The Spy Factory: Then and Now

The warrantless wiretapping controversy has taken a few twists and turns since The Spy Factory premiered last winter on NOVA. The show, which will be rebroadcast tonight on most PBS stations, reported on the National Security Agency's surveillance of vast streams of data--phone conversations, emails, faxes--from AT&T's regional switching center in San Francisco. But the biggest reversal came in March, when a federal judge ruled that domestic surveillance is illegal without court approval.

The National Security Agency (NSA) was first empowered to wiretap on American soil without a warrant just three weeks after the attacks of September 11, thanks to an executive order from then-President Bush. The Obama administration had sought to retain the NSA's surveillance privileges; the judge rejected the Justice Department's claim that pursuing the lawsuit would reveal state secrets.

What does this all mean? James Bamford, who wrote The Shadow Factory and wrote and produced The Spy Factory with producer/director C. Scott Willis, filled me in. "What it means is that the judge says what was done there--by both the NSA and AT&T--was illegal because it violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act." The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), enacted in 1978, requires court authorization for domestic wiretaps. But, Bamford points out, that doesn't mean the telecoms which cooperated with the NSA will be on the hook: "AT&T and the other telecoms were later given immunity by Congress."

The Spy Factory will be rebroadcast tonight on most PBS stations. Please check your local listings to find out when it will be airing near you.

Chasing Twisters with VORTEX2

From Texas to South Dakota, the great plains of the central U.S. are home to countless tornadoes each year. The worst of these storms can level entire towns, leaving nothing but concrete foundations in their wake. But despite their devastating power, tornadoes are not well understood, says geophysicist Roger Wakimoto from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). "It's embarrassing," he says, "but we still do not understand what triggers tornado genesis."

That's why Wakimoto and a team of experts from around the country organized VORTEX2, one of the largest field studies of tornado weather ever attempted.   With more than 140 scientists and 35 research vehicles, it's a mobile armada, equipped with doppler radar trucks, car-mounted weather stations, and dozens of deployable instruments that can be placed in a twister's path.

I recently had the opportunity to follow the VORTEX2 team during the final days of their six-week expedition. When we met up in a tiny crossroads town in eastern Colorado, they had already been on the road for five weeks, rarely sleeping in the same town for more than one night. It was a grueling schedule. But Wakimoto says that staying mobile is necessary in order to see potential tornadoes as they form.
If your social life is anything like mine, you have probably spent a few Saturday nights rubbing saliva between your thumb and forefinger and watching a beaded liquid string form as you slowly pulled your fingers apart.

       Some polymer-containing fluids, like saliva, form 
         beads-on-a-chain structures when stretched.

Well if you haven't, try it now. Trust me, it's cool.

"At first it may look like a wire as you are separating your two fingers. But then, all of a sudden, little beads start forming on it," Dr. Osman Basaran, a professor at Purdue University's School of Chemical Engineering, said during a phone interview with me last week. "That's how I started thinking about this problem." 

Basaran and his colleagues provided a detailed explanation of how these structures form in this month's Nature Physics.

Their work has some very useful medical applications, particularly in managing drug dosage.

Several examples of these liquid beads-on-a-chain structures exist in nature, from fish slimes to silk threads. Until now, scientists did not have a detailed understanding of how these necklaces took shape.

Have you ever felt guilty and not understood why? Or felt that you're easily distracted? Most have. A study by the U. S. Geological Survey shows that a parasite that invades human brains and cat intestines could be to blame.

Here's how the bug works: Humans ingest Toxoplasma gondii, a common relative of malaria, which, at first, only makes itself known through mild flu symptoms. These symptoms have been known to linger in individuals with compromised immune systems, such as those affected by AIDS, but, in the majority of cases, the symptoms pass, the host feels better, and the bug is forgotten.

But Toxoplasma gondii stays on...

Imagine you woke up one morning to find that the rules governing the universe had completely changed. Gone were the classical laws of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein in which everything behaves predictably. Instead, people randomly pop in and out of existence. Each time you make a decision, every possible outcome takes place. And objects on one side of the universe can affect objects billions of miles away instantaneously as if space, the stuff that separates them, no longer exists.

While this seems pretty wacky, physicists in the early 20th century discovered that the subatomic world is governed by a very strange set of laws called quantum mechanics--laws that make these tiny particles act in seriously peculiar ways. Turns out that our everyday experience is masking a weird, wondrous subatomic realm that is far stranger than anyone expected.

"The Fabric of the Cosmos," based on Brian Greene's bestselling book and the sequel of sorts to NOVA's award-winning "The Elegant Universe," aims to answer some of the most mind-boggling questions about space and time, but it will also dive deep in to the land of quantum mechanics.

Recently the "Quantum" hour production team, headed up by producer Josh Rosen of Spine Films, took off for the bowling alley to explain how this bizarre quantum world works...

So what does quantum mechanics have to do with bowling?

Brian Greene_FOC_Bo#83E5D15_resize.jpgBrian Greene on set for NOVA's upcoming series "The Fabric of the Cosmos." Photo by Jonathan Sahula.

Bridging the Gender Gap

Why aren't there more women in the upper echelons of science? It's a question with many answers, but John Tierney at the New York Times is only interested in one: Maybe women just aren't smart enough. 

In two columns (on June 8 and June 15) for the New York Times, Tierney argues that men outnumber women at the extreme ends of the intelligence bell curve. Though the sexes may cluster around the same average intelligence, men are more likely to occupy the very highest (and lowest) percentiles in tests of mathematical ability. Maybe this, not gender bias, is the invisible force holding up science's glass ceiling.

Here's why we think Tierney is wrong.

  • Most women just starting their science careers don't face the kind of brazen discrimination their predecessors did. Thank goodness for that. Yet there is good evidence that implicit biases color the way we think about girls' capacity to do science. Both women and men are vulnerable to these biases, and they can be self-fulfilling: "Stereotype threat" can cause some women to underperform when they are told to expect that their gender will negatively affect their performance on a test.

  • How can we untangle these social influences from innate ability? One way might be to check whether the math score gender gap persists in other cultures. In fact, it doesn't. More to the point, when the gender gap is matched up with measures of implicit bias, the gender gap widens and narrows in perfect harmony with the strength of a nation's implicit biases. 

  • But let's imagine that the gender gap is real. Is exceptional performance on a math test really a good predictor of an individual's promise as a scientist anyway? The best scientists also have to be top-notch communicators, They have to spread excitement about their ideas at conferences and lectures, and they have to write persuasive grant proposals. They have to manage teams of students and post-docs. And they need a creative spark that sets them apart. One math score is a paltry proxy for this multifaceted set of skills.

  • There is good evidence that male and female brains do process information differently. But that's not a bad thing. In fact, science can only benefit from the participation of minds that literally "think differently." Novel approaches and new ways of seeing problems are responsible for great leaps in science and technology.

  • Finally, what's the point? Science has tremendous potential to help our society face its challenges, so let's ask whether this debate is really a constructive one. Most scientists, smart as they may be, do not occupy that coveted space at the very end of the bell curve. And yet they do good and important work. Why exclude 50% of the population from even trying? What message does that send to girls and women--as well as men who might not occupy that far-right tail on the bell curve--considering careers in science?

 At NOVA and NOVA scienceNOW, we are proud to introduce viewers to scientists of every gender, race, nationality, and age. (See some recent examples of scientists of all types at our Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers series.) These are people of remarkable intelligence but also exceptional dedication, passion, and creativity. We hope that by presenting these scientific role models, we can encourage would-be scientists of every shape, size, and color to pursue their passion. Anything less does a disservice to science and the society it serves.


Repeat After Me

What do these groups of animals -- parrots, hummingbirds, songbirds, bats, elephants, cetaceans (whales and dolphins), and possibly some lions -- have in common with us humans? Hint: think what parrots are famously good at.

Right, parroting. These seven animal groups - and no others known so far -- can imitate sounds they've heard. Other creatures may understand the meaning of sounds, but they can't mimic them. A dog knows what "sit" means but can't, well, parrot that sound. A chimp can ape, but not vocally. All they can do is produce sounds they were born with.

03-jarv-jarvis.jpgWhy? The reason, as Erich Jarvis of Duke University and other neurobiologists have found in birds and humans, have evolved a special neural connection that makes this possible. It's a direct link from the forebrain to motor neurons in the brainstem that are responsible for vocalization. It's this link that enables our speech.

Jarvis and colleagues are just beginning to uncover the physical basis of that neural hook-up -- one of many recent advances that are forcing a radical revision in how we think about animal smarts.

Erich Jarvis © NOVA/WGBH Educational Foundation

As someone who has always been embarrassingly weak, it's nice to know that sometimes all that's required to win is the right attitude. At least this is the case for the female jumping spider, Phidippus clarus.

Various species of female spiders are notorious for their viciousness against males. And female jumping spiders also fight aggressively with each other, sometimes to the death.   

Interestingly, in fights between female jumping spiders, winning isn't dependent on size or strength, but on how badly the female wants to win, according to scientists at the University of California at Berkeley and Dr. Maydianne Andrade, who we profiled on NOVA scienceNOW last year. Their work appears in this week's Behavioral Ecology.

Nuke it. Seal it with inflatable tubes. Stuff it up with the collected works of Ayn Rand. These are just a handful of thousands of offbeat oil-spill fixes which have been cooked up by average Joes and Janes, many at the invitation of the Unified Command and BP. With the oil leak continuing to spout disaster in the Gulf and BP running out of options, these rookie pitches are all starting to look a lot more appealing.

With due respect to crowdsourcing, how did it come to this? As a New York Times report pointed out back in May, drilling technology has advanced dramatically over the last two decades; spill mitigation, on the other hand, "has not changed much in 20 years."  So why didn't we throw all this brainpower at deepwater drilling safety at the same time engineers were developing the technology that allowed rigs to drill so deeply in the first place?
We just got back from New York City and the opening night of the World Science Festival. It was an exhilarating night devoted to the intersection between art and science. (See what our Senior Executive Producer Paula Apsell wrote about the event.)

Our host, Brian Greene--you might remember him from "The Elegant Universe"--is cofounder of the festival. Just like NOVA, the festival aims to cultivate a science-savvy community.

This year, the opening night gala celebrated the revolutionary career of renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.

Lincoln Center was abuzz with science-inspired performances by award-winning Broadway stars, principal dancers from ballet companies, and acclaimed poet Elizabeth Alexander. Famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and artists from the Silk Road Ensemble paid homage to Hawking with a captivating performance. And later, Brian spoke about how Hawking influenced his career in physics.

Afterward, Hawking took the stage, thanked everyone, and even cracked a few jokes.

Stephen Hawking on stage at the World Science Festival. Photo by Anna Lee Strachan.

Air France 447, One Year Out

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the loss of Air France Flight 447 over the Atlantic Ocean, and investigators are no closer to resolving the mystery of why the plane crashed. The flight, from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, disappeared on June 1, 2009 after entering a zone of severe thunderstorms, killing all 228 people on board.

AP10053106796.jpgLast week, the French Bureau of Accident Inquiry, known by its French acronym BEA, called off its third attempt to locate the plane's flight recorders. (Soon after the accident, searchers did recover 50 bodies as well as scattered pieces of the plane, including part of the tail section seen here.) The BEA, which has issued two draft reports about the accident but has drawn no conclusions as to the cause, has not said whether it will conduct a fourth search.

What little is known comes from automated messages that the plane sent to Air France just before the plane vanished. The so-called pitot tubes, external ports that measure airspeed, apparently failed by becoming clogged with ice or water. The aircraft's autopilot, which needs to know the airspeed to function properly, switched off. The plane may then have gone into a stall, from which the pilots were unable to recover.

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