Good Morning, Seattle!
By Jason Socrates Bardi
who isn't confused really doesn't understand the situation."
R. Murrow, radio
and television journalist.
It's 10:30 in the morning on February 13, 2004, and I am
lost in a strange city.
Luckily, this is Seattle, so I know that even if I don't
know where I am going, I can find my way back to my hotel
by following the coffee kiosks every hundred feet like a trail
I am in Seattle for the 2004 annual meeting of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science from February 1216.
Like most large conferences, the AAAS meeting is spread
out over several nearby hotels and a large central convention
center, in this case, the Washington State Convention & Trade
Center and the Sheraton Seattle Hotel & Towers. Part of the
reason I am lost is that the meetings are in rooms with names
that sound more like a rare virus or a distant galaxy than
a meeting location.
I am looking for room WSCTC-2AB, and I am determined to
find it using nothing but my wits, a rough map, and my innate
sense of direction. If that doesn't get me there, I might
also rely on the kindness of concierges. "Turn left at the
third coffee cart on this level," I imagine one of them saying.
Finally I have arrived.
There, in WSCTC-2AB, is one of the reasons I am in Seattlea
live broadcast of National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation:
Science Friday. Ira Flatow, the host of the show, is already
seated on a stage at the front of the room.
On the table next to him is a telephone. On top of the telephone
is a small placard with the name "Paul Wentworth, Jr." The
phone is just a prop, of course, but is on stage to indicate
who else is joining the show.
Wentworth, who is a Professor in the Department of Chemistry
at The Scripps Research Institute and the Department of Biochemistry
at the University of Oxford, U.K., is joining the show telephonically
from his office in La Jolla. Shortly before 11 AM, the Talk
of the Nation technical team in Washington, D.C., calls
Wentworth and patches him in live.
Joining Flatow on stage are Bassam Shakhashiri, the William
T. Evjue Distinguished Chair for the Wisconsin Idea and professor
in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin,
Madison; Mary Jo Nye, Horning Professor of the Humanities
in the Department of History at Oregon State University; and
Carl Djerassi, professor emeritus in the Department of Chemistry
at Stanford University.
The three panelists are chatting cordially among themselves,
occasionally suffering interruptions from the producers who
ask them to count to ten or describe what the weather is like
so that they can adjust the sound levels.
"I don't know what the weather is like," says one panelist.
"I haven't been outside."
The sound checks continue. A group of producers and sound
technicians listen intently to their headphones and make the
final adjustments on the mixing boards. On the table with
the producers is a clock, which is facing away from themvisible
to the stage. On the stage, out of sight to the panelists,
is an identical clock, facing the producers.
"Two minutes," says one of the producers. By now the large
hall is filling up, and people begin finding their seats.
A few moments later, one of the producers begins to signal
with a sweeping motion of his hand. The show begins, the familiar
Talk of the Nation theme song starts to roll, and Flatow gives
the voice-over teaser introduction to the hour.
It's so vital we take it for granted, says Flatow. It's
the most abundant element on Earth, though too much can kill
us. It is, of course, oxygen. Flatow identifies himself and
his show, and the broadcast goes immediately to break.
When the audio is back, Flatow gives another recap of the
topic and invites the audience to step up to the microphone.
"This hour we're going to be talking about oxygen," he says.
"Everything you ever wanted to know about itwe hope."
The show begins, and Nye gives a brief history of the discovery
of oxygen. "A classic example of simultaneous discovery,"
she says. Who should get the credit for the discovery of oxygen
is the stuff of great debate even today.
Basically, in the second half of the 18th century, three
scientists more or less discovered oxygen at the same time.
First to isolate oxygen was, in 1772, the Swede Carl Wilhelm
Scheele, who called it "vital air." First to publish his discovery
of oxygen was the English clergyman Joseph Priestly, who,
in 1774, isolated what he called "dephlogisticated air." A
few months later, Priestly visited the French scientist Antoine
Lavoisier, who was the first to understand what Scheele and
Priestly had isolated. Lavoisier coined the word "oxygen"
in 1777 to describe this gas.
After Nye finishes her brief history, the conversation moves
to Djerassi. In addition to being a chemist perhaps most famous
for synthesizing the steroid oral contraceptive most commonly
called "the pill," Djerassi is also a playwright
and the co-author of the play Oxygen. Oxygen
premiered in San Diego a few years ago, and one sold-out show
was packed by students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors
from The Scripps Research Institute.
The play is set in 2001, when a "retro" Nobel prize committee
is fighting over who should be the first non-living scientist
to be awarded the prize in Chemistry, and in 1777, where the
three candidates (Scheele, Priestly, and Lavoisier) are themselves
fighting it out. The sets are sparse, and the players all
play dual roles as the contemporary committee members and
the historical figures.
Djerassi points out that the themes of the play touch broadly
on some of the social aspects of science, such as the question
of what is discovery. The play is also an examination of the
sometimes brutally competitive nature of science, and it touches
on issues of women in the male-dominated field. Djerassi finishes
speaking, the producers signal to the host, and Flatow announces
After the break, Shakhashiri is at the front of the room
for a demonstration. He puts a smoldering splint of wood into
a bottle filled with oxygen, and it bursts into flames. The
audience claps politely. Then Shakhashiri lights a cigarette
and puts that in a beaker. Into this he pours a measure of
faint blue steaming liquidliquid oxygen, he saysand
it sparks, flames, and causes the cigarette to completely
That is what we should do with all cigarettes, Shakhashiri
says. The audience shrieks and screams its applause.
Then Flatow turns to the phone on the table and begins speaking,
remotely, to Wentworth about a recent set of experiments led
by Wentworth and Scripps Research President Richard A. Lerner.
"Dr. Wentworth," Flatow begins, "you have discovered that
there is ozone in our bodies?"
"That's right, Ira," says Wentworth. "Ozone is indeed generated
in the body."
He explains that the reaction is part of an immune defense
mechanism against invading bacteria or viruses that involves
the production of toxic trioxygen species, of which ozone
is one form, and hydrogen peroxide. Ozone, says Wentworth,
is generated by antibodies when they are fed a highly reactive
form of oxygen (singlet oxygen) by immune system neutrophil
or macrophage cells.
Wentworth then goes onto the second part of the story. The
flip side of this pathway, as he calls it, involves the reaction
of ozone with cholesterol and other biological molecules in
the body. These reactions are traceable within the arteries
through the products they makewhich Wentworth, Lerner,
and their colleagues termed the atheronals. Physicians might
one day be able use these atheronals as a marker for late-stage
After this, Flatow opens up the microphone to questions
from the audience and from callers. The second question is
directed to Wentworth. An audience member asks if the ozone
is complexed with the antibody or if it is secreted by the
"The ozone is generated on the antibody and then freely
diffuses away into the environment," Wentworth says. "The
interesting point to that is that you require the macrophages
and the neutrophils to generate the starting pointthe
singlet oxygenthat then binds to the antibody. That
reacts with water [oxidizing it], and from there you generate
ozone as a by-product of this pathway, and that leaks freely
out into the environment and reacts with the bacteria or with
Near the end of the show, Shakhashiri gives another demonstration.
He has a two-liter plastic soda bottle with a little concentrated
hydrogen peroxide in the bottom. Hydrogen peroxide, he explains,
breaks down into water and oxygen very slowly.
But we can use a catalyst to speed up the rate of decomposition,
he says, and he dumps a spoonful of manganese dioxide in the
soda bottle. Concentrated water vapor plumes up to the ceiling
like a jet out of the bottle.
As the hour ends, one of the producers raises his arm and
spins his hand in an elaborate gesture. Those of us outside
of the radio industry have no idea what this means. Then he
sweeps his hand quickly in a strangely universal gesture that
we all understands. We're off the air.
"I quite enjoyed it," Wentworth confided afterwards.
Science Friday is a two-hour show, and so a new panel
quickly takes the stage with Flatow and prepares for the second
hourabout the evolution of dogs. After that hour is
over, the show goes off the air for good and WSCTC-2AB empties
out except for a long line of enthusiasts hoping to shake
Flatow's hand. One of the speakers from the dog panel waits
to the very end to get a digital snapshot with Flatow.
For more information on the program or to listen to the
audio archives, see: http://www.sciencefriday.com/pages/2004/Feb/hour1_021304.html.
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