This Week in Science – March 04, 2008 Broadcast


Literal Eye-Tooth, Genetic Jimmy-Hat, TWIStributors!, TWIWorld Robot Domination, Darwin Was Wrong?!?, Human Descent, Octopus?, The Truth About Boys And Girls, and Interview w/ Absinthe Expert, Ted Breaux.

Thanks to FutureGen for the transcript.


Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer! The following hour of programming does not necessarily represent the views or opinions at the University of California, Davis KDVS or its sponsors.

While it is not intended to incite writer evolution, it may technically constitute a call to action. You may find yourself feeling the anticipation of conflict. The readiness of spirit that allows you to face great obstacles.

The sentimental preparations were warrior about to enter battle. And you do well to prepare for the enemy draws near. – the enemy of reason, the enemy of logic, the enemy of science. The enemy has shown itself my minions. The enemy’s here! The enemy is ignorance! The enemy is fear!

March forth brave minions and defeat this vial foe with the science-y tidbits you’ve learned on the show. Get out there and make interesting small talk at parties. The free world is counting on you. And the moment on which you can do is now! What are you waiting for? March forth brave minions! It’s This week in Science coming up next.

Justin: Good morning Kirsten.
Kirsten: Good Morning Justin. Welcome to wait, what day is it?
Justin: It’s March fourth!
Kirsten: [Laugh] That’s right and you are listening to This Week in Science. I’m Kirsten and sitting across from me with the very loud set of lungs…
Justin: Loud lungs?
Kirsten: Loud lungs… [laugh]… Is the wonderful Justin Jackson.
Justin: The wonderful – I like that a lot.
Kirsten: [laugh] The inspiring, the insightful, the opinionated.
Justin: Wow. My goodness I get all kinds of tags today.
Kirsten: [laugh] That’s right. We are here for the next hour talking all about science which we love so very, very, very much. I love the science. I do.
Justin: It’s so nice. I like that too.
Kirsten: And today we have an interview with Ted Breaux.
Justin: Breaux is going to talk about some…
Kirsten: What’s up Breaux? What’s up?
Justin: … some interesting stuff. He’s an absinthe-minded professor.
Kirsten: He is that definitely. Absinthe is on his mind. And it is not the wiles of – I guess it might be the wiles of the green fairy that he’s been chasing down for a little while now. But he’s been using science to go back into history and actually help a liqueur come back into favor here in United States.
Justin: Yes.
Kirsten: Yes. So we’ll be talking with him about absinthe at 9 o’clock.
Justin: Yes.
Kirsten: Yes. It’s going to be very, very exciting. You’ll be going to learn all sorts of stuff about the green liquor.
Justin: It’s very fascinating.
Kirsten: Very fascinating. And let’s see. What do we have in terms of news today?
Justin: Robot domination update.
Kirsten: Robot domination? Oh, we definitely need that. We’ve got a six legged octopus and…
Justin: That’s not an octopus anymore.
Kirsten: Doc – Oh it’s not. I guess it would be a hexapus?
Justin: Sexapus. “Sex” as in “sex”.
Kirsten: Sexapus. A sexapus, that’s right. Sex.
Justin: I don’t know if you can say that on the radio. Just be careful.
Kirsten: [laugh] Be careful and–
Justin: Turns out boys and girls are different.
Kirsten: And Darwin was wrong … about chickens.
Justin: Oh yes.
Kirsten: [laugh] We’ll be talking about all these fun things and probably more. And as much as we can get to while we are here on the air.

If you would like information on any of the stories that we talked about on the show, I provide links at our website or
Justin: And our emails respectively are Justin or Kirsten And you’ve got to put the TWIS somewhere in the subject line otherwise you will be spam filtered into oblivion.
Kirsten: Actually if you put TWIS in the subject heading you go into a special TWIS mail box in my mail box. [laugh] Yes, bring it.

Justin: In the land of the blind the one eyed man is king. In the land of Ireland, they are crowning the blind.
Kirsten: Yes. What?
Justin: An Irishman blinded by an explosion two years ago has had his sight restored after doctors inserted a tooth into his eye!
Kirsten: What? That usually is a really bad idea.
Justin: Exactly. The way you go blind is not-
Kirsten: That’s the kind of thing you hear about. Yes, like at a hockey match or something you know. I don’t know. [laugh]
Justin: [laugh] Tom McNichol, an Irishman, lost his Iris sight in a freak accident when red-hot liquid aluminum exploded at the re-cycling center in 2005. So a little more than two years ago. After doctors in Ireland said there was nothing more they can do. McNichol-
Kirsten: Except put a tooth in your eye. [laugh]
Justin: McNichol looked into or rather heard about an operation called “Osteo-odonto-keratoprostheis (OOKP)” being performed by Dr. Christopher Liu at Sussex Eye Hospital in Brighton England.

The technique actually pioneered in Italy in the 1960’s involves creating a support for an artificial cornea from the patient’s tooth and the surrounding bone and some tissue from that tooth.

Procedure used on McNichol actually used his son Robert’s tooth which was I think willingly donated. It used part of its root and part of the jaw. McNichol’s right eye socket was rebuilt, part of the tooth inserted. A lens inserted in a hole drilled through the tooth. And he now has enough sight to get around and even watch television.

“I have come out of complete darkness and I’m able to do simple things,” says McNichol.

So this is a very bizarre form of surgery like why do they need this than any other? I got really quick steps on the surgery here. Okay.
Kirsten: Oh great. That’s wonderful.
Justin: 1. Opening up the eye and removing the entire inner surface of the eyelid – the corneal surface and all scar tissue from the previous eye injury.

2. Remove the inner muscular lining of the cheek and transplanting it into the new surface of the eye.

3. Removing a canine tooth oddly also known as the “eye tooth” and part of the adjacent bone attached ligaments from the jaw.

4. Fastening a bolt shape structure from the tooth bone complex to receive a plastic optical cylinder which is cemented into place.

5. Implanting the tooth bone cylinder complex into the cheek to grow new blood supply. So now you have this – is in the tooth.

And then the second phase is a few months later, the cheek muscular lining over the eye will be opened. A circular opening made in the cornea to receive the implant. The inner contents of the eye will be removed at this time.

Secondly, the living tooth bone cylinder complex will be removed from the cheek, placed within the eye and the muscular cheek lining will be replaced over the implant.
Kirsten: It’s quite involved.
Justin: The end of the procedure light can now enter through the plastic cylinder and the patient will be able to see through this cylinder with some limited vision. Wow. Yes.
Kirsten: It’s amazing. I just want to know who came up with that whole idea.
Justin: You know I don’t have that here. But some Italian. They call it the “eye tooth” and they figured out the…
Kirsten: Yes. Some- why not? Yes, use is it for the eye.
Justin: It’s so bizarre though.
Kirsten: It’s very bizarre. A Canada-US research team has solved a major mystery related to HIV.
Justin: Wow.
Kirsten: Basically, some people don’t get HIV and the question has been “why?”
Justin: Lack of sex. That’s – or contraception. One or the other. Usually …
Kirsten: [laugh] Aside from that. Aside from that. There is a protein called “Fox 03-A” and it shields human body against the HIV attack. And they are hoping…
Justin: Like a genetic Jimmy Hat.
Kirsten: Exactly. You could say that. And anyway they are hoping that it will be able to help in the development of a vaccine so if they can take advantage of this protein, maybe kick it into gear in people who don’t have it naturally occurring maybe throwing a little RNA like something – throw something, use a virus get it in there-
Justin: Usher in a new era of free love, bring it. Come and see what science is working on people? See what it’s trying to get us to? Trying to bring back free love.
Kirsten: Yes. So basically in HIV, the T-cells which are memory cells within the immune system and allow lifelong protection against viruses. They decline – the HIV, the Human Immuno-deficiency Virus slowly just batters away at those cells and kills them off…
Justin: Civil war.
Kirsten: So yes, virus versus cell. That’s right. And this FOX 03-A actually helps the survival of these memory cells. And keeps them from becoming defective within the HIV infected individuals.
Justin: The wolverines.
Kirsten: They’ve studied three groups of men, one was HIV-negative and HIV-positive group who’s infection was controlled through Tri-therapy. And a third group who had HIV but did not show any symptoms.

The third group was able to fend off infection without any kind of treatment whatsoever, because they were able to maintain those T-cells. Because the FOX 03-A protein was being regulated within their bodies and others.

They had what the researchers says – Dr. Haddad says that they had perfect resistance to HIV infection. These elite controllers represents the ideal study group to examine how proteins are responsible for the maintenance of an immune system with good anti-viral memory.

This is the first study to examine in people rather than animals and that’s the key, key point here. That this is a human study so we’re seeing exactly how the human body works. We don’t have to do any transfer of anything from animals, animal medicine to people.

This is the first study to examine what shields the bodies’ immune system from infection and to pinpoint the fundamental role of FOX 03-A in defending the body. That’s going to enable scientists to develop appropriate therapies for other viral diseases that weaken the immune system. And that includes cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, hepatitis C, organ bone marrow transplant rejection like-
Justin: Huge – huge.
Kirsten: Huge. You know this is not – so this protein you know, it just helps out these T-cells that become compromised in all sorts of immuno-deficient diseases. Yes, so this is great – great – great news.
Justin: Yes.
Kirsten: I have a couple of-
Justin: Write to it. Throw them in.
Kirsten: Write to it? Throw them in? Alright. We have a couple of twis-tributors that-
Justin: You missed last week but we’re getting this week.
Kirsten: I don’t really want to get them in.
Justin: Get them out dadadada! Hit the mic!
Kirsten: Here they go. So without any further a do, twis-tributors attack!
Rob Hessler: Science leaders calling for presidential debate.

According to an article by Franklin Institute, president and CEO Dennis Wint that appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer on February 19, 2008. A debate is being proposed among the major presidential candidates to take place April 18th in Philadelphia.

Wint calls it a milestone in the movement to bring science to the forefront as an important issue in the 2008 presidential election. The article goes on to list some of the key questions such a debate would seek to explore.

How do we develop a thoughtful science policy that provide support for research in promising areas of science such as stem cells? And deals with the ethical and moral issues raised by those initiatives?

How can we improve public education in science and technology to ensure that the United States remains a world leader in science, technology and innovation? How will we pursue research and development of the necessary alternative energy technologies to address the growing issue of global of climate change?

What level of funding is needed to maintain and expand the United States’ scientific and technological leadership?

TWIS-minions can add their names to the burgeoning list of concerned citizens who want to see the candidates called on the carpet about their science policies at

There you will be joining Nobel Laureates, members of congress from both parties, heads of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Science and other major scientific and engineering organizations and writers and editors of major US science and technology publications.

This is Rob Hessler reporting from Philadelphia.
Ian Shafer: Okay the reason that wool garment shrink is because wool fibers have scales on them. The wool fibers themselves won’t shrink, they’re actually a reasonably elastic fiber but they will not shrink of their own accord.

The reason that wool yarn shrinks and hence wool garment shrink is because wool fibers have tiny little scales on them.

Now if you were to look at one fiber under a microscope, it will look like a growing stem of asparagus with all those tiny little scales on them.

Now what happens in commercial processing is that we end up at with some fibers running in one direction and some fibers running in the opposite direction. And what happens when they are in the yarn and you washed that yarn or that garment made from that yarn, is that the individual fibers will be just like scale fish swimming past each other.

They’ll move past each other easily head-to-head. The scales will glide over. But they cannot back up. And so we’ve end up with a ratchet-type process occurring within the yarn.

And as those fibers align and go past, the yarn is getting shorter and thicker. And that’s what causes the shrinkage in wool garments. And what’s being done to overcome that to create super washable garments is that the scales are removed.

They removed using caustic soda and the scales are burned off and so we end up with a dead smooth fiber. No ability to ratchet. Therefore we get machine wash and tumble dry in many instances.

Woman: Thank you. And you want to plug this yarn?

Ian Shafer: And come to Jumbuck Australiana right here on Kangaroo Island in Australia and you will be able to have the experience of your life with the wool industry and learn a lot about the Australian wool industry. Thank you.

Kirsten: And that was from Jessica Spalding, the first one from Rob Hessler.
Justin: Yarn. He’s talking about yarn.
Kirsten: Wool. Why wool shrinks? He was talking about yarn.

Justin: I was picturing some sort of small…
Kirsten: Why wool yarns?
Justin: Wow. What’s a little wool yarn? What’s a wool yarn? I don’t even know what that looks like.
Kirsten: So the interview was with Ian Shafer, owner of Jumbuck Australiana. A sheep farm in South Australia says Jessica Spalding.

Caustic soda is lye and yar is yarn. [laugh] She says it took her a while to catch on that. [laugh]
Justin: Is she still living in the van down by the river?
Kirsten: I believe she is still living in the van down by the river. Maybe you can get a van and park next door?
Justin: I think I need moving to the van down by the river. Very soon. Very soon.
Kirsten: In a van down by the river! Yes. We have more science. What else we have to talk about today? You are listening to This Week in Science. Did you have a story? You’ve got paper if you’re ready.
Justin: Intelligent machines deployed on battle fields around the world.
Kirsten: Oh no!
Justin: From mobile grenade launchers to rocket firing drones. They can already identify and lock in to targets without the aid of human beings.
Kirsten: That’s scary.
Justin: There are more than 4,000 US military robots on the ground in Iraq. As well as unmanned aircraft that of clock – hundreds of thousands of flight hours but according to this, the first three armed combat robots fitted with large caliber of machine guns deployed to Iraq last summer manufacture by US arm maker proved to be so successful that there’s another 80 more on order.

Up to now, humans have always been required to push a button, pull a trigger, but if we’re not careful this maybe changing.
Kirsten: Yes. Robots choosing their targets.
Justin: Military leaders are quite clear that what they want is autonomous robots as soon as possible. Because they are cost-effective and give a risk-free war. Which is an interesting…
Kirsten: Yes. And there’s no conscience to it either, “Oops, shot you. Sorry you weren’t an enemy combat.”
Justin: Robots was malfunctioning.
Kirsten: Right.
Justin: So they said it was nothing. The thing about it though is, I mean I’m all for this.
Kirsten: This is never – robots can’t be at fault. They are robot. They have-
Justin: No. But I’m all for this in a certain point. There is a certain point when you get to the test (low) level. Where the other side has robots too. And you just send your robot to fight their robots. And it becomes like DARPA prevent.
Kirsten: Great. But that’s not.
Justin: But that’s not with these things.
Kirsten: But that’s not going to happen right away though. Although, I guess there was – I did read something like a week ago saying that robotics is getting to the point where it’s becoming so common that people with without advanced technology can build robots and have them go out and do their bidding.
Justin: And there’s some technicalities that still need to be work out. Like how to distinguish a civilian from military combat in a military aspect? But you’re right. Once people – I think we’ve talk about this before– once people can have their own robots. I mean you could have terrorist robots, suicide exploding robots and you can have bank robbing robots. Which would we be great because-?
Kirsten: Just go down to RadioShack.
Justin: Yes. You go down to RadioShack. You put in a couple of hundred bucks. Just hang out in a garage over the summer and then that winter you got your bank robber robot out there committing crimes for you. And if you do the money drop right there they might never track it back to you.
Kirsten: We can only hope that eventually when the robot uprising takes place the robots just band together and there are no sides. I mean, that’ll be the best thing – the robots will just be unlike this whole side thing. Get rid of the humans, make them do our bidding. We are the overlords and life is better. [laugh] No, no.
Justin: Autonomous robots that are totally and completely like, independent. They go out to the battle field and they make the call.
Kirsten: I don’t like that so much.
Justin: They’re working on it.
Kirsten: So Darwin was wrong.
Justin: Yes. Well, sorry about all that evolution stuff we were talking about. Yes we were completely 100% wrong.
Kirsten: That’s so sure. Yes, no. It’s not natural selection that he was wrong about it was the chicken. He had an idea that-
Justin: He thought it came before the egg?
Kirsten: [laugh] No. That the domesticated chicken – he had a lot of ideas about the descent of species. And one of them was the domesticated chicken and he thought that all domesticated – THE domesticated chicken came from the red jungle fowl.

But there’s a new study that’s come out of Uppsala University that chickens were a little been more complex. Very complex animals.

Yellow skinned chickens have a different version for the skin color than do their white skinned cousins. And that gene does not come- it’s not a mutation – from the red jungle fowl. It comes from a different species, the gray jungle fowl.
Justin: Wow.
Kirsten: And so through genetic analysis their studies have shown that the gray jungle fowl was likely crossed with an early form of the domesticated chicken. And the genes for yellow skin spread among the billions of chickens around the world.
Justin: Wow.
Kirsten: Yes. So the researcher Gregor Larson, says that what’s ironic is that Darwin thought that more than one wild species had contributed to the development of the dog. But that the chicken came from only one wild species, the red jungle fowl. Now it turns out, it’s just the other way around.
Justin: That doesn’t really throw out all of evolution now. S0-
Kirsten: Oh no – no – no – no.
Justin: I can keep my fish with feet decals on the back of my car.
Kirsten: Absolutely. Absolutely. It was just – he happened, I mean not having the technology to be able to do genetic analysis. He was looking at the traits and physical characteristics of animals and trying to determine their lineages. And you know-
Justin: Kind of tough without the genetics thing.
Kirsten: It is kind of tough. And so he was making a best guess based on the information that he had at hand. But now we’re just seeing that those colors are a little bit different.

Scientists believe that this gene may also explain the pink color of the flamingo, the yellow leg color of many birds of prey, and the reddish meat of the salmon. Yes.

So it also, because in the – yellow color is influenced by what are called “caratonoids” which are colored pigments that become brighter when you eat food with particular colors. And it might also influence the skin color of humans to a small extent. Yes. So it’s very interesting.
Justin: And speaking of DNA and spread of species, new genetic analysis of people from all around the world has added further confirmation to the African origin of humanity. Study of genetic details from 938 individuals from 51 populations provides evidence of how people are related and different.

Research led by Richard M. Myers of Stanford University reported this in the Journal of Science took at – the team looked at variations in 650,000 sections of each of the DNA samples. Providing a view of the similarities and differences between people in greater detail that had been possible before.

Scientists have long believed that modern humans first developed in Africa and from there went out to populate the rest of the world. A theory that is strongly supported by not just all the archeology in previous DNA evidence but of course supported by this new analysis.

In addition they noted that residents in Middle East can trace their ancestry to both Africa AND Europe. Yes. So it’s not just the (atavist) coming back to you know.
Kirsten: Right.
Justin: Because you always go back once you – which is they say the logical sense in the region form the late bridge of movement back and forth between the areas. They also found a close relationship between the Yakut population of Siberia and Native Americans who are believed to have migrated through the Siberian land bridge at the time – ice and low sea level.
Kirsten: Very interesting. That’s cool. I love seeing we’re finding out the pasts of humanity.
Justin: So yes. From now on I’m checking African-American on every survey and every identifier.
Kirsten: [laugh] Exactly. And well, it’s like James Watson who – he thought he was so far removed and it turns out that they didn’t – he was one of the first people to allow his entire genome to be sequenced and it turns out he was a very significant portion of African descent.
Justin: Yes. Absolutely.
Kirsten: As he should be because we all are.
Justin: We all are from Africa. We just moved.
Kirsten: We just moved. That’s it! Hello? The six legged octopus has arrived.
Justin: It’s not an octopus. We should not call it octopus if it’s not an octopus any more.
Kirsten: Says the spokeswoman for the Blackpool Sea Life Center in Northwest England. “He’s a lovely little thing. And he is going to go on display to the public later this month.”
Justin: Wow.
Kirsten: Yes. He has two limbs fewer. He’s missing some arms. Why? They think he’s a – I think it is birth defect and not a new species. So it just happens to be – I guess it’s “sextapus” that they found.
Justin: And you’re calling it a sextapus? It’s a hexapus. This is hexa– I don’t-
Kirsten: Hexapus. I like sextapus. [laugh]
Justin: Oh my! You can’t say that on the air. Shhh. Boys and girls are different in the manner of speaking.
Kirsten: “No one has ever heard of another case of a six-legged octopus,” says Carey Duckhouse.

Henry is the name of the octopus. They’ve dubbed him Henry. And he was discovered in a lobster pot off the North Whales Coast two weeks ago. One of eight creatures that the staff of the Sea Life Center picked up from a local marine zoo. And they didn’t notice that he was missing any legs. I guess he does pretty well without them.
Justin: I do pretty well without even six.
Kirsten: I know. Two legs. They do okay.
Justin: Yes.
Kirsten: Yes. There would be, I mean there’s probably a reason that there aren’t more six-legged octopuses being found…
Justin: Because there’s no such thing as a six-legged octopus.
Kirsten: Okay fine. [laugh]
Justin: I’m just trying to point out the obvious. That’s all.
Kirsten: Oh my goodness.
Justin: Boys and girls are different in a manner of speaking and yet until now, we didn’t know why.
Kirsten: I might be able to hazard a guess. [laugh] Maybe? Well, aside from the sex characteristics you know, why should we be that different? Well, probably everything.
Justin: We are. We are biologically different. Now researches on Northwestern University and the University of Haifa show that both the areas of the brain associated with language work harder in girls than in boys during language tests.

So the areas of the brain associated with language are much more active and working in the girls. Also they found that boys and girls are relying on different parts of the brain when performing tasks of language.

Findings which suggest that language processing is more sensory in the boys and more abstract in girls could have major implications for teaching children. And even provides support for people advocating single sex classrooms. Which as much I would have been against the idea as a young a man having single sex classrooms- it might been a lot less destructing, might have learned something in school.
Kirsten: Absolutely. [laugh]
Justin: Using functional magnetic resonance imaging FMRI researchers measured brain activity in 31 boys and 31 girls aged 9-15 as they performed spelling and writing language tasks.

So the task were delivered in two different modalities; visual and auditory. Visually presented, the children write certain words without hearing them presented in auditory mode. They heard the words but did not see them.

Researchers found that the girls show significantly greater activation in language areas of the brain than boys. The information in the task got through to the girls’ language areas to the brain in either mode.

Now this is what was kind of strange. In the case of the boys, the boys’ accurate performance depended – when reading the words on how hard the visual areas of the brain were working. And in hearing words, the boy’s performance depended on how hard the auditory areas of the brain work. So the pattern extends the language processing that occurs in classrooms, it could create a more efficient teaching and testing methods.

Because boys, it’s all about how you’re hearing it or how you’re seeing it. So for instance, they’re thinking maybe this means that boys will learn language skills better or just in general learn better on written material and on hearing it versus girls who wouldn’t matter which one of the other you were using. They’re going to get because it’s just the abstract information that’s being processed.
Kirsten: Interesting. That is very interesting. Well, that’s it for the first half of our show; we will be back in just a few moments. Stay tuned for more This Week in Science and lots of absinthe-
Justin: What?
Kirsten: After this short break.
Justin: Did we bring some down here?
Kirsten: [laugh] unfortunately no.
Kirsten: And I would like to thank, I’m totally blanking on this song.

Justin: Another song. I didn’t get the preview but apparently its on the compilation CD.

Kirsten: It is going to be on the new compilation CD and I’d like to – I can’t find the name right now. I’m sorry, it’s my problem.

Justin: But we thanked you for joining us…

Kirsten: Grant?

Justin: Grant?

Kirsten: I think it’s Grant. I don’t remember. Anyway yes,

Justin: We’ll shout you out many times into the future.

Kirsten: We have Ted Breaux on the line. Let’s bring him in.

Justin: Good morning Mr. Breaux and welcome to This Week in Science.

Ted Breaux: Good morning.

Kirsten: Yes. Thanks for joining us. I’m really kind of sad that you can’t make it into the studio. I mean… [laugh]

Justin: Samples. What?

Ted Breaux: Well you know I tell you. Ordinarily I’d be sad too – I’d traveled so much in the past six months but it’s good to put my feet down and get myself together but yes, maybe next time.

Kirsten: Yes. [laugh]

Justin: Yes – yes – yes.

Kirsten: Maybe we can have one of those on air tastings next time. That’ll be great

Ted Breaux: Oh that’ll be great. I love those.

Kirsten: [laugh] So you have not just gotten – don’t you just have an interest in drinking absinthe? You have more of a scientific interest in the concoction. Can you tell us a little bit about what it is that brought you to scientifically investigating the spirit?

Ted Breaux: Well you know, in most people fallen into absinthes, they become interested and it’s from an approach from agriculture history, something like that. My intro into absinthes was from very different angle. And that was an angle of science.

As some 14 years ago, I was working in an environmental research lab as an environment research scientist. And a colleague of mine, this is in the New Orleans and a colleague of mine made up a passing comment about absinthe.

And being a New Orleanean you know, I had seen that word as many people had several times just never really put any thought into it. And I said yes, and I asked him “Absinthe. What exactly was that?” He said “You know it was that green liquor that made people crazy.”

Kirsten: [laugh]

Ted Breaux: So I’m a research scientist. My job is to research questions and find answers. And when I was presented with that it’s like wait a minute. That’s just – that’s not good enough of an answer. That’s not going to satisfy me. So you know what I did, I pick up the trusty old Merck index. We all know the chemists on the bridge bible there.

Kirsten: Yup.

Ted Breaux: And I said, “you know I wonder if that would be – because Merck has a listing for all sort of things that you wouldn’t expect. I looked it up and sure enough it was there.”

Kirsten: Absinthe?

Ted Breaux: And the definite – yes, absinthe was in the Merck Index and it gave this synopsis yada yada and at the bottom it said the note and it had this ominous warning. Ingestion of the liquor at green liquor absinthe can cause hallucinations, convulsion, and it may even said death I don’t know…

Kirsten: Oh my Gosh!

Ted Breaux: So upon seeing that, I was – now I really, really had questions that I need an answer not just that make sense to me. And are we still here?

Justin: Yes. Exactly.

Kirsten: Yes we are.

Ted Breaux: Okay – okay.

Justin: Can we pause just for sec. Just for a moment cause – now absinthe is a drink that was enjoyed a long time and is probably one of the greatest success stories of the prohibition ever.

Because it was – the actual drink has been eliminated from any part of the world to where you would actually have to go back in and look up the chemical compounds that made up it or the Merck index there on it. To even see what was that made out of, correct?

Ted Breaux: Well see that’s – and you’re absolutely right. There is a great void of information and what happen was – when I become interested in Absinthe, about the only resource that I could find on it was a book called “History in a Bottle” by Barnaby Conrad.

Book published ‘88 which is a fantastic book. And definitely answered a lot of questions but certainly I had many, many more questions. I even contacted the author but he couldn’t help me. And so basically, at this point I – it’s like “wait a minute there’s a spirit here.”

First commercialized in 1805 because it was proclaimed as a digestive aid. It was a medicine that was sovereign for indigestion. Became popular as tipples in mid-1800’s and became the most popular spirit in France throughout the 1800 and early 1900’s.

So the thing is millions of people drank this beverage frequently even on a daily basis. I find it difficult that they would be doing that if they had to be concerned about hallucinations, convulsions and death.

Kirsten: Yes.

Ted Breaux: With those two pieces of that puzzle just don’t fit properly. For the time I realized that the only way that I’m going to be able to study this – I mean I’ve read some anecdotes and whatever you know and some things of very dubious quality and I decided- well I knew at that point – the only way that I’m going to be able to understand absinthe and unravel this mystery is I’m going to have to have it.

And at the time, it was virtually nothing available anywhere on the planet. And so I knew that not only am I going to have to have it but I’m going to have to learn how to make it the way that it was made in the 1800’s. And my twisted odyssey really began at that point. And let me tell you, twisted it has been…

Kirsten: Yes.

TED BREAUX: Because the thing is -there are many things have been theorized and hypothesize about absinthe. Because basically, when absinthe was banned in 1915, it virtually vanished. Anyone who made it back then has been dead for a long time. And it’s not like vintage bottles or vintage absinthe just grows on trees, they don’t.

And I knew that there were some missing pieces to that puzzle that I was going to have to interpolate and extrapolate. And thought I had done a reasonably good job. And then back around ‘97, I happened to cross not one but two full completely sealed unopened bottles of vintage absinthe.

Kirsten: Oh wow. So that was like – it was like a buried treasure you just – you all of a sudden have the source. [laugh]

TED BREAUX: Yes. It was. That’s was the Holy Grail.

Justin: Now, if this was me. The story ends shortly after. It was good, I got to tell you. I was impressed. And that would be it. It’ll be gone again another hundred years.

Kirsten: [laugh]

TED BREAUX: [laugh] Well, what I had to do though is I had to say “you know, if I’ve got some of this. Then maybe this is going to help me”, well first of all it is going to help me understand a lot. And I just may garner – just maybe able to accumulate enough information to process to where I can make more.

Kirsten: And so this is the part where you actually got down into the deep and dirty science and started taking the absinthe apart piece by piece.

TED BREAUX: That’s right. I took a short hiatus. Cleared my head and fooled around with some more historical research and then around the summer of 2000, I think June of 2000. Was when I actually got enough courage to draw samples from those bottles? And I tested them because at that time I had to wait for an opportunity as well.

At that time I was in charge of my very own little in-coast 50 mass spectrometer. And I run samples through and I found that the content of these samples was different than wood. Than what others had speculated that it was. And I’m talking to very, very you know, seemingly good research – 20 years of research at that time. Speculation about the content and it just didn’t add up.

Kirsten: So what was the speculation? I know that the common idea is that absinthe – because it contains wormwood and that’s wormwood has become the culprit for all of the craziness that people have heap on to absinthe.

TED BREAUX: Well, you’re right. And back in the day when the wine industry, the tempered league sought to smear absinthe – starts to demonize. So what they did is they had to single something out. They couldn’t say “Oh absinthe is bad.” They had to single something out.

And basically the wormwood that you find in absinthe that you find in almost nothing else is Artemisia absinthium. So said, “hah, there’s our escape goat.” Well then you got to say “but what about this is bad?” We’ll they came up say “Well, it’s because it contains something called ‘thujone’.”

Justin: Oh that sounds bad.

Kirsten: Thujone.

TED BREAUX: Yes. Thujone a turpine. So basically, what happened back in the many, many decades later, 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s? They were all these theories made about thujone. And that’s because absinthium contains thujone. And absinthe contains thujone and it contained a lot of thujone. And it’s this and this and it caused that whatever and all sorts of interesting theories.

But the fact that matters is when we examine vintage bottles, and examined freshly distilled samples that we used to mimic absinthe of old. Basically we found that the thujone content wasn’t anything like what people thought and really it just drove one more nail onto the coffin of the theories that somehow that absinthe was banned for it. And that was very, very interesting.

In fact I was so surprised by the result there. Initially I was reluctant to say anything. In fact I sent of samples off had it tested by third party lab. Of course they corroborated my results. And in the following years I just actually up until the present other researchers around the world have been able to duplicate my work and found the same thing.

So we find it’s very interesting that science in the 1800’s which was relatively primitive as compared to today was actually used to demonized absinthe. And now the 21st century science has been used to vindicate that.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: It was the mis-use of science the first time. Because as you mentioned, I mean I can picture for some reason – I can picture France’s wine industry as being a little bit aggressive to this invading spirit. Somehow that makes sense to me.

Kirsten: [laugh]

Justin: But what about the farmer though? The farmer, he drank – he had a shot of absinthe and like killed his family and a bunch of people?

Kirsten: It’s bad excuse.

TED BREAUX: I see, that was Jean Lanfrey murders in Switzerland in 1905. But what they neglected to tell you was that the guy before he had his glass of absinthe, he’d already consumed like two liters of wine, several glasses of brandy. I mean he creamed them all he had everything a man can do.

Kirsten: He was drinking everything.

Justin: But he had absinthe. Don’t you see the connection?

TED BREAUX: But he had absinthe. And that’s it, that’s what tipped the whole applecart there. That one glass of absinthe. You know the thing is funny because back in the old days when absinthe was so popular in the wine industry was decimated by (philochoros) you know, when the absinthe became usually popular replaced wine as the national drink of France really.

The fact of the matter is, at that time they were never any food and beverage quality controls. And so just as if you have today you have very, very cheap industrially made wines. You had very cheap industrially made absinthe at the time.

And there were no regulations and these cheap adulterated absinthes use things like copper sulfate to artificially induce a green color which ordinarily comes from whole herbs.

Cheap alcohol, things of that nature and these persons, these alcoholics with low socio-economic status were imbibing these cheap drinks. And it was these people that really had some health issues and the wine industry seized upon this. And used it politically and economically to their advantage.

Kirsten: Right. Cause things like copper, that’s a heavy metal that can really get into your bloodstream, affect your liver or kidneys even you’re mental processes.

TED BREAUX: Of course. And at that time no one really knew these things. I mean, the time if you look at the medical formulas on the charts of the centuries in 1900’s, you’ll see the use of a blue pill. You know, something that totally contains mercury as a digestive cleanser. You know so – I mean basically, yes.

Kirsten: Not so healthy on its own. [laugh] Anyway did you-

Justin: Wow.

TED BREAUX: Anyway so it’s quite a twisted story. Very interesting. Still being unraveled today.

Kirsten: Yes. So basically the process that you used to pick out the ingredients and kind of basically reverse engineer the recipe for absinthe. Is it just a bunch of mass spectrometry, spectroscopy, did I get the word out? Basically just looking to find out what might match with known ingredients and in what concentrations is that the basic process?

TED BREAUX: Well that would be a very, very simple thumbnails sketch. Mass spectrometry is very, very useful. And what it does is it tells us things about the content and allows us to put fingerprints to individual components that were used in its crafting. But then it goes further than that.

Because basically, absinthe is an agricultural product distilled from whole herbs. And just as is Merlot is grapes grown in Sonoma don’t taste like Merlot grown in Mongolia. We find that basically it comes down the very, very – it comes down the interesting specifics that transcend more than analytical chemistry that actually get into scientific agriculture.

We find herbs that had certain fingerprints if you will. That are expressed that are typical to the foot hills of the Alps and differ if grown elsewhere. So in order to actually recreate vintage absinthe, we have to know a lot about the materials; where they were grown; when they were harvested. How they were harvested, how they were prepared, stored, things like that. And of course, the almighty art of distillation itself which is yet another science. So just one-

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: But now you’ve taken to that step?

TED BREAUX: Except for grape so much science was into it? What’s that?

Justin: But you’ve taken that step is what I mean. There was a research of sort of faux absinthes that came out and they were I think – I heard it described as mouth wash and vodka mixed together?

Kirsten: [laugh]

TED BREAUX: Yes. Right – right. Window cleaner. Exactly.

Justin: Yes. But now it’s – after – since back engineering just the ingredients. You’ve actually taken the next step and done some actual brewing.

TED BREAUX: Oh absolutely. I’ve been distilling the absinthe commercially since 2004. Distilling in a research basis for many years in France. And basically, I’ve actually put the fruits of my effort and mass spectrometry to work.

And actually I distill absinthe using 130 year-old absinthe stills using original materials – sourced from the original regions. You just can’t – it just would be very, very hard pressed to make it any more authentic.

Kirsten: Right.

TED BREAUX: And yes, I’ve done that for years.

Kirsten: Are you still – I know you’ve got a paper coming out in the next few weeks here. Are any of those results being used to better your production process?

TED BREAUX: Well, not only does the result add to my dossier of results which always, always improves my understanding and allows me to see statistically more a wider sample base. But the result of what we’ve done basically are driving more nails into the coffin of the whole thujone theory.

And basically, this work that I’ve done lately is very, very important because what it does – basically what we’ve done is we’ve put together couple of other researchers and myself. Put together the most comprehensive published study on the – using mass spectrometry, using the analysis of vintage absinthe. Nothing on this scale’s ever done or will be ever done again.

And so it’s a most conclusive work on the content of vintage absinthe ever prepared. And it’s going to be published yes, in coming weeks, months in to words you know, obvious reasons.

Kirsten: How it goes, yes.

Justin: So this isn’t available in the United States, alright. This is…

Kirsten: The absinthe?

TED BREAUX: Actually yes I did. I have – I am the creator of the first genuine absinthe to be distributed in the United States since 1912.

Justin: Yes.

TED BREAUX: And that is the “Lucid” brand which is pretty much everywhere on the country now.

Justin: Oh awesome!

Kirsten: Yes, when did – I mean it was banned authentic absinthe with wormwood but thujone ingredients have been banned in the United States for years. When was that ban lifted? It wasn’t-

TED BREAUX: The ban was never lifted and really the verbiage that banned absinthe specifically has been – that’s been superseded by the — thru the creation of the FDA which happened you know, many, many years ago.

So absinthe is no longer banned specifically should as the way that the modern regs are worded. The TTB- the US government effectively has complete latitude as to what they allow in the country.

Kirsten: Right.

TED BREAUX: And so, basically we didn’t know laws were changed. The thing is thru education through science thru published studies, thru works of others and myself, we’re able to convince the federal government to take a different approach. To take a new approach consider science and reconsider their age old perception about absinthe which go back for more than 100 years.

Justin: How did you get them to do that? I’ve been to-

Kirsten: [laugh]

TED BREAUX: Well I’ll tell you, I provided the ammunition, the guys at Veridian Spirits, the brand known as lucid. They provided the gun. It took a great deal of time, took a great deal of lobbying as you can imagine working with the government is not – never a straight forward process. And finally we we’re able to do that. So effectively, it made history.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: It absolutely has. Now we’ve vindicated absinthe and the thujone compound. Is there anything, I mean aside from alcohol, when you say, it’s made from herbs you know, that sounds like it’s good for you. I mean, what’s in it and is it something over all – is there anything that specifically – the health benefits.

Justin: Talk about the health benefits. Can you cure indigestion?

Kirsten: How those all age old ideas of yes, it’s good for you. Do those stand up? Or is it like, nah alcohol kind of-

Justin: Can I use it as a hair cream to get my self less (of those) as possible?

TED BREAUX: [Laugh] or perfume. Actually absinthe was promoted in the early days as being healthy. And the things is absinthe – the creation of absinthe utilized the art of distillation to take these herbs into – I mean, basically to make absinthe it requires a tremendous amount of herbs and the distillate concentrates the essences of these herbs.

Essences that have been purported for centuries to have certain medicinal benefits. And absinthe was originally created as medicine. It was distributed to the French army in the 1840’s because it was thought to make unclean water, clean enough to consume. So it’s really interesting because all of these herbal constituents of absinthe have some sort of medicinal property.

Some are said to be stimulant to the mind. Others are said to be sedatives. So it’s really kind of – and of course ethanol. And absinthe traditionally contains a high concentration of ethanol. Ethanol is a very potent delivery agent.

So really, it’s interesting because the science of absinthe where it – how it affects the mind and body is still really not clearly understood. But a genuine absinthe that is often said by those who imbibe it and described the experience is something that if they feel it in their body but their mind stays remarkably clear.

And it is something that goes back to the 1800’s where the artists and poets felt that it made them more creative. It’s not like drinking beer, wine, tequila, which coincidentally are there.

Although all those three contain alcohol but yet drinking one or the other tends to put us in a different mood. So it’s really interesting because absinthe is unique in that regarded has its own unique flavor in that context as it’s-

Justin: As does “Mongolian Merlot.”

Kirsten: [laugh]

TED BREAUX: [laugh] Well, I often used that analogy because really quite frankly as far as I know it doesn’t exist.

Kirsten: Yes – yes; [laugh]

TED BREAUX: But if it did. It probably wouldn’t be recognizable among the wine connoisseurs or something. Now that’s, let’s say if they are familiar.

Kirsten: Yes. It’s been wonderful talking with you. We unfortunately are out of time. There is so much more to be learned about the spirit absinthe. And I hope that you’ll continue your search for understanding this amazing spirit. And I hope that we can get the chance to talk again.

TED BREAUX: I did my best to compress it to about 20 minutes but I really enjoyed participating in the show.

Kirsten: It was great.

Justin: Very lucid.

Kirsten: Very lucid. Yes.

TED BREAUX: [laugh] Alright.

Kirsten: Thank you very much and have a wonderful day Mr. Ted Breaux.

TED BREAUX: Thank you both.

Kirsten: And that is it for our show today. The science of absinthe.

Justin: And if you learned anything from today’s show remember…

Kirsten: That a whole bunch of people emailed and helped us out this week. Calidasa, Clinton Edwards, Jason Growth, Alessandra Triano, Pedro Weenu, Heckon Lund, Eric Cooper.

All sorts of people, thank you very much for helping us out. And what is it? What is it?

Justin: If you learned anything from today’s show it must be…

Kirsten: All in your head…



About the Author

I'm the host of this little science show.