NOVA scienceNOW

PBS Airdate: October 18, 2005
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ROBERT KRULWICH: Tonight on NOVA ScienceNOW: Is it possible to begin with dust, lifeless chemicals...


ROBERT KRULWICH: ...then, following DNA recipes in just the right order, could scientists build a living creature?

STEEN RASMUSSEN (Los Alamos National Laboratory): The steps we have to take are getting smaller and smaller.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But could we actually create life?

DAVID DEAMER (University of California, Santa Cruz): We're going to have laboratory life. This is really knocking on the door.

ROBERT KRULWICH: "Not only can we," these scientists say, "we will." And trying to explain what goes on in the brain of, say, this crow, who, on her own, devised a tool to fish for food...did it once, did it again.

DR. HARVEY KARTEN (University of California, San Diego): That's tool making.

DR. ERICH JARVIS (Duke University Medical Center): This little bird is doing this with the intent to get the food.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And this scientist wants other scientists to know that a bird brain is brainier than we ever knew.

Then a team of investigators...

RICHARD SONNENFELD (New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology): Go ahead, you get in position.

ROBERT KRULWICH: ...working with balloons...


ROBERT KRULWICH: ...and rockets...


ROBERT KRULWICH: ...are unlocking the secrets of lightning. They're discovering that the true source of lightning may not be what's in a cloud or on the ground, but what provides the trigger for lightning might be energy from deep space.

All that and more, tonight on NOVA ScienceNOW.

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Major funding for NOVA ScienceNOW is provided by the National Science Foundation, America's investment in the future.

And the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, servicing society through biomedical research and science education: HHMI.

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ROBERT KRULWICH: Welcome to NOVA ScienceNOW. I'm Robert Krulwich. And in this hour, from a number of different perspectives, we're going to look at the mystery of being alive.

After all, what are living things made of? We are made of chemicals: carbon, hydrogen—simple chemicals, you could by them at a store. But you put these chemicals together in just the right way and you get a breathing, living being.

Life is not an unfathomable mystery. Scientists say this is a piece of chemical engineering. This is a beautiful chemical machine. Now, one day, they say, we're going to build a creature from scratch—simpler than this. But the surprise is that that day may be getting much, much closer.

You know those Hollywood movies? The ones where scientists do improbable things? They mess with life, then they get a little confident...

FRANKENSTEIN (Movie): Now I know what it's like to be God!

FRANKENSTEIN'S FRIEND (Movie): You're crazy.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But what if I told you that there are dozens of scientists, right now, trying to do something much like that? I mean, they're not stealing dead organs in the dark of night or constructing a seven foot creature with bolts in its neck, but starting with dry, dead dust, they're working on tiny life forms, racing for the big prize. They want to be the first to turn non-life into self-sustaining, living creatures.

DAVID DEAMER: We're going to have laboratory life. This is really knocking on the door.

ROBERT KRULWICH: As best we can tell, there hasn't been a completely new life form for the last three and a half billion years, not since the first act of creation. But you are about to meet scientists who say we can do it again.

STEEN RASMUSSEN (Los Alamos National Laboratory): The steps we have to take are getting smaller and smaller.

MARK BEDAU (Reed College): It's doable and it's relatively cheap.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And what's most amazing, and in some ways a little frightening, is that some of them say it's not going to be that hard.

STEEN RASMUSSEN: Compared to, you know, making the bomb or sending people to the moon, I think it's significantly easier.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Easier to create life from scratch than making a bomb?

STEEN RASMUSSEN: Yeah, easier, significantly easier. Yeah.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Why easier? Because, say the scientists who do this, life has a rough formula, and we know the formula.

So this is your place?

JEREMY MINSHULL (President, DNA 2.0): This is it.

ROBERT KRULWICH: What's it called?

JEREMY MINSHULL: This is DNA 2.0. We make DNA.



ROBERT KRULWICH: The same DNA that builds living creatures?

JEREMY MINSHULL: Exactly, yes.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Exactly? Do you mean exactly?

JEREMY MINSHULL: I mean exactly.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And if you wanted to order some DNA for say an experiment, a company like Jeremy Minshull's could custom make it for you, in other words, kind of like DNA to go. DNA being, of course, the recipe for living creatures, built from chemical ingredients abbreviated A, C, T and G.

So if I'm a creature—let's suppose I'm a very small creature—I'm not going to be anything immodest like a cat or a mouse, but I'm just a little, itty bitty thing, and you can spell me CCCTTTGGG. Do you have all those chemicals here?

JEREMY MINSHULL: Absolutely. And we can make you.

ROBERT KRULWICH: A bold statement.

So, he doesn't mean that literally, but right away I could tell that Jeremy and I don't look at life the same way. When I look at, let's say jellyfish, I see a weird, pulsing, hairy creature. When he looks at the same thing—at least during business hours—he sees a blueprint, a chemical formula.

JEREMY MINSHULL: Those letters carry all the information that makes us.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And while we've known for a while how to read DNA recipes, even cut and splice—genetic engineering—now, at companies like Jeremy's, they can write recipes, create genes from scratch that never existed.

So, if I call you up on the phone and say, "Can you make me something that would, in a living creature, make it glow green?" You'd know what I need?

JEREMY MINSHULL: Exactly. We would know. We would know just what you need.

ROBERT KRULWICH: This, for example, is a bottle of T, standing for Thymine.

JEREMY MINSHULL: Can I have your hand? Please?

ROBERT KRULWICH: And this is what it looks like. Here we go. It's just powder.

JEREMY MINSHULL: It's just powder.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Is this in any way alive?

JEREMY MINSHULL: This is in no way alive.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So, this is just dust?



So Jeremy mixes this dust with some liquid chemicals—still not alive—and hooks them all up to this machine. So now it's a solution in all these things.

It's got the As, Cs and Ts in bottles, tucked in here. And you just type in whatever recipe you want and the machine pumps out the letters of life. So, it'll go "C and C and C and T and T and T."

JEREMY MINSHULL: That's right.

ROBERT KRULWICH: The machine makes dozens of strands of letters, and then some other machines mix them all together, and, automatically, they self-assemble.

JEREMY MINSHULL: They self-organize.

ROBERT KRULWICH: In the right order?

JEREMY MINSHULL: In the right order.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Jeremy plugs the completed gene into bacteria, and—look at this—the bacteria glow.

JEREMY MINSHUL: Our instructions were followed, and it's making green glow.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So for about 900 bucks, starting, literally, with chemical dust, we have just made, not quite life, but a gene, a gene that never existed before.

Then will you mail me the genes?

JEREMY MINSHULL: That's exactly what we'll do.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Woooshhh. All this is just going around through the mail all the time?

JEREMY MINSHULL: That's right.

ROBERT KRULWICH: It's funny. You say...this is all new to me...and if it's that easy to construct individual genes from scratch, some of these folks say, well, "Why stop there? Why not build all the genes to make up a creature?" And amazingly, a couple of years ago, scientists created the DNA for a whole virus.

They copied the DNA recipe, then got it through the membrane of the cell, and the cell manufactured a burst of new viruses, just like happens in real life. So would this count as life?

FRANCIS COLLINS (National Human Genome Research Institute): No, it would not.

ROBERT KRULWICH: "Sorry," says biologist Francis Collins.

FRANCIS COLLINS: 'Cause remember, what you're making in this machine is not life; you're making DNA. And DNA is just the instruction book. But an instruction book doesn't actually build anything.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Ah, so it's the living cell that does the real work here. DNA by itself does not create life.

FRANCIS COLLINS: So I would say that was not life.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So, then, what is life? What exactly do you need? Well one basic definition says that life requires a bunch of things: a container, something to live in; the ability to use energy, to grow or change; the ability to reproduce, to create creatures that look like yourself; and for some, the ability to evolve.

But making a creature from scratch that meets all four requirements is much, much harder than making a gene. In fact, no one has been able to do it.

But now, scientists all over the world are working on different parts of this puzzle. One of them is Dave Deamer who's looking for clues in the distant past.

Today, his quest brings him to the remote mountains of northern California, to a very strange place.

DAVID DEAMER: This is Bumpass Hell - we are in hell!

ROBERT KRULWICH: And Bumpass Hell is on Mount Lassen, an active volcano.

DAVID DEAMER: This is one of the few places on the Earth that we think resembles what the pre-biotic Earth was like: hot, boiling water, mud, clay...

ROBERT KRULWICH: This is the kind of place, Dave thinks, where life might have emerged the first time around. The question is, "How did that happen?"

DAVID DEAMER: One of the great remaining questions of science...nobody yet knows how life began.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Our best guess is that life at the beginning—and we're talking three and half billion years ago—must have been made of ingredients that were either lying around on the early Earth or brought in from space on meteorites or comets. And the first life must have been very simple, just a little bubble-like container with a little bit of chemistry going on inside.

That's one of Dave's hopes today, that he can use the environment of this pond to get some primitive chemical changes going. The powder he's got here contains some basic building blocks that could have existed back then.

DAVID DEAMER: We're going to get some of this hot water into this little mixture of organic chemicals. These are biochemicals.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Then he spikes the pool with these basic ingredients, takes a sample of the has he created life?

DAVID DEAMER: Nothing popped out yet that's wiggling. Ha, ha, ha.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Well, he didn't expect that, but he is hoping that the chemicals in this pond will be able to build life requirement Number 1, a container. Because Dave has already found that tiny containers, kind of like primitive cell membranes, can form on their own. He did it in a lab from chemicals he found on this rock, the famous Murchison meteorite.

DAVID DEAMER: There's nothing alive in a meteorite, and yet the components, the organic components of the meteorite have the property of self-assembly into these microscopic bubble-like structures.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And they did it?

DAVID DEAMER: And they did it.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So they can make mini-containers from scratch.

Then in Switzerland, they got those containers to grow; at Harvard, they got them to divide; and RPI in New York got different chemicals to assemble into a gene-like shape; and at MIT, they got a primitive gene to start to copy itself.

DAVID DEAMER: We know how to make things grow. We know how to make things reproduce. We know how to make things evolve, in a sense, so we can do all those things.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And since they can do all this stuff, they say soon they can put it all together and build an entire living thing—microscopic, yeah, but alive.

MARK BEDAU: We feel like we are on the verge of making a huge, new discovery.

STEEN RASMUSSEN: This is coming. There's no's a tidal wave we can see in the distance, and it's going to come. It's going to hit us. There's no discussion about that.

ROBERT KRULWICH: No discussion? But what about the people who believe that life requires something more than just chemistry? What would you say to the person who said, "No, you need a kiss from God or a bit of lightning or something mysterious and magical to go from one state to the other?"

STEEN RASMUSSEN: If I want to talk about this poetically, I think it is a little bit magic. But all...doesn't matter what you look at in your life, there is magic in that.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But still, when Steen Rasmussen and all the scientists we talked to look at life up close—right into a cell—life is not a poem.

STEEN RASMUSSEN: Life is a machine.

MARK BEDAU: It's essentially a collection of molecules. There's nothing else that's there.

STEEN RASMUSSEN: It is a molecular machine that does certain things.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And if you buy into the notion that life is chemistry, rules and structure—if life is a machine—then we can build it.

STEEN RASMUSSEN: These guys, they organize themselves all by themselves.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Steen's idea for building life is perhaps the most radical of all, because it is so extraordinarily simple.

STEEN RASMUSSEN: What we're trying to do is the absolutely minimal form of life you can imagine. It's a million times smaller than the simplest, lousiest little organism we know today. So, all the greasy stuff will sort of...

ROBERT KRULWICH: The creature Steen has designed, and is now trying to build, has no cell membrane, just an oily blob—no DNA, instead of DNA, a manmade chemical not found in nature.

STEEN RASMUSSEN: And our proto-organism grows. It swells up as it eats all the food.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But can you build something so alien from life as we know it?

STEEN RASMUSSEN: Do I believe that you can make life that is different from life as we know it? Oh, absolutely. I do believe that.

We need this guy to digest his food.

ROBERT KRULWICH: If Steen can get his newfangled creature, this homemade alien, to meet life's requirements...

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON (American Museum of Natural History): If someone creates an alien on Earth, if you can do that, there' you're talking. Now, I'm going to say, "I want to bring you on my spaceship, 'cause I want you to help me find life elsewhere in the cosmos."

ROBERT KRULWICH: Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says we've got no idea if life is even possible without the usual ingredients. But if Steen engineers a completely different life form...

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: Then, all of a sudden, your cosmic kitchen becomes this place where you are testing the limits of what life is and what it isn't.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And if life can be different than it is on Earth, think of the possibilities: life, say, with no water; life in a cloud, say the clouds of Jupiter; or any life that we are able to build.

STEEN RASMUSSEN: This is a potentially very, very, very powerful technology. If we understand, if we get the key to life, if we understand and control the creative forces of nature, that's a big deal.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But if and when we begin to make life, the question is, can we control it? I mean, in so many movies, when they make life, the experiment gets away from them.

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: My experiment will get away from me because in the movie, it got away from them? That's not evidence. But in all fairness to the question, there's no doubt that every advance of human understanding of the universe, of technology, of our power over nature, there's always sort of the other side of that sword, because it's a sword of power.

Taking that literally, do we say to folks who are coming out of the Stone Age into the Bronze Age, "Don't make the sword, because you can hurt yourself with the sword. You could cut your finger and that would be bad. Don't make the sword." But they say, "Oh, but I can use the sword to get food, and I can cut things, and I can build." If everyone throughout the history of human culture listened to the person in the robe who said "Don't go there; it is not meant for you," we would still be living in the cave.


ROBERT KRULWICH: By the way, maybe you've noticed, in the old movies, when it's time to zap the monster on the table and bring it to life, they always use lightning. I mean always. And why? Well, because lightning is electrical. It turns things on. Though exactly what lightning does is left to your imagination, because, in the end, what makes life, that's still a mystery.

But interestingly—and I didn't know this—it turns out that what makes lightning is also still a mystery. In fact, it's kind of a big mystery. Here's correspondent Chad Cohen

CHAD COHEN (Correspondent): It's an elemental force of nature and still one of the most mysterious.

JOSEPH DWYER (Florida Institute of Technology): Lightning is very difficult to study, and I think we probably understand better how a star explodes halfway across the galaxy than how lightning propagates from six miles up.

CHAD COHEN: Lightning strikes the Earth 4,000,000 times a day. And after hundreds of years of scientific scrutiny, we still do not understand the essential secret of how it begins inside a storm. That's why Professors Ken Eack and Richard Sonnenfeld and their team from New Mexico Tech are on a 10,000-foot mountain, waiting for lightning to strike.

KENNETH EACK (New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology): We're trying to find out something new about thunderstorms and lightning. That discovery I think is, is worth the risk.

CHAD COHEN: Whatever causes lightning to start has always been hidden inside the clouds, so unlocking that process requires waiting for the weather to reach maximum force, then launching sensitive instruments into the heart of the storm. It's hazardous and frustrating.

RICHARD SONNENFELD: Come on out. Let's go. Go, go, keep going. Hey, don't drop it. Don't drop it. Okay, let's go, let's go. Go ahead, you get in position, you get in position. Oh! Let's go in, in, in. It hit the ground.

DR. MARTIN UMAN (University of Florida): A thunderstorm has got the energy of an atomic bomb.

CHAD COHEN: Dr. Martin Uman is the director of the International Center for Lightning Testing and Research in Camp Blanding, Florida.

MARTIN UMAN: It's the brightest light that we see; it's the loudest noise that we hear. The only thing hotter than lightning on Earth would be a nuclear weapon explosion.

CHAD COHEN: But what triggers the release of all that power? We know that lightning is a huge electric spark, and sparks happen when positive and negative charges build up so much energy they leap through the air to get at each other. It can only happen when the negative charge in that ball on the right and the positive charge in that metal rod on the left get so overwhelmingly strong, they cut a path through the air in the middle.

DR. MARTIN UMAN: It's like a hose full of pressure and it can't hold on anymore.

CHAD COHEN: That's what most scientists thought was happening inside thunderstorms, as ice and water particles collide with each other, moving electric charges to opposite ends of a cloud. When the charge above and the charge below get strong enough, they leap through the air as a bolt of lightning. Except for one thing, when you actually examine the storm cloud, the strength of the positive and negative charges and the electric field around them isn't nearly enough to create that big spark.

JOSEPH DWYER: Well, the problem is, after decades and decades of measurements up in thunderstorms, nobody has ever managed to find an electric field anywhere near that big.

CHAD COHEN: Dr. Joe Dwyer is a professor at Florida Tech.

JOSEPH DWYER: Well, maybe we're looking for something that doesn't exist. Maybe there's something wrong with our understanding about how electrical discharges get started in places like thunderstorms.

CHAD COHEN: So if thunderclouds, even great big thunderclouds, don't have electric fields big enough to generate the giant spark that lightning actually is, where's all that energy coming from? Well, here in Florida they have a pretty dramatic way of trying to figure that out. They launch rockets with really long wires attached to try to create that express lane to ground that lightning likes so much.

To get lightning from these clouds to strike where scientists can measure it requires a simple trigger.

MARTIN UMAN: First of all, you need to have a propellant that can get this thing up there in a hurry. It has to be able to go 700 yards or so in about two seconds.

CHAD COHEN: What is this, actually? This it just copper wire?

MARTIN UMAN: It's Kevlar®-covered copper wire.

CHAD COHEN: Kevlar, okay.

MARTIN UMAN: So, we load it, connect it electrically. When we're about to fire, switches are turned on here, manually. After that, everything is done with air pressure from downstairs.

JASON JERAULD: Okay, Casey, Tube 2 is armed. Three, two, one, fire!

CHAD COHEN: From 2,000 feet up, the wire triggers lightning with a path to ground higher than the Empire State building. And when it strikes, over a hundred million volts zap the array of test equipment on the ground.

CASEY RODRIGUEZ: Okay, Tube 4 is good. Go ahead and fire 11 when ready.

JASON JERAULD: Tube 11 is armed. Three, two, one, fire!

CHAD COHEN: The rockets are, for the first time, allowing physicists to experiment with lightning under repeatable and controllable conditions, so that now Joe Dwyer and other researchers can test an alternate theory of how lightning starts. That theory is called "Runaway Breakdown." Using this model, the energy field inside the storm cloud, that force between positive and negative, too weak to form a bolt of lightning, is struck by outside particles, bursts of electrons, which carry their own energy, very high energy. And with that added energy, you can now get that big spark.

JOSEPH DWYER: You end up with an avalanche of electrons moving near the speed of light. Now this model will work, as long as you have one fast electron to start it off, sort of the first...the finger that pushes the first domino to get the whole thing started.

CHAD COHEN: And here's where things get really interesting. Joe Dwyer and many other scientists believe that this outside energy force comes, not from the clouds, or anywhere else on Earth for that matter, but from cosmic rays: tiny, subatomic particles ejected from dying stars millions of years ago and billions of miles away. But how do you test this theory?

JOSEPH DWYER: We have 10 of these detectors spread out over the facility right now.

CHAD COHEN: Well, it turns out, when cosmic particles hit the Earth's atmosphere, they leave a unique signature in the form of gamma and x-rays. If scientists can detect these x-rays, they'll have the proof they need.

JOSEPH DWYER: This is what's called a sodium iodide detector. There's a piece of crystal in here that will absorb x-rays and gamma rays, and these things are not difficult to measure.

CHAD COHEN: That's where triggered lightning comes in. For the first time, the Florida Research Center's rockets allow Dwyer to place his x-ray detectors in lightning's path. He made his first series of measurements in 2002.

JOSEPH DWYER: A big negative voltage pulse would mean that we got a burst of x-rays in the detector. I actually didn't think we were going to see x-rays. The first plot we brought up, there was a nice little pulse that looked just like an x-ray right at the time that the lightning occurred. "Now, that's, that's interesting; that's probably a coincidence, you know? What's the chance of that?" So, we looked at the next lightning stroke—and there was an even bigger pulse—and the next one and the next one. And every one had these pulses that looked exactly like x-rays. I think I just about fell out of my chair at that point.

CHAD COHEN: Every single lightning strike Dwyer measured showed the presence of x-rays. But ground measurements can't reach high enough to where lightning actually starts. For that, you need to get instruments right up into the heart of the storm.

KENNETH EACK: We finally have the technology to build these instruments that are small enough and rugged enough to handle a thunderstorm environment.

CHAD COHEN: Lightning is striking all around them. It's time to launch.

KENNETH EACK: One event won't be enough. If we see an x-ray burst, and we call it quits on one event, well, that's, that's not good enough. And it's just going to take a lot of measurements to get in the right spot at the right time.

RICHARD SONNENFELD: Three, two, one...go!

CHAD COHEN: The balloon is sucked into the storm, trailing its cargo of instruments. Launches like these have finally traced x-rays all the way up to where lightning begins and have given scientists the strongest evidence yet that lightning's spark comes from forces outside the Earth itself.

JOSEPH DWYER: These cosmic rays may be the link which will connect a dying star halfway across the galaxy with lightning.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Thank you Chad Cohen. And now for our regular segment, "Don't Ask the Expert."

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said, "Whatever you do, please do not ask me about Hollywood space aliens." But we did.

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: Hollywood? Don't get me started. Every time they put out an alien, it's for all intents and purposes identically human. If you were a jellyfish and saw the Hollywood aliens, you'd say they looked exactly like human beings. Two arms, two legs, a head, a neck, maybe they'll give it three eyes, instead of two, or antennae. They always have a face which is a very vertebrate kind of thing to have. So many other life forms on our planet, with whom we have DNA in common, do not have faces. Trees don't have faces; worms don't have faces; jellyfish don't have faces. The list is long.

You could draw from our own planet, finding creatures that look so unlike us that you'll do better tapping them as alien life forms than anything Hollywood comes up with in all of their movies. And I'm very disappointed. You know what the best Hollywood alien movie has been in my list? The Blob, the old Steve McQueen movie from the '50s, The Blob. That didn't have a face, did it? It was just this creature. And you didn't know what made it work, but it loved your blood. Even though it was a B-movie they did well.


ROBERT KRULWICH: If you were to survey, not the universe, just the Earth, you could divide all living creatures into two groups: your smart ones and your not-so-smart ones. So on the one hand, you would have your dolphins and you would have your chimps, and we don't want to leave out your dog, or your favorite cat. On other hand we'd have, I don't know, well, moths, slugs, wheat. I mean, wheat is alive, just not all that brainy. But where on this sliding scale of smartness would you put birds?

I ask because you're about to meet a scientist who thinks birds can be much, much smarter than other scientists had supposed. And at considerable risk to his career and to his reputation, he decided to make his case. And how he did it, the way he did it, that got our attention.

Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present the winner of the 2002 Alan T. Waterman Award, The National Science Foundation's highest honor for the most outstanding young scientist or engineer in America, Dr. Erich Jarvis, as he was 25 years ago in high school.

DR. ERICH JARVIS (Duke University Medical Center): Now some of you might be saying, "Well, how do you link a scientific career to a dancer career?" You know, I can do a pirouette. Okay?

All right. I even did some African dancing. Well, I won't do that... and I do that. You want to see? Okay something like...All right. Okay.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And what he learned, training to dance, was, in a word...

ERICH JARVIS: Discipline. Um, discipline is very, very, very critical for your survival.

ROBERT KRULWICH: As it was for his. Erich didn't go to one of the city's top science-y public schools, instead he went here, where they taught him...

ERICH JARVIS: Dream big, think big, reach for the stars. Be ambitious, be bold and, uh, don't let anybody discourage you.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And by the way, you know this school...

ERICH JARVIS: The High School of Performing Arts...

ROBERT KRULWICH: Is this the one that's been in the movies? The same place?

ERICH JARVIS: Yeah, a movie called Fame.

ROBERT KRULWICH: "Oh. I want to live forever." That one?

ERICH JARVIS: That's right, that one.

CLIP FROM FAME: Fame, I'm going to live forever. I'm going to learn how to fly high! I feel it coming together...

ERICH JARVIS: And what was nice about going to a school like this...

ROBERT KRULWICH: Says Erich, is you work hard and you get choices.

ERICH JARVIS: One choice was I was offered to audition for the Alvin Ailey dance company, and, um, I also made it into the City University system, Hunter College. My personal choice was to go into science...

ROBERT KRULWICH: And the science he chose was neuroscience.

ERICH JARVIS: ...because I'm fascinated with how the brain can generate complex behaviors.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Erich and his colleagues discovered that inside a hummingbird's brain—even though that brain is very tiny and looks so primitive—is a sophisticated neural network that allows hummingbirds to teach each other to sing.

ERICH JARVIS: Song in birds is like speech in humans.

ROBERT KRULWICH: This was a breakthrough using molecular biology that Erich learned from her.

RIVKA RUDNER (HUNTER COLLEGE): Isn't that incredible? I'm the science mother.

ROBERT KRULWICH: The science mother?

RIVKA RUDNER: The science mother.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Professor Rivka Rudner adopted Erich as an undergraduate.

RIVKA RUDNER: I also, I also made a cake.

ERICH JARVIS: Oh, great.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And he spent not only days at the lab...

RIVKA RUDNER: There were times in which he would sleep over in the little office adjacent to the lab. You don't find too many kids doing it.

ROBERT KRULWICH: ...Erich contributed to six scientific papers.

RIVKA RUDNER: As an undergraduate.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So there he is in first position. And, all the while, she says, Erich brought an artist's feel to her lab.

RIVKA RUDNER: You talked about the high that you used to get when you danced. That when you had a performance...


RIVKA RUDNER: would have a real high.


RIVKA RUDNER: Okay, and then you said, "But when I come early in the morning to the lab and open the incubator, and look at a plate and see a result to verify, let's say the cold transduction frequency, I get a high just like I used to get when I danced."

ROBERT KRULWICH: And he kept dancing. He met a girl, Miriam, whom he later married, he graduated and then his father died.

ERICH JARVIS: He was shot. So he was shot while he was sitting down. Well, they think he was sitting down, near a cave.

ROBERT KRULWICH: James Jarvis was homeless, divorced. He had been living in caves like this one that Erich visited in northern Manhattan. They never found his killers.

ERICH JARVIS: This is the richness of what represented him.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Erich's dad collected rocks and fossils and odd specimens. He was not a well man, but Erich visited him. And more than his brothers and sister, he kept that connection.

VALERIA MCCALL (Erich Jarvis's Mother): Erich has always been the mediator out of his siblings.

ROBERT KRULWICH: When times were tough, they all had to live together at the grandparents' house.

ERICH JARVIS: ...that I euphemistically called "the refugee house," because everyone who had problems in the family would live in that house. But it brought a whole bunch of cousins together, an extended family, that I basically not only had my brothers and sisters, but a whole bunch of cousins.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And from time to time he took care of most of them. This habit of partnering and supporting is fundamental to Erich, but it's not a very common way to succeed in science. Science is a "me" culture: my paper, my lab, my discovery. Erich was playing the "me" game very well, but when a problem came up that could only be solved by bringing the many "me's" together, Erich would have to choose between bettering his career or his community.

Here's the problem: this is a classic bird brain illustration by a German neurologist, Ludwig Edinger, in 1903. The names that Edinger gave to these brain parts—that have been used now for a hundred years—use Latin roots like "primitive," "ancient," not as smart as people, suggesting that birds can't learn. But if all birds have primitive brains, then how do you explain Betty the crow?

She's at Oxford University, and a few years ago, scientists put a basket of delicious meat inside this cylinder, and the question was could Betty take the wire resting there and use it fish out the meat.

Well, here's Betty and she's picking up a wire that's straight, so that's not going to work, but she's going to try. And then, jump forward a minute, she's jamming the wire against the tray wall. But look, you see, it's bent now. So she drops it in. Success!

ERICH JARVIS: I do think that this little bird is doing this with the intent to get the food.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So she's bending it, to get...?

ERICH JARVIS: Bending it to get the food. I do believe that.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So they tried 10 times more. Here, Betty is bending the straight wire by walking and pushing. And nine out of 10 times she did make a tool that worked.

HARVEY KARTEN: That's tool making!

ROBERT KRULWICH: Harvey Karten, a leader in this field thought, "Hmmmm."

HARVEY KARTEN: We hadn't normally even considered that birds were that capable.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Old Edinger, with his century-old bias that birds are stupid, apparently had it wrong. And if his labels were calling birds primitive and dumb, and then the bird goes off and plays chess, that leaves everybody, including scientists, confused.

ERICH JARVIS: I would get emails from other scientists who don't, who aren't aware of the problem. Then they email me and say, "How could hummingbirds do all this complex behavior that you described, with a brain dominated only by the primitive substance?"

ROBERT KRULWICH: Now, there aren't a lot of scientists who are passionate about this, but the group that is, really is. So as necessary as it was, changing the names was likely to get very ugly if it could happen at all. It would take someone who was collaborative by nature, and might get all of these solo characters to dance to one beat. It would take, you know who.

ERICH JARVIS: I'll do it if you guys will let me do it.

ROBERT KRULWICH: I mean that's like... that's asking for trouble.

ERICH JARVIS: I felt that it was necessary. And it was my naiveness of a young professor coming to Duke, you know? This just has to change. It was a moral thing for me to do. Changing these names wasn't easy.

ROBERT KRULWICH: First he got them together by email and it turned out...well, it was a complete mess.

"I am simply shocked," said one. "My name should not appear," says another. "I don't want to make this personal," says one of them, "but blah, blah, blah..."

And when they got together, things didn't go much better.

DR. SARAH DURAND (LaGuardia Community College): ...people running to get the dictionaries. And then the developmental neuroanatomists were supporting this viewpoint, and then the functional neuroanatomists were saying, "No, but that's peripheral to the common understanding." So we had great, great, drama. And I remember Erich kind of watching it all.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And it is exactly at this moment that Erich's lifetime of training kicks in.

HARVEY KARTEN: Erich managed to let people voice their say. He did it in a very, very intelligent way. He knew when not to talk. He knew when to listen.

ROBERT KRULWICH: When they shouted, he did this. When they stomped, he did that. They quit, he turned; they screamed, he twirled. And by the end of the conference, with Erich's leadership, they came up with new names that everyone had agreed upon.

HARVEY KARTEN: Oh, it would not have happened. I honestly don't think that it would have happened at this time without him.

ERICH JARVIS: It has been accepted. At least a hundred papers have been published since on bird brains. And I would say about 95, 98 percent of them—and I'm trying not to be too conservative here—have used the new nomenclature.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Now you might think that a triumph like this under his belt would have been a good thing for Erich, but Erich may in fact have to pay a price for his contribution.

ERICH JARVIS: I get criticized for it. I get openly criticized for being too collaborative sometimes.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Erich is at the very moment in his career when his field would have him focus on his lab work and publishing to make his name. There is less reward in science for those who have a talent for leading others.

HARVEY KARTEN: I think to some degree he gave up some of the essential things he might...we...several of us felt he should be concentrating on to get his own papers out, rather than working on this. But, you know, that's a choice he made.

ERICH JARVIS: What's most important for me is that the scientific accomplishment gets accomplished.

SARAH DURAND: He thinks broadly to see the big picture.

ROBERT KRULWICH: For Erich, this was his big picture: the gathering of scientists to improve all their work.

The photograph that I have in my mind shows you at the center of all these people. Did you orchestrate that?

ERICH JARVIS: Yes, I did. The reason for taking the photograph was to show the rest of the community, the scientific community, that we are in unison on this.


ERICH JARVIS: Okay? And then I thought about it. I says, "Wait a minute. This is not unison enough."

ROBERT KRULWICH: So the choreographer in Erich Jarvis took over. He convinced these 28 scientists, who'd been yelling at each other for the past three days, that, for the sake of unity, for the sake of science, they needed to take one more step.

ERICH JARVIS: We hold hands, okay? And so that then even shows more our unity.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And perhaps it'll show some of the leaders in Erich's community that sometimes what even science needs is a little more art.

And a happy little postscript here: Erich Jarvis was just awarded one of the National Institute of Health's coveted Pioneer Awards—$500,000 a year to his lab for the next five years. So he took the risk and somebody noticed.


The great Harvard biologist, E. O. Wilson, said one of the things that makes us special, "in good part makes us human," he wrote, "is that we have a deep, rich connection to other living things." What he calls "biophilia" the love of other organisms. And even if you get the creeps when you see a snake or a cockroach or a rat, even if there are animals that you do not like, chances are there are animals you love.

And then there are some of you—and we know who you are, because we sent our correspondent Rebecca Skloot to look—there are some of you whose love for animals is...well, why don't you see for yourself.

REBECCA SKLOOT (Correspondent): In this high-tech operating room, surgeons— some of the top in their field—prepare to remove a large tumor, probably malignant. One doctor tests the laser he'll use to burn away abnormal cells, another preps the patient for surgery. Meet Comet, a one-pound goldfish with skin cancer.

DR. GREGORY LEWBART (North Carolina State University): Well, we can't operate under water, so we put it on our anesthesia machine, where it's out of the water, then the tubes go into its mouth, and then the water, with a little bit less concentration of anesthetic, flows over the gills, and they stay asleep while we work on them. I like to look at his gills. See how nice and red they are?

REBECCA SKLOOT: Dr. Greg Lewbart runs the world's first aquatic medicine residency program, at North Carolina State University's veterinary school. It's a new field, so he and his colleagues are big on firsts: first fish laser surgery, first study on fish pain management. They even invented the machine keeping Comet knocked out.

GREG LEWBART: We can do radiographs or x-rays. We do ultrasound, CAT scans; we can even do MRIs. I don't think there are any limits on it, other than what physically can be done with that animal and then what the owners can afford or are willing to spend.

REBECCA SKLOOT: And apparently, they're willing to spend a lot, anywhere from a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars. But why pay for laser surgery on a goldfish? Comet's probably worth about 10 cents.

Here's something that might surprise you: more Americans own fish than dogs or cats these days. But what's more interesting is that people's attitudes about fish are actually changing. They're not just things you keep around the house for decoration anymore. These are pets. Companions that people bond with, care about.

Debbie Corpuz has 27 fish. Some are "rescue fish," ones she found flopping in a field after kids turned over their tank, or party favors she saved from wrongful death by toilet flushing.

Do different fish have different personalities?

DEBBIE CORPUZ (Fish Owner): Oh yes, oh yes. Some are like this guy; he's very bold and outgoing. You know, I talk to him and tell him what's going on, and he would, you know, come up to the surface and just listen to me. He really responds to people.

GREG LEWBART: I really do think there is a human-fish interaction. Fish are pretty smart. I don't think we give them enough credit a lot of times. They can be trained to do some pretty amazing things. There's a book that teaches you how to train your goldfish to swim through a hoop, to fetch, to play basketball.

So I can see that mass a lot better now.

REBECCA SKLOOT: Today there are more than 2,000 fish vets. So, if your goldfish gets a buoyancy disorder that leaves it swimming perpetually upside down, someone can implant a piece of cork on your fish's back. Like a floatation device that flips it right side up. And if your fish loses a fight, there's always glass eye implantation, to make it beautiful again.

GREG LEWBART: When someone brings their fish in to me, I look at that fish like it's their dog or it's their horse. I think if they could pick them up and hold them they would.

REBECCA SKLOOT: Dave Smothers'll tell you he really loves his fish. He raises koi, the mythical Japanese carp that fill decorative ponds. Some just look like big goldfish; others are the elegant koi he wins trophies with at fish shows. They can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. But for Smothers, it's not about the money.

DAVID SMOTHERS (Koi Owner): I would do anything I could to try to help these fish, because they are our pets, and you do attach to them emotionally.

REBECCA SKLOOT: In the summer of 2001, lightning struck near Smothers' pond, sending a violent electrical current into the water. It nearly killed Ladyfish, one of his favorites. They did a series of CAT scans. Her back was broken.

DAVID SMOTHERS: The fish certainly was going to die. There was no doubt about that.

GREG LEWBART: The decision was made to bring her to surgery, a neurosurgeon and an orthopedic surgeon. The surgeons weren't able to straighten the spine, but they were able to stabilize it using screws and wires and some surgical epoxy, or cement, that actually is implanted above the spinal column inside of the fish.

REBECCA SKLOOT: What was it that made you want to do that?

DAVID SMOTHERS: This fish would never be a show fish now, because of the deformity. I just wanted the fish to live out its natural life as best she could, swimming around with her buddies in the pond.

GREG LEWBART: When I was in veterinary school, if someone had brought their fish into the clinic for abdominal surgery, it would have, like, blown a lot of people away. Now, if I bring a fish and wheel it through the clinic, you know, it's not as huge of a deal.

REBECCA SKLOOT: Okay, so maybe fish surgery still sounds a little crazy. But think about this: in the '30s, you were crazy if you took your dog to the vet. You didn't treat those, you shot them. And in the '80s taking your bird to the vet was completely ridiculous, and now avian medicine's mainstream. So maybe 20 years from now, your grandkids will be taking their snails to the vet and saying, "Can you believe people used to flush fish down the toilet?"


ROBERT KRULWICH: Earlier this year, NOVA ScienceNOW took a detailed look at the risks facing New Orleans, should it be hit by a big hurricane. We talked to scientists, and they said, "We now have the tools to see a big one coming, to measure its force, to warn officials. We can give our city precious time to prepare."

So after Katrina, we wondered, "Well, did those scientists see it coming? Did they know its power?"

We sent our correspondent Peter Standring to find out.

PETER STANDRING (Correspondent): This was New Orleans the last time I saw it—about a year ago. Back then, the streets of this historic city were alive, buzzing with the sounds of music and laughter, and the Crescent City was in all of her glory. But things then were a lot different than they are today.

I was here in New Orleans at this same time last year to file a report on hurricanes for NOVA ScienceNOW. I talked to scientists and emergency management officials about what would happen if this city were to be hit with by a major hurricane, Category 4 or 5. They all agreed that the consequences would be catastrophic.

On August 29th, all of their worst fears and premonitions became reality, when the killer storm Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans.

WALTER MAESTRI (Jefferson Parish Emergency Management): The good news is that this wasn't the worst of the worst-case scenario. The bad news is that even the best of the worst-case scenario, for this community, resulted in what you see.

PETER STANDRING: Just the year before, a state and federal emergency exercise was undertaken—based on a computer model of likely scenarios—called Hurricane Pam. On August 27th , with Katrina approaching, Ivor Van Heerden and a team from Louisiana State University plugged the latest data from the storm into the model.

IVOR VAN HEERDEN (Louisiana State University): Last one we did showed that New Orleans was actually going to flood. I then sent an e-mail to a lot of different federal agencies, state agencies, the media.

PETER STANDRING: Just as they had planned in the exercises. But the next day he questioned whether the federal agencies in charge of disaster management had paid any attention to the warnings, in particular, the Army Corps of Engineers, charged with monitoring the levees.

IVOR VAN HEERDEN: The Corps should have been monitoring the levees, and they should have warned everybody when they let go. People went to bed on Monday evening—houses dry—and woke up with water up to their waist.

PETER STANDRING: As the water poured out from the broken levees on the Industrial, London, and 17th Street canals, turning New Orleans into a lake, Ivor's dismay only increased.

IVOR VAN HEERDEN: I was very angry. I sent out an e-mail to my friends and family, you know, trying to voice my frustration, and trying to voice my pain. Because, you know, we called this thing right, and, literally, nobody wanted to listen. The bigger problem is that I don't think, under the present situation of disaster management in this country, that the scientists are really taken seriously.

WALTER MAESTRI: One of the things we forgot is that Katrina is a terrorist, and that terrorist approaches the coastal states every year. We've got to be ready to protect ourselves, with all the resources at our disposal, or you're going to see this again and again and again—if not here, in other coastal, great old cities, across the country.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Special thanks to Louisiana Public Broadcasting for their assistance in the production of this report.

NOVA ScienceNOW continues 365 days a year, online, at You can watch any part of this broadcast, or our previous episodes again, online. You can email us, ask us questions. Write the scientists who are working on artificial life, on fish medicine, on lightning. You can talk to us and tell us what you think, 'cause we want to hear what you think.

I'm Robert Krulwich. Goodbye.

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NOVA scienceNOW: October 18, 2005

Artificial Life

Edited by
Doug Quade

Written, Produced and Directed by
Julia Cort


Edited by
Stephen Mack

Produced and Directed by
Dean Irwin

Profile: Erich Jarvis

Edited by
Ira Meistrich & Robe Imbriano

Produced and Directed by
Carla Denly & Robe Imbriano

Fish Surgery

Edited by
Ben Ehrlich

Produced and Directed by
Dean Irwin

Hurricane Katrina

Edited by
Harlan Reiniger

Produced and Directed by
Peter Doyle & Joe McMaster

NOVA scienceNOW

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