Nature Podcast

This is a transcript of the 27th November 2014 edition of the weekly Nature Podcast. Audio files for the current show and archive episodes can be accessed from the Nature Podcast index page (http://www.nature.com/nature/podcast), which also contains details on how to subscribe to the Nature Podcast for FREE, and has troubleshooting top-tips. Send us your feedback to mailto:podcast@nature.com.

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Geoff Marsh: This week the sneaky world of DIY peer-review.

Ivan Oransky: This is simply an example we think of the various extreme measures people will take in order to get published.

Kerri Smith: Studying the birds and the bees.

Honor Beddard: What the early sexologists were trying to do was they were trying to gather and record data and behaviours without judgment.

Geoff Marsh: Plus a cool new way to send heat into space. This is the Nature Podcast, for November the 27th, 2014. I'm Geoff Marsh.

Kerri Smith: And I'm Kerri Smith.

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Kerri Smith: Straight to the coolest story first. It's winter for our Northern Hemisphere listeners, so you may not be thinking right now about how to stay cool in the heat, but for much of the year in many places, heat is a big problem. Scientists at Stanford University have been thinking about how to cut the world's growing demand for electricity to power air conditioning. In Nature this week, they report that they've invented a coating which radiates away heat even under bright sunlight and could cut the cost of cooling buildings and cars. Nature reporter, Richard van Noorden spoke to Aaswath Raman about how the device works. Nature 515, 540–544 (27 November 2014)

Richard van Noorden: Just how energy greedy is air conditioning?

Aaswath Raman: Air conditioning is a remarkably big part of the energy we use every day. It accounts for something like 15% of the energy used by buildings in the United States. What's really scary is that energy used by air conditioning is projected to grow something like ten-fold between now and 2050 in the developing world and so it really is a big part of the energy challenge that we face going forward in this century.

Richard van Noorden: So you've come up with a device that cools buildings without using any electricity.

Aaswath Raman: The idea behind this is that there is actually a renewable energy resource out there that we really haven't exploited and that is the fact that the universe is actually quite cold. What we've done is we've figured out how you can actually send heat away through the atmosphere in the form of thermal electromagnetic waves to the cold of outer space and in doing so we're making use of the fact that outer space is really cold and we can dump heat there.

Richard van Noorden: How does this device actually work, we've all heard about radiators and we know that we ourselves radiate heat away from our bodies, but this is a bit different.

Aaswath Raman: The idea here is that a surface pointed to the sky can send its own heat away as radiation effectively to the upper atmosphere, if not outer space. The atmosphere is only transparent to our thermal electromagnetic radiation at certain wavelengths in what's known as the mid-infrared. So the surface we've designed is designed to only send its heat away at those specific wavelengths and everywhere else be as reflective as possible.

Richard van Noorden: Your device is going to be a surface on the outside of a building that stays cold, but how can it do that when the Sun is shining right on to it.

Aaswath Raman: So, that it turns out is the key challenge. So what we've actually done is make something that's a really good mirror, so something that if you look at it, it just looks like the best mirror you've ever seen and of course sunlight normally would heat everything up, but in this instance, by reflecting most of the sunlight and simultaneously sending its own heat through the atmosphere to space, we're actually able to maintain the surface below air temperature.

Richard van Noorden: So, in your real world test you have this small surface on a roof. How large can you make this and how much did it lower the temperature of the building?

Aaswath Raman: So, in our test, it didn't actually lower the temperature of the building per se. We were testing to see its own temperature. In our test we saw that it went five degrees Celsius below air temperature, but we think there is an opportunity for it to go far below that and in terms of how scalable this is, the approach we take is an approach used in the window coatings business and a lot of other technologies where you try and deposit thin layers of multiple materials. This luckily enough can be scaled to incredibly large scales using existing technologies and factories.

Richard van Noorden: Okay so now we have this surface, that can be five degrees or may be slightly colder than the air around it, how would that actually work on a building or on a car?

Aaswath Raman: The key engineering challenge going forward then is how do we actually get the heat to the surface itself. This is a topic of active investigation, how do we actually deliver heat efficiently to these coolers while they sit on the roof building, but it's also a real opportunity in terms of both research and hopefully making this kind of technology a practical reality.

Richard van Noorden: There's other options for reducing the energy demand of air conditioning, one that you've mentioned is to put solar panels on the roof and the panels generate electricity, which is then used to run the air conditioners. How does this passive cooling idea compare to that?

Aaswath Raman: We think it compares very favourably from a cost point of view. Ultimately this kind of cooling system is simply a coating, a multilayer coating that we think we can do at costs comparable to or even cheaper than existing solar panels but at the same time, it doesn't need to be an entirely competitive thing with affordable tags partly because solar panels typically start generating less electricity in the late afternoon as the Sun starts setting but this is usually when air temperatures peak in lot of regions, especially in the summer. So, our technology could continue working and enabling passive cooling during these hours, so we think there's an opportunity for this to also work cooperatively with solar panels on a rooftop.

Richard van Noorden: Have you thought about using these devices generally to lower the temperature of the Earth? We've all heard about white roofs that reflect the Sun, but here we're talking about black roofs that not only reflect the Sun but also shoot away a bit more heat actually out of the atmosphere.

Aaswath Raman: In terms of the amount of energy you can get out, I think, you'll still get a bigger “geo-engineering impact” from white roofs, but it's certainly a possibility. One way to think about this is this is just a better white roof.

Kerri Smith: That was Aaswath Raman talking to Nature reporter, Richard van Noorden.

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Geoff Marsh: Kerri!

Kerri Smith: Yeah.

Geoff Marsh: Where do babies comes from?

Kerri Smith: Whhhhaaat???

Geoff Marsh: Where do babies come from?

Kerri Smith: (Clearing the throat)

Geoff Marsh: A lot of us find it difficult to talk about sex. But thankfully over the past century, there's been a growing tribe of researchers unafraid to undress our most private behaviour. The Institute of Sexology is a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London in homage to these brave men and women. It contains a rich mix of objects, art, erotica and academia detailing the relatively short history of this particular science and it is a science, the science of human sexuality, but try as it might to objectively measure sex and dissect out the social aspects, sexology always seems to have been a little bit risqué. I went along to meet one of the curators of the exhibition Honor Beddard for a tour of this most intimate of institutes.

Honor Beddard: It's an opportunity for our visitors to think about where their preconceived ideas about sex and sexuality come from and also to think about how the work of the sexologists, those studying sex have informed those ideas. What the early sexologists have tried to do is they were trying to gather and record data and behaviours without judgment. They weren't trying to cure or to treat, that came later with people like Sigmund Freud or Marie Stopes, it was just about trying to gather the facts and put the facts out there.

Geoff Marsh: And is it a mainstream science?

Honor Beddard: That's a very interesting question. I think a lot of the figures who feature in the show might not have called themselves sexologists and in fact when we asked the key researchers from the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, why they became sexologists, many of them actually said well actually I wouldn't call myself a sexologist. I think there's lots of different reasons for that, one of which is that actually traditionally it's been a very controversial area of study. Magnus Hirschfeld for example, we see at the beginning of this exhibition is burning of his own institute of sexology being Jewish and openly homosexual and a socialist, he was an obvious target for the Nazis.

Geoff Marsh: I saw at display with thousands of little tiny wasps, what do wasps have to do with sexology.

Honor Beddard: They were in fact collected by Alfred Kinsey, who began one of the largest sex surveys ever in America in the 1930s. He started life as an entomologist studying gold wasps and the conclusion he came to was that no two of these tiny creatures were ever the same, then of course that's a conclusion that he carried right through into his study of human sexual behaviour, where he developed a model based on variants, around the sort of typical binary models of homosexual, heterosexual, male and female.

Geoff Marsh: Now how did he go about collecting his data because we don't like talking about sex, do we?

Honor Beddard: Well so we say. He, I think was very charismatic. He had a team of very highly trained interviewers who would travel with him across America and there was a code that was memorized by all those working on these interviews; was never written down and it's very complicated, M for example could mean masturbation, it could be masochist or mother and it depended where in the code sheet it was written as to what it meant. The Kinsey Institute guards that data very very closely and it's in fact still being analyzed.

Geoff Marsh: Then let's talk about Masters and Johnson because they're really interesting and they seem to bring sexology into the laboratory. What was their sort of aim?

Honor Beddard: They do. They wanted to really focus on the body to try and look at sex in a very, very objective way, so they thought if they could measure all the different things that were going on in the body during sex, the physiological changes, then they will be able to create as they did, a model that charted human sexual response and what they found was that in the men and women that that model was the same albeit at different stages happening at different times.

Geoff Marsh: And this culture in sexology for collection, it goes beyond just sexual histories, doesn't it?

Honor Beddard: It does absolutely. I think what many of the sexologists realize was that what people make their creative impulses tell us an awful lot about their attitudes to sex and to sexuality perhaps even more so than what they say and that's we have included a number of artists so that's contemporary artists as well as older art and artefact in the show.

Geoff Marsh: I went for a walk with on and around the exhibition to see some of these artefacts and there is quite some variety on show. We started off at a screen showing the burning of Magnus Hirschfeld's institute. We heard about him a few minutes ago.

Honor Beddard: It's a Pathé news reel of the Nazi burning of the books from May 1933, and what many people won't realize when they're looking at it is that it actually includes the burning of the library of Magnus Hirschfeld. He founded his own institute of sexology in 1919. There are others in this exhibition who faced similar levels of persecution. The books of Sigmund Freud were also burnt and he escaped to Britain in 1938. Wilhelm Reich his books were burnt and he went to America.

Geoff Marsh: In the next window along here, it looks like an early prototype of a vibrator. I have to be honest that doesn't look particularly safe.

Honor Beddard: It doesn't particularly look safe, doesn't look particularly appealing actually. I think what's interesting is that developers of vibrators were among the first to adopt electrical power. This looks like a very unlikely sex toy. The VD vibrator behind it in fact actually emphasized much more than sexual pleasure, sort of curative vibration for all sorts of different physical complaints.

Geoff Marsh: What on earth is a porcupine doing in a sexology exhibition?

Honor Beddard: That's a very good question. This particular porcupine comes from the desk of Sigmund Freud; we have borrowed it from the Freud Museum in London. It was a gift to Freud by James Jackson Putnam and one of the reasons Freud liked it is he was interested in this story around porcupines that they when it gets cold they clustered together to try and share their warmth but of course their spikes get in the way in of one another, so they have to quickly back out again then they get cold so they come back in again and for Freud that was a very interesting analogy for the human condition, the way in which we crave intimacy but are also repelled by it, and this sort of love-hate relationship underpinned a lot of his theories.

Geoff Marsh: So looking forward, where is sex research headed?

Honor Beddard: That's a very good question. I think it's going in all different areas. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, their last survey results came out in 2013. There's still a great deal to be examined and drawn out from that. The question of whether there's a fourth is still to be decided. If you head to Indiana University, the Kinsey Institute is still flourishing and there's a great deal of sex research taking place there, bringing together scientists from disciplines such as biology, chemistry, all different disciplines. So I think, it's a very, very exciting territory and we'll be yet to see where it's going to go?

Geoff Marsh: That was Honor Beddard. Check out more at http://www.wellcomecollection.org/sexology.

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Geoff Marsh: And coming up, who has been murdering North Sea porpoises, this gruesome story and more in the research highlights but before that.

Kerri Smith: Imagine how easy it would be if you could submit a paper and then just review it yourself. A few rogue scientists are doing just that, setting up email addresses with fake names and then recommending their fake selves as reviewers. Ivan Oransky from the website, Retraction Watch has been following this worrying trend and he's written about it for this week's Nature. Charlotte Stoddart, that's her real name gave Ivan a call and started by asking how he first became aware of the ruse. Nature 515, 480–482 (27 November 2014)

Ivan Oransky: Well, we first saw a case like this about two years ago, a south Korean scientist, who has now had to retract a total of 28 papers for this particular reason but we saw a retraction notice said some very strange things and said things like the peer-review process has been compromised and it wasn't clear who the peer-reviewers were and that of course made our antenna go up and we asked some questions and Informa Healthcare who published the journals in question let us sort of know what had actually happened which is that the author had submitted as you suggested himself as a peer-reviewer even though he was using different names and sort of fake email addresses so that people wouldn't guess who it was.

Charlotte Stoddart: And this wasn't caught at the point when he submitted the papers and suggested himself as a reviewer, how was the deception uncovered?

Ivan Oransky: So it's a funny story how this was actually uncovered. What happened was this particular scientist, his name is Hyung-In Moon, he would turn all the reviews in within 24 hours. Now Nature readers know that it's hard to get people to even agree to a peer review in 24 hours, let alone get other reviews back in 24 hours, and they were quality reviews. I mean, who knows, Hyung-In-Moon's work better than Hyung-In-Moon after all. And so what happened was the editor, the editor of one of the journals started looking at this and going, how is this possible, how am I getting all of these reviews back so quickly and he investigated, the publisher investigated as well and they of course learnt the truth.

Charlotte Stoddart: And how come this wasn't caught at the point of submission? I mean didn't somebody check the identity of the reviewer that was being suggested?

Ivan Oransky: Well, this is the nuance here, they probably did check the identity of the reviewer and the reviewer may have looked like someone who should have been reviewing this paper, I mean, just to make something up you know, Joan Smith at Oxford, oh well, she's an expert and in theory of course I would send it to her for review, that's what the editor is thinking. The problem was that hidden from the editor's view because of the way these peer-review editorial systems work was the fact that it wasn't you know joan.smith@oxford.uk.edu, that he'd use you know, it was jsmith23@gmail.com and it really wasn't that easy to catch if you weren't looking that deeply.

Charlotte Stoddart: How common is this? Is it just a few rogue individuals in a few journals or is it more widespread?

Ivan Oransky: So of course we don't know the exact size of this problem because a lot of these cases may be happening without anyone knowing it, we have seen though six different cases involving more than a 110 papers over the past two years and these involve major publishers I mentioned Informa Healthcare, but Elsevier, Wiley, other major publishers have been affected by this. Sage publishing had to retract 60 papers this past summer because of a similar case.

Charlotte Stoddart: Mm..So what can publishers do to make sure that this doesn't happen?

Ivan Oransky: So if you wanted to, you could say, well we're not going to allow people to recommend peer-reviewers anymore. At the end of the day though somebody would figure out a way to get around that and so what really has to happen is some sort of system where editors actually check that the peer-review request is going to the person they think it's going to and not someone who has a fake email, but there are also things like ORCID an ID system for researchers, you could actually use that to track reviewers, not just authors, which is what it's typically used for.

Charlotte Stoddart: Considering how many hundreds of thousands of papers are submitted for review every year, and you're talking about, you know, hundred or something having been retracted because of this sort of self-peer-review. How worried should we be about this?

Ivan Oransky: You know, I don't know that we all need to stop what we're doing and consider this as a crisis. I just think that it's a really important story that it's sort of an unintended consequence of technology. What we've noticed at Retraction Watch watch is that you know researchers will find ways to get around things that keep them from publishing if they are incentivised to do that and so this is simply an example we think of the various extreme measures people will take, researchers will take in order to get published and so it may be fake peer-reviews one year and may be this will go on for a little while but then people will come up with something else that quite frankly, we're not smart enough to think of yet, but that someone else is.

Kerri Smith: That was Charlotte Stoddart speaking to Ivan Oransky from the website, Retraction Watch, that's http://retractionwatch.com or mailto:@retractionwatch on Twitter, nice and simple.

Geoff Marsh: Kerri's got the news chat in just a moment, but before that here are the research highlights read by Noah Baker.

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Noah Baker: Greenland hasn't been always the icy wilderness we know today. The island's giant ice sheet has more to do with innards of the earth than a regular dumping of snow. Geologists looked at tectonic activity finding that pulses of molten rock rose up under Eastern Greenland lifting it more than 3 kilometres above sea level. Stage 2. Greenland floated northwards on the earth's crust gaining 18 degrees of latitude. This newly high and northerly island started building up ice year around from then on. Greenland's story shows us how deep earth changes can affect the surface. Find out more in the journal, Terranova. Nature 515, 469 (27 November 2014)Something has been killing harbour porpoises in the North Sea, but what. In the past decade, hundreds of porpoises have washed up with drastic injuries, strips of flesh ripped from them. The list of suspects includes marine predators, boat propellers and fishermen catching them accidentally. Looking at the wounds of several unlucky porpoises, a team now concludes that gray seals are the culprits. They found seal DNA in the bite marks, the same bite pattern applied to hundreds more porpoises they studied. More in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Be warned, the pictures are a bit gruesome.

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Kerri Smith: Time now for the news chat and I'm joined on the line from Washington D.C. by Nature's US news editor, Matt Crenson. Hi Matt.

Matt Crenson: Hi there.

Kerri Smith: Now first off, climate talks, they come up every now and again. We're quite familiar with hearing about what the UN is going to talk about next. On December the 1st in Peru, another round of talks will begin. Nature 515, 473–474 (27 November 2014)

Matt Crenson: Yeah, so these talks were looked at sceptically up until a few weeks ago. There was a lot of frustration with UN climate negotiation process and then on November 12th, the US and China made a deal on carbon dioxide emissions and now there seems to be a little bit of hope and light surrounding this. So the terms of the deal were that the US would agree to cut its carbon dioxide emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025, and on its side, China agreed that its emissions would peak sometime around 2030, which some people criticises as a little bit of a vague commitment but it could certainly make a big dent in the emissions, the globe's emissions and really help things out.

Kerri Smith: Yeah, I mean these are two of the big players in carbon dioxide emissions and two of the sort of least cooperative if we dare say, of the nations that these kind of talks in the past, so quite a watershed.

Matt Crenson: Yes it is. I mean, it shows that there is a possibility for solving one of the really central problems in this issue, which is that the developed countries and developing countries are at loggerheads. The developed countries certainly should be responsible for reducing their emissions because they've profited so much from past emissions, but if the developing countries don't do their part, the problem is never going to be solved. So if they can work together to keep emissions within a sort of trillion ton budget, then we can limit warming to about two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Kerri Smith: So what do people expect then from the talks just about to start in Lima in light of this agreement between the US and China?

Matt Crenson: These are sort of a warm up actually. There's a meeting in Paris in about a year's time, where the hope is that there will be an actual agreement that involves most of the world's countries and this sort of hammering out the process for getting to battery. Every year there's a UN report called the Emissions Gap Report that looks at the current emissions, trends and looks at the commitments that different countries have made to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions or at least reduce the growth of their carbon dioxide emissions. Then it calculates the gap between those values and what cuts would be required to keep warming within two degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels. The US-China deal doesn't close that gap by any means, but it does bring it a little bit closer, to being close, so one of our sources said it was within shouting distance, so there's some reason for optimism.

Kerri Smith: Yeah, optimism and climate negotiations, not necessarily words you often hear in the same sentence. Now the second story is again another one of these sort of people meeting to discuss a future thing, but this has to do with some very real advances in the science of brain-computer interfaces. Nature 515, 476 (27 November 2014)

Matt Crenson: Yes, so there've been really incredible advances in the last few years, helping people who are paralyzed to control prosthetic limbs and they use their minds to do it, their brains. These interfaces can be directly implanted into the brain and then just with their thoughts, these people can do really quite complex tasks; they can use their prosthetic hands for example to drink from a cup or feed themselves and it has moved far enough, fast enough that the US Food and Drug Administration held a meeting this week to try and figure out how it's going to regulate these things, consider the safety of having these implants in a person's brain for long periods of time. So they've got the ball rolling this week and some researchers sat down with some regulators from FDA to talk about some of the considerations.

Kerri Smith: So a lot of the time in the research studies at least that go on, these devices aren't left in forever by any means and they're often, you know, temporary and they're being studied and then they sometimes are removed, so I guess it was still a while from, you know, the FDA having to actively do anything.

Matt Crenson: Yeah there are handful of patients who have these and they're only in experimental settings that they're being used right now. So if that's what we're going to expand. Some rules are going to have to be in place. The regulations themselves are all kind of technical but it's the simple fact that the FDA is interested in this, it shows that it's moving forward very quickly.

Kerri Smith: I mean, were any other researchers that are featured in the story. Did they often use the FDAs decisions to look at topics as kind of ooh that will be the next big, you know, funding stream or next trendy topic?

Matt Crenson: Well, yeah they actually are, they need to know what the rules are going to be. So they can follow them essentially, you know, some, one of the sources in the story said that, they really when they're thinking about developing new technologies, they want to be sure that they are going to be able to sell them. So it's really important to have these rules in place so that companies can develop these things. There was a robotic arm that was approved by the FDA in May and it can be operated now through connections to the muscles, so that the muscle is firing directed the arm's movements but it could just as easily be operated with brain implants and once that's all hammered out that realm is open.

Kerri Smith: Optimism on both fronts I would say then.

Matt Crenson: Yes.

Kerri Smith: And most possibly a slightly unusual chat for that reason. Thank you Matt.

Matt Crenson: (Laughs) Sure you're welcome.

Geoff Marsh: Well this has been a sexy, sneaky and cool episode of Nature Podcast. Join us again next week for another one. I'm Geoff Marsh.

Kerri Smith: And I'm Kerri Smith.