Nature Podcast

This is a transcript of the 9th July 2015 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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Kerri Smith: This week, scientists solve the mystery of the missing volcano.

Joe McConnell: How could you have this major eruption that had this major effect on global climate, and where was it in the ice core record – it just didn't make any sense.

Adam Levy: And we can treat HIV pretty well in trials; why not in real life?

Farley Cleghorn: You run into all kinds of barriers that you don't take into account when you're doing the science.

Kerri Smith: Plus the geologists who are on call when 'quakes happen. This is the Nature Podcast for 9th July 2015. I'm Kerri Smith.

Adam Levy: And I'm Adam Levy. Now first to those 'quake watchers. Noah Baker has been finding out how a group of geologists raised the alarm when a huge quake struck Nepal earlier this year. Nature 523, 142–144 (09 July 2015)

Noah Baker: On the 25th April, the ground started to shake in Nepal. (Shattering sounds and things falling). This would be one of the most devastating earthquakes that hit the region in a generation. (Shattering sounds and things falling). On the other side of the world in the USA, seismologist Gavin Hayes woke up.

Gavin Hayes: I received the call, as has happened frequently for large earthquakes around the world, I got up and went to my computer and logged in to see the earthquake and to start working.

Noah Baker: Gavin works for the National Earthquake Information Centre or NEIC in Colorado.

Gavin Hayes: We respond to global earthquakes, so we have a mandate from the US government to provide information about where and how big earthquakes are, both domestically and around the world, and to provide information not just about the size of those earthquakes but the impact that those events might have on population and infrastructure.

Noah Baker: From the second the quake begins data from seismology stations around the world rush into the NEIC via satellite and the race is on. (Clock ticking)

Gavin Hayes: I get to my computer, I log into our USGS system and my first priority is to start working on the magnitude of the earthquake.

Noah Baker: The NEIC team mobilize quickly to work out the quake's vital statistics.

Gavin Hayes: The impact an event has is based on a number of things. One: where it is; two: how big it is; three: how deep it is, and four: how vulnerable local structures are to the shaking that that event will cause at the surface of the Earth. So we need to analyze how people and infrastructure in a given location respond to that kind of shaking.

Noah Baker: Speed is of the essence.

Gavin Hayes: Automatic systems identify these earthquakes within a matter of minutes and then the duty seismologist working in our 24 by 7 operations will interact with those computer systems to refine the location and get an accurate and stable magnitude, and then release that information to the public, to the internet and to whomever else is tying into those data feeds within about 15 or 20 minutes.(Excerpt from news)The US Geological Survey says a strong earthquake measuring 7.5 has struck 77 kilometres north-west of Nepal's capital, Kathmandu)

Noah Baker: News reports start to break and on the other side of the states in Washington D.C. another phone rings.(Sound of phone ringing)

Gari Mayberry: It was around 2 or 3 am I believe when I got the notification [Sound of phone ringing]. My first thought is, you know, uh oh! This could be a big one.

Noah Baker: That's Gari Mayberry.

Gari Mayberry: The first thing is for me to wake up and then I would just start searching for more information.

Noah Baker: Gari is the Geological Hazard Advisor for the USA's office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.

Gari Mayberry: I would start looking on the internet, seeing if anything had come through the news, go to the USGS National Earthquake Information Centre website and see if there had been any additional information there. So my goal is to try to get as accurate of a picture of what has happened that I can share with the decision makers in the office, since our office coordinates the US government's response to international disasters.

Noah Baker: Like Gavin, Gari has to work fast. When lives are at stake, every minute counts.(Clock ticking)

Gari Mayberry: There are just a number of days, three or less is the conventional thought, when it's possible for search and rescue teams to help to rescue people from buildings that have collapsed. So if we are considering sending a team from the United States, it's going to take quite a bit of time just to get the teams out there, to put the logistics together, and to fly that distance, and so the sooner that we can make a decision, the sooner we can get started on that process and hopefully get teams out in time. (Clock ticking)

Noah Baker: Within hours of the earthquake's occurrence, the USA responded with aid.

Gari Mayberry: Ultimately a team of over a hundred people were deployed to respond to the earthquake and that was a decision that was made shortly, pretty shortly after the earthquake occurred.

Noah Baker: But despite all these efforts, the quake in Nepal was devastating, killing more than 9000 people. It serves as a pointed reminder of the importance of a rapid response, something which has not always existed.

Gavin Hayes: In 2004, when the 9.1 earthquake happened offshore of Sumatra, we really weren't equipped to properly characterize how big that event was and no one really knew how big the event was until several hours, even up to half a day after that event occurred. Fast forward seven years to 2011 in the Tohoku magnitude 9 earthquake, and we had fully characterized how big that event was within about one hour, and so we've gotten a lot better. We have the systems in place to characterize both small events and the very largest events that the Earth can create, and I think we're at a situation now where we can provide that information very quickly and very accurately.

Noah Baker: But no matter how sophisticated our systems get, for the quake hunters, phone calls in the middle of the night are an inevitability.

Gavin Hayes: We tend, I think, to be light sleepers, so whenever our phones go off with either text messages or a [phone ringing] phone call from one of the duty seismologists, we are ready to get up [phone ringing] and respond to it. My personal feeling is to try and quieten the phone as soon as possible so my wife and my baby don't wake up.(phone ringing).

Adam Levy: That package was by Noah Baker. You heard from Gari Mayberry and Gavin Hayes. To read more about the USGS on-call quake team, read the feature by Alexandra Witze at http://www.nature.com/news.

Kerri Smith: Coming up in just a moment, the mystery of the missing volcano that caused climate chaos 1500 years ago, but first it's time for the research highlights with Shamini Bundell.

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Shamini Bundell: Look carefully at a seahorse's tail and you'll see that in cross-section it's square. New work suggests that the peculiar shape helps them hang on tight to corals and plants. Researchers based in South Carolina printed 3D bendable models of both square seahorse tails and normal circular tails and tested them for things like grip strength and ability to withstand pressure. Square tails came up trumps in stiffness, strength and resilience to impact. The authors suggests using their finding to build strong, bendy, grippy robot limbs. More in the Journal Science. Nature 523, 131 (09 July 2015)Fingerprint scanners could be made more secure by using ultrasound to capture prints. Normally when your finger is scanned, its ridges and valleys produce a pattern of voltages, but moisture or dirt can confuse the circuit and make it illegible. The new ultrasound method records the time it takes for a sound wave to bounce back from a finger. Just like sonar, a pattern emerges when the wave bounces back slightly more slowly from a valley than a ridge. Sensing these deeper characteristics means prints are less likely to be fake-able, unless you can 3D print a finger. Find out more in Applied Physics Letters. Nature

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Kerri Smith: 536 A.D. was a tough year around the world. It was a year of constant winter. Here's what the Roman scholar Procopius wrote about that year. “The Sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the Moon, during this whole year. Men were free neither from war, nor pestilence, nor any other thing leading to death.” Historical sources from China and the Mayan empire in South America also record a gruelling year, with crop failures and famines. The cause of this climate chaos? Nature (2015)

Joe McConnell: In 536, there was a major volcanic eruption.

Kerri Smith: This is geologist Joe McConnell, who's at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada, and this is the prevailing theory: that the Ilopango volcano in South America blew its top, blew loads of sulphur into the atmosphere and cooled the climate worldwide. The problem is well actually there are two problems.

Joe McConnell: We didn't have a major volcanic eruption in 536 recorded in the ice core, ice cores from around the world. How could you have this major eruption that had this major effect on global climate and where was it in the ice core record, it just didn't make any sense.

Kerri Smith: Ice cores – long cylinders of ice extracted from places like Antarctica or Greenland – are usually great indicators of what's up with the Earth's climate, and can go back thousands of years. But in 536 they were silent; there was no volcano in evidence. This seemed to directly contradict the tree- ring record, which showed a distinctly cold year, a clear fingerprint of a volcanic event.

Joe McConnell: Yeah, you sort of had these two communities, with the ice core community pretty confident in its timescales and the tree ring community very confident in their timescales. So everybody is trying to be objective with their data and that was the problem. There was always this inconsistency.

Kerri Smith: So that's problem one. The tree rings, the ice cores – they don't match. And problem two…

Joe McConnell: Six years later there's the first event of plague in Europe in 542 in Constantinople and that area, in the dying era of the Roman Empire.

Kerri Smith: Volcanoes have been linked to plague too, because they create colder, wetter conditions that help the bacterium breed. And guess what: there's no record of that in the ice cores either. Historians wonder whether the previous eruption in 536 could be linked to the subsequent plague; but six years is a long time, too long, really, for the Ilopango volcano still to be having an effect, and either way, why was there no record of this volcanic activity in the ice cores? All of this got Joe and his team thinking. They've developed new methods for analyzing ice cores more sensitively.

Joe McConnell: In my lab, we specialize in these very high resolution, sort of, the state-of-the-art measurements of ice core chemistry. So we get and collect an ice core, or get ice cores from other people who've collected them, and we analyse them continuously. So that means we cut a longitudinal sample from the ice core and load it up onto an ice core melter that we've developed, and the ice melts slowly, and then we pump the sample off and analyse it in real time in all these different instruments. And that's different than in the past, when people would cut the ice core up into little blocks and analyse them as discrete samples. And what that means is we get much higher time resolutions when we turn it into time.

Kerri Smith: And did that make a bit more sense of, particularly this event in 536 and around that time, and other events in history?

Joe McConnell: Yeah well it did, because, so this is, what we were trying to do was develop an ice core timescale that was independent of the tree ring timescale but at the same time consistent with it, and so there was this event – it was discovered in 2012 or at least published in 2012 – and it was evidence of a very strong cosmic ray event that you could see in the trees, and that resulted in a big increase in carbon-14 in the tree-ring record. We were able to find a similar isotope in ice cores. So that allowed us, that gave us a completely unambiguous marker that we could link, so we could try the tree rings together with the ice core time scales. As we did this new dating, we realized that the old timescales were off by about seven years.

Kerri Smith: A difference of seven years doesn't seem like very much to me, over two and a half thousand years of history or so, but I suppose it does make a big difference.

Joe McConnell: Well it makes a really big difference when you're trying to understand what is forcing climate, what's forcing the temperature or the climate of the Earth and these volcanoes, you know – it had been well known that volcanoes, at least in the recent past, had caused this major cooling, and the 1991 eruption of Pinatubo in the Philippines caused the cooling and was predicted and then there it was, it all makes perfect sense, so if you're trying to quantify this and really understand quantitatively the climate system, you really need to have these records to be exact and so that seven year offset was a really important offset.

Kerri Smith: What else do your new data reveal about the effects of volcanoes on climate through history on other events like this?

Joe McConnell: Well so, what it tells us is that first of all it's very consistent over the past 2500 years now, we have a very consistent – you get a volcano in the Northern Hemisphere and within an year or two you get – within less than a year, typically – you get a major cooling in the Northern Hemisphere, but if it happens in the equatorial regions, in the tropics, it gets sort of wafted and goes both directions very easily, North and South. Not only do you get an immediate cooling but the cooling will typically last much longer. And then the other thing is that because of this high precision of this very accurate data, very high resolution data that we develop in the ice cores now, we're able to identify a whole lot more volcanoes than in the past. In the 536 example what we know now is 536 was a Northern Hemisphere eruption and then in 540 there was a second eruption in the tropics and that kind of double whammy is what really hit climate. So instead of looking for one volcano, huge volcano, in 536, and then not really having – you know, having some sort of poor explanation for why it took six years to result in the plague in Europe, we know that this double combination of first 536 eruption and then the second one that further cooled the climate, that was already cold from the first eruption.

Kerri Smith: Can you correlate any more widely social and political change that people might not have thought was related to climate or volcanoes or anything like that? Can you now link any of those two more convincingly in other situations?

Joe McConnell: That's where we're going now. I suspect it as we look at these things more carefully, we'll see that plague, famine and so forth is even more related to volcanic climate forcing than we thought it was. It's a really important thing for climate modelling to then presumably allow us to predict the future climate much more accurately as well. So we're not just looking backwards, this also has important implications for going forward as well.

Kerri Smith: That was Joe McConnell of Nevada's Desert Research Institute. The paper is at http://www.nature.com/nature.

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Adam Levy: Coming up at the end of the show, it's the news roundup. But first, a feature this week looks at why HIV is so difficult to treat in the field when good treatments exist in the lab. Shamini Bundell called scientist Farley Cleghorn whose team helps governments conduct aid programs. Nature 523, 146–148 (09 July 2015)

Farley Cleghorn: I'm an infectious disease epidemiologist. I trained in infectious diseases, I've been working on retroviruses for the last 30 years.

Shamini Bundell: And HIV and AIDS is a big focus of yours. Is this something that's still a big problem globally?

Farley Cleghorn: Yes it is. We've made many, many gains against HIV AIDS over the last 50 years, but there are approximately 32 million people living with HIV today and this year there will still be quite a number of millions of new infections.

Shamini Bundell: The HIV epidemic is associated with the '80s quite a lot. These days, it's not necessarily as fatal certainly in developed countries. I mean, are we there with the science that we've, you know, almost defeated it?

Farley Cleghorn: We know how to prevent HIV, definitely, we know that condoms work, we know that prevention of mother-to-child transmission works. What we don't have is a model that works everywhere, because transmission factors are slightly different everywhere, and the interplay of transmission factors play out differently in different settings.

Shamini Bundell: What is the problem then, why is HIV and AIDS still such a problem?

Farley Cleghorn: For treatment, the issue is one of scale, and because we have 32 million people living with HIV in the world today, it is getting the required treatment to all of those people. For prevention, the issue is one of human behaviour, and the complexity of human behaviour, and these are the issues that are not simple. So, while knowing the science is important, applying the science is just as important, and you run into all kinds of barriers to implementation at this scale that you really don't take into account when you're doing the science.

Shamini Bundell: If we know how to do it, and it works in a small trial, what then goes wrong between a small scale trial and trying to implement this in a whole country, say?

Farley Cleghorn: So I'll give you a number of barriers. One is not keeping their appointments and there are many reasons for that. One is cost, the other is transport. These are all very practical problems; the third is disclosure. So being able to tell someone that you're HIV infected in your family or in your community so that you can leave your family and go travel to the clinic, and then the issues such as taking your supply of drugs home and putting it in a safe place, where people can't take it away from you, or where it won't be stolen and sold in the market, and where temperature or other issues such as, amazingly, issues like rats eating the medication, all of these are documented reasons why people didn't take their medication. So there's an entire spectrum of reasons at the individual level why people can't take their medications according to the way they're prescribed.

Shamini Bundell: So it seems like when the scientists are looking into HIV treatments and drugs and things, they're kind of assuming ideal conditions that don't actually exist in the real world.

Farley Cleghorn: Well you just put your finger on something we always say: that clinical trial conditions are not reproduced in the real world, and when you do a study and you come up with a finding, applying that finding to a large number of people is where you run into enormous problems.

Shamini Bundell: And there are lots of solutions that various groups have developed for the treatment of HIV, but also detection and prevention, such as offering screenings at clinics where people might already go for other medicines or vitamins, or making sure condoms are available in townships that might be too small to have their own health centre, but do you think that scientists, at the level of maybe producing drugs, ought to be thinking more about the eventual implementation?

Farley Cleghorn: Absolutely. I mean, it goes almost to the core of what medical advances are all about, that is, if we have medical advances we should always be adopting what we call a public health approach: how do we get this advance to the most people to achieve the most good?

Adam Levy: That was Farley Cleghorn of the Futures Group in Washington D.C. talking to Shamini Bundell about the challenges of tackling HIV and AIDS in real-world situations. Read more on this problem in the feature by Erika Check Hayden.

Kerri Smith: Time now for the news and Lauren Morello joins me on the line from Washington D.C. Now I'm less excited about D.C. than I am about Pluto this week, because New Horizons is approaching its destination, isn't it? Nature

Lauren Morello: That's right. The NASA spacecraft launched in 2006 and it's finally getting into Plut,o out there on the fringes of the Solar System about 5 billion kilometres away, and we're going to get our first good close-up look at the planet that isn't a planet anymore.

Kerri Smith: What's it been doing on its close approach so far?

Lauren Morello: It's been taking a lot of pictures, I guess about a month ago the pictures from New Horizons became better than any existing picture we have of Pluto. The previous best one we had was from the Hubbls space telescope and honestly, it was just like a pixellated blur, you could tell that Pluto was spherical but that's about it. It's starting to look like a dwarf planet now and we've got some pictures of its largest moon, Charon.

Kerri Smith: And it was going to look for some more moons, wasn't it, just to check that we haven't missed any previously?

Lauren Morello: It did; so the tricky thing is that if you don't really have good pictures of a planetary body because you haven't visited it, you also don't know if there is anything you're at risk of smacking into on the way to visit it. Pluto has five moons that we know about. A lot of them were discovered in the last few years and so part of what the New Horizons mission has been doing is these, kind of, well they call them 'hazard checks'. They've been looking for moons or other debris that could harm the spacecraft, and so they completed the last of these checks I think on the 4th of July and it's official, they're not going to find any new moons on this mission, which has bummed out our reporter covering the mission.

Kerri Smith: Yeah, poor Alex Witze was really hoping for some more moon buddies for Pluto.

Lauren Morello: She was… she was rooting for them pretty hard.

Kerri Smith: (Chuckles) She did report however on a little hiccup that New Horizons had last week, brilliant timing – what happened to the poor spacecraft?

Lauren Morello: Ah, well I guess it decided that it wasn't getting enough attention and it wanted to give everybody a fright – it went into safe mode, basically what this means is it stopped collecting data and it sent a message back to Earth saying, you know, 'I'm in trouble, check me out'. The difficulty here is that it takes nine hours to get a signal to Pluto and back again, so it's not anything like diagnosing problems in real time. It turns out that what happened was that the spacecraft had been programmed with instructions that overloaded its computer. The good news is they've recovered from this. They weren't planning to give any more instructions like the ones that sent the spacecraft into safe mode from this point on, and the word on the street is that they lost about 6% of their data, but not any of the highest priority data.

Kerri Smith: Okay so there's still – the science has not been radically disturbed.

Lauren Morello: You know, and I mean, this happens, you know, it's not unusual. NASA has a spacecraft called Dawn that's orbiting another dwarf planet Ceres, and apparently at the end of June the Dawn spacecraft briefly went into safe mode. This happened with the very successful Voyager probe, so, it is out of the edge of the Solar System now. You know, it's not unexpected but that doesn't mean that it didn't, kind of, give everybody a heart attack!

Kerri Smith: (Laughs) And I do love the idea that maybe just a few overexcited scientists sat around in New Horizons headquarters and just kind of pressed all the buttons at once.

Lauren Morello: (Laughs) I don't know if that's a quite fair Kerri, but… send all your hate mail to Kerri, New Horizon scientists.

Kerri Smith: (Laughs) Yes exactly, exactly, mailto:podcast@nature.com. Now, of course the biggest bit of this mission is still to come because New Horizons is going to fly directly past Pluto.

Lauren Morello: It is, so, it's going to have a 24-hour fly-by on July 14th. It will take pictures of Pluto, it will take pictures of its largest moon Charon, it will take observations of the atmospheres of Pluto and Charon, and in the middle there'll be a little nerve-wracking sequence where it goes radio silent as it goes through Pluto and Charon's shadows, and then about 12 hours after its closest approach, it will re-establish contact with everybody on Earth.

Kerri Smith: Excellent, and we'll know next week whether it has safely survived its transit.

Lauren Morello: Right, it's supposed to reconnect with Earth around 9 o'clock US Eastern Time on Tuesday night.

Kerri Smith: Alright, well we'll wait till then to hear more, and in the meantime, we'll move onto our second story, which is quite a surprising one I think, for the scientists you've asked for comment anyway – this concerns the case of a researcher called Dong-Pyou Han. Nature 523, 138–139 (09 July 2015)

Lauren Morello: Right, so he was a biomedical scientist at Iowa State University working on an HIV vaccine, and it turns out that he fabricated and falsified some of his data, and so he just was sentenced to 57 months in prison. On the first of July he's been fined $7.2 million and when he gets out of prison, he's going to be under supervised release for three years.

Kerri Smith: Those are some big numbers, 7.2 million in fines and the longest sentence that's ever been given to a US researcher for misconduct.

Lauren Morello: That's what our sources believe. The first US researcher who was sentenced to prison for misconduct was sentenced in 2006, and he received a year and a day in jail. And so this is well beyond that, this is more than four and a half years if I'm doing my math right on the fly.

Kerri Smith: What was it about this guy's case that's led to such a long and pretty severe sentence as many of your sources consider it?

Lauren Morello: So, this is an interesting case and it kind of exposes how uneven punishment is in the United States for research misconduct and research fraud. Han had the bad luck to attract the attention of a pretty powerful US Senator from Iowa named Charles Grassley. Grassley has a special interest in investigating misconduct in the biomedical sciences, and, you know, the first step in a case like this is normally for the home institution to do an investigation, supervised by the Office of Research Integrity which looks into alleged misconduct involving grants from the National Institutes of Health. And so the Office of Research Integrity banned Han from receiving any more federal grant money for three years, which is the maximum penalty it usually gives out for somebody of his experience level – he was the junior investigator on this research – and Senator Grassley wrote to ORI saying 'This is a light penalty, he deserves more.' I believe he mentioned the case on the Senate floor and, you know, what everybody basically thinks is that this influenced the Federal Prosecutor in Iowa to bring a case.

Kerri Smith: Do you think that this sets a precedent for perpetrators of misconduct receiving more severe penalties in future or this going to be kind of an outlier?

Lauren Morello: You know it's hard to say right now. I mean, there are some factors that play into this; he was doing research on an HIV vaccine, which I think to some people seems an especially cool avenue of research to falsify. We do get some sense there may be some legislation coming down the pike that will try and standardize this but, you know, it's always hard to get something like that through Congress. They're occupied with things that seem more urgent to them.

Kerri Smith: Alright. Okay, thanks Lauren for all of that. Those stories on Dong-Pyou Han and on New Horizons getting to Pluto are available as always at http://www.nature.com/news.

Adam Levy: Also new this week on our YouTube channel, a Lego-tastic look at whether driverless cars will be good for the environment as well as for lazy drivers. Find out why with the help of Lego at http://www.youtube.com/naturevideochannel.

Kerri Smith: That's all for this week, we'll be back next week with more juicy science news and maybe a bit of gossip if you're lucky. In the meantime look out for a Podcast Extra from Adam about how beautiful science is. I'm Kerri Smith.

Adam Levy: And I'm Adam Levy.