On this week's episode of Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel: UA College of Science Dean Joaquin Ruiz stops by to talk what's going on at the Biosphere—including the One Young World conference, the Landscape Evolution Observatory and some plans for farming—as the giant terrarium's 25th anniversary approaches. He also fills us in on some of the latest news with the Lunar and Planetary Lab's space program. Then Phoenix New Times managing editor Amy Silverman joins us to discuss her new book, My Heart Can't Even Believe It, about how having a daughter with Down syndrome changed her family's life. And then Valerie Trouet of the UA Tree Ring Lab talks about some of her work, including a new study that used tree rings and shipwrecks to recreate a Caribbean hurricane record that dates back centuries.
You can catch the show at 8 a.m. Sunday mornings on the CW Tucson, Channel 8 on Cox and Comcast and Channel 58 on DirecTV, Dish and broadcast. You can also hear it Sunday afternoons at 5 p.m. on KXCI Community Radio, 91.3 FM. Or you can watch it online here.
Here's a rush transcript of the show:
(Nintzel) Hello, everyone. I'm Tucson Weekly senior writer Jim Nintzel, your host for Zona Politics. Today We're going to detour away from politics to talk about science and books. We begin with our friend, Joaquin Ruiz, the dean of the U of A College of Science. Dean Ruiz, welcome to Zona Politics.
(Ruiz) Always a pleasure to be here.
(Nintzel) So the Biosphere is celebrating its 25th Anniversary. You have a big event coming up there this month One Young World Environmental Summit. What's that all about?
(Ruiz) Well, this organization called One Young World specializes in having meetings around the world, in which 18-to-30-year-old leaders meet and discuss whatever the topic may be. The last one was in Thailand. And now they've decided that they want to focus on the environment, specifically a summit on the environment. They're using the Biosphere as the venue, so it's beautiful. We expect to have at least 300 people, maybe even more. Again, leaders. They're either from Apple or Caterpillar or other companies and people from other countries and it will be a day and a half of meetings, conferences. We have inspirational people that are going to come and talk, and to me, the most important thing about the whole meeting is, one, allowing folks from around the world to come and see the Biosphere, and coming to see Tucson and what the UA has to offer with respect to the environment.
(Nintzel) And you have had the Biosphere, now, in the control of the College of Science for almost ten years, and, how's it going out there?
(Ruiz) It's terrific. You know, when we took the Biosphere, it had been sitting around in mothballs for a bit, and in the ten years that we've had it, we've launched an experiment, almost unique, the Landscape Evolution Observatory to deal with grand challenges of global climate change. We now have about a hundred thousand people that come and visit it annually. We have conferences, summer sessions, education for the teachers. And, you have to think of the Biosphere in some ways as a museum. There's research going in there. There are conferences going in there, and we're trying to educate the public as well.
(Nintzel) And you also have a summer science academy going on out there for school children.
(Ruiz) That's right. So we have, among the various things that we have, we have a thing called the Academy. It's a week-long academy. One of them is for junior high and the other one is for high school students, and they get embedded in there. They stay there a week, and they do science, and it's been an incredible success in the two years we've had it. We’ve also had groups from UC San Diego. We've had groups from Cleveland that have been funded by the Gates Foundation. So the Biosphere is beginning to be a place in the summer where all kinds of educational activities go on.
(Nintzel) And you mentioned you have this LEO. And what's going on with the LEO?
(Ruiz) The Landscape Evolution Observatory is the largest, probably the largest environmental experiment or water experiment in the world. And the idea of the Landscape Evolution Observatory is that, one, all the hydrological models that everybody's been using forever have never been really tested, so this is a test for hydrologic models. It's a test bed for understanding how soil is created from rock, and in the end, when it's all done and finished 10 years from now, it will be trying to understand how water availability changes as a function of the ecology, because that's what's going to happen when global climate change ecology will change, and water availability will also change.
(Nintzel) What else are you doing out there at the Biosphere? Do you have some potential farming projects coming up on the horizon?
(Ruiz) Yeah, I'm quite excited about the future here. You may, you probably remember that the Biosphere had these biomes, they're called biomes, and there's the ocean and now we have the Landscape Evolution Observatory. We also have a desert. And in the desert, we're going to take about half of the desert and cut it in two halves and in one of the halves we're going to have traditional farming, that's gone on for 3,000 years in our desert, so this will be in partnership with Native Seeds/SEARCH and we're trying to convince Gary Nabham, whom you well know, to be part of all that. And the other half would be high-tech farming that is going on in the desert as well, and which we're going to be testing current systems and things that can be done in areas where we're starved for water.
(Nintzel) And let's talk a little bit about what else is going on at the College of Science. You've got a space mission on the horizon, the Osiris Rex mission. And that's undergoing its final testing before it heads down to Florida for its launch?
(Ruiz) Well, I think that the testing has been done, and it's all been shipped, in fact, to Florida, and it's sitting in some warehouse, I suspect, but, yes, it's going to be, it's going to take off. The whole thing is to try to catch a meteorite which is carbon rich, the soil will be carbon-rich, collect some of that carbon-rich soil and bring it back to earth so we can analyze it, because we don't quite know what the primordial carbon of the earth was 4.5 billion years ago.
(Nintzel) And you can actually get this out there. You can hunt down a specific asteroid, get an orbit around it and get a sample.
(Ruiz) That's right. That's exactly what this whole thing is about, and it took the leadership of Dante Lauretta, whom you know, and Michael Drake, who is unfortunately not with us any more. They were the PIs (principal investigators) in the grant in NASA, and one of the big questions for NASA has been "What is, where did life come from? What does that carbon that life comes from look like?” And of course the Earth, because there's erosion and there's water and there are this, that and the other, we don't have any samples of this early carbon. It's all been transformed.
(Nintzel) And how long is the mission going to take?
(Ruiz) I can't remember. It's I think a decade. It's a long, long time, because we have to first catch this asteroid, and then bring the stuff back.
(Nintzel) It's actually are able to catch it. You go up real close, you blast it and a little bit of air and ...
(Ruiz) That's a vacuum cleaner.
(Nintzel) ... like a vacuum cleaner, catch it in the net. Get a little capsule off of that. You fly it back and land somewhere in Utah about ten years from now.
(Ruiz) That's right. Amazing, amazing work.
(Nintzel) You also have the 10th anniversary of the HiRISE mission. That's the camera on Mars, or the camera above Mars, in orbit around Mars. Talk a little bit about what HiRISE is doing.
(Ruiz) Well HiRISE is amazing, right? I mean, you can think of the movie "The Martian" and where they actually realized that there's movement and where Matt Damon is actually in that, the little truck goes back and forth. Well, that's HiRISE It's basically a camera on a satellite that's going around Mars. It's mapping all of Mars. Fundamentally, it's informed where the rovers land. It's on its own figured out that there's water in Mars. The principal investigator of the HiRISE is Alfred McEwen, who is just brilliant. So I'm quite excited about the HiRISE, again, keeping us in planetary sciences at the University of Arizona, which became what it became because we mapped the route for the Apollo Mission. So HiRISE is sort of the obvious continuation of that kind of enterprise.
(Nintzel) You mentioned the water on Mars thing. That was a big deal last year, and how did they manage to spot that?
(Ruiz) Well, they, it's sort of the same way that in the movie The Martian there was movement. In this case it was a track. Here they were able to see that the surface that they were mapping changed from night to day, because the thing about HiRISE that is so unbelievable is its resolution. So they were able to see that land forms were different and that they only way you can change the land forms is with water. There was no other possible way that it could be done.
(Nintzel) These little streaks were appearing.
(Ruiz) Streaks that were coming and going and that, because of the fact that they were coming and going, that there wasn't just wind blowing stuff in a random way. It was basically water. There was no other way they could do that.
(Nintzel) How important is it to know that we have water on Mars?
(Ruiz) Well, water is a very important because the angle that scientists have today is that anywhere on earth where's there's water—and it doesn't really matter if it's hot or cold or it very high pressures or not or if it's acid or not—it's life. So, everywhere we find water there's life. It doesn't matter how extreme the environment is. So I think NASA actually has a tagline where they're "Follow the water." And really what they're doing by following water is that they expect that that's the place where they're going to find life as we understand it.
(Nintzel) And it's also, as you said, it will help to find the landing spots y studying the terrain and knowing where you want to drop a rover or, like the Phoenix Mars Mission that you guys were involved with.
(Ruiz) That's right. There's a funny story at the UA that Bill Boynton and Peter Smith, who were the principal investigators on the Phoenix Mission, had a place where they were going to land it, and the HiRISE Mission sent in a little postcard, because it was around Halloween, showing all the boulders that were actually in the place that they had first chosen, which of course would have been a total disaster for the whole thing.
(Nintzel) And you're also able to look at other, capture the shots of the spacecraft landing, actually, with the timing of the thing.
(Ruiz) That was one of the most amazing things. So if anybody wants to go to the University of Arizona and visit the HiRISE Mission headquarters, you can get to see all the pictures they've taken. It's sort of like going in and one of those pictures is when the Phoenix Lander was landing, and they took a picture of the thing in the air as it was coming down with a parachute. It's sort like an out-of-body experience, it's so incredibly amazing.
(Nintzel) Incredible timing on that snapshot. Well, thank you so much. We're out of time but I definitely appreciate your coming by Zona Politics and I hope you'll return another time.
(Ruiz) Thank you so much. Any time you invite me I will be here. Thanks for a good job.
(Nintzel) Well, thank you very much. We'll be right back with author Amy Silverman.
(Nintzel) Joining me, now, is Amy Silverman, the long-time managing editor of the Phoenix New Times, and a regular NPR contributor, who has just published her first book. "My Heart Can't Even Believe It" recounts Amy's journey as the mother of a child with Down syndrome. Amy, congratulations on the book.
(Silverman) Thank you, Jim.
(Nintzel) So, the book "My Heart Can't Even Believe It," it's about the challenges that you faced in raising your daughter, Sophie, who has Down Syndrome. It's a very honest book. You tell the reader how scared you were at first and how hard it was for you to accept the diagnosis, but it's also about the extraordinary love that you have for your daughter and how it's changed you. So talk a little bit about that transformation.
(Silverman) So, I have spent my whole career as a journalist working at an alternative newsweekly where we would write stories about other people, and until Sophie was aware, I really didn't have my own story to tell, and so it really changed my perspective on my career, on my life, on just about everything. I'd also never met anybody with Down syndrome until Sophie was born and diagnosed, so it was an interesting time.
(Nintzel) Yeah. You were surprised. You'd had some tests, but it looked like they were negative.
(Silverman) The pediatrician assured us, he said, "Oh, I know, you and your husband and the nurses all think the baby has Down syndrome but I can tell you for sure that she doesn't,” and he came back a couple of days later kind of sheepish, looking at his shoes, and said "Well, she does have it. But the good news is, there's nothing wrong with her heart, but we'll do a test just in case." And she ended up with heart surgery, too.
(Nintzel) And a double-whammy, so not only were you dealing with the challenge you were going to be facing with disability, but also, a real concern about whether she can survive open-heart surgery.
(Silverman) You know, this is going to sound weird but—and I wouldn't wish a baby who needed open-heart surgery on anybody—but trying to explain to people and come to terms with the fact, myself, that Sophie had Down Syndrome, was a lot more difficult than saying, "My Kid needs open-heart surgery.” You don't know what to do. People don't know what to say. Do you say, "I'm sorry your child has Down syndrome?” That's really not politically correct. But everybody's sorry your kid needs open-heart surgery. We can all agree on that. So I ended up with this coping mechanism of calling people and saying, you know, "The baby has Down syndrome, and then, before they could say anything else, saying, "and she needs open-heart surgery." And then, everybody could kind of have some catharsis.
(Nintzel) You talk a lot about how long it took you to come to terms with Sophie's disability and your husband, Ray, jumped right in, was researching, studying up on this stuff.
(Silverman) The more involved member of the couple, for sure.
(Nintzel) Why do you think it was difficult to come to terms?
(Silverman) For me? I think part of it is because I grew up in an era where people were not necessarily institutionalizing people with things like Down syndrome as much as they had been in the past. I'm almost 50, but I never was around anyone with an intellectual disability. It was just nothing that I had any comfort with. And here I had grown up as kind of a smart word-you-can't-say-on-a-TV-show—um, you know smart aleck, how about that?
And, I just never thought about how to deal with someone with an intellectual disability, and so it's really been incredibly broadening for me, and humbling as well.
(Nintzel) And one of the things you really do skillfully in this book is you also talk about the science behind Down syndrome. You weave it in around stories about Sophie, and, without getting into the weeds on chromosomes and DNA and such, talk a little bit about what we now know about Down syndrome.
(Silverman) Down syndrome is the most common genetic disorder. They were not able to test for it until relatively recently, just a few decades ago, and, just to get into chromosomes a little bit, where you and I have 46 chromosomes each, Sophie has 47. She has an extra 21st chromosome. And there are very few chromosomes that you can have an extra one of and actually survive, and the 21st is the most common. And what's really fascinating is just in her lifetime we've seen genetic testing start to reveal the things that are common to having an extra 21st chromosome. So things that we kind of knew anecdotally, whether it's physical characteristics or health issues, they're now able to actually see scientifically, so it's a really interesting time.
(Nintzel) The other thing you do is you get into the politics of education a little bit in this book, and you have worked really hard to make sure Sophie could attend school with her peer groups and whatnot. Why was that important?
(Silverman) Oh, well, absolutely from a very early time, we realized that mainstreaming Sophie was so important for us, for her older sister for her, for our family, for her peer group, for everyone around her, and she really rose to the occasion any time we put her in a situation. And the school system for the most part was understanding and willing to work with us, and certainly the laws have evolved tremendously since the time I was in school, but there were still some challenges. The charter schools system, which I thought, naively, was set up to give people a lot of choices, actually the end result of it is that many charter schools end up pushing out kids with special needs. They don't overtly tell you, ?Your kid can't come to my school,” but they would say, “Ooooh.” There was a lot of “Well, I think she might be better off somewhere else,” and so I ended up writing quite a bit about that.
(Nintzel) And you actually have a trailer from the book and we're going to take a look at that right now.
(Nintzel) That was really beautiful. We got to see Sophie in action in that, and that is just gorgeous. And the title of the book comes from something Sophie said. Let's talk about that.
(Silverman) Sophie came up with the title of the book and she's really proud of that. It was probably three or four years ago, I was getting ready to go on a work trip to New York and I had my phone with me, which, apparently I had not had with me the whole time, Sophie had had it, and I noticed that she had taken a whole lot of selfies, like kids tend to do, and then I saw that there was a video on the phone. And she was not pleased at all that I was going to New York without her, and she expressed that. And then, she was talking about how much she loved me, and she said, "” love you so much, my heart can't even believe it.” And I said, “That's it.”
(Nintzel) Alright, you've got a reading at Antigone's Friday, May 20, 7 p.m. And we will be right back with a scientist from the UA tree ring lab.
(Nintzel) My next guest is Valerie Trouet, an associate professor of dendrochronology, which is a big word for the study of tree rings. Dr. Trouet, co-authored a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recounting research involving the use of shipwreck records and tree rings to track the occurrence of hurricanes hundreds of years ago. Valerie, welcome to Zona Politics.
(Trouet) Thank you very much for having me, Jim.
(Nintzel) So, tree rings study stuff, that all started here at the University of Arizona with A.E. Douglass about 100 years ago, and now it's spread out all over the world. What is tree-ring science all about?
(Troet) Tree ring science is great. We study the rings in trees, as the word says, to look at climate of the past, but also to look at environmental history—forest fires, forest growth, to look at archeology, to date archaeological sites. So my specialty is to look at the climate of the past
(Nintzel) You can tell from the widths of the ring whether it was a wet year or a dry year.
(Troet) Yeah, exactly. Here out west, trees like it when they get a lot of water, and so, in a wet year they grow a lot, which results in a wide ring. A dry year, they don't grow a lot because they're unhappy, and they grow very narrowly, and so by sampling trees, for instance, a 500 or a thousand-year-old tree, you can measure the width of the rings and actually see which years were wet and which years were dry.
(Nintzel) Now this science has spread out in a lot of places. You had a tree-ring conference here in Tucson in 2013. You found yourself sitting on the patio at Hotel Congress with Grant Harley from the University of Southern Mississippi and Marta Dominguez-Delmás from Spain, and you got to talking about hurricanes and shipwrecks and tree rings. You came up a pretty interesting idea. Tell us about this.
(Troet) It was a really good coincidence. So Grant is my colleague. He's worked in the Florida Keys for a while. And he was telling this story that he had sampled trees in the Florida Keys, and that he had the idea that they were recording hurricanes. So in the Florida Keys, when a hurricane hits, the trees lose all their needles. These were pine trees, and so that results in a very distinct reduction in how much they grow, and so you can kind of track that in the tree ring. And then my colleague Marta from Spain, she's a dendroarchaeologist. She looks at the wood in shipwrecks to date when those ships were built—where the wood came from and so forth. And so, in that conversation, we came up with the idea to use to try and use shipwreck data to see if we could bring that hurricane record from the tree ring,s even further back in time back to Columbus' time, basically in 1495.
(Nintzel) And, it turned out as you looked at these you discovered there were fewer Caribbean hurricanes from about 1645 to 1715 during something called the Maunder Minimum. What is that, and how does it relate to hurricanes. What is that, and how does it relate to hurricanes?
(Troet) So the Maunder Minimum to us paleo climatologists, it's a well-known period in the late 17th Century, where there was very little energy coming from the sun to the earth, so the sun put out less energy than normal for about 60 years, and if you get less energy from the sun, the earth cools down, so in the paleo records, we see generally cooler temperatures during that period and now, we've found, that there's also less hurricanes during exactly that period.
(Nintzel) And you were also involved last year in a study that showed the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada mountains was the lowest in the last 500 years. How did you determine that?
(Troet) Yeah, that was a study that I did with my two post-docs, Soumaya Belmecheri and Flurin Babst, and we heard on April 1, the 2015 snow pack numbers going out, and we heard that the 2015 snow pack was very, very low over the instrumental period, and we realized that we had the data in hand to put that number in a much longer context. That we reconstructed the snow pack over the last 500 years using tree rings, and it turned out that 2015 was a wasn't just the lowest over 80 years, but over the last 500 years. So it was really a very dire year for California snow pack.
(Nintzel) We've got about a minute left, but what got you interested in tree ring science?
(Troet) It's coincidence, really. I started for my masters, I started working in Africa, and I was really interested in the climate and there was the topic available of tree rings. So I, was like, "Okay. I’ll do tree rings." But then once I started looking at them through a microscope, it's really, it's almost addictive. It's a very fun field of science, because it's like you're constantly puzzling. It's like building a puzzle, and you're looking at wood, which is beautiful through a microscope. I’m very grateful to be investigating.
(Nintzel) Alright. We'll leave it there, but thank you so much, Valerie, for coming down here and talking to us on Zona Politics. And we will be right back with some closing thoughts.
That's our show for today. Next week we'll be presenting an encore presentation of our show with astronomer and author Chris Impey. My thanks to our partners at Tucson Weekly, Tucson Local Media and KXCI Community Radio, 91.3 FM, where you can hear the show at 5 pm. Sunday afternoon. If you missed any part of today's show, you can find all our episodes at zonapolitics.com, and be sure to follow us on Facebook. I'm Jim Nintzel. Thanks for watching. We'll see you next time.