NOVA scienceNOW: July 9, 2008

PBS Airdate: July 9, 2008
Go to the companion Web site

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON (Astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History): On this episode of NOVA scienceNOW: it's the most famous scientific instrument in the world, and its stunning pictures have changed our view of the universe.

MATT MOUNTAIN (Space Telescope Science Institute): Twenty years ago we didn't know how big the universe was, how old it was. Now we do. Without the Hubble none of those things would have happened.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: But now Hubble's in trouble, and unless we can fix it, this amazing telescope will go dark. Join me, as I undergo some of the same training as the astronauts who will soon embark on one of the most dangerous missions ever, to save the Hubble telescope.


JONATHAN BLOCH (Florida Museum of Natural History): Here's a little piece of bone here.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Paleontologists are unearthing clues to a perplexing mystery of human origins.

ERIC SARGIS (Yale University): It's the most primitive primate skeleton ever found.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Who were the very first primates? For the first time, new techniques are allowing them to look back millions of years to see the creatures who would someday become us. Meet the ancestors, and what they look like will surprise you.

Also, they call him Dr. Q., and he's always on the move.

ANNA QUINONES (Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa's wife): Shoo, shoo.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: He's in a rush to find a cure for brain cancer but knows the odds are against him.

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA (Johns Hopkins University): So were the chances of me sitting here with you, when I came to this country, 20 years ago.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Twenty years ago, he jumped this fence, on the Mexican border, and entered the United States as an illegal alien. Today, he's recognized as one of America's leading brain surgeons and...

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: Alrighty, I want Don's mouth to be a little bit moist.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: our profile, we'll document his remarkable journey.

All that and more on this episode of NOVA scienceNOW.

Funding for NOVA scienceNOW is provided by: Americans are living longer, spending more on healthcare. At Pfizer, we're working on ways to help, with medicines that help prevent illnesses, with programs that provide our medicines to people without coverage and new partnerships to keep costs down and keep people healthy.

And by the National Science Foundation, where discoveries begin. And...

Discover new knowledge, biomedical research and science education. Howard Hughes Medical Institute: HHMI.

And the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, to portray the lives of men and women engaged in scientific and technological pursuit.

And the George D. Smith Fund.

And by PBS viewers like you. Thank you.


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Hi, I'm Neil deGrasse Tyson, your host of NOVA scienceNOW.

Here's a question I get asked a lot: "How many astrophysicists does it take to change a light bulb?" Well, depends on the circumstances. For instance, what if the light bulb is on a priceless crystal chandelier? And you had to change the light bulb wearing boxing gloves? And what if that chandelier is way up high and you have to stand on the top of a tall, rickety ladder to reach it?


What if this intricate job must be performed in space?

These are just the sorts of challenges, all together, at once, facing astronauts on an important and risky mission. A team of specialists prepares for emergency surgery, a risky procedure that will cost millions.

Luckily, this patient is a celebrity, with an excellent health plan—courtesy of the U.S. government—the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Hubble is probably the best-known scientific instrument ever. Since 1990, it's brought us unprecedented views of the universe and revolutionized astrophysics.

MATT MOUNTAIN: Twenty years ago, before the Hubble flew, we didn't know how big the universe was or how old it was. Now we do. We didn't know that black holes really existed. We now know that black holes are everywhere. And the Hubble Telescope was the first telescope to actually examine the composition of a world around another star. Without the Hubble, none of those things would have happened.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: But now, Hubble is in trouble. It's dying, and half its instruments, including the camera that took these pictures, are already dead. The only hope to save Hubble is a shuttle mission, scheduled for this fall. It won't be the first one. Since 1990, astronauts have been there four times, installing new mirrors, doing maintenance and replacing scientific instruments.

A fifth trip was in the works, but the 2003 Columbia disaster caused NASA to cancel the mission as too risky. If anything were to go wrong, rescuing the astronauts would be extremely difficult.

Nonetheless, after numerous appeals from scientists, astronauts and especially the public, in late 2006, NASA decided to try one more Hubble mission.

MATT MOUNTAIN: This mission is one of the most complex that they've ever undertaken. And the risk of dying is one in 70. I mean, it's incredible; these are very brave people.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Two teams of astronaut spacewalkers will do the work. John Grunsfeld leads one team. He's been to Hubble twice before.

JOHN MACE GRUNSFELD (NASA Astronaut): The Hubble was designed to be serviced by people, to take things out, put things in, turn bolts, keep it running.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Leading the second team is Mike Massimino. He worked with John Grunsfeld on Hubble, in 2002.

MICHAEL MASSIMINO (NASA Astronaut): If we can fix Hubble, with its new capabilities, it's going to make some great discoveries.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: There's lots to do: replace batteries, install a brand new camera, swap out gyros, remove old optics, install a new spectrograph, and more.

MIKE MASSIMINO: Generally, what we do is we come up with a whole replacement for an instrument or for a piece of equipment. And even if something little is wrong with it, you don't mess with it, usually. You just pull it out and put the whole new one in.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: This mission is different. There's a broken instrument they can't replace: the Advanced Camera for Surveys, or A.C.S., which died just last year.

Ever since it was installed, in 2002, A.C.S. has been the workhorse camera on Hubble, taking 70 percent of its pictures, detecting some of the most distant objects in the universe and helping to solve some of the greatest mysteries in modern astrophysics. With no replacement available for A.C.S., astronauts will try something they've never done before: actual repairs in space.

CHUCK SHAW (Director, Hubble Servicing Mission): Instead of just replacing or adding components, we're actually going inside.

CHRISTY HANSEN (Astronaut Trainer): We're changing an electronics card out. We've never done that on orbit.

CHUCK SHAW: It's more like neurosurgery.

MIKE MASSIMINO: At first it sounded like this would be impossible.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: To find out how they plan to do this "mission impossible," I went to Goddard Space Flight Center, in Maryland. Deputy Program Manager Mike Weiss took me through the world's largest cleanroom. Every tool, part and new instrument going to Hubble is kept here.

They do some serious air filtering in this place.

You're telling me this entire wall is nothing but HEPA filters?

MIKE WEISS: That's right.


MIKE WEISS: Well, when you're in a hospital operating room, the thing that's dangerous to a patient is germs. The thing that's dangerous to Hubble is contamination.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Dust, dandruff, even stray skin cells on Hubble's optics would blind some of the pixels, putting a spot on all future Hubble photos.

In the heart of this super clean operating room, is a life-sized mockup of the patient: the part of Hubble containing the instruments. Deep inside is A.C.S., the vital organ that's failed. It might look like a refrigerator, but this big black box is actually a precision digital camera.

Just like any digital camera, A.C.S. runs off electronics. And that's what's died, the power supply. To fix it, 32 tiny screws have to be removed, then a cover, then circuit boards have to come out.

Okay, so this would be the offending power supply board. Even though right now it's just a smooth surface, I would see printed circuitry here and...

MIKE WEISS: Absolutely.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: ...components?

MIKE WEISS: Right, absolutely. And they're going to pull all four of these boards out.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: So this seems easy enough. Where's the challenge?

MIKE WEISS: The challenge is it was never designed to be pulled out like that, with an astronaut wearing a glove, and it could compromise the glove. It could have sharp edges.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: "Compromise the glove" is euphemism for me losing the pressurization of my suit and dying?

MIKE WEISS: Ultimately.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Danger is just one challenge. Working while weightless is quite another. Things like tools and loose screws will float. And if you're not strapped down, when you try to turn a screw, your body turns instead.

So how do they learn to do this work?

MIKE MASSIMINO: It's hard. You know, if you're going to play a baseball game you can go out to the field and take batting practice. But to go to space, you show up for the World Series without practicing on the field, so to speak, so you've got to get all your practice in other places.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: The best place to practice spacewalking is underwater, at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston.

MIKE MASSIMINO: The Neutral Buoyancy Lab is a fancy name for a big giant pool. You can fit a whole space shuttle in there, plus a whole space station. It's huge. They try to get us neutrally buoyant, and that enables us to practice our spacewalking. We can egress the space shuttle and move along the handrails and work with the telescope. And it's very close to learning the body positioning and the skills you need to spacewalk.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: It might look easy. But doing anything in a stiff pressurized suit is tough, grueling work.

MIKE MASSIMINO: You can get tired. You're in this suit for about eight hours. There's no food in there with you, so you have to have a good breakfast. You do have a drink bag so you can drink water while you're doing this, but you really need to be in the best shape you can be in.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: It's roughest on the hands; in stiff gloves they take quite a beating.

JOHN GRUNSFELD: We've had astronauts losing fingernails, you know? Black and blue, and the fingernails fall off after a few days. Fact of the matter is, the glove rules.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: So just imagine, the glove rules and you're trying to fix A.C.S. Well, here's the instructions: first, remove 32 screws from power supply cover; don't lose these. Next, pull off cover, exposing circuit boards. Remove four circuit boards; caution: these may be sharp. Insert new circuit board assembly, replace cover. Batteries not included.

Oh, and by the way, those 32 tiny screws? If just one floats into Hubble, it could trash the telescope forever.

So how are they going to get those screws out safely? With a special contraption designed just for this mission: the Fastener Capture Plate.

JOHN GRUNSFELD: It's basically a panel that is made out of a clear plastic and has holes in that you can put a screwdriver through.

MIKE MASSIMINO: But small enough so that nothing will come out.

JOHN GRUNSFELD: As a result, we can remove all those screws. They'll float around, but we won't lose any. And then we can take the cover plate off.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: To get a feel for what it's like using the Fastener Capture Plate, I decided to try it myself.

In space, 32 screws have to come out. I figured I'd try two. So I've got my miner's light into number 17. Steady. There we go. I'm in. We are succeeding, I think. I am not succeeding. And I can't imagine doing this in a spacesuit.

Doing it in a spacesuit is exactly what John Grunsfeld has to do, in space and practicing it in the pool. After making his way over to the Hubble mockup, the first step is get inside, to the dark, nearly inaccessible corner where A.C.S. is located.

JOHN GRUNSFELD: Okay, I have the Fastener Capture Plate; I've got three knobs. Bueno, what are they called?

MIKE GOOD: The three hard docks?

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Up in the control room, engineers and other astronauts monitor the checklist on which Grunsfeld's every move is scripted against a timeline.

MIKE GOOD: Okay, so you've engaged the three latches?

JOHN GRUNSFELD: Affirmative.

MIKE GOOD: And then I've got some other tools for you to pick up. Let me know when you're ready.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Removing the screws would be challenging, even if they were out in the open. But where they are, they're almost impossible to reach.

JOHN GRUNSFELD: Because of the bulk of the spacesuit, I can't get in far enough really to see them straight on. So I'm going to be kind of working around the corner with the screwdriver.

Number 3 is hard to see.

MIKE GOOD: Copy, three is difficult to see.


MIKE GOOD: Okay. And was there a problem with the Fastener Capture Plate sticking on there?

JOHN GRUNSFELD: What's happening is the reflection of the tool on the plastic is making it so I can't see if I'm in the screw head. It's looks like the teeth are rounded out.

MIKE GOOD: So the screw is stripped?



NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: A stripped screw—in space, this would be a huge problem, possibly ending the A.C.S. repair.

After six hours, the practice spacewalk is over.

JOHN GRUNSFELD: It went miserably. We had all kinds of problems. The little crosses in the Philips head, in the torque set, stripped out. And that's one of those disaster scenarios where then we're not going to get the cover plate off. So my confidence in this task is probably at its all-time low right now. But that's the way it goes.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: The Hubble servicing mission is scheduled for this fall. Even now, they're still working to perfect those spacewalks. But no amount of practice will make it a sure thing or a safe thing.

JOHN GRUNSFELD: You got four and a half million pounds of explosive fuel; it would be foolish not to think about the risks. So I think each individual astronaut has to ask themselves the question: "Is this risk worth it?"

Going to upgrade and repair the Hubble Space Telescope, to serve science, to enable great science and to enable great future discoveries, that's something that I believe is worth risking my life for.


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: As inhabitants of Earth, we humans are relative newbies. In fact, our branch of the evolutionary tree may have split with these apes only about 6,000,000 years ago.

But what if we look further back in our primate family tree? There must have been some great and wise ancestor who founded this wonderful line of creatures, right? Well, as correspondent Peter Standring reports, the latest research is revealing that our origins may have been quite a bit humbler than we thought.

PETER STANDRING: The Badlands of Wyoming: some of the largest dinosaur bones, ever, were found right here. But University of Florida paleontologist Jonathan Bloch is hunting for a set of bones that are nothing like the giant bones of T-Rex.

JONATHAN BLOCH: Here's a little piece of bone here. Here's a little piece of bone. I think that's a little vertebra.

PETER STANDRING: Tiny mouse-sized bones, buried in limestone, that just might be the fossil remains of our earliest primate ancestors.

An age-old mystery surrounds the origin of primates. No one knows exactly where we come from or how we got our evolutionary start.

Here's what we do know: giant dinosaurs once ruled this basin, where they dined freely in a lush forest. But then, around 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs die off when a massive comet slams into the planet. Ten million years later, something extraordinary happens. The fossil record suddenly shows a new kind of mammal, with unique characteristics: the primate, our ancient ancestors.

So what is a primate? What is it that separates us from the rest of the evolutionary pack? Well, maybe it's our good looks or our superior intelligence.

The truth is brain size does come into play. We primates, even Noah here, have larger brains than our mammal relatives. It's a feature that evolved to help us learn complex social behavior and how to do things like make tools or even outwit our prey.

We also developed forward-facing eyes with stereo vision. It's a feature that allows us to judge the world around us in 3D. Over time, we also developed the ability to leap, basically to jump from branch to branch, where grasping hands, or in Noah's case, grasping feet, equipped with nails instead of claws, enable us to reach that tasty piece of fruit.

Our earliest ancestors developed these unique characteristics, some time after the extinction of dinosaurs. The question is, "When and why?"

So let me get it straight. If the dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago, and then primates suddenly appeared around 56 million years ago, what happened in between? I mean that's almost 10 million years that's unaccounted for.

JONATHAN BLOCH: Right. That's the $6,000,000 question. And I don't think they just appeared on the face of the planet, they evolved.

PETER STANDRING: But from what? I mean, something the size of a mouse?


PETER STANDRING: Jonathan believes the evidence to support his theory and help solve this ancient primate mystery can be found here, hidden inside the limestone of the Bighorn Basin.

JONATHAN BLOCH: A tiny little piece of broken bone can connect up with an entire skeleton of a mammal.

This looks like a pretty good limestone. It should be...should be full of fossils, but we really won't know until we get it back to the lab.

You see a tiny little piece of bone, and you hope that there's more inside, you have no guarantees, so it's a little bit of a gamble.

PETER STANDRING: But a gamble worth taking, because these stones might hold ancient clues.

JONATHAN BLOCH: These limestones allow us a window into that world that we've never had before.

PETER STANDRING: The world of the earliest primate. It will take a 2,000-mile drive back to his lab in Gainesville, Florida, and a year of painstaking work, to find out if Jonathan's gamble will pay off.

Back in his lab, Jonathan, along with graduate student Doug Boyer, gets to work. Their goal? To free the delicate bones from the rock-hard stone. They begin by placing the limestone under a microscope.

JONATHAN BLOCH: That immediately starts to open up the world of the block. We identify all of the bone that's outcropping on the surface.

PETER STANDRING: Doug carefully coats the tiny bones with plastic to protect them from the powerful acid bath they're about to take.

DOUG BOYER (Graduate Student, Stony Brook University): We leave the block in acid for, at the most, two to two and a half hours, and that'll remove about a millimeter-thick rind of limestone.

JONATHAN BLOCH: We repeat the process, again and again and again and again, until all of the bone is exposed.

PETER STANDRING: Much to their surprise they find hundreds of tiny bones. But success poses a new problem.

JONATHAN BLOCH: It's not always obvious which bones go to what animal, and so the only way to document that is by creating a little archeology site, a map of all the bones.

PETER STANDRING: Doug devises a method to meticulously document the relationship between each and every bone. The process will take months, but when complete, it will reveal far more than they ever anticipated: dozens of tiny mammals never before seen, including these three extraordinary skeletons.

And what are these?

JONATHAN BLOCH: These are plesiadapiforms,

PETER STANDRING: Plesiadapiforms are tiny mouse-like creatures that lived during the mysterious 10-million-year period between the extinction of dinosaurs and the appearance of primates. It's a very diverse group, with more than 120 species, including these three.

JONATHAN BLOCH: They represent the most complete skeletons of plesiadapiforms known in the world.

PETER STANDRING: An extraordinary find, for sure, but will they help Jonathan solve this primate mystery? Are plesiadapiforms our earliest ancestors?

JONATHAN BLOCH: If we look here, this nail-like structure makes you think, because the presence of a nail is a hallmark characteristic of living primates.

PETER STANDRING: This is an enlarged image of the extraordinary nail Jonathan found. Next to it, the claw he expected—a startling difference.

JONATHAN BLOCH: This nail might actually be the first nail in the history of primate evolution.

PETER STANDRING: Concrete evidence to support his theory of primate evolution. Could there be more hidden within these tiny bones?

To find out, Jonathan enlists the help of Mary Silcox, evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Winnipeg. She's been busy zapping primitive skulls with an industrial-strength CAT scanner, large enough to fill an entire room. Mary takes the skull of one of the limestone skeletons and prepares it for scanning.

MARY T. SILCOX (University of Winnipeg): The x-ray goes through the specimen, and we collect 2,400 separate views, which produce a cross-sectional image.

A structure that had been identified as just a little piece of bone in the middle ear actually had the form of a tube. And the reason that was exciting was because there's a structure running through the ear of particularly primitive primates—things like lemurs—which is a tube for a large vessel that goes to the brain.

PETER STANDRING: A tiny tube, a tiny nail, the evidence is mounting. But to prove his theory of primate evolution, Jonathan still needs more. He adds another member to the team. Eric Sargis, professor of anthropology at Yale University, and the world's leading expert on tree shrews. Why a tree shrew expert? Scientists believe that tree shrews—a primitive species of tiny tree-living mammals—are actually related to early primates.

ERIC SARGIS: Tree shrews are not primates, but they're close relatives. They share a number of characteristics that separates them from other groups of mammals.

PETER STANDRING: Would plesiadapiforms pass the ultimate primate test? Are they the first step on the primate family tree or just another relative on the tree shrew family tree?

MARY SILCOX: What we were interested in was to test whether or not plesiadapiforms were the earliest primates.

PETER STANDRING: The team goes to work bringing together all the information they had collected independently into a single comprehensive study: Jonathan and Doug's plesiadapiform skeletons; Mary's scans of dozens of ancient skulls; and Eric's anatomical data on a close living relative, the tree shrew.

ERIC SARGIS: The way we start is by comparing all these specimens.

PETER STANDRING: Detail by detail, feature by feature they combed through all the data using a numerical system to compare and contrast.

JONATHAN BLOCH: After we studied the different characteristics of these animals, and reduced them down to numbers—you know, absence of a nail is a 0, presence of a nail is a 1—we then ran this through a computer algorithm.

PETER STANDRING: The algorithm sifted through the complex data in search of simple relationships: which fossils have the same characteristics, the same numbers. Using this information, the computer was programmed to create family trees illustrating the potential relationships each mammal has to the next. The team expected the computer to come up with several possible scenarios in the form of several possible family trees. Instead, the program came up with only one.

JONATHAN BLOCH: I was a little surprised to see it so unambiguous.

PETER STANDRING: This single family tree could lead to only one conclusion.

JONATHAN BLOCH: I think the evidence, as it stands today, is pretty compelling that yes, in fact, these are primates.

MARY SILCOX: Every new piece of data that we had coming out of our study of this material seemed to be consistent with that idea.

PETER STANDRING: Not only that. One of the plesiadapiform skeletons Jonathan and Doug painstakingly etched out of limestone, a species by the name of Dryomomys, turns out to be far more primitive than the other two, possessing only one primate characteristic, the shape of its teeth.

ERIC SARGIS: It's sort of a transitional specimen between more primitive things, like tree shrews, and later primates.

PETER STANDRING: One part primate, other parts not.

ERIC SARGIS: I mean, it really starts to tell us something about the base of the primate tree, what the earliest primates look like. So, if we're one leaf on the branch, so are chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, among apes; all the different monkeys in the old world and the new world; lemurs from Madagascar; lorises and galagoes; all those animals are living today, but you can trace it all back to a single common ancestor. And as you get closer and closer to that common ancestor, dryomomys is one of the animals that's closest to the base there. It's the most primitive primate skeleton ever found, to date.

PETER STANDRING: Jonathan had evidence to support his theory. Primates didn't just appear on the planet, they evolved over a 10-million-year period. And just as he thought, the earliest primates were the size of a mouse. Still one question remains. What sparked this amazing transformation? The team believes our ancient ancestors evolve on the heels of a mass extinction. Without the mighty T-Rex around, the tiniest of mammals are free to forage and explore, and they discover a world filled with flowering plants and succulent fruit.

MARY SILCOX: We have this sort of co-evolutionary relationship, where fruits were evolving to get tastier for primates to eat; the primates were then eating them and helping the plants actually spread their seeds further.

PETER STANDRING: With tempting fruit growing at the end of tiny branches, our ancestors have plenty of motivation to change. So they begin to evolve, developing long fingers for climbing trees, specialized teeth, hands and feet, uniquely designed for grasping and eating the tiniest, tasty berry. Over 10 million years, they slowly develop unique characteristics that we recognize in our primate relatives and ourselves.

ERIC SARGIS: So that if plesiadapiforms don't evolve, we're probably not standing here talking about this right now.


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Plenty of great scientists have made a mark even though they came from humble origins. Albert Einstein, when he was younger, was a patent clerk. Dmitri Mendeleev, inventor of the periodic table of elements, was a poor kid who hitchhiked thousands of miles across Siberia just to go to college.

In this episode's profile, we meet a brain researcher whose journey of discovery was rife with challenges of its own.

It's early Monday morning, and Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, or Dr Q., as everyone calls him, slips into his lab coat, as routinely as Mr. Rogers puts on his sweater.


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: His day begins with a quick sprint through the lab to check on things, and, as always, a good wash.

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: Clean your hands. You can never clean your hands too much.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: The pace here is fast because lives hang in the balance, lives that could be lost to a dread disease that, so far, has defied understanding.

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: What we're trying to understand in my laboratory is very simple. It's really not that complex. We're trying to understand, how does brain cancer originate and how does it spread?

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: To answer those questions, Dr. Q. and his research team are looking at neural stem cells which are taken from human brain tissue. These cells have the ability to become different types of mature brain cells.

Dr. Q. thinks that in brain cancer, something may go wrong with these cells, causing them to grow out of control and seed tumors that are frequently malignant.

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: Certainly, if it is malignant brain cancer...virtually...almost no possibility of cure.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: If these cells are growing out of control, and if Dr. Q. and his team can determine why, then maybe one day they'll be able to stop or reverse the process, transforming brain cancer from a deadly disease to a chronic but manageable condition.

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: We are at the forefront of understanding human tissue, human cells.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: It's hard to get human brain tissue to study, especially tissue from living patients. But Dr. Q. has a special connection. It turns out he has a close relationship with one of the country's top brain surgeons here at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa.

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: Good morning. I have exciting news for you.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: When he's not in his lab, he's with his patients.

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: A very, very benign menangioma. Yours was the size of a tennis ball. But the mass is all the way...right here.

Ah, look at you. You did cut your hair, huh? How are you?

DON (Surgical Patient): Just fine. How are you doctor?

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Tomorrow, he will be operating on Don to remove a brain tumor, or lesion.

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: This is the actual M.R.I. You can see the lesion right here.

DON: That whole u-shaped area?

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: That whole u-shaped area.

DON: Well, I'd be lying to you, if I didn't say I was nervous.


DON: I know I'm in good hands.

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: Well, I promise you—this is what I always tell my patients—I promise you that my goal is to get you in and out safe.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: On the day of surgery, at the cashier's line at breakfast, he runs into Don's sister and brother-in-law, who asks him, in Spanish, "Are you ready?"


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: This isn't a day for theory or larger questions. Today, as he walks into the operating room, the scientist is a surgeon. It's a transformation that can be seen in his eyes.

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: No doubt at that moment, okay? There's no place for doubt at that moment. Because that moment, when we're about to walk into the arena, into the operating theater, there's no place for mistakes and there's no place for errors. And I tell them, specifically, when we go in, it's going to be all positive energy. All that passion, all that training, everything that I have done in my life to prepare for that specific moment is going to come out. And we're going to go in together and we're going to take care of this.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Don's tumor, or lesion, is just millimeters from the part of Don's brain that controls his speech. Dr. Quinones has to keep Don awake and talking to make sure that they don't damage his ability to speak or make him mute, for life.

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: Alrighty, I want Don's mouth to be a little bit moist.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: To be sure, they run a test first. As Don counts, Dr. Quinones stimulates his brain to locate those areas that determine speech.

DON: Thirty, uuuuuhhhhhhh...

VARIOUS IN O.R.: Are you okay?

DON: Yeah. Thirty one, 32, 33, 34, 35, thi...uuuhhh...

O.R. PERSON: You're okay.

DON: Thirty six, 37, 38.

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: I know, in my heart, that this is a tough fight. I know that the chances that I may have a significant impact on this disease are not very good. As a matter of fact, to be honest with you, the odds are overwhelmingly against me succeeding in this field, as far as finding a cure or a better way to treat brain cancer. But so were the chances of me sitting here with you today, when I came to this country, 20 years ago.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Chances were about all Alfredo had in 1987, and they were slim to none. He was a Mexican citizen, poor and desperate to come to America, when he jumped this fence and snuck into the country as an illegal alien.

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: It is tough to be poor. It is tough to be poor in the United States; imagine how much more difficult it is to be poor in poor countries. And it's tough to survive in that environment, to be honest with you. I think that it was pretty clear to me that this is what I needed to do.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Alfredo grew up in Mexicali, just across this wall, at the California border. Neither of his parents made it past the first grade, the same grade little Alfredo was in when he started managing the finances of his father's gas station.

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: By the age of five, I was already working. By the age of 10, I was a major contributor.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: What little the family had disappeared, along with the Mexican economy, in the 1980s, and Alfredo jumped the fence at 19. He became a migrant worker in the San Joaquin valley.

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: At first, I was thinking, I am going to take over the world with this. I am going to go back to my country triumphant, and I am going to be making a lot of money. Then I get my first check, about $130 a week, and I realized this might take a little bit longer. This is hard work.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: He lived in this trailer for about a year, all by himself.


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Alone and depressed, Alfredo made it to Stockton, where he shared a room with other family members and enrolled in English classes at San Joaquin Delta Community College. There, he met Anna.

ANNA QUINONES: I kept seeing him walking across this, like, little area, where everybody would sit and relax, and I would see him just fly by, very fast: shoo, shoo.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: They became friends, but didn't date for another two years.

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: I just know, I never thought...I mean, it's my insecurities. How can this beautiful woman be interested in a guy who has nothing?

ANNA QUINONES: I saw something in him right away, that he was different. And I think that's one of the reasons why I was attracted to him, because I could see, like, the fire within him, that, you know, someday, somewhere, something fabulous was going to happen with him.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Alfredo kept moving quickly. From Berkeley, he went to Harvard Medical School. He became a U.S. citizen; married Anna; had three kids, a dog and a cat; did his residence and post doc at U.C. San Francisco; and started his lab, and became a surgeon at Johns Hopkins.

Four hours into Don's operation, Dr. Quinones removes the tumor, leaving Don's speech intact. Don has already agreed to give Dr. Q.'s lab samples of his brain's fluid and tissue from the tumor. And Don, his brain open, and with Dr. Q.'s fingers literally inside of it, says...

DON: Take as much as you want.

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: Isn't that amazing? I can take his speech away just like that. Just by going a millimeter over. By taking a small vessel, a microscopic vessel that you cannot even see, anything can change radically. And yet he said, "Take as much as you want."

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Don doesn't know that he's just given his tissue to a research team full of hungry overachievers, who understand that ending their week, every Friday night, with a lab meeting to discuss their research until 10:00 p.m., is just part of the price of working with Dr. Q.

JASON CHANG (Student): I'm from San Francisco. I went to University of California San Francisco Medical School.

STUDENT 1: ...sophomore at Johns Hopkins University.

STUDENT 2: ...from MIT.

STUDENT 3: I'm from Oxnard, California.

STUDENT 4: ...Ecuador.

STUDENT 5: ...from India.

STUDENT 6: ...Wakefield, Rhode Island.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Dr. Q. is sharing some of the amazing opportunity he's had. But he's also got a lab to run, and if he can't move fast enough to accomplish his dream, he's hoping one of these young people will get the chance.

ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: I have to recognize that I may never be able to have a significant impact on brain cancer, so my duty is to train those future generations.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: In Dr. Q.'s version of the American Dream, rigorous, sometimes endless work leads to more and bigger dreams.

Earlier that day, just two days after his surgery, Don went home—living proof of Dr. Q's American Dream—living, to dream some more.


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Along with all the problems that war brings, we're now facing a new enemy invader, emerging from Iraq. Each of its soldiers are packing weapons, dozens of them. These guys can survive for weeks at a time without food or water. We don't know how to fight them, but we've got to find out. Guns and tanks won't help us here.

But as correspondent John Torres reports, what we really need is a good biologist.

JOHN TORRES (Correspondent): There's a killer on the battle-torn streets of Iraq. But it doesn't carry a gun. It's attacking injured soldiers. With better armor and advanced medical care, they're surviving in larger numbers than ever before.

I was a doctor in Iraq, with the Air National Guard, and I can tell you from first-hand experience, the survival rate for wounded soldiers, it's a remarkable story. But it's one with a downside.

That downside comes in the form of a tiny microbe with a powerful punch. Here's the culprit. It's a bacterium called baumannii, referred to in Iraq as Iraqibacter. It's named for microbiologist Paul Baumann, who researched it back in 1968. But even he couldn't predict what this tiny, single-celled organism would one day become.

Like most bacteria, it lives in colonies and is constantly reproducing simply by dividing and dividing again. A single bacterium can give rise to five billion trillion in only a day.

This bug used to be relatively harmless, yet somehow it's found a way to transform itself into a drug-resistant killer.

One of its many victims was ABC news correspondent Bob Woodruff. On January 29th, 2006, while embedded with the U.S. 4th Infantry division in Baghdad, his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. To keep him alive, doctors had to remove part of his skull and induce a medical coma. Miraculously, Bob was stabilized and evacuated to Bethesda Naval Hospital, in Maryland.

His wife, Lee, was there, by his side.

What was going on with Bob, at that point?

LEE WOODRUFF (Co-author, In an Instant): He underwent many different surgeries for different things, but I think that's the point at which they became nervous about pneumonia and sepsis setting in. And in fact, that was what had happened.

JOHN TORRES: A baumannii infection had spread throughout his body, and he was back at death's door.

LEE WOODRUFF: It seemed impossible to me that someone could be in a war and be hit by a bomb and survive this and then be, actually, felled, by a simple bacteria in a hospital.

JOHN TORRES: Bob Woodruff is just one of many soldiers and civilians picking up this deadly microbe, in hospitals along the evacuation chain out of Iraq, and bringing it back home to America, where it's infecting even people who have never seen a battlefield.

MICHAEL G. SMITH (Invitrogen Corporation): It has this ability to hang around in places where it ought not, like on doorknobs and pillow cases and the like.

JOHN TORRES: ...where it can it can survive for weeks. So why not simply use an antibiotic, like penicillin, to fight it? After all, haven't antibiotics been the magic bullet, saving soldiers' lives, since World War II?

MIKE SMITH: We saved a lot of people's lives. Penicillin was a wonder drug.

JOHN TORRES: But something has changed. Now the bugs are fighting back. Microbiologist Mike Smith demonstrates how drug resistant this bug has become.

MIKE SMITH: You take baumanii and you put it on a plate containing imipenem.

JOHN TORRES: He places colonies, containing millions of bacteria, in several petri dishes and confronts them with imipenem, an antibiotic so strong it's nicknamed gorillacillin. After 12 hours, all the bacteria should be dead, but they're not.

MIKE SMITH: Unfortunately, this is the kind of thing we're seeing, where certain colonies are surviving. In this case, you can see a few in the middle there.

JOHN TORRES: Now, looking at it...there's only six or eight little colonies.

MIKE SMITH: These are the only ones that are living, so the entire population, now, of remaining bacteria, are imipenem-resistant.

JOHN TORRES: Smith and graduate student Tara Gianoulis prepare a sample of baumannii. Its D.N.A. will be sequenced, one letter at a time. The results reveal that baumannii has large sections of genes that don't belong, foreign genes that are giving it resistance to antibiotics.

MIKE SMITH: There is a multi-drug-resistant strain that took 45 different drug-resistance genes and stuck them in one spot. This should be alarming, because that's what this bug can do.

JOHN TORRES: How is this possible?

There's only one way we get our genes, and that's from our parents. It's called vertical gene transfer. But it turns out bacteria can also get genes in a process called horizontal gene transfer. One way that happens is when two bacteria get together for a little friendly conjugation—the microbial form of snuggling—they form a connection and squirt D.N.A. into each other.

Turns out, baumannii has been getting a little too friendly. Could that be what's making it so nasty?

To find out, Mike Smith zaps a colony of baumannii with electricity, creating over 1,000 mutant bugs: each one different, each one missing one known gene. He takes these mutant microbes and feeds them to some microscopic worms.

MIKE SMITH: They're an amazing little organism.

JOHN TORRES: For Mike, one of the best things about these worms is that they love eating bacteria.

MIKE SMITH: That's what it eats for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And it turns out that when these worms eat disease-causing bacteria, it often kills them, too.

JOHN TORRES: Just like lethal bacteria can kill us.

But if Mike has succeeded in zapping out the lethal genes, then some of his worms should survive. Will it work? He'll find out at dinnertime.

The worms that survive give Mike the information that he needs to know who baumanii has been getting friendly with.

It turns out one of the deadly genes comes from a well-known killer, the bacteria responsible for Legionnaire's disease, a deadly bug first recognized, back in 1976, when, at an American Legion convention, over 1,000 people suddenly came down with a serious lung infection. Thirty-four died.

MIKE SMITH: It's taking in drug resistance gene, and it's developing drug resistance. It's taking in virulence, or disease-causing-type genes, and it's using them.

JOHN TORRES: With the addition of some new genes, baumannii becomes more lethal and harder to defeat, all at the same time. It's an ongoing battle, not easily won.

MIKE SMITH: Perhaps instead of trying to just overwhelm them and kill them, maybe we can coerce them into doing something that they weren't thinking about doing, if we understand how they communicate.

JOHN TORRES: But bacteria have been around a lot longer than we have, and they are very good at adapting to anything that we throw at them. So, for now, it's a matter of early intervention, better hospital hygiene and good medical care. That's what saved Bob Woodruff.

LEE WOODRUFF: He's had, I think, a miraculous recovery. It's pretty phenomenal. It speaks to the acute medical care that he got at the beginning, as well.


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: And now for some final thoughts on telescopes in space.

At the moment, there's about a dozen telescopes of different sizes and shapes out there in space, each providing a clear view of the cosmos. Most, from the public's point of view, perform their duties anonymously.

Not so, the Hubble Space Telescope, the beloved Hubble telescope, with its crisp, colorful, stunning images of the cosmos. Hubble came of age in the 1990s, just when public access to the Internet was growing exponentially. Students in high school today have never known a time without the Hubble. This marvelous instrument brought the universe into our backyard, our living room, our computers' screen savers, with images so beautiful they don't even need captions. You're content just looking at them.

Back in 2004, when NASA announced that Hubble would not receive its fourth servicing mission, which would prolong its life another five years, maybe 10, there was an outcry. And the loudest voices were not the scientists, but the general public. There were op-eds, letters to the editor, talk show debates, all urging NASA to restore the funding and keep Hubble alive.

At last, Congress reversed NASA's decision. Hubble will be serviced.

I've got to tell you, I know of no time in the history of civilization when the general public banded together to save a scientific instrument.

So, for perhaps another decade, Hubble will continue to do what it does best, bringing the universe down to Earth.

And that is the cosmic perspective.

And now we'd like to hear your perspective on this episode of NOVA scienceNOW. Log on to our Web site and tell us what you think. You can watch any of these stories again, download audio and video podcasts, hear from experts and much more. Find us at

That's our show. We'll see you next time.

Funding for NOVA scienceNOW is provided by:

Americans are living longer, spending more on healthcare. At Pfizer, we're working on ways to help, with medicines that help prevent illnesses, with programs that provide our medicines to people without coverage, and new partnerships to keep costs down and keep people healthy.

And by the National Science Foundation, where discoveries begin. And...

Discover new knowledge, biomedical research and science education. Howard Hughes Medical Institute: HHMI.

And the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, to portray the lives of men and women engaged in scientific and technological pursuit.

And the George D. Smith Fund.

And by PBS viewers like you. Thank you.

Educators and other educational institutions can order this NOVA program, for $24.95 plus shipping and handling, by calling WGBH Boston Video at 1-800-255-9424.

NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston.


Saving Hubble

Edited by
Doug Quade

Written, Produced and Directed by
Rushmore DeNooyer

First Primates

Edited by
David Chmura

Produced and Directed by
Terri Randall

Profile: Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa

Edited by
Robe Imbriano

Produced and Directed by
Robe Imbriano & Carla Denly

Killer Microbe

Edited by
Jed Rauscher

Produced by
Emily Bernhard

Directed by
Terri Randall

NOVA scienceNOW

Executive Producer
Samuel Fine

Executive Editor
Neil deGrasse Tyson

Senior Series Producer
Vincent Liota

Supervising Producers
Stephen Sweigart
Joey David

Editorial Producer
Julia Cort

Development Producer
Vinita Mehta

Senior Editor
David Chmura

Online Editor
Laura Raimondo

Series Production Assistant
Fran Laks

Assistant Editors
Susan Perla
Tung-Jen (Sunny) Chiang

Brian Edgerton
Yunsik Noh
Tristian Goik

Rob Morsberger

NOVA scienceNOW Series Animation

Associate Producers
Melanie Cunningham
Jeff Marion
Steven Reich

Chad Baron
Joseph Brunette
Mark Carroll
Joseph Friedman
Sean Glenn
Mark Gunning
Jerry Hattan
Edward Marritz
Michael D. McClare

Sound Recordists
Chad Baron
Tom Eichler
Dennis Hrbek
Charlie Maccarone
Janice Mahan
Mark Mandler
Pete Nenortas
JR Rodriguez
Paul Rusnak
Dennis Sprankel
Robert Sullivan
John van der Does

Sound Mix
David Chmura

Brian Edgerton
Sputnik Animation
James LaPlante

Production Assistants
Daniel Sites
Elizabeth Stachow
Bobby Tucker

For Lone Wolf Documentary Group

Executive Producer
Kirk Wolfinger

Production Manager
Donna Huttemann

Archival Material
American Broadcasting Companies
Larry Burrows Estate
Janice Carr
Wade B. Clark Jr.
Friedman Archives
Utako Kikutani
National Geographic
Streamline Films
Adam Zoghlin,

Special Thanks
Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi
Tim Endy, MD
Goddard Space Flight Center
Gerard Irzyk, PhD, 454 Life Sciences
Meena Hartenstein
Lance Corporal Tim Lang
Nicholas Ornston, PhD
Penn State University
The Crew of SM-4
Walter Reed Army Medical Center
Eric Sargis
Michael Snyder, PhD
The Snyder Lab, Yale University
Arjun Srinivasan, MD
University of Florida
Bob and Lee Woodruff
Glenn Wortmann, MD
Yale University

Neil deGrasse Tyson is director of the Hayden Planetarium in the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History.

NOVA scienceNOW Consortium Stations
Nebraska Educational Telecommunications, NET
Public Broadcasting for Northern California, KQED
Twin Cities Public Television, TPT
Wisconsin Public Television, WPT

NOVA Series Graphics
yU + co.

NOVA Theme Music
Walter Werzowa
John Luker
Musikvergnuegen, Inc.

Additional NOVA Theme Music
Ray Loring
Rob Morsberger

Post Production Online Editor
Spencer Gentry

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

Carole McFall
Eileen Campion
Lindsay de la Rigaudiere
Victoria Louie
Kate Becker

Senior Researcher
Gaia Remerowski

Production Coordinator
Linda Callahan

Raphael Nemes
Sarah Erlandson

Talent Relations
Scott Kardel, Esq.
Janice Flood

Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen

Post Production Assistant
Darcy Forlenza

Associate Producer, Post Production
Patrick Carey

Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'Toole

Post Production Editors
Rebecca Nieto
Alex Kreuter

Post Production Manager
Nathan Gunner

Compliance Manager
Linzy Emery

Business Manager
Joseph P. Tracy

Producers, Special Projects
Lisa Mirowitz
David Condon

Coordinating Producer
Laurie Cahalane

Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham

Senior Series Producer
Melanie Wallace

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Senior Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0638931. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

NOVA scienceNOW is a trademark of the WGBH Educational Foundation

NOVA scienceNOW is produced for WGBH/Boston by NOVA

© 2008 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

About NOVA | NOVA Homepage | Support NOVA

© | Created June 2008

Support provided by

For new content
visit the redesigned
NOVA site