David Biello: A Journey Into Uncharted Territory

Mar 27, 2020
Originally published on May 15, 2020 6:46 am
David Biello
Elizabeth Zeeuw / TED

About The Episode

There's so much we've yet to explore—from outer space to the deep ocean to our own brains. This hour, Manoush goes on a journey through those uncharted places, led by TED Science Curator David Biello.

About David Biello

As TED's Science Curator, David Biello finds scientists with spectacular stories of discovery and helps them bring those stories to life on the TED stage.

A science journalist by trade, he is also a contributing editor at Scientific American, where he's been since 2005. He has also written for Yale E360, Aeon, Foreign Policy, The New York Times and New Republic. David has been a guest on numerous television and radio shows, and he hosts the ongoing duPont-Columbia award-wining documentary "Beyond the Light Switch" as well as "The Ethanol Effect" for PBS.

Biello is the author of The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth's Newest Age. He received a BA in English from Wesleyan University and a MS in Journalism from Columbia University.

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

This is the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and we are definitely living in uncharted territory with the coronavirus. And even though things can feel strange and even scary right now, uncharted territory doesn't always have to be a bad thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JUNA KOLLMEIER: It's our calling card to figure things out.

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ZOMORODI: In fact, it is often what sparks the imaginations of scientists and explorers.

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ENRICO RAMIREZ-RUIZ: We are all atomically connected, but what does that mean?

ZOMORODI: They want to go where no one else has ever gone before.

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VICTOR VESCOVO: These are places that have been isolated for billions of years.

ZOMORODI: And that, of course, is what can lead us to new discoveries, better ways of living our lives.

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KAREN LLOYD: Could they also help us with a little carbon problem we've got going on up at the surface?

ZOMORODI: And so on the show today, we are going into uncharted territory - into space...

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RAMIREZ-RUIZ: Stars like our sun...

ZOMORODI: ...Oceans...

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

VESCOVO: Every single dive we have gone on...

ZOMORODI: ...Deep into the Earth...

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LLOYD: The subsurface....

ZOMORODI: ...And even in our brains...

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KAY TYE: How does our brain give rise to emotion?

ZOMORODI: ...With a very special person at TED whom I've gotten to know well over the years.

Can you introduce yourself and tell us your name and what you do?

DAVID BIELLO: Yes, hello. My name is David Biello, and I am the science curator for TED.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: And what does that even mean David? Like, what is a curator? You think of art. What's a - what's a science curator?

BIELLO: So I think of it as a fancy term for editor. I'm out there in the world looking for great science stories and great scientists to tell me about them.

ZOMORODI: OK. So part of, then, your duties are helping them craft or take the very in-depth research that they're doing and make it more palatable to the common woman or man or...

BIELLO: That's right.

ZOMORODI: ...Person.

BIELLO: The kind of curious, science-curious, science-interested, listener who maybe doesn't have a Ph.D. in astrophysics but kind of wants to know what's going on in the universe.

ZOMORODI: What we asked you to do for this kind of an unusual experimental episode of TED Radio Hour was to go back and look at some of your favorite scientists who fit the theme, Uncharted - people who have already given talks but have really stuck in your mind as people who truly are doing the pioneering work in going into territories that people have never been before. And either they're getting there or they're looking even beyond what we think might be possible. And I want to start with a woman who is literally mapping uncharted territory space. Her name is Juna Kollmeier, and why did you choose her? Just explain what Juna does, if you wouldn't mind.

BIELLO: Well, so Juna is, like you said, trying to make the most complete map of the universe that we've ever had. And she is the director of a sky survey that's using robots to map the stars to the greatest precision that we could possibly achieve today.

ZOMORODI: Does that mean she's an astrophysicist or cartographer or what is she?

BIELLO: (Laughter) Both.

ZOMORODI: Silly, silly host.

BIELLO: Can I - can I say both?

ZOMORODI: Yes.

BIELLO: I think it's a little bit of mapping and a whole lot of astrophysics as well. And there's a lot of unknowns out there, right? We don't really understand why the universe is the way it is. There are these little things called dark matter and dark energy that seem to be speeding the universe apart, and maybe by mapping the universe more precisely, we can start to understand it a little bit better.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KOLLMEIER: So at its core, mapping the sky involves three essential elements. You've got objects that are giving off light, you've got telescopes that are collecting that light, and you've got instruments that are helping you understand what that light is. So many of you have mapped the moon phases over time with your eyes, your eyes being your more basic telescope, and you've understood what that means with your brains, your brains being one of your more basic instruments. But if you're going to map the universe, you're not going to do it with one or two of your besties.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOLLMEIER: The Milky Way Galaxy has 250 billion plus or minus a few hundred billion stars. That is not a number that you hold in your head. That is a number that doesn't make practical sense to pretty much anybody. You never get 250 billion jelly beans in your hand, you know? We're nowhere near mapping all of those stars yet, so we have to choose the most interesting ones. We're mapping 6 million stars where we think we can measure their age. Because if you can measure the age of a star, that's like having 6 million clocks spread all throughout the Milky Way. And with that information, we can unravel the history and fossil record of our galaxy and learn how it formed.

ZOMORODI: I love, love, love that description, the 6 million clocks spread throughout the galaxy. So just lay it out for us though, David. What makes Juna's work so groundbreaking?

BIELLO: Well, it truly is the...

ZOMORODI: Or space-breaking, I guess.

BIELLO: Space-breaking.

ZOMORODI: Yes.

BIELLO: Something like that. It really is about a deeper understanding, both of the galaxy we live in and then the broader universe. So we aren't entirely sure how old the Milky Way is. We aren't entirely sure, for that matter, how old the universe is. And we can only access so much light. That light has to travel across vast distances, which is also vast expanses of time, to reach us. And by digging through that fossil record, as she puts it, we can start to get a better understanding of where the Milky Way came from - what caused it to form. Was it - was it clumps of dark matter that kind of pulled in the matter we can see and created galaxies or was it something else? There might be new physics that we can understand by looking at this better map of our region.

ZOMORODI: And I think Juna - there's a sense about her that, you know, first makes me think, like, well, why? What difference does it make? We're here. We're on Earth. And she's like, because that's what being human is. It's wanting to understand where we come from, where we've been. And if you really want to get existential - this is seriously existential - looking at billions of stars and how it's the story of humans in some way.

BIELLO: And it's scratching that itch of curiosity. I think it's a very old impulse to sit there on the ground in the dark of night and look up at the stars and wonder, what are those things?

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KOLLMEIER: It's our calling card as a species in the galaxy to figure things out.

BIELLO: Back in the day, maybe we thought they were pinpricks in a curtain of night. Now we know a little bit better. They're stars, and they're way out there. And there's this whole vast universe for us to understand. What a playground for our curiosity.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KOLLMEIER: We know our planet. We cure our diseases. We cook our food. We leave our planet. But it's not easy. Understanding the universe is battle. It is unrelenting, it is time varying, and it is one we are all in together. It is a battle in the darkness against the darkness, which is why Orion has weapons. In any case, if you're going to engage in this battle, you need to know the battlefield.

ZOMORODI: So why is it important for us to understand the basics of our galaxy and how it's formed, would you say?

BIELLO: Well, I think it's also about understanding what our future may be. Hopefully, humans will be around for a very long time, and it would be good to know kind of what those clocks are telling us about how much time we may have left.

ZOMORODI: She lays out a pretty aggressive timeline - 2060 - that she says she's going to map all the galaxies.

BIELLO: Yeah, the whole universe, the whole shebang. Then we will understand our place in the universe. I mean, what else can you say...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Literally, we'll understand our place.

BIELLO: ...Yeah, literally our place in the universe. And that is just an awe-inspiring, I think, achievement.

ZOMORODI: How did you discover her work?

BIELLO: You know, I was trying to think about this last night, actually. And I couldn't remember how I first came across Juna Kollmeier. However, I do remember very vividly watching my first clip of her speaking and being like, that is a TED speaker. She just has a certain energy. And I was like, that is a kind of inspiring war cry, battle cry...

ZOMORODI: Yes.

BIELLO: ...That can kind of rally the troops to understand the universe.

ZOMORODI: I mean, you can hear it in her voice. Like, she is a battleship commander. Do you know what I mean? I would do whatever that woman asked me to do.

BIELLO: That's right. Follow her into battle.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. And she can - I do want to mention, like, where - I think it sounds so mundane when you describe where the two telescopes are that are actually gathering this data. Do you remember where they are?

BIELLO: New Mexico and the Atacama Desert in Chile. That's less mundane, perhaps.

ZOMORODI: Oh, really?

BIELLO: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: Why is that?

BIELLO: Because it's the driest place on earth.

ZOMORODI: Ah.

BIELLO: Very good place to put a telescope.

ZOMORODI: Oh, of course. Right. You get a lot of action in the sky at night.

BIELLO: Not too many clouds.

ZOMORODI: All right, so I want to go on to the second talk that you brought us - another person who is studying space, Enrico Ramirez Ruiz. What does he do?

BIELLO: So he calls himself a stellar mortician. He studies...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) So good.

BIELLO: ...Yeah, the death of stars. And the death of stars, it turns out, are pretty important to your life. All the elements that we think of as important for life, whether that's carbon, which is the backbone of the food we eat and our very bodies themselves, nitrogen, which is the primary constituent of our atmosphere, or oxygen, what we're all breathing right now and exchanging right now, all those things were born in the death of stars as we understand it now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RAMIREZ-RUIZ: We are all atomically connected - fundamentally, universally. But what does that mean? I'm an astrophysicist. And as such, it is my responsibility to trace the cosmic history of every single one of your atoms. In fact, I would say that one of the greatest achievements of modern astronomy is the understanding of how our atoms were actually put together.

While hydrogen and helium was made during the first two minutes of the Big Bang, the origin of heavy elements, such as the iron in your blood, the oxygen you are breathing, the silicon in your computers lies in the lifecycle of stars.

ZOMORODI: OK, Mind-blowing because I'm just looking down, and I - you know, I'm looking at my hand and veins that are blue, and there's oxygen in there. And he's saying my little veins right here that I can touch, that is actually related to the Big Bang.

BIELLO: That's right. You are stardust. So the hydrogen and helium was kind of there from the beginning, right after the Big Bang. Hydrogen is half of water, right? But you also want the oxygen part of water. Turns out that's kind of important for us to breathe and a variety of other things we like to do. Those elements can't be made in the conditions of the Big Bang as we understand it. They require the death of stars to kind of compress hydrogen and helium and slam those atoms together until they form these larger atoms like carbon, like oxygen, like iron.

ZOMORODI: Cycle of life in a way that most of us have never contemplated.

BIELLO: That's right, billions of years of life. So the birth of a star from clumps of hydrogen fusing together to the kind of first light, which Juna, of course, is studying as the clocks of the universe, to the gradual dwindling of that light and the implosion of these stars that then forges these new atoms.

ZOMORODI: We'll go into more uncharted territory with David Biello in just a minute. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, we are going behind the scenes with TED science curator David Biello on some of his favorite research into uncharted territories. And we were just hearing David explain the ideas of astrophysicist Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz and how none of us would exist without the stars.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RAMIREZ-RUIZ: The origins of our atoms can be traceable to stars that manufactured them in their interiors and exploded them, you know, all across the Milky Way billions of years ago. And I should know this because I am indeed a certified stellar mortician.

(LAUGHTER)

RAMIREZ-RUIZ: And today, I want to take you on a journey that starts in a supernova explosion and ends with the air that we're breathing right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: So Enrico is also studying supernovas.

BIELLO: That's right. So that is the death of a star. Well, that's the...

ZOMORODI: That is the death of a star.

BIELLO: ...Not every star.

ZOMORODI: OK.

BIELLO: But the spectacular death of some stars. And so he's studying that particular form of death. That's his specialty, I guess, as a stellar mortician. And this...

ZOMORODI: Going out with a bang.

BIELLO: ...Going out with a bang. And in fact, there is a chance that Betelgeuse, a giant star that has been dimming in recent months, may be about to undergo a supernova. So we might have that to look forward to.

ZOMORODI: And how do you go about even studying that?

BIELLO: Well, there...

ZOMORODI: Or how does Enrico, I should say.

BIELLO: ...There are so many stars in the universe, as Juna so hopefully pointed out...

ZOMORODI: Yes.

BIELLO: ...That some of them are going to be going supernova all the time. And so you kind of go and point your telescopes and catch those supernovas in action. And then they also build computer models, right?

ZOMORODI: OK.

BIELLO: We can't create the conditions of a supernova on Earth. That's probably a good thing.

ZOMORODI: Yes.

BIELLO: So within a computer, you can kind of model, how does this happen? What are the physical processes that surround the death of a star, and why does it kind of collapse in on itself before exploding outwards?

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RAMIREZ-RUIZ: Now, stars like our sun, which are relatively small, burn hydrogen into helium. But heavier stars of about eight times the mass of the sun continue this burning cycle even after they exhausted their helium in their cores. So at this point, the massive star is left with a carbon core, which, as you know, is the building block of life. This carbon core continues to collapse, and as a result, the temperature increases which allows further nuclear reactions to take place. And carbon then burns into oxygen, into neon, silicon, sulfur and, ultimately, iron. And iron is the end.

So when the entire core of the massive star is made of iron, it's run out of fuel. Without fuel, it cannot generate heat. And therefore, gravity has won the battle. The iron core has no other choice but to collapse, reaching incredibly high densities. Think of 300 million tons reduced to a space the size of a sugar cube. At these extreme high densities, the core actually resists collapse, and as a result, all of this infalling material bounces off the core. And these dramatic bounds, which happens in a fraction of a second or so, is responsible for ejecting the rest of the star in all directions, ultimately forming a supernova explosion.

BIELLO: So it's kind of the final end of the gravity of this star. So the reason the Earth orbits the sun is because of the massive size of the sun that keeps us locked in its gravity. The sun also has a gravitational effect on itself, right? And as even bigger stars than the sun kind of go through their death throws, that gravity gets stronger and stronger and stronger and until they kind of collapse in on themselves. And all that kind of inrushing material collides together, fuses these atoms. And as we know from atomic bombs and what have you, when you start fusing atoms, a lot of energy gets released. And eventually enough energy is released that the star kind of explodes on a cosmic scale.

ZOMORODI: So, David, the supernova happens - it implodes, it explodes. And then what? Does it become a black hole? Do all supernovas lead to black holes? Is that the trajectory?

BIELLO: No, not necessarily. So the most important thing from our perspective that happens is that these elements kind of get expelled out into the universe and they kind of go on these million-year journeys. And as gravity kind of pulls them back together as they're kind of drifting out there, sometimes they form a planet. And sometimes that planet is hospitable enough that life can form as well. And so without these supernova, there would be no life on Earth. We wouldn't be here. It would just be a kind of a - potentially, an undifferentiated mass of hydrogen and helium just kind of floating around with no one around to observe it. But...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

BIELLO: ...Right? Doesn't sound great, doesn't sound ideal.

ZOMORODI: Not something we'd even want to try, really.

BIELLO: No. So the formation of stars was the first step in the long journey to the life we live today.

ZOMORODI: We really are just stardust.

BIELLO: You and me.

ZOMORODI: You and me.

BIELLO: You do not exist without stars going kablooey (ph).

ZOMORODI: (Singing) We are stardust. We are golden.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOODSTOCK")

JONI MITCHELL: (Singing) We are stardust. We are golden. And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COSMOS: A PERSONAL VOYAGE")

CARL SAGAN: The lives and deaths of the stars seem impossibly remote from human experience. And yet we're related in the most intimate way to their life cycles. The very matter that makes us up was generated long ago and far away in red giant stars.

ZOMORODI: Seriously? All the songs where you hear about that, were they referring to research like this?

BIELLO: They were referring to research like this.

ZOMORODI: But how do all these songwriters know that?

BIELLO: I would bet Carl Sagan.

ZOMORODI: Oh, yes. (Singing) There's a starman...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARMAN")

DAVD BOWIE: (Singing) There's a starman waiting in the sky. He'd like to come and meet us, but he thinks he'd blow our minds. There's a starman waiting in the sky. He's told us not to blow it 'cause he knows it's all worthwhile.

ZOMORODI: I want to move ahead - well, back down, we should say, to Earth and...

BIELLO: Let's get grounded.

ZOMORODI: ...Yeah, let's get grounded. Actually, let's, like, get really, really into the nitty gritty of the Earth and microbes.

BIELLO: Love them.

ZOMORODI: Karen Lloyd is the scientist we want to talk about next, and she studies microbes that are actually found deep, deep in the center of the Earth. Tell us about Karen Lloyd.

BIELLO: So Karen Lloyd is an incredibly vivacious scientist who prospects all around the world, from the bottom of the ocean to volcanoes in Costa Rica and elsewhere, for microbes that are kind of living an unusual lifestyle. So the microbes...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Wait, wait, living an unusual lifestyle - who are these microbes?

BIELLO: I mean, they're special. So the microbes at the bottom of the ocean might undergo division, what we think of as life, once in a thousand years, once in 10,000 years. They're really moving at a kind of glacial pace. The microbes in the - not the center of the Earth but deep beneath the Earth are interacting with kind of the rocks down there in a way that is not possible on the surface because you're dealing with all that oxygen we talked about. You're dealing with all these other things. They're essentially eating the rocks to live.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LLOYD: The subsurface needs something that's like a plant, but it breathes rocks. Luckily, such a thing exists, and it's called a chemolithoautotroph, which is a microbe that uses chemicals, chemo, from rocks, litho, to make food, autotroph. So what we have are microbes that are really, really slow, like rocks, that get their energy from rocks that make it as their waste product other rocks. So am I talking about biology or am I talking about geology? This stuff really blurs the lines.

ZOMORODI: OK. They're eating the rocks to live. What's edible about rocks? Is that, like, the dumbest question you've ever heard or is that actually legit?

BIELLO: No, that's the question that Karen Lloyd is asking. And she started off as a biologist, but some might argue she's kind of a geologist, too, right? Because it's the interaction between this life and these rocks that she's studying. So how do you go about eating a rock? Well, very, very slowly (laughter).

ZOMORODI: Bah, dum, dum (ph).

BIELLO: But they've been doing it for a very, very long time as far as we can tell, right? So who - nobody knows - there haven't been too many places on Earth that, when we we've looked closely, there aren't microbes. Microbes are kind of the ultimate survivors. And Earth is just packed, chock full of microbes everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LLOYD: It may seem like we're all standing on solid earth right now, but we're not. The rocks and the dirt underneath us are crisscrossed by tiny, little fractures and empty spaces. And these empty spaces are filled with astronomical quantities of microbes. The deepest that we've found microbes so far into the Earth is five kilometers down. So like, if you pointed yourself at the ground and, like, took off running, like, into the ground, you could run an entire 5K race and microbes would line your whole path.

ZOMORODI: And Karen, she actually, to study these microbes, treks out to visit volcanoes and hot springs to do her research, right?

BIELLO: That's right. She's putting herself at risk of life and limb just to figure out what's going on with these microbes. And why does she do that? Well, one, for the love of just sheer discovery and science. But two, they - these microbes may offer us solutions to problems that we're having, like climate change.

ZOMORODI: OK. This relates to climate change how?

BIELLO: Well, it's all about the carbon cycle, right?

ZOMORODI: Ah, right.

BIELLO: Earth has this very long, slow process of carbon kind of cycling from the air to the land, deep under the land and then coming out of volcanoes to get back in the air and so on and so forth. But that takes thousands or even tens of thousands or even millions of years. These microbes can potentially help us speed that up.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LLOYD: We discovered that literally tons of carbon dioxide were coming out of this deeply buried oceanic plate. And the thing that was keeping them underground and keeping it from being released out into the atmosphere was that deep underground, underneath all the adorable sloths and toucans of Costa Rica, were chemolithoautotrophs. These microbes and the chemical processes that were happening around them were converting this carbon dioxide into carbonate mineral and locking it up underground, which makes you wonder if these subsurface processes are so good at sucking up all the carbon dioxide coming from below them, could they also help us with a little carbon problem we've got going on up at the surface?

ZOMORODI: So we've got these carbon-eating microbes. How do they work? Where is the carbon that those microbes are eating?

BIELLO: So the carbon that they're eating is coming up from kind of volcanic activity. And it's being released from these rocks and then the microbes can kind of catch it, eat it, turn it into more microbes and also kind of excrete solid minerals, carbonates, that trap that carbon instead of letting it get up in the atmosphere.

ZOMORODI: Over millions of years.

BIELLO: Well, it can happen quicker than that, but, yes.

ZOMORODI: How quickly?

BIELLO: Well, they're trapping it kind of right away. Microbes live - many microbes live kind of at a very fast pace. And these chemolithoautotrophs are kind of living fast and loose down there in the subsurface.

ZOMORODI: OK. So pardon me, to grossly simplify this - literally grossly - what happens when these microbes poop the carbon out, then?

BIELLO: So they poop out, essentially, another form of rock, these carbonates. So a carbonate that you might know is kind of limestone.

ZOMORODI: Ah, yes.

BIELLO: That's not made by the microbes, but it's similar to the kinds of rock that they're making down there. So they're essentially trapping this carbon - both in their bodies and in their excrement - as other rocks.

ZOMORODI: I mean, wow. what?

BIELLO: It's pretty crazy what's going down there in the subsurface. And then there are other microbes that are kind of living off the sulfur cycle and have nothing to do with carbon, and they're kind of living their best life in a different way.

ZOMORODI: How on Earth is this a potential solution to climate change, then? How can we harness these?

BIELLO: Well, so we have a CO2 problem in the air and we need a place to put that CO2. What could be better than turning it into a rock - taking a trick from these microbes, pulling the CO2 out of the air and turning it into carbonate.

ZOMORODI: Is that, like, feasible?

BIELLO: Seems like it.

ZOMORODI: In five years, 500 years?

BIELLO: Well, we have to understand exactly how the microbes do it, and we have to come up with a great way of catching that CO2 in the first place. But it's possible, and that's kind of why we do this research.

ZOMORODI: How would you picture, then, that these microbes would actually - would they eat the carbon in the air in our atmosphere? Like, how would that work?

BIELLO: I mean, plants are already doing that, right?

ZOMORODI: Right.

BIELLO: They're pulling CO2 out of the air and turning it into food. The problem is by turning it into food, it kind of keeps cycling through and ends up back in the air pretty quickly. These microbes, however, pull the CO2 kind of out of the air and then turn it into rock. And rock doesn't go away all that quickly. And so that's the kind of thing we're hoping to do. Now, maybe we use those microbes directly in some way, although they live in the subsurface for a reason, or maybe we use the genetics of those microbes in some way. Or maybe we just figure out the chemistry of what they're doing and kind of mimic that in an industrial way.

ZOMORODI: One of the things that Karen said that struck me was this idea of re-understanding what a life cycle can be, in that, you know, as a mom, I think of my kids and generational life cycle. I mean, I've seen trees that are cut and you see the rings, and that's a different life cycle. And she's talking about life cycles that go on beyond what I ever imagined was possible - millions of years.

BIELLO: Potentially. We don't actually know how old some of these microorganisms could be because we can't really understand a life that's that slow. It's so out of step with the scale of our lives that you would have to have, let's say - let's say they divide once every thousand years, which we don't even necessarily know that, that would require 10 generations of scientists...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Yeah.

BIELLO: ...Kind of watching this microbe, waiting for it to divide.

ZOMORODI: Wow.

BIELLO: That hasn't happened yet. We only just found them. But, you know, maybe we can learn a trick or two from them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LLOYD: How do you wrap your head around things that are so long-lived? I thought of an analogy that I really love, but it's weird and it's complicated, so I hope that you can all sort of go there with me. All right. Let's try it. It's like trying to figure out the life cycle of a tree if you only live for a day. So, like, if the human lifespan was only a day and we lived in winter, then you would go your entire life without ever seeing a tree with a leaf on it. And there would be so many human generations that would pass by within a single winter that you may not even have access to a history book that says anything other than the fact that trees are always lifeless sticks. They don't do anything. Of course, this is ridiculous. We know that trees are just waiting for summer so that they can reactivate. But if the human lifespan were significantly shorter than that of trees, we might be completely oblivious to this totally mundane fact. So when we say that these deep subsurface microbes are just dormant, are we like people who die after a day trying to figure out how trees work? What if these deep subsurface organisms are just waiting for their version of summer, but our lives are too short for us to see it?

ZOMORODI: It makes you, in some ways, rethink what a life even is. Does it change the way that people - I mean, tell me if this is too far out there, but we've been talking about space. Does it change, maybe, how we might look for life not on our planet? That, you know, it's not going to be a cute alien who - with two eyes or seven eyes, but that it might look like a rock. I don't know.

BIELLO: My personal opinion...

ZOMORODI: Yes.

BIELLO: ...And it is an opinion - is that the microbes are out there, right? Just because everywhere we look on Earth we find something kind of making a living, you know, it just seems hard for me to believe that on Mars, maybe deep beneath the surface, that there wouldn't be some microbe eking out a living, even if it was hard for us to detect. I'm team microbe.

ZOMORODI: OK. We'll keep exploring uncharted territories. We're going to go underground, underwater and in our brains in just a minute. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Today on the show, we're exploring uncharted territory with TED science curator David Biello.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIK HADDAD'S "FEELING IS MUTUAL")

ZOMORODI: So far, we've talked about mapping the stars, how we're all made of stardust and super-slow-moving microbes that can be found deep, deep below.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIK HADDAD'S "FEELING IS MUTUAL")

ZOMORODI: We're going to stay deep below, but we're going to go back to the ocean theme here. You're going to tell us about someone who is really pushing the limits of deep-sea exploration. I mean, I love me some deep-sea exploration. I don't want to go, but I like hearing about it. Tell me about this.

BIELLO: So Victor Vescovo has led an expedition to the deepest parts of all the world's oceans. This is something that we've never done before.

ZOMORODI: It's hard to believe. I mean, you know...

BIELLO: That's right. We've been to the moon...

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

BIELLO: ...But not all the deepest parts of the ocean. And we don't really know what's going on down there. So Karen's finding microbes that are having a crazy lifestyle. There are many other forms of life.

ZOMORODI: So let's talk about how Victor actually got down there. It's - I believe that he was descending deeper into the ocean than Mt. Everest is tall?

BIELLO: Oh, yeah.

ZOMORODI: Is that right?

BIELLO: Way down there.

ZOMORODI: And how on earth do you do that?

BIELLO: Well, you do it in a very fancy submarine.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

VESCOVO: Now, the tool is the submarine, the limiting factor. It's a state-of-the-art vessel supported by the support ship, the pressure drop. It has a two-person titanium sphere, 90 millimeters thick, that keeps it at one atmosphere, and it has the ability to dive repeatedly down to the very deepest point of the ocean.

BIELLO: And this is part of the reason that we haven't explored the oceans, say, as deeply as the moon. It's an even harsher environment. In many ways, it's a - it's an alien world in its own right. The pressure of all that water above you - you don't want a leak in that submarine because things go south pretty quickly when you're under that much pressure.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

VESCOVO: If you're claustrophobic, you do not want to be in the submarine. We go down quite a distance, and the missions typically last eight to nine hours in a confined space. I like to say I don't trust a lot of things in life, but I do trust titanium, I trust math, and I trust finite element analysis, which is how you figure out whether or not things like this can survive these extraordinary pressures and conditions. That was the real trick, is actually building a titanium sphere that was accurate to within .1% of machining. And titanium is a hard metal to work and a lot of people haven't been able to figure it out, but we were very fortunate. I've been working with an extraordinary team that was able to make an almost perfect sphere, which, when you're subjecting something to pressure, that's the strongest geometry you can possibly have. So when I'm actually in the submersible and that hatch closes, I actually feel very confident that I'm going to go down and come back up.

ZOMORODI: I mean, I feel claustrophobic just even thinking about it right now.

BIELLO: Yeah, he's a pretty unique specimen of an explorer. And it's fun to chat with him about, you know, kind of why he did this. And it really is just that drive to go where no one's gone before.

ZOMORODI: Have you seen the craft? Like, what does it - did you visit Victor? Did you go in it?

BIELLO: I have seen the craft and I did - and this is one of the great regrets of my life. I did get the offer to go down with him, actually, to see the Titanic 'cause he was going to stop off there on his way to the Arctic.

ZOMORODI: He was going to stop off there.

BIELLO: Just because, you know, if you've got the sub, you might as well use it.

ZOMORODI: And he's like, hey, man, you want a ride?

BIELLO: Yeah, but it turns out it's kind of tricky to intersect with a boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and I have a family and travel is not as easy to arrange. But I kind of in retrospect I'm like, man, I really should have done that because when else am I going to have that opportunity?

ZOMORODI: Maybe never. Good one, David.

BIELLO: Yeah, I kind of blew that one.

ZOMORODI: How many people fit in there, though?

BIELLO: So two people can go in there.

ZOMORODI: So it would've been (laughter) just the two of you.

BIELLO: It would have been me and Victor going down for a little sightseeing trip to the Titanic.

ZOMORODI: And it's, like, literally a round ball, right?

BIELLO: It is. I mean, it doesn't exactly look like a round ball because there's kind of other machinery kind of built around it so it can kind of move through the water and other things. But the core of it, what keeps it stable, is this titanium sphere. And that's what's keeping all that pressure off Victor or whoever his passengers may be.

ZOMORODI: Wow.

BIELLO: And that's also the promise of this, is that it's a reusable submarine. One of the reasons we haven't been to the bottom of the ocean that much is it's usually been a one off; you go down, you come back up, your sub is wrecked but you got there and you got some stuff. But then you got to go start over again and build another sub.

ZOMORODI: I didn't know that.

BIELLO: This one is going down, coming back up and can then move on to the next deepest part of the ocean and explore that. So the hope is that this becomes a tool that then enables us to explore these places much more deeply.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

VESCOVO: So every single dive we have gone on, even though we're only down there for a couple of hours, we have found three or four new species because these are places that have been isolated for billions of years and no human being has ever been down there to film them or take samples. And so this is extraordinary for us.

ZOMORODI: No human being.

BIELLO: That's right. So he has been to some places on the planet that no other human being has seen.

ZOMORODI: What does that feel like? Like, I've been to places you don't know. You don't know what I've seen. I mean, he's come face to face with sea creatures that no one else knows exists.

BIELLO: That's right. And fortunately for us, he brought along cameras so you can see that, too.

ZOMORODI: That's cool.

BIELLO: Yeah, kind of mind blowing.

ZOMORODI: Can you just, like, describe a couple of the new friends that Victor made down there?

BIELLO: So I think the one that stood out to me is a life-form that sort of looks like a balloon on a long stick, and it's just kind of drifting along the bottom. And this was a life-form that has never been seen before, so completely new to science. And as you watch this life-form kind of drift across the bottom, you see a tiny little version of it.

ZOMORODI: Oh, the baby.

BIELLO: And maybe it's a baby.

ZOMORODI: Oh.

BIELLO: Maybe it's a baby. Everybody loves to see a baby of a brand-new life-form.

ZOMORODI: Yes, we do.

BIELLO: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: So does he get to name them?

BIELLO: He does get to name them.

ZOMORODI: What?

BIELLO: Yeah, I know. I - you know, I'm hoping that he discovers so many that at some point he remembers I exist...

ZOMORODI: The Biello.

BIELLO: ...And throws me a bone. And I'm cool with whatever. It could be a microbe, it could be one of these balloon animals. Whatever, I'll take it.

ZOMORODI: I mean, that must be the most exciting thing that can happen to you professionally, to see a species that no one else has seen before.

BIELLO: Yeah, I mean it's - it really is kind of - well, it raises the hairs on your arm or on the back of your neck.

ZOMORODI: It does. It does. It really does. So, OK, now we're going into territory that I'm a little bit more comfortable with because I go there every day - into my mind.

BIELLO: Ooh.

ZOMORODI: The truth is that while we don't know that much about our oceans or the Earth's depths or even space, we actually don't even know that much about ourselves and our brains. Like, it is fascinating times when it comes to understanding how the mind and the neural connections actually work. So let's talk about Kay Tye because she is an interesting combination in that she is a neuroscientist who studies the brain, but she also studies psychology and that is more rare than you think. Tell us about her.

BIELLO: That's right. So there's this gap in our understanding of consciousness, if you will. We sort of understand the brain and how it works, we sort of experience the mind and how it works, but we don't understand how that physical substrate, the brain, gives rise to the mind, which is you and your thoughts and your conscious experiences. That is difficult territory for a neuroscientist to study, right? Because one half is objective - you can see a brain and test it. One half is subjective - you can talk about a mind. But it's much harder to kind of pin it down if you will. So Kay is kind of exploring this gap region, this nether region between the brain and the mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

TYE: As a neuroscientist, I'm often told that I'm not allowed to study how internal states like anxiety or craving or loneliness are represented by the brain. And so I decided to set out and do exactly that. My research program is designed to understand the mind by investigating brain circuits. Specifically, how does our brain give rise to emotion?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TYE: It's really hard to study feelings and emotions because you can't measure them. Behavior is still the best and only window into the emotional experience of another. For both animals and people, yes, self-report is a behavioral output. Motivated behaviors fall into two general classes - seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. The ability to approach things that are good for you and avoid things that are bad for you is fundamental to survival. And in our modern-day society, trouble telling the difference can be labeled as a mental illness. If I was having car trouble and I took my car to the mechanic, the first thing they do is look under the hood. But with mental health research, you can't just pop open the hood with the press of a button. So this is why we do experiments on animals - specifically, in my lab, mice. To understand the brain, well, we need to study brains.

ZOMORODI: OK, so how does she do this? And where does she do this? She has a lab.

BIELLO: So she is working out in California using a technique called optogenetics. So in every TED Talk, I like there to be a vocab...

ZOMORODI: One word, yes.

BIELLO: ...A vocabulary word...

ZOMORODI: You will be tested on this later.

BIELLO: ...And that will be the vocabulary word here. So algae have this light-sensing gene, right? The gene tells them when to migrate up and down in the oceans. Remember the oceans?

ZOMORODI: I do.

BIELLO: So the light hits it and the algae knows oh, let's go get more light so we can make more food. You can put this gene into other cells and one of the cells that they put it in is neurons. Those are the core cells of your brain. So when you shine a light on the neuron, it either turns on or off. And by controlling the neuron, you can then control the mind.

ZOMORODI: The way I think of optogenetics is that it's almost like building a remote control. So my understanding is with Kay, it's a way to manipulate mice's brains to turn certain areas on or off and then see if you mess with them physically, those little mice brains, how does it change their behavior? Is that a really simplified but OK explanation?

BIELLO: That's a beautiful simplification of what works.

ZOMORODI: OK, good. So she's working with mice, she's working with light and she studies how our brain gives rise to emotion-related behavior. Like, people who struggle with anxiety, that's some of the things that she's trying to figure out. How do mice help us figure that out?

BIELLO: Well, mice are pretty anxious, don't you think? So mice have this behavior where they kind of, you know, generally stick to the corners and kind of hide themselves from that big, bad world of predators. But if you shine a light into their brain in a certain way, they default to a more kind of exploratory behavior where they go out into the open a bit more. Now, obviously, a mouse life requires a bit of both, but just by shining a light on these neurons, you're able to flip the switch of that behavior and drive the mice either out into the open or allow it to kind of follow its natural behavior and kind of hide in the corners.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

TYE: This is the elevated plus maze. It's a widely used anxiety test that measures the amount of time that the mouse spends in the safety of the closed arms relative to exploring the open arms. Mice have evolved to prefer enclosed spaces, like the safety of their burrows, but to find food, water, mates, they need to go out into the open where they're more vulnerable to predatory threats. So I'm sitting in the background here, and I'm about to flip the switch. And now, when I flip the switch and turn the light on, you can see the mouse begins to explore the open arms of the maze more. And in contrast to drug treatments for anxiety, there's no sedation, no locomotor impairment, just coordinated, natural-looking exploration. So not only is the effect almost immediate, but there are no detectable side effects. Now, when I flip the switch off, you can see the mouse goes back to its normal brain function and back to its corner.

When I was in the lab and I was taking these data, I was all by myself, and I was so excited. I was so excited, I did one of these quiet screams. Why was I so excited? I mean, yeah, theoretically I knew that the brain controlled the mind. But to flip the switch with my hand and see the mouse change its behavioral state so rapidly and so reversibly, it was really the first time that I truly believed it.

ZOMORODI: You know, as a scientist, this is the moment, the moment where you get it's uncharted and then you just charted it right there.

BIELLO: That's right. That's right.

ZOMORODI: What is the significance of her being able to turn on and off these behaviors?

BIELLO: Well, it starts to tease apart what is kind of inherent inborn behavior what - and what is conscious behavior and where those borderlines are. Now, obviously, this is just mice and we're not shining lights to control people's brains as of yet, but this is helping us understand how the kind of physical architecture of a brain then gives rise to these behaviors that we look at as evidence of a mind.

ZOMORODI: So when you call someone - like Kay Tye, she seems like someone who, you know, she's thinking about humans. She wants to change the way that they're treated, she wants to help them essentially. So is - when she gets the call from you is she ready to go, to explain this in layman's terms? Or is that something that, whoa, you know, these papers that are published and reviewed by their colleagues and peers turning that into something that is not only educational but also entertaining, is - it's a real - it's a journey, it's a slog I would even say. Having given a TED Talk, it's hard.

BIELLO: Yeah, well, it depends on the person. Sometimes you get to work with a real gem. Kay was a real gem. You're a real gem.

ZOMORODI: Thanks.

BIELLO: It's part of the reason I have a job, or sometimes I feel like my job is translation in large part, right...

ZOMORODI: Yes.

BIELLO: ...Taking scientific jargon like a word like optogenetics and translating that into something that everybody can understand. And it's super important that everybody understand these things because science is kind of building the world around us, these endless frontiers of discovery. That's what gave us the iPhone. That's what gave us all the things that we're coping with in our day-to-day lives. And science will determine the world we live in, in the future. So understanding this and translating this for everyone, I think, is...

ZOMORODI: Crucial.

BIELLO: ...Super important.

ZOMORODI: And I think just even walking around in your day-to-day life - I mean, just after our conversation, I'm made of stardust. Rocks can be alive. What else? There's a part of my brain that makes me want to have chocolate at 4 p.m. or is it my mind? We're not sure yet. And there are species living at the bottom of the Earth that my imagination cannot fathom what they look like. And I think, you know, as we're bombarded minute after minute, hour after hour with the headlines and we're thinking about running around as humans on Earth, it's important to reconnect with the wonder of the planet that we live on.

BIELLO: That's right. And the wonder of the universe that we find ourselves in.

ZOMORODI: Right.

BIELLO: And it is these minds of ours that enable us to kind of look out there and be curious and find answers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: David Biello, TED'S science curator, thank you so, so much.

BIELLO: Thank you.

ZOMORODI: That's David Biello. He is TED's science curator. Thanks so much to him for sharing his favorite talks and taking us into uncharted territory. You can see all the talks that David mentioned at ted.npr.org. You can see hundreds more TED Talks at ted.com or on the TED app.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala, Kiara Brown and Hanna Bolanos, with help from Brent Baughman and Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Matthew Cloutier, and our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.