Bush Calls for Less Foreign Oil, More Renewables/ Jeff Young
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President Bush says we need to break our oil habit and invest in clean energy. But most renewable energy advocates say his proposal doesn't sound like a successful 12-step program. Jeff Young reports from Washington. (07:30)
The Road to Hydrogen
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In his State of the Union address, President Bush called for more research on hydrogen fuel cells. This isn’t the first time the president focused on hydrogen: in his first term in office, Mr. Bush set aside more than a billion dollars for fuel cell research. Bob Rose of the Breakthrough Technologies Institute talks with Living on Earth host Steve Curwood about the state of fuel cell technology and when he expects a hydrogen car will be on the road. (04:30)
Gagged Climate Expert
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Dr. James Hansen has been studying climate change at NASA since the late 60's and was one of the first scientists to warn about rising global temperatures. Recently though, he says the White House has been trying to squelch his message. Dr. Hansen talks with host Steve Curwood about approaching the climate change “tipping point.” (08:15)
Sounds of Silence/ Bonnie Auslander
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Commentator Bonnie Auslander on the pros and cons of snowblowers. (04:00)
Smoke Gets in Your Lungs/ Ashley Ahearn
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California is the first state in the U.S. to declare secondhand smoke a toxic air contaminant. EPA research has shown that exposure is linked with asthma, abnormal cardiovascular development, and breast cancer in pre-menopausal women. Living on Earth's Ashley Ahearn reports. (05:00)
Emerging Science Note/Asian Big Foot/ Rachel Gotbaum
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Is Big Foot back? Maybe in Malaysia. Rachel Gotbaum reports. (01:30)
The Chemistry of Love
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New research show that when people talk about relationship chemistry they really are talking about chemicals. Steve Curwood talks with Helen Fisher of Rutgers University to find the science behind love at first sight and happily ever after. (15:00)
Courting elk in Yellowstone National Park.
HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Bob Rose, James Hansen, Helen Fisher
REPORTERS: Jeff Young , Ashley Ahearn
COMMENTATOR: Bonnie Auslander
NOTE: Rachel Gotbaum
CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Butterflies in your tummy? Juices flowing? Head in the clouds? Got that fire down below? Might as well admit it—you’re addicted to love. But wait, today we offer a genuine scientific explanation for your cravings and why it all seems so complicated.
FISHER: What I find most remarkable about these three drives; the sex drive, romantic love, and attachment, is that they’re often unconnected. You can feel a powerful sense of attachment for a partner, while you feel intense romantic love for somebody else, while you feel the sex drive for a whole range of people. So, this is what gets the human animal in so much trouble.
CURWOOD: It’s the nature and chemistry of romantic love, and another addiction that’s big in America: oil. President Bush wants us to kick the habit. Those stories and more… this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
President Bush sure didn’t sound like a Texas oilman in his State of the Union address:
BUSH: Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. Here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.
CURWOOD: Instead of calling for an expansion of domestic oil supply as he has in past speeches, the president talked about alternative energy, better batteries to power hybrid cars, and a more efficient form of ethanol.
CURWOOD: But critics note that many presidents have pledged to cut foreign oil imports and failed. And U.S. imports from the Middle East are only a little less than 20 percent of our total oil imports. Our Washington correspondent Jeff Young joins us now to sift through the rhetoric and to talk about where the president’s proposals might be headed. Welcome, Jeff
YOUNG: Hi, Steve.
CURWOOD: Jeff, "moving beyond a petroleum economy"….That sounds like it should be music to the ears of people who’ve been pushing alternative energy. What do they say?
YOUNG: Well, you’d think, but it’s a mixed reaction. I spoke with a number of people in the renewable and alternative energy field. Groups wanting more biofuels, especially this new ethanol that uses things like corn stalks, they’re excited by this. One group called it "visionary," but that was the minority voice here.
The more typical response was that the president has some nice rhetoric, but he’s short on substance and a little late to this game. Jerome Ringo leads the Apollo Alliance. It’s a coalition of labor, environment and business groups who want more renewable energy. Ringo was, shall we say, under-whelmed.
RINGO: It was just too little from the president. I think he’s just trying to get on a train that has already pulled out from the station. The president realizes that. So I think that though his idea is a good one but it was a modest proposal at best.
CURWOOD: Why such a lukewarm response?
YOUNG: Partly because it’s not a very big increase in spending compared to other energy spending. Do you remember the Energy Act from last year? It gave nuclear and fossil fuels about seven billion dollars in tax breaks and subsidies. From what we’ve learned so far from the Department of Energy about these new increases, it’s about 524 million dollars compared to the current fiscal year. A little more than half of that is going to so-called “clean coal” technology programs. The mining industry is happy. But clean coal is not generally considered alternative energy. So, you take that out. That leaves about 190 million dollars for things like wind, solar, biofuels and hydrogen.
CURWOOD: Not big money maybe, but big increases?
YOUNG: It’s big for some sectors. The president clearly is continuing his push for research into hydrogen and fuel cells; they’re getting a $53 million dollar increase. Solar is also a winner. Folks at the Solar Energy Industries Association say this would boost solar R&D by 80 percent. However, Bush budgets in previous years held solar research flat. So this big boost, if it happens, would more or less return them to the kind of funding they once enjoyed a decade or so ago. That’s why the American Council on Renewable Energy is less enthusiastic. They call this a "relatively minor" increase. And they suspect there may be cuts to other renewable energy projects buried somewhere else in the budget.
But it’s not just the money that’s drawing criticism here – it’s that there’s little policy to go with it. I talked about this with Phil Sharp. He’s a former congressman who now leads Resources for the Future, a non-partisan think tank here in Washington.
SHARP: What is missing here are additional incentives, a reform of the fuel economy standards, that will make sure that what technology is developed, already out there, actually gets used for the benefit of the economy or for fuel efficiency.
CURWOOD: Jeff, I believe there are other proposals on hybrid cars and bio-fuels in Congress right now. Did these proposals get a boost from what the president talked about?
YOUNG: I think that’s a very good possibility. There’s a bill that has strong bipartisan support that’s similar to what the president’s outlined here, except it has more market incentives. The sponsors want the president to get on board. Also, just looking around at the public mood on energy these days, it seems like the kind of atmosphere where a politician would want to look like he’s doing something on this.
CURWOOD: Right, everybody is talking about high gas prices, high home heating oil prices – and record profits from the oil companies. Exxon Mobil recently posted a profit of, what, some 36 billion dollars?
YOUNG: And don’t forget: it’s election year for Congress. So add that up and I think you have a good chance for more market incentives for ethanol and hybrid cars. However, as far as actually raising fuel efficiency standards— the administration is still opposed to that, and I think it’s still a long shot. And if you talk to a lot of energy analysts, they’ll tell you, if you’re serious about addressing an oil addiction, raising fuel efficiency standards is probably your first step on any 12-step program.
CURWOOD: You know, Jeff, this speech was also interesting for what the president did not say. For example, I didn’t hear his call for more oil drilling, and I also heard very little about Hurricane Katrina’s effects on energy. How did people respond to that?
YOUNG: Well, a lot of people have remarked on this fairly important shift in rhetoric. But that does not mean that that’s the end of those old issues. We’re definitely going to see more pushing for drilling in the Arctic Refuge and more push for offshore drilling. Those old fights are going to be back. But there’s also going to be a new fight pertaining to Hurricane Katrina and energy. That is, just who gets the money from drilling? In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana’s Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu has just been hammering away on this issue.
LANDRIEU: A fair share of the billions of dollars that our state generates right off of our shores to keep the Treasury of the United States full and the lights on from New York to California to Chicago. (applause)
YOUNG: So, what Landrieu’s arguing is if her state got more of the royalties from off shore drilling then the state could cover the costs of storm recovery. But that is a major source of federal revenue and if you tamper with that, you’re going to make a lot of powerful people very uneasy.
CURWOOD: Jeff Young is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent. Thank you, Jeff.
YOUNG: You’re welcome.
CURWOOD: As we just heard, President Bush is promising more funds for research to develop cars powered by hydrogen. It’s not the first time Mr. Bush has pushed hydrogen as a technical fix for the nation’s energy woes. In his State of the Union address back in 2003, he targeted $1.2 billion dollars to work on getting hydrogen fuel cells to market.
BUSH: A simple chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen generates energy, which can be used to power a car – producing only water, not exhaust fumes. With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free. (Applause.)
CURWOOD: To gauge where we stand in hydrogen fuel cell technology, we turn to Bob Rose. He heads the Breakthrough Technologies Institute, and he directs the U.S. Fuel Cell Council, the business association for the fuel cell industry. Welcome to Living on Earth, Mr. Rose.
ROSE: Thank you for having me.
CURWOOD: You’re welcome. So the president has long talked about increasing research funding for alternative vehicles, including that money he called for in 2003. Has this just been talk, or has he made good on that promise?
ROSE: I think the president deserves some credit for making good, at least in his budget submissions to Congress. He has used that 1.2 billion dollars as his roadmap, and every year there has been a moderately increasing amount of money proposed for hydrogen and fuel cells. The challenge we have is that Congress has not always given him everything he asked and, in some cases, has redirected a significant portion of that money to favorite local programs, otherwise known as pork barrel programs.
CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, and some critics say this, it may well be some 20 years before a hydrogen-fueled car is commercially viable. It only took us, what, nine years to put a man on the moon when we decided to do that. Why is this project taking so long?
ROSE: Well, one wag said it was easier to put a man on the moon. I’m not so sure. But I think there are a lot of factors.
This is an industry that’s already entrenched in the marketplace and so, while I think the auto industry understands that developing hybrid vehicles in the short-term and hydrogen vehicles in the longer term is the right strategy – certainly they’re all committed to hydrogen vehicles – you know, there’s a certain tension there. They’re making money in the marketplace right now.
So, could one do it in nine years if one devoted, say, 30 billion dollars rather than one billion dollars to it? Well, you can’t rush science but you can hurry technology along, and it’s possible that we could accelerate this effort. On the other hand, there are some things that need to be done and some problems that need to be solved that are going to take us some time.
CURWOOD: How is the hydrogen research development faring at this point? I mean, okay, Mr. Bush asks for more funding, but how well is the process doing?
ROSE: If you just look at the research there has been substantial progress, particularly on fuel cell cost and durability. Hydrogen storage remains a challenge, and there are a lot of people pursuing an enormous number of ideas on that subject. But if you look away from the research for a minute and look at the kinds of vehicles that the auto industry itself is developing and putting on the road for tests, a lot of the problems seem to be on their way to solution.
For example, Honda just showed a car last fall at the auto show that achieves a 350 mile range basically with technology that’s more or less off the shelf today; they have made some modifications and some improvements on it. But a 350 mile range is a very good range. It’s certainly better than a Ford 150 will get you.
The cost issue seems to be going away. General Motors has said that cost will not be a barrier. But I think the most significant benchmark is that the auto industry is promising again – you know, back in the 90s some of the auto companies said, “well, we’re going to solve this problem in ten years.” And it’s proved to be tougher than that. But if you look at what the auto industry is saying today: General Motors is saying we’ll have the technology ready for commercial production by 2010; Ballard, the leading independent engine maker, is saying pretty much the same thing; DaimlerChrysler’s saying 2012; Honda just put out a press release saying that it would begin manufacturing fuel cell vehicles in small numbers in three or four years.
So, it seems to me that is much better a benchmark of our progress than the government’s research or, indeed, the hopes and fears of the various commentators around the world.
CURWOOD: Bob Rose is executive director of the Breakthrough Technologies Institute. He also directs the U.S. Fuel Cell Council, the business association for the fuel cell industry. Thank you, sir.
ROSE: Thank you very much.
[MUSIC: The Notwist “Consequence” from ‘Semper Satago’ (Domino – 2005)]
CURWOOD: The White House prefers he remain silent, but a prominent scientist continues to speak out about the eminent danger from climate change. A conversation with James Hansen is just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: The Lounge Lizards “The Birds Near Her House” from ‘Queen of All Ears’ (Strange & Beautiful – 1998)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Back in 1988 as the United States was scorching under the impact of the worst drought in 50 years, the head of NASA’s Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen, took the microphone at a U.S. Senate hearing on a sweltering summer day.
“It's time to stop waffling so much and say the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here,” Dr. Hansen told senators as the network television cameras buzzed. And before long, people started talking about the phenomenon we now call global warming.
James Hansen has continued to be outspoken through the years and, most recently, he’s been in the news alleging that the Bush administration has been trying to silence his latest warnings about climate change. James Hansen joins me from New York City where he still heads NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and has been studying climate change since, what, 1967?
HANSEN: Uh yes, since I got my degree in '67.
CURWOOD: What should we be concerned about now? Are we reaching a point of no return?
HANSEN: I think that we are. I think that if we continue on the path of business as usual for another decade it will be impractical to keep the global warming less than one degree Celsius. And the reason that’s an important level is that’s the most warming that we’ve had in the last 700,000 years, and probably the last million years. We just don’t have the data for the full million years. But we know that the changes in that period, although they’re significant, they’re probably something we could adapt to.
But if you start talking two or three degrees Celsius, then you’re really talking about a different planet from the one we know. There would be no sea ice in the Arctic in the summer and fall. That means the species that live there now – polar bears, the seals that live on sea ice, and reindeer on the tundra – they would not be able to survive. So it’s like the million-year flood; it’s never happened in the past century. So, were talking large regional changes.
And for people, well, we can adapt. I mean, we can move from New York to Atlanta and the climate is different but we can certainly survive there, and we notice the difference. But for the wildlife and the trees and things that have adapted to a particular climate, they don’t move as easily. It’s not a good idea to have a climate change of that magnitude that quickly.
CURWOOD: What is the point, if there is such a point, where we won’t be able to reverse the impact of global warming? And how do you measure that?
HANSEN: Yeah, that’s a very important question, and one that we’ve only begun to debate the last year or so. And my argument is that that point is at a warming of about one degree Celsius warmer than it is now. That to some people is surprisingly small, and we’re surprisingly close to it.
CURWOOD: I believe one time you gave a talk at the Society of Environmental Journalists where you said, ‘you know, the ice core samples out of Greenland show that we may have shifted from the previous Ice Age temperature regime to something much warmer in as short as a hundred years or maybe even 30 years.’ I mean, are we looking at abrupt climate change in various places?
HANSEN: Well, the rate of change right now is extremely high and it’s difficult to say how it compares with some times in the past when we don’t have the time resolution. But I would be very surprised if there were more rapid rates of change in the past because if you look at how fast the greenhouse gases are increasing, there’s simply nothing in the record that approaches this.
That’s the big issue because if we continue on this path, which is business as usual, with the rate of emissions, of greenhouse gasses, continuing to increase at a couple of percent per year; then this century we would have warming of two and a half or three degrees Celsius. Once we get that kind of temperature we’ll be having a sea level change at a rate of probably a few meters per century. So we would have a continually changing shoreline which would be extremely difficult to live with. You can’t easily adapt to that sort of a situation.
So, we really need to avoid staying on a business-as-usual scenario. We’d have to slow down the rate of growth of CO2 emissions and flatten that out within the next decade or two, and before the middle of the century we would have to have a significantly decreasing rate of CO2 emissions. In addition, we would have to get some absolute decrease in the other large climate forcings, and that means, in particular, methane and tropospheric ozone and black soot.
But there are other good reasons to try to decrease those non-CO2 forcings. So, I think that significant decreases, again I’m not advocating specific policies, that’s not my job but I can say how the forcings would have to change in order to keep us from passing the point of no return. What I’m saying that we’re going to have to start now.
CURWOOD: Now recently you told the New York Times that the Bush administration has been trying to silence you about your findings on climate change and the implications for public policy. What’s going on?
HANSEN: Well, the public affairs office at NASA headquarters has put unusual restrictions on me with regard to speaking to the media, requiring that any request for interview be that I not respond to it, but rather just to send it to headquarters. And they would have the right of first refusal, which means someone there will actually do the interview rather than me. I have some objection to that because that policy has not been enforced on other people.
So that’s what the discussion has been about. The restrictions on communications have become unusually severe in the last year or two. And it certainly applies to other agencies as well as NASA. You don’t hear a lot about it. I can understand that scientists are reluctant to complain about it. And you know, most scientists are not affected because it’s only the messages which are sensitive that are restricted.
CURWOOD: James Hansen, how concerned are you about getting fired now for speaking out?
HANSEN: (Laughs) I am concerned about it. The reason I was late for this interview was that I was checking with a lawyer what I could say and what I couldn’t. But I’m more concerned about how we will be judged in the future if we don’t say what we know. One fellow told me that history will not judge us very well if we pass the tipping point, the point of no return, and the public simply wasn’t aware of the dangers that we were facing. I don’t want my grandchildren to say ‘Opa understood what was going to happen but didn’t succeed in warning people about it.’
CURWOOD: James Hansen is director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies and leads the climate research there at Columbia University where the Goddard group is based. Thank you, sir.
CURWOOD: In response to Dr. Hansen’s allegations, Dean Acosta, deputy assistant administrator for public affairs at the space agency, has told the press that there has been no effort to silence Dr. Hansen and that NASA promotes openness and speaks with the facts.
[MUSIC: Loscil “Sickbay” from ‘Kompilation’ (Kranky – 2004)]
CURWOOD: Climate change. Climate disruption. Global warming. Call it what you want, but it all means weather that is other than what you’re used to. In the Washington, D.C. area, for example, there are already blossoms on some of the cherished cherry trees. And so far this winter, the region has seen below average snowfall. But there has been enough of the white stuff to give commentator Bonnie Auslander something to think about.
AUSLANDER: It felt good to have the winter sun warm my neck and to hear the sound of my shovel scraping along the concrete, but after 15 straight minutes of lifting wet, heavy snow, I had to take a break. Besides, I had errands to run, and I figured I’d do the rest when I came back.
When I got home, though, the entire sidewalk was bare, surrounded by angled walls. It looked like someone had helped himself to a long strip of white sheet cake. It didn’t take long to figure out who: my neighbor Jim had been by with his snowblower. “I can do the whole sidewalk in just 10 minutes with one of these babies,” he boasted when he appeared a few minutes later, patting the top of the contraption like it was a snowpile-eating puppy.
I thanked him, of course, but inside I felt disappointed. And amused. Here was my neighbor, fondling a machine that filled our yards with a nerve-grating roar and the stench of gasoline. Yet this is the same sweet elderly man who always makes his dog – the real one, I mean – sit still so my toddler can pat him, and who in the summer brings over cherry tomatoes from his garden.
I was caught in a paradox. I knew I should be happy that Jim wouldn’t be dropping dead from a heart attack after shoveling, and I recognize that it was easy for me to romanticize snow removal because I didn’t have to do it very often. Yet I mourned the older, quieter days, apparently more than he did. All of which led me to ponder the flavors of silence.
On an unmechanized Amish farm, it’s the first thing that captures your attention, much like the saying that silence is the sound after the baby stops crying. Or is silence really just as simple as no noise? Once, I heard a film editor explain that in the movies a subtle sound conveys the feeling of silence so much better than the total absence of noise. For example, want to get across surreal stillness after an explosion? You need to pump up the sound of tiny pebbles as they hit the ground.
So maybe we need a small noise campaign so that we can all appreciate the quiet better, especially that muffled silence after a snowfall. I’ll start. I’ll wait till Jim goes inside, then sneak to my back-yard walkway, still untouched by his machine. And I’m going to listen very, very carefully to the sound of silence. To the sound of wind moving across the snow. To the sound of one woman, shoveling. She sounds happy.
CURWOOD: Commentator Bonnie Auslander shovels to the sounds of silence at her home in Bethesda, Maryland.
[MUSIC: Lisa Germano “Crash” from ‘Slide’ (4AD – 1998)]
CURWOOD: Secondhand tobacco smoke is now considered under California law to be an air pollutant – right up there with vehicle exhaust, arsenic, lead and a host of other toxins. The state’s Air Resources Board made it official on January 26th. The move is likely to lead to further limits on the places where smokers can light up in California. Living on Earth’s Ashley Ahearn reports.
AHEARN: For these residents of the San Francisco Bay area, the news made perfect sense.
MAN1: Doesn’t surprise me at all. I mean, I think it’s been known for quite a while that secondhand smoke is very toxic.
WOMAN1: No, it doesn’t surprise me. I still can’t believe there’s cigarettes on the market.
WOMAN2: No, it doesn’t me.
MAN2: I think it’s certainly appropriate. It is a toxic pollutant and it should be regulated as such.
AHEARN: And the research backs them up. It’s shown for some time that secondhand smoke can cause lung and nasal cancers, heart disease and asthma, among other illnesses. More recent research has found secondhand smoke to have negative health consequences for pre-menopausal women and their children. In April of last year, California Environmental Health scientists synthesized the results of the new research. Dr. Melanie Marty headed the study.
AHEARN: Dr. Marty adds that even if you don’t get asthma as a child from exposure to secondhand smoke, studies show you could develop it as an adult. Other studies Marty’s team reviewed found a link between secondhand smoke breast cancer in pre-menopausal women.
MARTY: There’s 14 studies that we looked at that separated women out by age or menopausal status and 13 of those 14 find an elevated risk; and at least half of those are what we term statistically significant. The average risk turns out to be about 68 percent higher risk for nonsmoking women regularly exposed to secondhand smoke versus nonsmoking women not exposed to secondhand smoke.
AHEARN: Recent studies have linked exposure to secondhand smoke during pregnancy to premature birth and low birth weight, factors that can lead to a host of other infant health problems including stunted heart growth, abnormal lung development and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Dr. Stan Glantz is a professor of cardiology at the University of San Francisco and was on the panel that reviewed Dr. Marty’s findings.
GLANTZ: A cigarette is like a little toxic waste dump on fire. I mean, that’s the way I think of it. And it puts huge amounts of highly toxic chemicals into the environment, either indoors or outdoors.
AHEARN: Dr. Glantz predicts this new research, especially the work supporting links between secondhand smoke and breast cancer, will lead people to change their behavior when it comes to tobacco smoke exposure.
GLANTZ: If you have a teenage daughter living at home do you want to be increasing her risk of breast cancer just because you need to suck on a cigarette when you could just go outside and avoid that risk? And I think that this may well say to teenage girls who are going out on dates that they don’t want their boyfriends smoking around them, and they don’t want to be going to places where people are smoking. And, you know, that’s a very powerful message.
AHEARN: David Howard, a spokesman for tobacco producer RJ Reynolds, says there’s no research to support California’s move to declare secondhand smoke a toxic air contaminant. And for Californians? It’s too early to tell what kind of regulations will result from the new designation. But smokers aren’t likely to have police busting into their living rooms any time soon. For Living on Earth, I’m Ashley Ahearn.
[MUSIC: Sheila Hancock “My Last Cigarette” from ‘The Transatlantic Story’ (Transatlantic Records – 2005)]
CURWOOD: Just ahead: it’s chemistry, right, when we fall in love? And guess what? Researchers have identified some of the precise molecules involved, and how understanding them could improve our love lives. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Rachel Gotbaum.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
GOTBAUM: Bigfoot or big joke? The Malaysian government intends to find out.
For several generations, indigenous groups in southern Malaysia have reported the existence of a ten-foot tall, hairy, ape-like creature that walks on two legs. Amid several recent sightings and almost daily media headlines, local government officials have decided to investigate the Bigfoot rumors. The habitat of choice for the Asian Bigfoot is Endau-Rompin National Park, a rainforest roughly the size of the island of Singapore known for its monkeys and gibbons, but nothing that could possibly be confused with the giant biped reported.
For the indigenous people of Endau-Rompin, Bigfoot is nothing new. For generations they called the creature the “snaggle-toothed ghost” in folklore and tribal history. Government officials from the state of Johor plan to send two teams of scientists to scour the rainforest in search of the elusive Asian Bigfoot. One team is on a mission to track him down. If they find him, the other team intends to study him. And just in case the government needs some help, 20 members of the Singapore Paranormal Investigators group are lending their special expertise to the search to find out if the truth is really out there.
And that’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Rachel Gotbaum.
CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.
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[MUSIC: Money Mark “Monkey Dot” from ` Push The Button’ (Grand Royal - 1998)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
WOMAN 1: We were friends first and grew into love later. The butterflies and all that stuff, it’s kind of like something you can’t describe.
MAN 1: I got a very good dose of butterflies at the end, as well, yeah, sort of. The black butterflies rather than the white butterflies.
WOMAN 2: Every five minutes it was like, ‘oh. he’s not calling me, he’s not calling me.’ But now I just love to hear from him.
WOMAN 3: It goes from lust to love, and then to boringness, and then, see you later. There’s just too many men in this world. There’s so many that it’s just hard to settle for one.
WOMAN 4: It is bizarre that I am this incredibly rational person, and it’s almost borderline obsessive the thought patterns that happen, like after three months, with this person. It’s just bizarre. Because I’m a very rational, together person, and then I think just way too much about it. Yeah, it is a bit crazy. I want a scientific answer please (laughs).
CURWOOD: And that’s just what we have for you today: a lesson in the chemistry of love, just in time for Valentine’s Day. There’s a host of new research uncovering the physiological mysteries about how people fall in love, how we stay in love, and how we feel when they lose that love.
And at least one researcher thinks that falling in love is as basic and important in life as finding food and shelter. She is Dr. Helen Fisher, anthropologist and author of a number of books, including her latest, entitled “Why We Love: the Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.” Thanks for joining me.
FISHER: I’m delighted to be here.
CURWOOD: You call your book “Why We Love.” Well, you might as well ask why do we exist? But, you know, it turns out from your research that this is more than just a philosophical question; it’s also a scientific one. Tell me please about your research on this topic.
FISHER: I have a theory that we’ve evolved three distinctly different brain systems for mating and reproduction. The sex drive being one, that craving for sexual gratification. The second is romantic love, that obsession, the craving, the ecstasy, the focused attention, the motivation to win a particular mating partner; that early, intense romantic love. And the third brain system is attachment, that sense of calm and security that you can feel with a long-term partner.
I decided that I had already written quite a bit about the sex drive. Actually, I’d written quite a bit about attachment. So I began to think to myself, ‘well, you know, this is probably the most powerful experience on Earth, romantic love, and maybe I could get some people into a functional MRI brain scanner and see if I can’t find out what happens. What the chemistry actually is of this experience.’
CURWOOD: So, an MRI, a scanner. Now this is what, nuclear magnetic resonance? You can see what goes on in someone’s head?
FISHER: Yeah. What happens in magnetic resonance imaging is that each brain region sucks up blood as it is working, because it needs the glucose and the oxygen from the blood. And so with this scanner you can see which brain regions are sucking up the blood, which ones are working. And then if you know which region is working – and, in fact, which cells in which region are working, and you know what those cells do for a living, then you can tell what’s going on.
What we did is we put – I and my colleagues – put 32 people who were madly in love into this brain scanner. Seventeen who were madly in love and their love was accepted, they were happily in love; and 15 who had just been dumped, they had just been rejected in love. But both groups were intensely in love.
CURWOOD: So, you’re looking at the images of the brain of these people madly in love. These certain areas are stimulated. What does this mean chemically?
FISHER: I had hypothesized that we would find evidence for elevated activity of the dopamine system and the norepinephrine system. These are natural stimulants in the brain; they give you feelings of elation, giddiness, euphoria, focused attention, motivation, heightened energy, sleeplessness, loss of appetite. These are basic characteristics of romantic love. So I thought we would also find low activity of serotonin because low activity of serotonin is associated with obsessive compulsive behaviors, and certainly the main characteristic of romantic love is you can’t stop thinking about this individual. It is an obsession. So that was my hypothesis as I went in.
What we ended up finding is activity in this ventral tegmental area in a region that actually makes dopamine and sends dopamine to many brain regions. We did not find activity of norepinephrine, but I really think that that’s also involved. We just haven’t found it yet; it doesn’t mean it’s not there. The reason I think norepinephrine will be involved is because it’s norepinephrine that gives you what they call the sweaty palms syndrome: the pounding heart, the dry mouth, the sweaty palms. The kind of things that happen when you’re really incredibly in love with somebody and don’t know yet whether they love you.
CURWOOD: So romance is as important as eating? Drinking? Breathing?
FISHER: Well, it can be stronger than all of those because some people give up all that in order to win somebody or get out of life when they don’t win somebody. Most of us don’t though, of course, and eating and drinking is extremely important. I mean, you’ve got to survive. But, you know what? I mean, I think that romantic love evolved for a very fundamental reason.
FISHER: I think it evolved to enable us to focus our mating energy on just one individual at a time, thereby conserving mating time and energy and starting the most important thing we’ll do with our lives, which is forming a pair bond and raising, creating a child. I think the sex drive evolved to get you out there looking for a whole range of partners. I mean, you can have sex with somebody you’re not in love with. And I think attachment, that third brain system, that third drive, evolved to enable us to tolerate this individual, at least long enough to rear a child together.
So I think these three different drives – the sex drive, romantic love, and attachment – all are operating in all kinds of combinations to direct our reproductive lives. And you asked me, is this more important than eating and drinking? Sure. It is.
CURWOOD: What about lust?
CURWOOD: What about the sex drive? What are the chemicals there? Are they different from romance chemicals?
FISHER: The main chemical of the sex drive is testosterone, in both men and women. In fact, you know, you inject testosterone in any kind of animal and sex drive goes up. And the brain system is different, too. I mean, there’s at least five brain scanning studies of the sex drive, and the various brain regions involved are – they overlap, but they’re different from those regions associated with romantic love. So there’s two different systems. But they interact, and that’s what’s so interesting to me.
For example, you know, when you fall in love with somebody, suddenly that persons becomes enormously sexually attractive to you. Three weeks ago it was just another nice person at the office or in your social circle or at the gym. But suddenly everything they do becomes attractive to you. And I think it is in part because elevated activity of the dopamine circuits associated with romantic love trigger testosterone and trigger the sex drive. So this is why it is that you suddenly become almost, you know, totally fixated sexually on somebody who you’re in love with.
What I find most remarkable about these three drives – the sex drive, romantic love, and attachment – is that they’re often unconnected. You can feel a powerful sense of attachment to a long-term partner while you feel intense romantic love for somebody else, while you feel this sex drive for a whole range of people. So this is what gets the human animal in so much trouble.
CURWOOD: I bet. Now, let’s go back to lust, or the sex drive, and romance. You say romance can kindle the sex drive. What about the other way around? Can lust lead to romance?
FISHER: Not always, of course. You know, most liberated adults have copulated with somebody who they never fell in love with. In fact, they would have liked to fallen in love with them and couldn’t do it. But it certainly can happen, and it can happen I think in part because with orgasm there’s a spike of dopamine – it just shoots up and shoots down again. And that I think can help change the threshold for your ability to fall in love and just turn you over that edge. Also with orgasm you get a real flood in the brain of oxytocin and vasopressin, and these are the chemicals associated with attachment.
So, casual sex isn’t always that casual. As a matter of fact I think women are more vulnerable than men are because, as it turns out, seminal fluid has in it all the chemicals in it for the sex drive: the testosterone and estrogen; oxytocin and vasopressin, associated with attachment; and dopamine and norepinephrine, associated with romantic love. So a man is actually doing some chemical finagling when he deposits his sperm. So, you know, casual sex can be casual, but generally it’s not.
CURWOOD: What are the chemicals involved with what you call attachment?
FISHER: Well, there’s other scientists who’ve studied this, and there’s some really elegant work on attachment in other animals. Basically, the prairie vole; the prairie vole is like a little field mouse. And there’s been some wonderful studies that indicate that the basic hormones and neurotransmitters, actually, are oxytocin and vasopressin. And these are chemicals that women actually really put off when they are delivering a child, and the letting down of the milk. And they now realize that the oxytocin is also associated with mother/infant bonding.
But these studies with prairie voles indicate that they are also associated with mammalian male/female bonding. And as a matter of fact there’s a wonderful new study in which they’ve discovered that even holding somebody, hugging somebody, drives up levels of oxytocin. In fact, picking up a child; when a man picks up a child levels of testosterone go down, and probably levels of oxytocin go up.
CURWOOD: What are the reactions that people have to these chemicals of oxytocin and vasopressin?
FISHER: Well, I think we’ve all felt them. You know, that sense of warmth and security and friendliness. I mean, you know, conjure up the moments that you feel after making love to somebody, and everybody’s had an orgasm, and it’s a sense of almost a sort of cosmic unity – if you love the person, of course. But also the feeling when you’re off on a business trip and you suddenly feel a need for the comfort of home, and you call home and suddenly you feel better. Levels of oxytocin and vasopressin are probably going up. These are associated with calm, relaxation, peace, security, trust. All associated with those chemicals.
CURWOOD: Now, you also said that you looked at people who had just been jilted or dumped or crushed.
CURWOOD: What happened in their brains?
FISHER: Well, first of all, Steve, I want to tell you how hard that was to do. You know, I interviewed all these people before I put them in the machine, but people who’ve just been dumped are in horrible shape. I mean, there were times when I had to go step into a dark room and collect myself and then go back and talk to them. Because some of these were furious, some of them were almost paranoid, some of them were…they were deeply depressed. I mean, romantic rejection is no joke.
So, what I did – they did the same experiment. You know, they would look at a photograph of their sweetheart and they would also look at a neutral photograph. We found a lot of things, but among the things that we found is we found activity in a brain region, the insular cortex, where other experiments have shown this particular region is associated with physical pain in the skin and muscles. Not just psychological pain when you’re rejected, but physical pain.
We also found activity in a brain region called the nucleus accumbens. It’s a brain region, this particular part of the nucleus accumbens is associated with risking, taking big risks. Actually gambling, gambling for money. Taking big risks for big gains and big losses. And, of course, that’s what you do when you’ve been rejected, you’re just willing to do just about anything to win this person back.
And then we also found activity in a brain region near the front of the brain called the lateral orbital frontal cortex. And this brain region, this particular part of the cortex, is associated with three things. Obsessive and compulsive behaviors, and of course you obsessively think about this person. With controlling anger, and that’s one thing that happens when you get dumped, you get angry, most people do.
And last but not least, this is a brain region associated with what scientists call a “theory of mind.” And what theory of mind is is when people do it, probably much more than other animals, projecting yourself into another person’s shoes and thinking, ‘What is he thinking about? What is he doing? What is he planning? He’s thinking about this or that.’ That’s theory of mind, and that’s what happens when you get rejected. You feel physical pain, you’re willing to take huge risks, you’re constantly wondering what this other person is thinking, you’re obsessively thinking about them and you’re trying to control your anger.
CURWOOD: So, tell me now, what does your study of the brain and its chemistry tell us now about divorce? And also the species, too, because you seem to look at the whole ecology of the human as you’re sorting through this.
FISHER: Well you know, I wrote a book, a different book, about divorce called “Anatomy of Love.” And I looked at divorce in 58 societies through the demographic yearbooks of the United Nations. And I was expecting to find the seven-year itch, and that’s what I was hoping to find, but I didn’t find it. I found over and over people tend to divorce during and around the fourth year of marriage. First of all, I was astonished that there was any pattern at all given the wide range of people there are, the wide range of cultural beliefs. But there is a pattern. And it began to occur to me that maybe we evolved this four-year itch to stay together at least long enough to raise a single child through infancy, about four years.
CURWOOD: What is the secret of making love last? I mean, can you tell us what you’ve found about this?
FISHER: I want to say, first of all, that there’s very nice data that in long-term attachments you can make love last. That, indeed, if it’s a very good relationship there often is a continual thread of romantic love in the relationship as well as deep attachment to the person. You’ll feel the romantic love when you’re on a vacation, when suddenly you go out on a date with your husband or wife, when something fun happens, when he cracks a joke, when he’s wearing a beautiful suit, etc., etc. It can come back.
But, anyway, one of the ways to sustain romantic love in a long-term marriage is to do novel, exciting, slightly dangerous things together. Because novelty drives up the activity of dopamine in the brain. This is why vacations can be so exciting. Just doing something new.
CURWOOD: Helen Fisher’s book is called “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.” Thank you so much, Helen Fisher.
FISHER: Thank you.
- Helen Fisher, books & bio
- “So what, really, is this thing called love” by Lauren Slater, Feb. 206 National Geographic
- Listen to an expanded interview with Dr. Helen Fisher, author of “Why We Love”
[MUSIC: ALTERNATE EXTRA MUX: Diana Krall “Let’s Fall In Love” from ‘When I Look Into Your Eyes’ (Verve - 1999)
CURWOOD: We leave you this week with the sound of harmonizing hormones from the animal world.
CURWOOD: Jonathon Storm recorded these two male elk whose competing testosterone-driven calls for a female companion echo across a high meadow on an autumn evening in Yellowstone National Park.
[EARTHEAR: “Challenge (Male Elk Calls)” recorded by Jonathan Storm from ‘Dreams of Gaia’ (Earth Ear – 1999)]
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Rachel Gotbaum, Ingrid Lobet and Susan Shepherd - with help from Christopher Bolick, Kelley Cronin, James Curwood and Michelle Kweder. Our interns are Bobby Bascomb and Emily Taylor. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at loe.org. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.
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