01/15/2016

Signs of the Anthropocene, Chimp Trust, and a Twitter Expansion

11:48 minutes

A group of researchers released a study published in Science documenting that the Anthropocene—the human-influenced epoch that we now live in—is “functionally and stratigraphically distinct from” the previous epoch. Brandon Keim, a freelance science reporter, discusses this story and other science news from the week.

And for many users, brevity is the soul of Twitter. Now comes news that the blue bird is contemplating an expansion of the 140-character limit—to 10,000 characters. Slate’s Will Oremus contemplates the good and bad of a more verbose Twitter.

Segment Guests

Brandon Keim

Freelance journalist Brandon Keim is a blogger for Anthropocene Magazine based in New York, New York.

Will Oremus

Will Oremus is a senior technology writer for Slate in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

MANOUSH: This is Science Friday. I’m Manoush Zomorodi, host of WNYC’s Note to Self podcast, sitting in for Ira Flatow.

Later in the hour, a look at the microbiome of babies. But first, each of the epochs in the geological time scale has its own distinctive features, markers that you can see, preserved right into the rocky layers of the earth. The early Cambrian strata is filled with a wide variety of Sheldon vertebrates. The early Jurassic have signs of flowering plants and large dinosaurs.

And what does the anthropocene, the human epoch, look like in the bedrock? A study out in the Journal of Science looked at just that, and my next guest is here to tell us about that story and our other selected short subjects in science. Brandon Keim is a freelance writer based out of New York City and he joins us here in our Kinney studios.

Welcome, Brandon.

BRANDON: Hi Manoush. Great to be here.

MANOUSH: So OK, let’s start out. What does the geological layer of the anthropocene look like?

BRANDON: Well, when, you know, those archaeologist a million years from now are digging up their geological cores, they’re looking at the fossil record. What they’re going to see is, really, that our time is very distinctive. That there’s all kinds of plastic and aluminum everywhere pretty much. Carbon dioxide levels and methane levels went really high. The nitrogen cycle of earth was altered, the phosphorus cycle was altered. And also, really critically, the plant and animal communities of earth just got really radically rearranged, really just in the last 50 years or so.

MANOUSH: I mean, that’s pretty quick, right?

BRANDON: It’s really quick. And there’d actually been some debate in the circles of people who debate things about whether the anthropocene was something you could think of starting a couple years ago or a couple thousand years ago. But what these scientists said is that, really, no, it’s about 1950.

MANOUSH: Wow, OK. We’ve got to move on to the next story, which comes from the opposite end of the geological spectrum. A study that looks at vernal pools, a vernal pool from 365 million years ago. OK, let’s just start– what is a vernal pool?

BRANDON: So a vernal pool– the word vernal means spring– and these are bodies of water that are typically wet just for part of the year, usually in spring time as it were. And this week, researchers in the journal Current Biology described this vernal pool. And 365 million years ago, that’s a long time. It’s like 100 million years before the first dinosaur.

MANOUSH: Before the dinosaurs.

BRANDON: Yeah. And Just very long time. And so what they observed, actually, is that the little fairy shrimp, and water fleas and invertebrates that were in that vernal pool, looked a great deal like the invertebrates you’d find in a vernal pull now. You know, not identical but, you know, this spring and go out and find a vernal pool, get down on your hands and knees, take a look in. You’re going to be getting a little window into what the world was like 365 million years ago.

MANOUSH: Amazing. So somethings really do never change. Now, let’s go to the stand off at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. It’s in its 14th day now and a few scientists are starting to weigh in. Is it the scientists who’ve been displaced, essentially?

BRANDON: No. As far as I know, they’ve been keeping quiet. But last week, a couple of journalists from Reuters described the occupants of the wildlife refuge in the office of a biologist named Linda Sue Beck, kind of making fun of her work. And one of them was quoted saying something along the lines of, you know, she’s part of what’s destroying America.

And some other scientists and people who care about scientists– science, really– really got up– I was going to say up in arms about this. I should not say that.

MANOUSH: No.

BRANDON: Really got upset about this. And a biologist named Travis Longcore wrote this wonderful article that’s entitled I Stand with Linda Sue Beck, where he was saying this is really an attack on the idea of science and the role of scientists in society. And I think that however one feels about all the other political issues involved here, it’s just wrong for science and scientists to end up in the crosshairs, figuratively and literally, of what’s happening.

MANOUSH: It’s really a shame in that part. And then we want to talk, finally– which is so interesting– researchers conducted the chimp equivalent of the human trust fall.

BRANDON: So trust is one of those things that, maybe, we don’t think about it all that much but it’s foundational to human experience, right? Like imagine your own life without trust. It would be this terrible thing. And so these researchers– it was led by Jan Engelmann of the Max Planck Constituent and they were publishing in the journal, Current Biology, wondered what about chimpanzees?

And so at a sanctuary in Kenya, they designed this experiment where the chimp would be able to pull a rope and get a couple pieces of banana. And if you’re a chimp, like, this is not any great thing. This is a pretty blah meal. Or you could pull another rope and then another chimp would get this feast of bananas and apples too. But, of course, you would only do that if you trusted the other chimp to share that food with you. Otherwise, you’d just take the banana for yourself.

And what the researchers found is that the chimps trusted their friends to share with them. And I asked Dr. Engelmann, the lead scientist, how is this different from, let’s say, dogs who roll over and show their belly to another dog when they play or sperm whales.

MANOUSH: Yeah.

BRANDON: You know, the moms will leave their calves with other whales while they go and hunt.

MANOUSH: Wait– sperm whales like babysitting, shared babysitting?

BRANDON: They have shared babysitting.

MANOUSH: That’s awesome.

BRANDON: That’s awesome. And it’s something you would want to trust the whale who’s watching your baby. And the researcher said, yeah, well, that probably looks like trust too. And for me, I think I fall into a trap sometimes of thinking about animal interactions as either being, kind of, instinctive and mindless, or else, very calculating. What’s in it for me all the time.

But this just points to a new way of thinking about it. Trust is all around us and it’s as important to other animals as it is to us.

MANOUSH: And is it evolutionarily important? Does it gives them an advantage in any way?

BRANDON: The study didn’t address that, but I would say, certainly, any species, any assemblage of animals where the individuals can trust one another, is going to get a lot more done than one where everybody’s watching their back.

MANOUSH: Yeah. I mean, that makes complete and utter sense. Can I just ask you one follow-up to the anthropocene question right at the beginning? How will we know if that is indeed when that era started, in the 1950s? When will scientists be able to tell us?

BRANDON: Well, I mean the ultimate proof will be in a million years where we’re digging down into the rock and looking at it. But from the evidence we have right now, you know, all of those patterns that I mentioned– the carbon dioxide emissions, and plant and animal disruption, and what have you– just from the evidence that we have right now, you just see the rates of change just spiking upwards. You know, right around the middle of the 20th century.

MANOUSH: Just makes me think of The Graduate. “Plastics.” Remember that line?

BRANDON: Exactly.

MANOUSH: “Plastics.”

BRANDON: “Plastics.”

MANOUSH: Brandon Keim is a freelance writer based out of New York City. Thank you so much for being here, really appreciate it.

BRANDON: My pleasure.

MANOUSH: OK. Now it’s time to play Good Thing, Bad Thing.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Because every story has a flip side. Shakespeare wrote that “brevity is the soul of wit.” On Twitter, it’s also built into the platform. The little bluebird operates by very strict rules– make your point in 140 characters, or less, or just don’t make it.

But that might be about to change. Last week, the Twittersphere got word that the company was considering a new character limit. Instead of 140, think 10,000. What could be good, or bad, about a more verbose Twitter?

Will Oremus is senior technology writer at Slate and he is here to talk about it. Welcome Will.

WILL: Thanks.

MANOUSH: OK. So before we start speculating, what do we know, at this point, about what Twitter is planning?

WILL: All we know is that there have been reports that Twitter is working on a project that they call internally, Beyond 140. And the report from the tech log recode said that they’re looking at a new character limit of 10,000, which would, obviously, radically reshape the platform if that were, literally, true.

MANOUSH: OK. So is there good news here for fans of 140 character limit? Is that– good news?

WILL: Well, it sounds awful if you like Twitter.

MANOUSH: It sounds horrible.

WILL: What you like about Twitter is that everybody has to keep things snappy. You can’t just ramble on and on. Twitter would be a mess if everybody we’re tweeting 10,000 characters every time.

MANOUSH: You would only see one post at a time instead of that beautiful thing where you scroll, scroll, scroll.

WILL: Yeah, it would look like Tumblr or an old school web blog or something.

The good thing is, if you like Twitter, that’s not really what’s going to happen, I don’t think. Even if the reports are true, what’s likely to happen is that tweets will still be roughly 140 characters. What you’ll be able to do, in some cases, is to post much longer content, have 140 characters of advertisement for that content. And then, at the bottom of the tweet, you can click to expand, and then something will drop down and people can read the whole story there on the platform.

MANOUSH: Which isn’t that different. You can put links there now. So does this bring us to what could be the bad news here?

WILL: Yeah, that’s right. So as you alluded to, there are already plenty of ways for people to pack more than 140 characters into a tweet. You can put a photo on there, you can tweet a Vine, and often, people will tweet links to stories that are out there on the web.

Now what this will do, I think, in effect is to change what happens when you click that link. Instead of being a link to an article out there on the web, you will read the article right there on Twitter. Now, if you are publisher, if you’re somebody who puts that content out on the web, you rely on sites like Twitter and Facebook to drive traffic to your website. What this could do is keep those eyeballs right there within the Twitter app or the Facebook app, and that could be bad news for the publishers.

MANOUSH: But for the tech companies, that’s what they want, right? They don’t want people finding an article and then leaving to go to Slate, for example. Or, I don’t know, ScienceFriday.com, to read something. And they want to keep them right where they are. So the trouble is then ad revenue for the publishing industry?

WILL: Yeah, that could be part of it. So this is part of a broader trend where Silicon Valley tech companies are looking to take a lot of that content that’s out on the web and to bring it into their own platform. So Facebook has done this recently in the form of what it calls instant articles. These are articles that are published right on Facebook. And so The New York Times will write a story, but instead of being on NYTimes.com, it’ll be on Facebook.

And there’s something good about that, which is that when you’re on Facebook or Twitter and you go to click a link, if you’re like me, you probably shutter because you don’t know. Is it going to load really slowly? Are there going to be this horrible pop-up ads? Is it going to look like a mess on your phone? And so if it opens right there within the app, it’ll look much better.

MANOUSH: I mean, I have to say, as a user of Twitter, that sounds pretty great. As a journalist, it sounds like the demise of my very essence of being.

WILL: Yeah. This is probably only good news for consumers unless it means that, ultimately, there’s less of that good stuff out there on the web to read in the first place.

MANOUSH: OK. So when can we expect to find out whether Beyond 140– that’s the secret code word?

WILL: Supposedly.

MANOUSH: [LAUGHS] OK. When do you think we’re going to find out whether this is actually going to happen?

WILL: Well, the latest report says that it could happen by the end of the first quarter so that would be in the next couple of months.

MANOUSH: OK. And this is Jack Dorsey, who’s back at the helm, right? The CEO who was one of the creators and now is back as CEO.

WILL: Yeah. The prodigal son of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, is back. This is his initiative. And in fact, he responded to it in a really, sort of, coy way. He responded to these rumors by posting a tweet there was nothing but a screenshot of text and it was way more than 140 characters. So he was demonstrating the ways in which Twitter already lets you tweet more than 140 characters at a time.

MANOUSH: OK. Well speaking of brevity, that’s all the time we have. Will Oremus is senior technology writer at Slate. Thank you so much for being here.

WILL: Thanks for having me.

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