visits, Sturla Fridriksson was still one of the few
living things to have made it to Surtsey. But then the first
of the successful plant pioneers, the sea sandwort, was joined
STURLA FRIDRIKSSON In 1971, we discovered a sea lime-grass
plant that looked like this one here, and 27 years later that
plant had collected sand around it and formed a sand dune
like you see here.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) The grass had collected not only sand
around itself, but also the sandwort. Community life had arrived
on the island.
STURLA FRIDRIKSSON This was the first association to be formed
on Surtsey, and now as a third species you can see that fescue,
red fescue grass, is also joining the two, and eventually
the fescue will probably take over the whole thing.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) This is how this part of the island
looked in 1970. And here it is today. But through the 1970s
and early '80s, Sturla's annual expeditions here continued
to record only a very few new arrivals on the island. That
changed dramatically when Surtsey was discovered by a new
and very noisy immigrant.
BORGTHOR MAGNUSSON The gulls started breeding in 1986, and
shortly after that, this area became greener and greener every
year, the gulls they increase in numbers, they fertilize the
ground enormously, they bring in new species, they have an
enormous effect on the plant succession here.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) In the 32 years since the island was
created, 52 plant species have been recorded here, over half
of them since the arrival of the gulls. What's more, the gull's
habit of building their nests on the outer edges of their
colony is constantly expanding the area covered by vegetation.
On this visit, one of Surtsey's youngest arrivals is a rather
unfriendly baby fulmar.
STURLA FRIDRIKSSON If I approach it, it will spit at me.
Zzit! See how it spat?
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Documenting Surtsey's encounter with
life has become Sturla Fridrikson's legacy for the future.
Ironically, it's one that will probably outlive Surtsey itself
-- which has already been eroded to a little more than half
its original size by the restless Atlantic ocean.
STURLA FRIDRIKSSON Maybe after hundreds of years, just a
pillar will stick up out of the ocean with steep cliffs occupied
by sea birds. And that will stand there until the Atlantic
waves will come and break it down. And that will be the end
of Surtsey and its life.
back to top
ISAAC AND FRIENDS
ALAN ALDA (Narration) We are in the charming old university
town of Lund in southern Sweden. One of the sights here is
the town's 12th century cathedral.
ALAN ALDA I'm going to take a picture of this. This is a
perfect postcard. Working...working...smiling. Now I'll press
the little butterfly. The butterfly is flying.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) My camera is also-- among a lot of
other things -- a cellular phone.
ALAN ALDA Hello, Bodil? Did you get this picture? It's a
big church or a cathedral. So where do I go now? To the right?
Across the street to the right. OK.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) I'm trying to find my way to the train
station, aided by a digital assistant I met just this morning.
LARS PHILIPSON Let me introduce you to Isaac.
ALAN ALDA It really is light, isn't it? It's much lighter
than I thought it would be.
LARS PHILIPSON Two kilograms in total, with batteries and
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Isaac is the brainchild of
LARS PHILIPSON and
ALAN ALDA If I was wearing this, what would I have to know
LARS PHILIPSON This is the only part that you need to operate...
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Isaac was built to help people who
are severally mentally retarded, and can't cope with the world
ALAN ALDA So are these pictures down here at the bottom are
ways of accessing different... Let me see if I can tell you,
see how intuitive this is. That's the telephone. This is if
I want to take a picture. Do I take it with this?
BODIL JONSSON Yes.
ALAN ALDA I do? That's...where's the... is this the lens?
BODIL JONSSON That's the lens. It's a small one.
ALAN ALDA It's so tiny. And this is a camera, and a telephone,
and a computer. And all this information can go back to your
central office ...
LARS PHILIPSON To the support center...
ALAN ALDA Including the photographs.
LARS PHILIPSON Right.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Isaac is meant to be usable even by
people who can't read.
ALAN ALDA If I wanted to take a picture of you, I would maybe
touch the camera?
LARS PHILIPSON And while it's working you see this cartoon...
ALAN ALDA A happy face and a... it's not quite a sad face...
LARS PHILIPSON A working face
ALAN ALDA Oh, a working face. I couldn't quite interpret
that. Oh, oh, there's a picture. Oh, you look good. Oh, that's
a nice picture. Now if I want to save it I can probably press
one of these boxes...
LARS PHILIPSON The filing cabinet.
ALAN ALDA The filing cabinet, OK. Now this butterfly, does
that let me...
LARS PHILIPSON Send it, send it over the air, to the support
ALAN ALDA I'm going to press that. And there's the butterfly.
And the butterfly is flying. So that means the picture is
going back...Actually, it's not only clear, it's kind of fun.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) There's also a built in phone book
that uses pictures of things and people you might want to
ALAN ALDA What do I do, press the phone?
LARS PHILIPSON Well...
ALAN ALDA Press the green?
LARS PHILIPSON Well...
ALAN ALDA Press the picture!
LARS PHILIPSON Yes!
ALAN ALDA Well if this can work with me it can work with
ALAN ALDA (Narration) As it happens, my prediction was a
bit optimistic. This is where I'm supposed to be using Isaac
to help me find the train station.
ALAN ALDA I do not see a train station anywhere near here.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Things started out promisingly enough...
ALAN ALDA I definitely need help here. Pressing the phone.
Let's see if I can get a picture of Bodil...Here's Bodil,
OK. Pressing on her face. Actually I pressed right on her
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Bodil is waiting to help back at the
Isaac support center.
BODIL JONSSON Hello?
ALAN ALDA Hello, Bodil? Hello? Hello, Bodil? Bodil, I'm talking
to you. Very lost. Oh, something's ringing. Oh it's dialing.
BODIL JONSSON Hello, Bodil speaking.
ALAN ALDA Hello.
BODIL JONSSON Is this Alan?
ALAN ALDA Yeah, yeah, Bodil this is Alan. I'm totally lost.
BODIL JONSSON I will try to find you on the map.
ALAN ALDA So what should I do?
BODIL JONSSON Just stand there and wait.
ALAN ALDA Stand here and wait. OK. They also serve...
ALAN ALDA (Narration) So the cell phone was acting up. That
happens. The test now was to see if a GPS satellite antenna
in that bump in the shoulder pad could locate me on a map
back on Bodil's computer. And bingo, we're in business.
BODIL JONSSON Just go down the street, and we will follow
you at the map.
ALAN ALDA OK, talk to you later.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Sadly, my navigation exercise became
increasingly an exercise in frustration. The GPS system worked
fine, transmitting my location back to Bodil every few minutes.
The problem continued to be the phone connection.
ALAN ALDA Looks like a good spot to take a picture.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Even when I took a picture, I had trouble
sending it back to Bodil. The butterfly flew but wouldn't
land. Isaac was clearly having a bad day, and my camera crew
was more help finding the station than my digital assistant.
ALAN ALDA That wasn't so hard was it? Right there.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Isaac comes close to being a wonderful
example of how technology can help the mentally disabled.
Right now though, my experience suggests it isn't a product
-- and to my surprise, Lars agreed.
LARS PHILIPSON We put into Isaac a lot of different functions.
And they were never meant to be a product altogether but to
make it possible for us to do experiments with various people.
So some of these functions are useful for some people and
others for other people.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) I was about to meet two people for
whom Isaac wasn't merely useful -- it changed their lives.
This is Stig Nilsson. And this is
ALAN ALDA Is this you?
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Tomas and Stig, both severely mentally
disabled, discovered through Isaac the joys of taking pictures.
But not just taking them...
ALAN ALDA Is this used to build individual sentences, or
BODIL JONSSON Yes, for instance, if you want to build a letter...
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Both Tomas and Stig -- neither of whom
once had more than a few words -- are now using the pictures
they've taken to communicate.
ALAN ALDA Is this about Lars?
BODIL JONSSON A letter for Lars.
ALAN ALDA So this is to Lars, and it's from Tomas. OK, so
the story I guess, here is Tomas with Stig -- is that Stig?--
and they were using Isaac, and then they print out the pictures
that they've taken with Isaac? Isaac? And then you use the
scanner to put them into the computer and then they put them
in the book.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Stig was happy to show me the system
Bodil and Lars have developed to keep track of the thousands
of pictures that have now been taken with Isaac. The pictures
themselves are displayed in what's called the Pictorium. The
bar code on each picture instantly accesses the version stored
in the computer.
ALAN ALDA OK, now let me see. Now I should be able to get
a message so far from this? This is a picture of somebody
pointing at pictures on a computer screen. So that's like
somebody using this device.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Stig chose and put together pictures
to tell me of his favorite people and activities during a
ALAN ALDA Is that your bed? OK
ALAN ALDA (Narration) This from a man who spent most of his
adult life in an institution where it was assumed he had nothing
ALAN ALDA Now can I give a message to Stig? Can I use these
pictures somehow? Now I don't know where things are, but look,
I want to tell him something. Now just let me look through
theses pictures for a second, OK, and I'll try to tell him
something. Ah, wait a minute now, I'm getting warm.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Luckily I'd happened on the section
of the Pictorium devoted to food. That's a topic I can always
talk about. First I found a picture of me taken with Isaac.
ALAN ALDA Here, there's that one. And this one. And this.
OK. Today I ate potatoes and herring. And she was calling
me. And she was saying stop eating....yes, he was eating too.
The camera guy ate a lot of herring today.
TOMAS AKESSON Hey, Tomas!
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Now it was Tomas' turn to tell me something.
ALAN ALDA OK, here's Tomas showing up on the screen here.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) He chose to describe a recent outing
with Bodil in her car. While both Tomas and Stig used Isaac
to take many of these pictures, today they mostly use a simple
digital camera. And for Tomas at least, something profound
seems to be happening.
BODIL JONSSON I don't know if you could actually hear, but
Tomas he has got the words, and by now he has got some thousand
words. Before he just had between ten and a hundred. And the
reason why he sits there right now and says "Now they come
again" about the pictures, is that something has happened
to him that makes him interested to communicate. And not only
to communicate, but also to think. Tomas has become somebody,
and when we started the Isaac project, that was one of the
goals. That the users were to become somebody, individuals.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Using the pictures, Stig and Tomas
can now tell not only of the past.
BODIL JONSSON He wants to show you what he wants to have
with his coffee.
ALAN ALDA For the coffee break? Let's see... cookies, cakes.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) They've also begun to express their
hopes for the future.
BODIL JONSSON I have to tell you that when I came here together
with you, Stiggy asked me if we are going to have coffee.
And I promised him that when you have left, we will do whatever
he likes. And he told me that he wanted to go with me to my
home and have some coffee with me, and we are supposed to
have this kind of cakes which he showed me now. So this is
about the future.
ALAN ALDA It certainly is, yeah.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Future plans for the Pictorium include
adding speech to the computer.
COMPUTER VOICE Stig knows how to use it too.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) And both Tomas and Stig can now talk
to a wider audience: you can visit them on the Internet at
their own Web site.
ALAN ALDA Tomas, tak.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Isaac, the device that started all
this, is now being retired. No doubt others will take up the
challenge of building a digital assistant for the mentally
disabled. Tomas and Stig discovered for themselves how Isaac
could help them.
back to top
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Flying in a helicopter over the tundra
of Central Sweden,
ANTARRIS PERSSON is looking for reindeer -- his reindeer.
To outsiders, this is the land of the Lapps. To the people
who live here, like Antarris, it is the land of the Saami
people, whose way of life centers on herding reindeer. During
the summer months, the reindeer graze up here in the mountains.
In the fall, helicopters bring the herds down to the Saami
villages. This group of a hundred or so is a tiny fraction
of the hundreds of thousands of reindeer herded by Saami in
central and northern Scandinavia. It's just before dawn in
ANTARRIS PERSSON is the leader of the local Saami herding
cooperative. Reindeer from several locations grazed by the
cooperative are -- if we're quick enough -- about to be herded
into a corral. You can see I'm doing my part! That's Antarris'
wife Marianne on the horse. I joined her in the corral.
ALAN ALDA Marianne, are looking for a particular one to lasso?
MARIANNE PERSSON Yes, my man's and my own.
ALAN ALDA I don't see any marks on their ears at all.
MARIANNE PERSSON It's difficult to see when they run so fast.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Each family in the collective owns
its own animals in the herd, identified with ear markings
or colored collars. A major reason for this round up is to
figure out who the calves born since the last round up belong
to. A calf is assumed to be yours if it's running alongside
an adult female you own. But spotting your calf is only half
the battle -- you then have to lasso it so it too can be marked.
Marianne snags a calf. Watched by her 11-year old daughter
Leanna, she and her reindeer collapse in a tangle. But for
the Saami, this is what makes life worth living.
ALAN ALDA How do you feel about this life? What does this
life mean to you?
ANTARRIS PERSSON I have friends who live an ordinary life.
They are Swedes and have jobs and I don't think I want to
change with them. Because their life is like in box. They
have everything in it and they don't see any, any... It's
so difficult, I have not the words for what I want to say.
They won't see the world.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Almost 12 years ago, the world came
crashing in on the Saami with the explosion of the Chernobyl
nuclear reactor in the Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet
Union. Although Chernobyl is eleven hundred miles away, the
radioactive plume it released drifted directly over the Saami
reindeer lands of Scandinavia. Four months after the accident,
an American news crew visited Valsjbyn, and met with Antarris,
Marianne and their brand new baby. They'd never seen that
filmed report, so when we came to Valsjbyn, we brought a copy
REPORTER And what is your name, by the way?
MARIANNE PERSSON Marianne
REPORTER Marianne, talk to me for a moment about how you
feel about the tragedy of Chernobyl, and how you feel about
how it's going to affect our baby.
MARIANNE PERSSON Yes, I'm worried of course for the future.
I don't know what's going to happen, but I just hope it will
be just like before again.
ALAN ALDA You remember this day?
MARIANNE PERSSON I remember it very well, because I had just
come home from hospital too, with my first children...child.
And it was a very strange feeling....
ALAN ALDA What kind of thoughts were going through your head?
MARIANNE PERSSON We don't dare to take any meat. Nobody knows
how serious, how dangerous it was.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) The report showed Antarris' measuring
the radioactivity in the carcass of one of his reindeer.
ALAN ALDA Had they told you yet that you couldn't eat the
meat or sell the meat?
ANTARRIS PERSSON They told us we can't use this meat for
at least 40 years.
ALAN ALDA That must have hit you like a ton of bricks. That
must have been very hard to hear.
ANTARRIS PERSSON Yes it was. We were thinking lots of times
what we shall do, if we should leave this life.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) The news crew persuaded Marianne to
give them a peek at her infant daughter.
ALAN ALDA And this is...
MARIANNE PERSSON This is the baby. She's too big to carry
ALAN ALDA (Narration) The very real fear that it would be
40 years till reindeer could again be harvested for meat came
from what the reindeer themselves eat. During the summer,
they graze on grasses. But as winter approaches and grass
grows scarce, they switch to lichens. And lichens, it turns
out, are to radioactive fallout like a sponge is to water.
ALAN ALDA The lichen just grows sitting on this branch? And
it doesn't have any roots in the ground?
BIRGITTA AHMAN No roots, and absorbs its nutrients actually
from the air and rain.
ALAN ALDA So when all of that radioactivity came over from
Chernobyl, it came in the air and just landed on the lichen
and the lichen just soaked it up, faster than any other plant
around here, apparently.
BIRGITTA AHMAN Yes, and if you look at these, we have some
ground lichen here...
ALAN ALDA (Narration) It's this ground lichen that's the
reindeer's principal winter diet. After Chernobyl, levels
of radioactive cesium in the lichen soared several hundred
fold. The critical question of course was how much of that
radioactivity was going into the reindeer, whose meat both
feeds the Saami and provides them with most of their income.
BIRGITTA AHMAN Some of them don't want to be measured.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Birgitta Ahman first came here to measure
radioactivity in the reindeer within weeks of the accident.
She's been continuing to monitor the animals -- when they
cooperate -- ever since.
ALAN ALDA That reindeer wasn't cooperative. What about the
people when you began doing this, were the Saami people cooperative
BIRGITTA AHMAN Yes, I think so. Often they are very busy
as you can see so they don't want to wait.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) In the first round ups after Chernobyl,
the reindeer had so much radioactive cesium in their bodies
that 80 per cent of them had to be destroyed.
BIRGITTA AHMAN These reindeer come from three different places
and it seems that they differ very much in the cesium levels.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Today, most of them are well below
the 1500 units of radioactivity considered to be dangerous
for human consumption.
ALAN ALDA This reindeer is from the area where most of them
have a high level?
BIRGITTA AHMAN Yeah, but this was low. This was only 150.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Birgitta's decade-long monitoring program
has helped develop several strategies for minimizing how much
radioactivity gets into reindeer meat. One is simply to bring
the animals to market earlier in the year, before they begin
MARIANNE PERSSON I show you first...
ALAN ALDA (Narration) I couldn't resist: I asked Marianne
to show me how to lasso a reindeer.
ALAN ALDA What do you try to hit with that?
MARIANNE PERSSON You can try to hit the horn, or the legs.
It's easier with the horn.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) I couldn't come all this way and just
ALAN ALDA You think I'm going to be lousy, don't you? Not
MARIANNE PERSSON Not so bad.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Well, maybe this wasn't such a great
ALAN ALDA They're all saying, "here comes the jerk again".
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Ah, ha.
ANTARRIS PERSSON Good!
ALAN ALDA Good. Thank you.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Now it's time to do my bit for science.
ALAN ALDA Are we going to measure him? OK, take it easy.
Whoa, whoa! I don't know how to do this. You better help me.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Birgitta had measured only one animal
today that came in over the 1500 limit for human consumption.
I held my breath.
BIRGITTA AHMAN Oh it was the highest!
ALAN ALDA Oh great, I get the highest one. That's just great.
I petted him. I grabbed his horn!
ALAN ALDA (Narration) One of the first things to happen here
in Valsjbyn after Chernobyl was a visit from this vehicle,
a mobile human radiation monitoring unit. After handling a
radioactive reindeer, it seemed wise to do what many of the
local Saami have done over the last decade.
ALAN ALDA Is this where you measure everybody? It's a full
GOREN AGREN Yes, we measure the whole activity in your body.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) This monitoring unit has been making
the rounds of Saami villages ever since Chernobyl.
ALAN ALDA My head goes here?
GOREN AGREN Yes. And we're going to slide you under.
ALAN ALDA You're going to slide me under. And I keep my hands
ALAN ALDA (Narration) The danger of radioactive cesium finding
its way from reindeer to people is an increased risk of cancer.
GOREN AGREN Now you can see the detector above you. A shiny
ALAN ALDA Would you compare the risks for me since Chernobyl?
How have the risks gotten any worse?
GOREN AGREN We have calculated that in let's say 50 years
after Chernobyl, we will get an extra 300 cases of cancer
from Chernobyl. And then you can compare to that that we will
have about 40,000 fatal cancer cases a year from all sources.
ALAN ALDA That to me is significant. I mean, I know in terms
of statistics it may not be so significant, but it sounds
to me well worth not having an accident like that happen again.
ALAN ALDA (Narration) After ten minutes reclining in my little
plastic bathtub, it was time for the moment of truth.
GOREN AGREN The energy of cesium 137 is 662 keVs, so we can
look at that area and see if we can find any peaks.
ALAN ALDA Huh, huh.
GOREN AGREN So we can see that we have almost a flat line
ALAN ALDA (Narration) A flat line -- I guess that's good.
GOREN AGREN I can show you a spectra from someone who has
a higher value for cesium. Here you can see a peak, an actual
peak, from cesium.
ALAN ALDA Is that considered high?
GOREN AGREN No it isn't
ALAN ALDA It's not, it's low?
GOREN AGREN Yes that's low. But it's much higher than you.
ALAN ALDA Well that's a relief. I just had my hands all over
ALAN ALDA (Narration) Next to be measured was Leanna, Antarris'
and Marianne's daughter, born within weeks of Chernobyl. By
now, she's an old hand at this. And despite her mother's fears
back when she was a baby, Leanna's cesium levels aren't all
that much greater then mine -- thanks in large part to the
vigilance of the monitoring program. It was time for the reindeer
in the corral to go free again. The Chernobyl fallout has
disappeared from the lichen, reindeer and people here more
quickly than those early, pessimistic forecasts had suggested.
Why this is so is still something of a mystery. But it's meant
that a way of life that has supported both reindeer and people
here for centuries has been able to continue almost uninterrupted.
back to top