Good Morning, Seattle!

By Jason Socrates Bardi

"Anyone who isn't confused really doesn't understand the situation."

—Edward 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 of breadcrumbs.

I am in Seattle for the 2004 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science from February 12–16.

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 Seattle—a 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 them—visible 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 it—we 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 another break.

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 liquid—liquid oxygen, he says—and it sparks, flames, and causes the cigarette to completely disintegrate.

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 make—which Wentworth, Lerner, and their colleagues termed the atheronals. Physicians might one day be able use these atheronals as a marker for late-stage cardiovascular disease.

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 macrophages.

"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 point—the singlet oxygen—that 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 biological molecules."

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 hour—about 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.

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Several members of the panel listen to Science Friday host Ira Flatow introduce the show on oxygen. Scripps Research investigator Paul Wentworth is patched in live via telephone. Photo by Jason S. Bardi.