Cosmic clues, shrinking transistors, debunking a Salem witch trials theory, and more! Faves from the second year of Tiny Matters

Tiny Matters

Today, Sam and Deboki are taking a look back at a handful of their favorite episode moments from the second year of Tiny Matters. And it just so happens to also be episode 50! Asteroid updates, atom-sized transistors, a world without photosynthesis, and more!

Transcript of this Episode

Sam Jones: Hi Tiny Matters listeners. Before we get into today's episode, which we think you'll really enjoy, we want to take a couple minutes to say thank you. We're now closing out year two of Tiny Matters, which is wild to think about, and this is episode 50. Our number of listeners has more than doubled since this time last year, which makes us feel really good about what we're doing.

Deboki Chakravarti: And in addition to listening, thanks for writing in with episode ideas and questions. And for rating us on Apple Podcast and Spotify. It's a huge, huge help to us. If you haven't done it yet, please do it as a holiday gift to us. Tell your friends, your family, your frenemies. We really, really do appreciate it.

We're also so grateful to our many guests. We've had more than 100, I think, since we started this more than two years ago.

Sam: We've covered a lot of topics this past year. Apparently, there are a lot of tiny things out there that matter, which I hope is a good sign for the longevity of this show.

So today, Deboki and I are going to each share a few of our favorites, which we actually haven't shared with each other before recording. I know I'm really excited to hear what you picked, Deboki.

Deboki: Yeah. Looking over the episodes from this last year was super fun. I had so many moments of, "Oh right, that's the one where we got to talk about the thing." So I'm excited to hear what you picked, too. Okay, let's hop right in.

My first clip is from episode 44. The title is, “Asteroid Bennu, OSIRIS-REx, and the Apollo 11 moon microbe scare: The challenge of bringing home samples from space.” When we recorded this podcast, podcast schedules and real life schedules, they don't always line up. We recorded this episode before the return of samples from Asteroid Bennu via the OSIRIS-REx mission.

So today, for this little recap moment, I actually wanted to start off by giving a little update on the mission, and the important thing is that it was successful. The samples returned on September 24th. They landed in Utah, and ultimately were transported to Houston. They got plenty of material. Apparently, there was even some bonus debris surrounding the main collection container that scientists have already begun looking at.

One of the things we talked about in that episode is how scientists share these space samples. There were some really, really fantastic stories from previous sample sharing situations. It was really cool to hear that, in this case with the Bennu samples, NASA has already sent out some of these samples to institutions in the UK. I think there's been about 100 milligrams of samples sent out. These institutions include the Natural History Museum. So a lot of people are going to get to look at these samples, and use different techniques, different tools, and learn a lot about what is in them.

Sam: Sorry to interrupt.

Deboki: Go for it.

Sam: I will also say that the Smithsonian got some, too, in DC.

Deboki: Oh! Awesome. Yeah. Everyone's getting some asteroid sample.

Sam: Yes.

Deboki: Some of the early tests from NASA show that there's carbon, and water-like minerals in the material from Bennu. That's all really exciting. It's going to tell us more about how some of these compounds may have gotten to Earth. There's just a lot to learn.

So for today, here's Sierra Gonzales, who is on the Missions Operations engineering team at Lockheed Martin, describing some of the surprises that came up on the mission.

Sierra Gonzales: Bennu has been throwing a lot of surprises at us, from the very beginning. We originally thought Bennu was going to be a sandy asteroid, based on the imagery we got here on Earth. And then, when we arrived, it was boulders, on top of boulders, on top of rocks, on tops of boulders. We had to change a lot of our engineering mindset of how we were going to collect this sample. And then, when we were orbiting the asteroid, we actually saw activity on the surface. In fact, it was almost like it was spitting pebbles at us. And then, of course when we collected our sample, we collected so much, an overabundance of sample, that we were overflowing and needed to speed up the timeframe to stow the sample. And move up everything by a week to get it stowed and safely captured, so that we didn't lose any more precious sample.

There's lots of surprises along the way that surprised all of us. It keeps it interesting because, in space, you can't design for everything. It's millions of miles away, you can't go up and fix anything either. There's lots of really cool problem solving that gets to happen along the way.

Sam: It really struck me how she says, "In space, you can't design for everything. It's millions of miles away."

Deboki: Right.

Sam: I don't know, at least I wasn't even really thinking about, okay if something goes wrong, no one's there to fix this. Of course no one's there to fix this. But, just thinking about having to control something that's happening millions of miles away is amazing. And then on top of it, with so much pressure because this was a big deal. This is the first time the United States did this. I'm so happy it was successful.

Deboki: I know, yeah. There's just so much time, and so much money, and so much everything put into these missions. But also, part of the reason why we're doing them is because we don't know what it's going to be like when we get there, which only makes the planning that much harder. The entire point is that it's a mystery. You can't plan around all of that ambiguity. You can't plan for every situation that's going to go wrong.

Sam: Even just the fact that they thought the asteroid was going to be sandy, and then it was rocky, that's a pretty big difference that then you have to refocus, recalibrate I guess, to be able to handle.

The first clip that I'm going to share was from episode 34, which is titled, “Treating Depression: Then versus now and the SSRI debate.” There's a whole lot of misinformation out there about depression, as well as debate surrounding how it's treated.

Depression is a mood disorder. It impacts over 300 million people across the globe. In this episode, we covered the history of treating depression. Part of that was actually talking about the effectiveness of SSRIs, which are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Which, over the last few years, I had been noticing were in the news a lot more, and that there were a lot of pretty prominent people just saying outright that they didn't work. SSRIs have been around for a while. This obviously then made me want to look into it, because that's my nature.

Really, in this episode, there's a lot that we unpack. It is true that SSRIs do not work for everyone, but they are life-saving for some people. And really, at the end of the day, what it comes down to is that we need something better. Here's a clip from David Hellerstein, who is a professor of clinical psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. He is also the director of the Depression Evaluation Service at the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

David Hellerstein: To my mind, the real challenge is finding treatments that are more effective, work more quickly, have fewer side effects or toxicities, and that can really treat the really high level of psychiatric suffering really that we see in our current society. I think one can argue there's a lot of essentially rehashing of how well those studies were done in the 1980s and '90s, and how many negative studies there were. If you're thinking of, from a scientific finding, maybe what's the effect size, and what's the placebo response rate. You can go into the weeds about that. To me, that's a rear guard action, and I'm really most interested as a researcher and as a clinician in how do we make medications that are more effective. How do you use existing medicines to the optimal degree possible? And how can we really make progress in something that is really a devastating, really almost epidemic condition.

If you look at depression rates, especially with the COVID epidemic, suicide rates, and other kinds of impairment, it's just such a common and increasing problem that we're facing in our society. I think rather than hashing out ‘how well do these medicines work?,’ let's find better ones.

Deboki: Yeah. I think that's such an interesting message because I think ... One of the things I got from working on this episode, and I think you were talking about in terms of your motivation, is just how complicated it is just to even navigate the conversations around medication for depression because people's responses are so varied.

Sam: Yeah. I think part of what really motivated me was, in the back of my mind, just knowing this is a really hard problem to solve. So then, when I heard people talking about it, or saw people writing about it, and just really approaching it in this very black-and-white way of, "SSRIs don't work." That set off alarm bells immediately to me. What I learned was that it's even more complicated than I thought.

I also could confirm that it's not as simple as “these don't work.”

Deboki: Right.

Sam: It's just they don't work for a lot of people.

Deboki: Yeah.

Sam: That shouldn't be okay. We’ve got to do more.

Deboki: Yeah. Especially for a topic as loaded as depression, that has all of these social stigmas and stuff attached to it.

Okay. Personally, for me, from the episodes that I wrote, I think the one that I learned the most from was episode 33, “The future of electronics: How small can we go?” Mostly because I'm just not a big electronics person. I don't think that'll be a surprise to many people, if you've been listening to this podcast for a while. There's a lot of physics involved, so this was an episode that was really, really interesting to work on. Because I know that transistors are a big deal, I know that their size is a big deal, but it was really actually new to me to get into the specifics of why they're so important, and they're history, and relating it to the history of computers and everything. It was just super cool for me.

The clip that I brought today is from our interview with Sameer Sonkusale, who is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tufts University, and who's working on things like thread transistors for medical applications. One of the things I enjoyed most from getting to talk to him is actually understanding how, over the course of his time in this field, how have transistors changed, and how have they evolved. How has he seen it, from his perspective, because it's just always cool to see someone who has a lot of knowledge, to see how they experience these things that are so cutting edge and how that shapes the way they see the future of the field.

Sam with Sameer: How small do you think a transistor could be one day?

Sameer Sonkusale: A single atom.

Deboki: Wow.

Sameer Sonkusale: A drain and source separated by a single molecule or a single atom. I think we are very close with the next generation of transistors, that Intel or TSMC, which is Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation, and some others who are building. The transistors are getting really, really close to that limit.

During my whole career as an electrical engineer, every few years someone would say, "Okay, we have reached the limit. There is no way we can go down below that. This is it." This has been happening my entire career, and I've been around for many years. We have never hit that limit. We've always been able to figure out a way to get that small.

So then you'll ask what is the most fundamental limit? Well, the most fundamental is the single thing between the two ends of a transistor, and that could be as small as a single atom or a molecule. That's the end. That's where you will basically stop. We can get there, I'm sure.

Sam: Deboki, you were the one who was really leading that episode. But when we had that conversation with Sameer, already just in that conversation, I learned so much. I learned how much my brain does not work like the brain of an engineer's. He's like, "Single atom." I'm like, "What am I even picturing?"

Deboki: It's obviously also, again, way out of my comfort zone as far as engineering. But yeah, I think there is something very engineering about well, the smallest thing you can do. The smallest it can get is just the smallest that things could be.

Sam: Right.

Deboki: That's the answer.

Sam: The next clip that I'm going to share is actually from an episode where, it wasn't necessarily that the content was complicated to my brain in a way that engineering is. It was a new way of thinking about something that I think about pretty frequently, which is climate change.

I will say that this year, in 2023, I do feel like we definitely made more of an effort to really talk about the environment, environmental disasters, and climate change. I was really, really glad that we were able to also talk about how Colonialist practices are not only contributing to climate change, but also making the impact of climate change far worse for some countries, particularly in the global south.

In episode 40, which we titled “We're not all in this together: How Colonialist practices are shaping the impact of climate change,” we spoke with experts about two major examples of that impact. One was the 2022 Pakistan floods, and the other was the global garment industry. One of the experts we talked to about Pakistan and about the floods was Maira Hayat. Maira is an assistant professor of environment and peace studies. She is originally from Pakistan, and conducts research at the intersection of bureaucracy, law, and the environment. Now I'm going to play a clip for you from Maira, that I think really brings home one of the bigger messages from the episode.

Maira Hayat: The global south isn't naturally misgoverned or naturally poor. These are consequences of many things, importantly of Colonial pasts. Resource extraction happened from the Colonies. The industrial west became what it did at the expense of the places and people it colonized. These histories don't end suddenly. Infrastructures of extraction and inequality continue into the present.

When we recognize these pasts and their ongoingness, then I think we are able to see that the loss and damage issue is not one of poor countries asking for charity or for help. Because I think that the fundamental stakes here are ones of reparations. The politics of reparations makes many people, organizations, vested interests, actors, constituencies uncomfortable. Of course, that's not surprising. This is not an easy conversation, it's not a comfortable conversation. But I think that for there to be any real headway for us to get away from these kinds of marriages, and long held notions of the badly governed, corrupt global south, can't govern its people, can't govern itself, can't govern its water, these sorts of histories need to be remembered. They need to be recognized and they need, I think, to be brought into the present.

Deboki: Working on that episode was so interesting. It was so interesting to think about how to approach it, who to talk to. I can't speak for you, but I think we both learned a lot from the experience of working on it.

One of the things that was interesting from this past year, you were talking about how we've been doing more episodes about the environment. I don't think we set out to do that.

Sam: No.

Deboki: It's just the more we were planning, I think we might have planned one episode, and then it just kept dovetailing into, "Oh, we also want to talk about this thing. And oh, we also want to talk about that thing." So it just kept adding on and becoming each of their own episodes.

I'm really glad, because it was really great to be able to have the space to have someone like Maira talk at length about the history of water in Pakistan, and how that led to the floods. Yeah. Just like in this clip that you brought today, I think it just relates to something that is so important overall, which is understanding science as connected to history and culture. It's really tempting to treat it as its own thing, but it's just not. Climate change is one of the obvious examples of that because it is so intertwined with how people treat each other, how we treat our environment, how we look at the intersection between science and nature, and everything else we're doing in society.

Sam: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's one of the things that I'm very proud of that we try to always do at Tiny Matters. I really appreciate that we have the opportunity to be able to bring more than science to a science podcast. To me, that's always been really important. To me, science is much more interesting and impactful if there is context provided.

Deboki: Right.

Sam: Whether that be historical context, social context, often both. There's almost nothing in science that you can just take a face value and walk away with.

Deboki: Yeah.

Sam: Everything is connected.

Deboki: Yeah. Part of us having the opportunity is also that we're lucky to have the audience that we have, that is really open to that conversation. Because I know from experience that not all science focused audiences are necessarily open to that. That's a very broad generalization, but there are pockets that are very much of the belief that science is its own thing that is above understanding these other aspects of how the world works.

Sam: Yeah. It's untouched.

Deboki: Right.

Sam: And that's not true.

Deboki: Exactly. Yeah. I'm glad that we have this audience that is open to following us on this journey through the connections between science and everything else.

My last clip is from episode 31, “Algae transformed Earth. Next stop: Mars?” In the episode, we talked about what algae are and why scientists are studying them as a potential tool in the longterm quest to figure out if we can live on Mars. But of course, what that really means is understanding how algae have helped us live on this planet. We talked to a few scientists about that, including Tanai Cardona at Imperial College London, who has been studying algae and the evolution of photosynthesis.

The clip that I'm sharing today, it starts off a little bit bleak. It's a little bit longer because I wanted to include the bits that I also thought were really cool out of that bleakness. Because I think just what talking to him helped me appreciate is just how cool it is we live in this world where life happens, and continues to happen, in part because of things like photosynthesis that are so basic to ecology, and ecosystems, and how things work. It's so cool to me.

Sam with Tanai: So we asked Tanai, what would happen if all of a sudden, algae ceased to exist? He told us it would be catastrophic. But then he took that mental exercise one step further and asked, "What if there were no photosynthetic organisms at all?"

Tanai Cardona: Society would collapse very quickly because there would be no food, there would be no crops, and eventually most animals won't have anything to eat. All of the complex life on Earth would be the first to go. More than 99% of the entire biosphere depends on photosynthesis, oxygenic photosynthesis. If we eliminate photosynthesis, eventually we will have a barren world where only there would be perhaps clusters of life, representing perhaps less than 1% of what we have now, in some very unique environments, perhaps in hydrothermal vents, deep in the ocean. All of the beauty of the world will disappear eventually, and all of the oxygen will go away. So Earth would return to its primordial state, perhaps of four billion years ago.

Deboki with Tanai: I'm so curious, based on what you were describing, you're talking about us returning to this primordial state of Earth. Do you have an idea or a guess about how long you would think it would take to evolve photosynthesis again from that?

Tanai Cardona: Well, that's interesting because it links to my research. I spent a great deal of my career as a scientist trying to understand how photosynthesis evolved and originated. From my research, I would argue that it does not necessarily need to take a long time. I think it could be surprisingly fast.

Sam: I was actually so shocked when Tanai said that. I guess, just because it was so long ago. This is a silly way to approach evolution, but I'm like, "It must take so long." It was wild for him to say, "Actually, it could have been fast."

Deboki: Yeah.

Sam: It happened a long time ago, but that moment where it happened, it could happen again pretty quickly.

Deboki: Yeah. It is funny because pretty fast is still a long time.

Sam: Yeah, yeah.

Deboki: It's definitely a relatively speaking thing.

Sam: Millions of years, minimum.

My final clip, it's one of our most listened to episodes from 2023. It was episode 45, titled, “The Salem witch trials LSD theory and the fascinating evolution of mummification in Ancient Egypt.” For me at least, just hearing the title it feels pretty obvious that it would be one of the favorites. This clip is from Margo Burns, who is an expert on the Salem witch trials, which took place in Salem, Massachusetts, in the late 1600s and led to 19 people being executed. It was actually the last executions for witchcraft in the United States. Wild that I'm even saying those words.

Deboki: Right.

Sam: Margo has spent over a decade piecing together what did and probably did not happen during that time. One of the things that she has done is help unpack a popular theory that LSD, aka acid, from a fungus caused the Salem witch trials. So here she is, responding to us asking her about this theory, or as she called it, "a notion," because it was hard for her to even call it a theory.

Margo Burns: When I ask people how they know about this and they give me some kind of answer, "I must have read it, I must have seen it on TV," I decided I wanted to find out everything I could about this. Most people who'd looked into it a little bit knew about an article in Science Magazine in 1976 by Linnda Caporael.

Sam with Margo: As an undergraduate, Linnda took a course on Colonial American women, and was assigned a paper on the girls who kicked off the Salem witch trials. Being a science major, Linnda began wondering if there could be a scientific explanation for why the girls reported seeing these visions and feeling like the specters of the women they were accusing were harming them.

Linnda started thinking about what could have been in the environment at that time. Remember, this was the 1970s. The Environmental Protection Agency had just been created and it was becoming increasingly clear that environmental toxins have a huge impact on human health.

Margo Burns: In talking to a medical student that she knew, he reminded her about LSD and ergot, and she said, "Hmm." So her hypothesis was that the girls could have been consuming bread that was made from rye, that was tainted with this naturally occurring fungus ergot. She went out and looked at everything she could, to see if she would find things that would support this explanation.

Deboki with Margo: So after establishing some degree of similarity between the girls' symptoms and a bad LSD trip, Linnda looked into how ergot grows. She found that the fungus flourishes in marshy areas during hot weather. Based on diary entries from that time, the weather conditions could have been right for ergot to grow. Then, Linnda started looking at maps of the area where the girls making these accusations lived.

Margo Burns: She noticed that the accusers, the afflicted people, were in a part on the map that was near a river. So she's got the weather and the conditions that are perfect for growing ergot on things. So she's saying, "Okay, all the stuff fits." So her results were “it's possible.” Now, those of us who do a little bit of science know that just because it's possible doesn't really mean that it really did happen.

Deboki: That story was incredible. It's so interesting to be able to trace the origin of a myth like that and to see where it really goes back from. Because it's fair to wonder, it's weird that it actually really took hold in a broader community or broader conversation. But yeah, I love that story.

Sam: I feel like I've actually heard this story from so many people, and even other podcasts I feel like at this point. I went into that episode thinking, more or less, I was going to talk to someone saying, "Oh yeah, there's a very good chance that that is what happened." And then I started researching it a bit more, and I came across Margo, and then I started looking at what scholars who really, this is what they study, what they think. It became very clear that what I had been hearing was, in all likelihood, super wrong.

Deboki: Right.

Sam: I felt like this was an interesting opportunity to dispel that misinformation.

Deboki: Yeah. It makes me think about just how seductive some stories are. Where this is a story that makes for such a good podcast title, YouTube title, TikTok title. You start your video being, "Did you know that the Salem witch trials happened because of LSD?" It's just so immediately attention grabby, so it's really, really appealing to believe in it because it combines that unexpectedness with a causality that just all seems to fit together. Sometimes, that is true. Sometimes, the world is just really, really weird. But sometimes, it's also just that someone just needed to write a paper in college, but didn't actually come to an accurate conclusion.

Sam: I think that's it. That wraps up 2023, year two of Tiny Matters, episode 50. Very exciting.

Deboki: What a great year it's been.

Sam: I know. It's been a really good year, I have to say. 2023 has been a great year. I have so much fun with you, Deboki, 

Deboki: Yes. 

Sam: I have so much fun when we get emails from listeners, and suggestions. And definitely, if you have episode suggestions, please send them our way. When you send an email, we read it. We really appreciate it.

Deboki: Thanks for tuning in to this week's episode of Tiny Matters, a production of the American Chemical Society. The Tiny Matters theme and episode sound design are by Michael Simonelli and the Charts & Leisure team.

Sam: If you have thoughts or questions, ideas about future Tiny Matters episodes, like we said, please send an email, And if you would like to support us, you can pick up a Tiny Matters coffee mug. We've left a link in the episode description. You can find me on social at samjscience.

Deboki: And you can find me at okidokiboki. Thanks so much for listening. Have a wonderful rest of your 2023 and see you next year.