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February 18, 2014

Host: Ted Simons

Krauss on Science

  |   Video
  • Arizona State University physicist Lawrence Krauss makes his monthly visit to the Arizona Horizon set to discuss the latest science news, including news about the oldest star.
  • Lawrence Krauss - Physicist, Arizona State University
Category: Science   |   Keywords: science, krauss, physicist, asu, star, news,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. ASU physicist and best-selling science writer Lawrence Krauss joins us each month to discuss the Earth and stars and, and lots of things in between. And here now is Lawrence Krauss. Good to see you again.

Lawrence Krauss: It's good to be back, as always.

Ted Simons: And I'm glad you are here because I heard last night that we got buzzed by asteroid, and I am thinking, should we have been hiding under our desks?

Lawrence Krauss: If it did get that close, if it hit you, you could not do anything about it, but most likely you wouldn't. There was one that came close that we saw. It's bigger than the one a year ago, in Russia, the size of three football fields or something like that, and it came maybe a million or 2 million miles from the Earth, which is close but no -- but no cigar, and even if it hit the Earth it would not have caused massive devastation. The ones that would cause massive devastation, as we talked about before, would happen much less frequently. But, you may be concerned that we did not know about it until relatively recently.

Ted Simons: Yes, that is -- I'm just saying --

Lawrence Krauss: You look a little worried.

Ted Simons: Yeah. It's nice to know that we found this out but like we found it out late from the game.

Lawrence Krauss: We are trying to build a network, which will allow us to look at asteroids or comets smaller and smaller. We can see kilometer size -- three times the size of this one. But there is a network planned that will go down to things that are meters or so, and we'll be able to know about it in advance, and that would be useful, perhaps. But, as I say, the small ones, there is tons of material every day that hits the Earth. Lots of stuff is hitting the Earth. Most of them don't make it to the ground. In fact, the one, the one that was in Russia, the actual size of the object says that made it to the ground are very small, they burn up in the atmosphere and, and you have to get much bigger before you have to worry about massive devastation, and if, if one of those comes, we'll have maybe a few years of notice, and maybe we can do something about it.

Ted Simons: We’ll do a special show on it.

Lawrence Krauss: Absolutely.

Ted Simons: And quickly, the difference between a comet and Asteroid.

Lawrence Krauss: Comets are large snowballs, asteroids tend to be rocks, they are both coming from the outer part of the solar system. Comets are interesting ice material that, basically, is mostly the water, which may fill up the Earth, and they are all directed to the inner solar system by gravitational systems due to Jupiter or a nearby star, and they come through, and as I say, the frequency of the really large ones, the ones that would really be life threatening for everyone on Earth is 100 million years, and so it's not something that you have to worry about on a daily basis.

Ted Simons: Ok. And they are old, too. Speaking of old, it sounds like there is new research or something regarding older stars, not way out in the hither lands there, but in our own galaxy.

Lawrence Krauss: Our galaxy is old, and we know it's at least 12 billion years old. One of the things I worked on is to determine the age of the galaxy, so, we think that galaxies form within the first billion years or so, or maybe a few hundred million years, after the big bang, and we can look at really old ones far away, but our galaxy may have remnants of really old stars, and doing this stellar archaeology, is a neat new field because we could see how do we know a star is old, the answer is, because it does not have stuff like you and me in it. As I have said, all the elements that make you and I, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, they were not created in the big bang but in the fiery, nuclear furnaces of the cores of stars. The only way they could get into our bodies is if the stars were kind enough to explode, and then they spewed out the material, and then a second and third and fourth generation of stars would use that material and process it. So, all the atoms in the body have been probably through many stars. We are, we are stardust. If we are looking for old stars, we are looking for stars that don't have those heavy elements, and we classify it by the amount of iron in a star. The abundance of iron, and wire looking for stars that have initially one one thousanth, of the abundance of iron of the sun one ten thousandth,ten thousandth. Earlier this month, new reports came from the oldest star that's been discovered in our galaxy, whose abundance of iron is less than one ten millionth of a millionth of the sun, which means the material that made up that star was probably processed in less than one or two generations of stars, so we're looking, we're, we're looking at the remnants of the oldest objects in the University. The first stars that formed that would later collapse into our galaxy.

Ted Simons: Are these original galaxy forming big bang stars or like the second or third generation?

Lawrence Krauss: In order of iron, they have probably gone through one generation, the current one is an upper limit but we're hoping to go back and look at maybe at least the second generation of stars, and maybe in our galaxy, if not the first generation. We need the devices that look at the spectrum of the stars to look for, for very small abundances of heavy elements and this is important because we want to understand how, how all this happens because the first stars to form were probably very different than ours now, if you have a bit of these heavy elements, they affected cooling in the star, and what's called the capacity, the ability of light to travel through a star, and turns out, if you don't have those elements, then you need a really big object to cool, so the biggest stars may have been 100 times the mass of the sun. And they burn in nothing, and in a few million years, but, we don't know for sure, so we're trying to figure out how things process because until we know that, we really won't know how your atoms came into you.

Ted Simons: Well, and we all really should, should know that.

Lawrence Krauss: I have always wanted to know where the atoms came from.

Ted Simons: You and me both. So basically, these grandpa stars, these really first generation stars, most of them were supernovas before anyone knew that they existed?

Lawrence Krauss: Yeah, the bigger the star, the quicker it burns, so a star ten times the mass of the sun burns 1,000 times faster, so the sun will last 10 billion years, one of those stars would only last 10 million years, and that's important because they had to recycle. You could not get stars like us, and planets, rocky planets around them until you had the heavy materials. So if it took 10 billion years for the first generations of stars to be around, we would not be having this conversation today.

Ted Simons: That is fascinating. Something else that's going on, I want to get information on, this idea of, of making a primordial soup out of smashing -- everyone wants to smash atoms together, and now we can make primordial soup?

Lawrence Krauss: It tastes very good.

Ted Simons: I'm sure it does.

Lawrence Krauss: It has been done, and what we're trying to do, we smash individual protons together, to look at their constituents, but one of the things that we want to do, is make, is smash a big object big enough together to contain many particles to see protons are made of particles, and one of the things we're trying to understand that may have happened in the first millionth of a second, is early on the only particles around were these, but at some point, it formed protons and neutrons. The way it happens is a process of melting, almost, and what we want to do, and with two protons, you cannot take a big enough region to get things hot enough to melt the protons and neutrons in a way you can measure. So, what they do at Brookhaven is smash -- they do, remember, anti-alchemy wanted to turn that into gold? Well, these contain so many protons and neutrons, that they can heat up a whole region to many trillions of degrees, the same temperature the University had when it was a millionth of a millionth of a second old. Over a large enough region that we can kind of create almost like a mini big bang. It's not a universe, but it's just like what our universe was like.

Ted Simons: I'm ready to hide under the desk because this sounds like you are creating another big bang, and you know what's going to break loose because some guys –

Lawrence Krauss: When two gold atoms meet, they produce a microscopically small region, which we can study, but the universe had all the mass that we can see. You are not going to create another big bang when you smash these together, and you are also not going to creating some that people are worried about, somehow creating these primordial black holes that would eat the whole Earth. One of the reasons that we know that does not happen, is in cosmic rays right now, we're being bombarded by lots of things, iron, all sorts of things coming from supernova, elsewhere in the galaxy coming with the high end energy as we produced at Brookhaven. The moon has been there for 4.5 billion years, the fact that it's there, and every year it's getting collisions from these nuclei, the fact that it's there tells us that we don't have to worry about producing the same collisions.

Ted Simons: Have, has it happened yet? Are we learning anything yet?

Lawrence Krauss: There has been tentative bits of data that have, have suggested exactly how corks break into protons but it has been sparse. What's happened is that Brookhaven geared up to have a much more -- in order to make these collide, it's hard to get two atoms to hit together. And, and create a collision, so, they cool these things down to close to absolute zero, and they use a lot of neat techniques to make sure that you got beams very narrow, and then you can get enough collisions to study it. That's the new development. They have been able to cool these things down, and we can -- and they are about to collide, and get as much data in a single run as we have gotten in the last 12 years.

Ted Simons: Wow. And we saw a photo of Brookhaven there. Is that, is that compared to the hedron, anything close?

Lawrence Krauss: No, it does not have as much energy per particle but because it can, it can produce a lot more particles, the amount of energy is comparable.

Ted Simons: Ok, and last thing, what is historical science?

Lawrence Krauss: Yeah, you know, there was recently a debate by a well-known creationist, Ken, the founder of this silly museum in Kentucky called the creation museum. And what he and others like to say, is that somehow, when we talk about our origins, it's different than when we talk about physics and chemistry in the laboratory because who was there? Who was there when, when life originated or when the Earth originated? But, it's a scam. It's a red herring. You know, science doesn't just tell a story. If it did just tell a story about the past, it would be historical. But, what it does is, is make, take that, that past data, whether it's obtained in the laboratory yesterday or from 5 billion years ago, and make predictions and observation that is we haven't yet done, which we can do tomorrow. It predicts the future, not the past, and even, even observations that you think are current, you can call historical science. And we can validate, let me give you an example. From evolution, one of the biggest things is that, is that the great apes have a different number of chromosomes, and we have 23, and they have 24. And now, if we have a common ancestor, at some point, what must have happened is the common ancestors chromosomes, two of them must have merged to form one to make, go from 24 to 23. What you can look for, chromosomes have at their end, things called telomeres, the ends of chromosomes and centromeres, so if two merged in the human code, there must be one chromosome that has, in its center, what looked like the telomeres of two of the great egg chromosomes, and at one quarter way across and three quarters of the way across, two versions of the middle ones, we can test it and find it, so, it's not looking in the past but looking in the present. But, it tells us what happened about the past. And so, to argue that evolutionary biology or astronomy are different than the chemistry and physics you do in the laboratory is to misunderstand science, science looks at observations not yet been done, whether it's evolutionary or cosmology or whatever, and those could be tested, and they allow us to then make new technology, whether it's new vaccines or new, new cars.

Ted Simons: So when those who, who promote historical science, say it's simply observation versus experiment, you can observe with these kinds of things but when you do it in a lab, that's not necessarily -- that becomes --

Lawrence Krauss: That's true, an experiment is different than an observation, in the laboratory you can twister the knobs and you have more control but that does not mean that you cannot do science. If you can falsify, you make an observation, and you say ok, well, I don't have complete control, but based on the observation, I can predict what's going to happen when I do an experiment like I do in the laboratory with the genes or, or I do an experiment by observing the sun. Then I am making a prediction that I can falsify. And if that prediction is true, it tells me that my observation is, is, basically, in the right direction. And, you know, even things that we see today, when we look at the sun, look at the sun now, and, and here in Phoenix, we get a lot of sun, and you look, it looks like an observation making what's happening today so it's not historical science. The sun is shining today. Turns out if you work out the physics of the sun, which we can test, we predict that it takes, you know how long it takes for the light to come from the center of the sun to the outside?

Ted Simons: No.

Ted Simons: Where it's emitted in the nuclear actions of the core, a million years. So when we're looking at the sun we're doing historical science because that was generated a million years ago and if the Earth was 6,000 years old like this guy thinks, the sun would not be shining as it is today. So you want to do an experiment to prove the sun, the world is older than 6,000 years? Look at the sun.

Ted Simons: So basically, what you are saying is science is observation and experiment.

Lawrence Krauss: And experiment, testing -- observation and prediction and testing with experiment. That's, that all goes together, and every one of the sciences, geology, biology, physics, chemistry, they are the same.

Ted Simons: And science includes hiding under your desk if that Asteroid gets too close.

Lawrence Krauss: Yeah, and you could do the prediction of if it hits you will discover that it hit.

Ted Simons: Good to see you again.

Lawrence Krauss: Thanks.

Sustainability: Recovered Phosphorus

  |   Video
  • Phosphorus is a key ingredient in fertilizer used to grow our food, but the supply is finite and shortages could disrupt our food chain. Arizona State University professors James Elser and Bruce Rittmann have recommended a three-part solution to this looming crisis, which involves recovering phosphorus from agricultural and human waste. Elser and Rittman will discuss their proposal.
  • James Elser - Professor, Arizona State University
  • Bruce Rittmann - Professor, Arizona State University
Category: Sustainability   |   Keywords: sustainability, solution, human, waste, fertilizer, growth, food, phosphorus,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Tonight's focus on sustainability looks at the future of phosphorus, a key ingredient in fertilizer which makes it a key ingredient in food Production but scientists are concerned a dwindling supply of readily mined phosphorus represents a danger, two professors recommended a three-part solution. It involves recycling phosphours from the food system. Joining me are James Elser, a regents' professor in the school of life science, and Bruce Rittman, a regents' professor in the Biodesign Institute, and director of the Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology. Ok, phosphorus, and real quickly, what is it?

James Elser: It is a chemical element, it's, it's added to the list of elements that, that the professor mentioned just recently. It is used in all kinds of things, especially in DNA, and nucleic acids, your body has a pound and a half, and plants use it to make their DNA, so every living thing needs it. And including crops.

Ted Simons: And it's extracted from rocks, correct?

Bruce Rittman: That's right. And almost all of the phosphorus used today in agriculture, is, is mined, mainly from Morocco, worldwide these days.

Ted Simons: And now, is there enough in Morocco and the rest of the world to keep us going or -- it sounds like there is a concern?

Bruce Rittman: There is. It's not a problem that we'll run out of phosphorus in the next year or so but what's happening is that the really high quality, high grade phosphorus is being mined out, as we move to the future we'll be forced to use lower grade phosphorus, much more expensive to mine.

Ted Simons: And I would imagine the dynamics could change greatly if phosphorus is the new oil?

James Elser: Right, so the countries that have it, they control 90% of the global phosphate rock reserves, and OPEC, which everyone is familiar with, petroleum, that's about 13 countries, controlling 75% of known reserves, so the phosphate rock market is more concentrated, if you will, so that's a matter of concern. Everything is fine now, they are a stable Government, a pretty friendly trade partner but you never know, and the question is, should we rely on the long-term stability of that or think of other ways to diversify the supply.

Ted Simons: And it sounds like you have thought of other ways to diversify it? Give us some ideas regarding the solution.

Bruce Rittman: Well, so most of the phosphorus mined is used in agriculture, but, only a small fraction of that, actually, makes it into the food that, that we eat. So, most of the, most of it is lost along the way, run off, into erosion from the land, goes into animals, and animal waste, and a certain amount of human waste, so, most of the phosphorus is, actually, lost, and this is the phosphorus that we would like to recover, and we can recycle it and create a closed loop.

Ted Simons: And when you say recycle, and again, let's start with seaweed, sewage, these things.

James Elser: Well, sewage recycling of phosphorus is getting started. There is companies out there doing that commercially now, and we're waiting wastewater treatment plants, and a company called Astar that operates out of the Casa Grande wastewater plants, so that's coming online and expanding. The big problem is animal waste, and manure. And so, I think for every pound of meat there is 100,250 pounds of manure generated in that process. And what we have done in agriculture over the last several decades, 50 or years or so is where as we have concentrated livestock Production, in certain regions of the country, and so, you cannot bring that manure back to where it needs to be in Kansas or Iowa or wherever where grains and corn or Etc. are grown, and so, there is too much manure in some places, and not enough fertilizer manure in others, so, that recycling loop has been broken. It used to operate on, on, you know, the family farm, it used to have a live mixture, and crops.

Ted Simons: Can that recycling loop be repaired if you find a way? I know run-off is a big concern here with algae and the whole nine yards. If you find a way to control the run-off and control the cattle, itself, that sounds like a closed system, doesn't it?

Bruce Rittman: It is, and the solution for cattle and pigs and other, other animals, is much closer at hand. One of the big advantages with those streams that they are concentrated, so, we have the materials in one place, and we can capture the, the phosphorus, and also, by the way, capture a lot of renewable energy at the same time. And then we want to make a concentrated, high quality stream of phosphorus to return back to agriculture. The erosion is much more challenging. It's diffused, and we can make major progress but it's more difficult.

Ted Simons: But, is that where it's way out there in the future?

James Elser: Probably, it's, it's -- we've been working on soil erosion for a long time, and we have to take better care of agricultural soils and, and all kinds of things are being implemented. Difference practices, and Etc., are being developing to get better ways of thinking about how to treat the soil better to maintain the quality, so that we don't lose phosphorus in that way, so that's the one thing, but it's challenging, and the recycling pathways, we discussed, the second aspect, and we think that that's faster, we'll get there sooner. And the other thing that would, good, and the other thing that, besides manure is to recycle from food waste. About 30 to 50% of food is wasted before, between Production and consumption, both in the developed world and in the developing world. And that waste, usually, doesn't go back. The phosphorus doesn't go back to the field but to a landfill or somewhere else. So, we need technologies that can also operate on food waste.

Ted Simons: And speaking of food, I noticed reducing the consumption of meat in and of itself. Is a solution, is a plan.

Bruce Rittman: Yes, of course. Because, there is a large amount of green that has to be grown to feed the animals, to grow the animals. And of course, only a small amount of the, of the, of that ends up in the animals that we eat, so we end up processing a tremendous amount of, of agricultural material, and the fertilizer that goes on the field. So this would be a way to reduce the demand for phosphorus.

Ted Simons: How far can all these -- how far can they go?

Bruce Rittman: Well, we think that, that, if you took a staged approach on this. We could probably reap cycle about 90% of the phosphorus being lost, on this and not only would this recycle the phosphorus, which would be a great benefit to our agricultural system, but it would also be capturing a lot of water pollution that's just going off in the erosion and also with the animal waste. So, we would be getting a double benefit for the sustainability of agriculture and the environment.

Ted Simons: And the expense of capturing, close to 90%, what kind of cost says are involved here?

James Elser: There is going to be a long process of technology development, innovation, and that needs to be put in place, you know, so, some of Bruce's work and others around ASU and other universities, are bringing these technologies, and they involve bioreactors, and microbes going to grind up this, this food waste, for example, or manure on the farm, and in the process, produce bioenergy sources and then a concentrated solution of nitrogen and phosphorus that can be pulled out and brought into recycling. We sort of see a whole new job sector or industrial sector born once this recycling is in place, sort in food districts and towns. They will be, there will be things out in the neighborhood, or down the street where people put food waste, for example, and someone will have to tend to all of that and keep it running.

Ted Simons: And with that in mind, is this issue, do you think, is it starting to inch above the radar a bit? Are folks paying attention out there?

Bruce Rittman: Well, we're paying attention out there and we have a whole network of people around the world who are paying attention, and ASU is the leader in what's known as a research collaboration network on phosphorus, so, we found people around the world who are interested and, and clearly, in the popular realm it needs to be elevated further, but, there is a lot of interest.

Ted Simons: How do you do that and elevate this in the popular realm?

James Elser: I don't know. Come on shows, I guess. We have pins here, pins, p for people, and we can give you one later. So, I don't know. We are going to have to communicate all this, and I think people will recognize, municipalities. Less wastewater, less waste streams coming into the landfills. Cleaner water. More jobs for people. Seems to me like a good idea.

Ted Simons: And really, before you go, again, I noticed in your report about this, that you have like two different futures here if this issue is not addressed. The first future, if it's not addressed looks like it's pretty clamorous stuff.

James Elser: Yes, so if we don't implement the, the recycling pathways, we're going to have food riots, and contesting over that, and bad water quality, so it seems like those are two futures we can choose from.

Ted Simons: Good to have you here, and thanks for joining us.