01x06 - Jimmy Carter

Episode Transcripts for the TV show, "StarTalk", Aired: April 2015 to present.
Host Neil deGrasse Tyson brings together celebrities, scientists and comedians to explore a variety of cosmic topics and collide pop culture with science in a way that late-night television has never seen before. Weekly topics range from popular science fiction, space travel, extraterrestrial life, the Big Bang, to the future of Earth and the environment. Tyson is an astrophysicist with a gifted ability to connect with everyone, inspiring us all to to "keep looking up."
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01x06 - Jimmy Carter

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Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson: From the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and beaming out across all of space and time. This is "StarTalk," where science and pop culture collide.

[Audience applause]

I'm your host, Neil deGrasse Tyson. I'm director of the Hayden Planetarium right here. And I got with me one of my favorite co-hosts Chuck Nice. Chuck, a comedian.

Chuck Nice: How are you, man?

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson: Good, good.

[Light applause]

Chuck Nice: Look at that, almost a smattering of applause for me.

Tyson: The sitting ovation, yes, Chuck.

So guess who I got to interview for this episode?

You know I don't want to boast or anything.

Chuck Nice: You know I have to say that this is a boast worthy guy.

Tyson: It is, it is.

Chuck Nice: It is a boast worthy guy.

Tyson: You know who I got. I got President Jimmy Carter.

Chuck Nice: Fantastic, man.

Tyson: JC himself.

Chuck Nice: Well, not the JC. He's a JC.

A lot of people right now are just like, what did he say?

That would be a get, if I got.

So he came through town because he's collaborating with us on an exhibit.

Called "Countdown to Zero."

He's trying to eradicate certain eradicable diseases.

And I thought I can't take on that topic alone because I be an astrophysicist.

Chuck Nice: Right.

And you be a comedian.

Right, so we had to bring in some top g*n from elsewhere in the institution, my friend and colleague Mark Siddall, Mark.

Give it up for Mark Siddall.

[Audience applause]

You specialize in like, blood sucking parasitic leeches.

You know I like to think that I, I...

I care about the things that most people don't.

Mark, when I was a kid, I looked up and I said, "I want to study the universe."

Where did you look to decide that you want to study parasites?

I'm just curious.

What kind of childhood did you have?


I looked in the ravine that was across the road from my house where we were collecting snakes and frogs.

And I just got really enwrapped in local ecosystems.

Tyson: At what age?

Siddall: Oh, god, maybe five or six.

Tyson: 5?

Local ecosystems at age five.

Okay, so you get a frog, you get a snake.

You put them in a...

Snakes eat frogs, last I checked.

Siddall: You put them in a container in your backyard.

Nice: Worst dating service ever.

It's, it's an ecosystem that has a result.

Snake eats frog.

Siddall: Yeah, yeah.

I mean it's a learning experience.

You know, I spent a lot of time canoeing, and kayaking, and hiking.

And you just get fascinated with the way things are connected.

And it wasn't until I was a graduate student that I got this idea that all those connections between animals, and plants, and things that things eat carry all of these other parasites along.

Tyson: So, uh, Jimmy Carter came through town, to this institution.

To help us inaugurate the new exhibit Countdown to Zero, which is all about parasites, right?


Tyson: And the eradication of parasites.

So I always like knowing whether people like presidents and other sort of people of high station in life that are not otherwise scientists, I always want to know, is there science in them somewhere?

Nice: Yes.

Tyson: Do they carry some kind of secret geek credentials that we don't otherwise know?

Let's find out with President Jimmy Carter.

Carter: In my freshman year in college, I was the laboratory assistant for the person who taught astronomy.

So you had an early sort of cosmic baptism?

Carter: Well I did, and I was in the Navy too.

I learned how to navigate just from the stars and planets.

Yeah. Now everyone's just got their GPS.

I tell them, "in my day, we had to actually know..."

Jimmy Carter: Well, we did. I was on a ship with my family at Christmas and I asked the captain if he had a sextant onboard and he said, "yes, we have one", and it was in a glass case over there.

It had never been opened.

With a special "break glass if necessary."

In apocalyptic earth, that's all you have.

Carter: Well, times change.

Tyson: How would you say your knowledge of math or science in college and high school, has that influenced your politics?

What I mean is your ability to think about world problems?

Carter: Well, I was an engineer and I was a nuclear physicist.

I was set in charge of building the second atomic submarine.

So I studied advanced physics.

Of course, when I went into politics, being an engineer, I planned things.

You think differently from other politicians.

Carter: I think in a way you do.

You think differently from a lawyer or a doctor or something like that.

And most of congress are lawyers, right?

Carter: Unfortunately, yeah.

Tyson: So you're really different.

Carter: We need more engineers and farmers, yeah.

Tyson: That's our man.

Nice: Yeah, very cool.

So after he became president, he started the Carter Center, which is devoted to sort of promoting sort of democracy and health and well-being around the world, and monitoring elections.

Chuck Nice: Mm-hm.

Tyson: And he's sort of a trusted soul around the world.

Nice: Oh, absolutely.

He comes in it's not, "here comes America."

It's "here comes Jimmy Carter."

And so uh... but another one of their goals is to stamp out stamp-out-able diseases, right?

Siddall: Yeah, that's correct.

The Carter Center's been trying to do a lot of things in the president's post-presidency, arguably among the most productive post-presidencies of any American president.

I mean it, the, the hash tag if you will is "waging peace."

Nice: Right.

Siddall: Um, but also eradicating disease, and those go hand and hand.

And you're a disease guy.

Well, I'd like not to think that I'm the disease guy.

Yeah, cause that would be terrible at cocktail parties.

Uh... but, but, but, but these are among my concerns, I will agree.

But wait, uh, disease and, and parasites and...

Siddall: Parasites in particular.

Tyson: And your Twitter handle is?

"I am the leech guy."

See? See what I'm saying, Chuck?

The leech guy.

Tyson: Was I lying here?

Is this the man or what?

You know, I didn't think the disease guy could get any worse, but...

Tyson: The leech guy.

Nice: The leech guy came along, so...

Why the leech guy, Mark? Is that your concentration?

Siddall: I mean, a lot of the work that we do here, me, my students, and I, concern leeches.

I mean, it doesn't suck that bad.

[Groans] [Laughter]

Nice: Ah, don't groan on that, he got me! I love it!

Tyson: I get it.

Nice: I was not expecting that, man!

Tyson: I get it.

Nice: Come on! That was good!

Mark Siddall: But uh...

You know, here's the thing is that bio-diversity is really important.

And it's kind of easy to get people to be worried about pandas, and koala bears, and spotted owls.

Tyson: Cute things.

Nice: Right, cute things.

Siddall: But honestly, everything out there is really valuable in its own way, and that includes leeches themselves.

Nice: Yeah.

Tyson: Really?

Nice: You know, it's funny is because I... now maybe I'm just not remembering correctly, but I think I read an article where leeches are now, once again being used because there are some true medical benefits to using leeches.

Tyson: Yeah, which hospital is that?

Nice: Not just...

And maybe it's just my health plan.

Perhaps I just need a better health plan.

Just like you know, "hey, Chuck", this is all you can afford. Take these leeches."

Tyson: You see the leech truck backing up into the, into the loading dock.

Nice: I don't know. Am I right, though?

Siddall: No, you are, you are.

I mean, it's funny.

There's a couple of guys in Slovenia.

Couple of guys in Slovenia figured out that you could use leeches to remove excess blood after reattaching a finger, or an earlobe or whatever.

Tyson: The circulation is bad otherwise.

Siddall: Restoring circulation, that's exactly right.

Leeches are actually really useful for that.

They are not useful for those... in the 1800s, it was for obesity and hysteria.

Nice: Right.

Siddall: And gout.

But that didn't really, no. No.

Nice: Well, it got out of hand.

Like, you know what I mean?

They just... put some leeches on it.

Like, you know what I mean?

Tyson: Whatever it is. You got a sore throat?

Put some leeches on it.

So tell me about other kinds of parasites.

Do they split into categories?

'Cause I think of ones that have been in the news, like bedbugs, and head lice, and crabs, and stuff.

I mean, what?

Nice: Crabs.

Tyson: Chuck.

Nice: Uh, and we're not talking dungeness, we know that.

These are not Maryland crabs.

Tyson: Chuck, we don't need that much information about which of these in this list you agree with here.

Siddall: Well, I'd very much like to come back to your problem with crabs.

Uh... in terms of, of the fact...

You know, extinction of various parasites.

But in general, we do kind of broadly classify different parasites, ectoparasites like leeches, and bedbugs, and lice.

Tyson: Ecto would mean?

Siddall: On the outside.

Uh, endoparasites, uh, tapeworms and nematodes and hookworm.

Tyson: Things that get inside you.

And eat you from the inside out.

Mark Siddall: Uh, and then there's also...

Nice: Okay, let me ask you this.

I'm sorry to hijack right now.

But now you just made me think of something.

Tyson: Chuck, wait, crabs has got him going here.

Nice: You know, that's what... no, it's got her going.

Tyson: He has a friend.

Nice: It's really got her going.

Tyson: He's got a friend, he's got a friend.

Okay, go on.

Nice: Well, so you said... you know in terms of endo, how about a tick, which starts on the outside, but burrows inside of you?

What would that, is that con...

Still considered like an...

Siddall: Ticks don't burrow.

Nice: Oh, really?

Siddall: True.

Nice: Okay.

Siddall: Yeah.

Nice: I thought that they did.

I mean, that's a common perception that people have.

Siddall: No, it's okay.

And there are some of these insects that do burrow.

Nice: Okay.

Siddall: There's actually a flea that burrows into your toe.

The chigoe flea lays eggs along the way, and it's terrible.

The vertebrates like us, we're just the cans that the interesting things come in.

So we're vessels for other animals to do their thing.

Very much so.

Jimmy Carter has taken on the mission to eradicate one of the creepiest parasites on earth.

A worm that can grow more than two feet long, before it slowly emerges from your skin.

That's next when StarTalk returns.

[Audience applause]

We're back on StarTalk from the Hall of the Universe.

I got with me my co-host, Chuck Nice, tweeting @chucknicecomic.

Nice: That's correct. Sir. Thank you.

And my friend and colleague, Mark Siddall.

Glad to be here.

Tyson: Professor of genomics at the Sackler Institute, an entirely enclosed entity within the American Museum of Natural History.

And we're here because Jimmy Carter brought us here.

And he's got this exhibit, Countdown to Zero.

And you're advising on it. You're chief curator.

Siddall: I'm the curator of the exhibit, yeah.

Tyson: Chief curator of the exhibit. And uh, one of their targets is, uh, diseases in general. But in particular, they were announcing progress on the Guinea worm.

Siddall: Guinea worm.

Tyson: What is the Guinea worm?

Siddall: Guinea worm is what we call a roundworm parasite.

It's actually not round, it's very, very long.

It's about three feet long.

Tyson: What, round compared to like flat worms?

Siddall: Round if you cut it up in little pieces and you look it on the end.

But really it's...

Tyson: You sound like you've done... what are we?

That, we be round humans.

Siddall: We'd be round.

My mid-section would be round if you cut.

Siddall: Round primates, if you will.

Um, it's actually been with humanity for several thousands of years.

We know that because we have a...

A mummy that's in Birmingham, England.

It's got a Guinea worm in it that we can see with CT scanning.

We know from the Bible, in fact, the fiery serpents that were referenced in the Bible are clearly about Guinea worm.

This is a parasite that's afflicted humans for so long.

And it's actually the only parasite of humans that must cause pain in order to complete the life cycle.

Nice: Oh, so it's like my mom.


Tyson: So what, so why... why single out the Guinea worm, compared to anything else?

This is one of those conditions where only humans are infected, and there is a way to intercede in the life cycle to eradicate the disease.

When those two things come together and you can deliver the services, you can actually come up with a campaign to eradicate a disease.

So it's because you can't... the last person to have Guinea worm will be the last person to have Guinea worm.

Siddall: Absolutely.

Tyson: Because it does... you can't catch it from another animal.

Siddall: That is correct.

Tyson: So that makes it an affliction within reach.

Siddall: It's part of the human niche.

If we went extinct, so would the Guinea worm.

Nice: So would the Guinea worm, right?

Siddall: Absolutely.

Nice: Yeah, they need us.

But we do not need them.

Tyson: That's right.

Nice: Take that, Guinea worm.

Mark Siddall: Correct.

Tyson: Pow.

Mark Siddall: Correct.

So is there something else called a Guinea worm disease relative to Guinea worms?


We try to separate the name of the organism from the condition, and a good example is malaria.

Uh, plasmodium falciparum, plasmodium malariae.

These are the organisms that cause malaria.

Malaria is the name of the disease.

Guinea worm disease is the affliction...

Tyson: Of having the Guinea worm within you.

Siddall: Correct.

Tyson: So these are huge undertakings to do this?

Going into places that are otherwise not... transportation is not good. Communication isn't good.

Culture gets in the way.

So I had to ask Jimmy Carter, how do these huge undertakings manifest in their efforts to do just that?

Let's check it out.

Carter: We found Guinea worm, for instance, in 20 countries, three in Asia and the rest of them in Sub-Saharan Africa.

23,600 villages.

And we've been to every village, either we or the people that were trained.

We had just been able to give them the information on what causes the disease and what they can do to prevent it, and they have done the work.

And so we give them credit for it, which is, always encourages success.

It seems to me that's the only way you can be successful is to get people to...

Carter: To do it themselves, and to give them credit.

Tyson: Oh, of course, yes, yes.

So in a way the Carter Center is not just your group of people at the center, it is the influence that it propagates.

Exactly, and when we go into a country we generally send one superb scientist who knows all about the disease, and what causes it, and we teach, step-by-step people who live in the country.

So say in Southern Sudan now, where we have the most cases of Guinea worm.

Tyson: The most cases that remain.

Carter: That remain, yes.

And why don't we have more cases in Nigeria which has no cases now?

But anyway, in South Sudan we have about 120 people on our payroll who monitor the whole country, but we have about 8,000 to 12,000 volunteers, mostly women, who monitor every village, and as soon as a case of Guinea worm develops, they immediately identify that person, keep them out of spreading the disease.

Tyson: Out of the water supply, basically.

Carter: Out of the water supply.

Tyson: So he's in it.

He's working it, and so, Mark, just before that clip, you talked about the Guinea worm requiring that we be in pain?

Siddall: Yeah.

Tyson: What does that mean?

Siddall: When someone gets infected, let's say, in year one, by drinking water that has...

Tyson: Is infected with the Guinea worm.

Siddall: Infected with the Guinea worm, comes from drinking water that's got Guinea worm in another host, the water flea.

It takes a year, a whole year for that worm to grow up to three feet long, let's say, in a leg.

The only way that the worm, the mother worm is going to get to complete the life cycle is if she gets to water.

Nice: You got to get out of the body, and get back to the water, and then lay the eggs.

Siddall: So the way she does that is she inflicts excruciating pain.

Tyson: So these are girl worms, not boy worms?

Siddall: Well, the boys are d*ad by this point.

Nice: Always the case.

Siddall: They've done their deed and they're no longer relevant, they're gone.

Tyson: Okay, all right.

Siddall: So she'll inflict an incredibly excruciating, blistering burn in an extremity, usually a leg.

That causes the afflicted person to go to water to get the soothing effect of water.

And then she bursts her head out through the blister, dumps all of her young into the water, and completes the life cycle.

Tyson: That is diabolical.

Siddall: It is diabolical. These are dragons.

Nice: Oh, my god. That's the Alien movie.

That is the alien, the little snake man pops out the chest and you know, that's insane.

Siddall: And it's real, and it's tragic.

Nice: Yeah.

Tyson: So what are the logistics of eradication?

How do you combat this?

Especially given that one-year delay. Oh, my gosh...

How do you even get a cause and effect going there?

Siddall: Well, that's actually really cool that you asked about that because education is absolutely key.

Getting people to understand that something that will come out of your leg in year 2 as a result of an action in year 1 is really difficult to do in a place where you don't have education, people don't read, people don't write, you don't have Twitter, or what have you.

There, there are other elements involved too.

I think the most critical thing has to do with empowering people on the ground.

I think this was learned from the small pox campaign that happened back in the seventies.

So this is why you need somebody with the political influence and respect that Jimmy Carter gets.

Siddall: Absolutely. In fact, President Carter has been able to... he's really interested in getting local communities acting but he's managed to get leaders of adjacent countries to compete against each other.

Tyson: He'll just call up the head of the country.

You can't do that, but he can do that.

Siddall: I wouldn't even try.

Well, I might try, but I don't know how far I'm going to get with that.

Tyson: Let's find out what steps he's taking in the Carter Center to deal with all these cultural, political challenges.

Carter: The first step in the whole process is for me to go to the country, meet with the president, and the minister of health and minister of...

You get to do that as a former president.

Carter: Well, I have to, yeah.

Tyson: I love the way you say that.

"I'll just meet with the president. I can just do that."

Carter: I don't have any problem meeting with kings and that sort of thing.

Tyson: I'm just saying that's great.

Carter: But we sign a memorandum of understanding, kind of like a contract or covenant.

And they do certain things, and we do certain things.

And then we go in with their full support and permission, and start going from one village to another.

We don't send in money to the countries.

We don't send in medicine to the countries.

We don't send in filter cloths to the countries.

We make sure that our people deliver them directly to the village that is suffering from a disease.

Tyson: So the distribution channels you oversee, it's not just dropped off at a drop-off point.

Carter: We're completely in charge of all the distribution channels.

So the filter cloths prevent, I guess the larvae from coming through so you can drink a clean cup of water.

You pour the water with the Guinea worms in it through a very fine filter cloth, then you can drink the water that emerges.

Tyson: And how about in times of w*r?

How do you get in?

Carter: That's a very difficult time.

That's been our biggest hold up in South Sudan, which has been at w*r now off and on for 25 years.

We try to promote peace, we negotiate peace agreements and hold elections as well.

But when a conflict breaks out in a region, quite often they'll steal our motorcycles, they'll steal our delivery trucks.

Tyson: Resources.

Carter: Yeah, and they'll steal anything that's valuable, as well as attacking sometimes our own people, who are there to help them do away with the disease.

Another thing is that some of the countries have no way to keep their interest up.

They get overconfident when we drop them down from say 200,000 cases to 2,500 cases.

Then they get overconfident, and we can't get the president and the minister of health to cooperate.

Tyson: And they don't understand you've got to take it to zero.

You've got to take it to zero, otherwise it'll come back.

Tyson: So, Mark, they're dangers of complacency because... and it can be passive or active complacency.

Siddall: Sure.

Tyson: Passive would be, look, I got these other things on my plate, I can't worry about that now.

Active would be I choose to not worry about this, because I don't think it's a problem.

Siddall: Well, I mean, fundamentally it's whether or not you care about other people.

Nice: Right.

Siddall: And this is the way that these disease eradication, whether it's Guinea worm, or small pox, or polio, it's so centered on a community caring about the whole community, and infection, and what happens to your neighbor.

But you have to somehow convince people that they need to do this.

You need somebody with a diplomatic finesse.

Siddall: Absolutely.

Tyson: To pull that off.

Siddall: Yes.

Tyson: Of course, Jimmy Carter's known as a master of diplomacy. We'll find out how he used those same skills to take down the Guinea worm, coming up on StarTalk.
[Audience applause]

We're back on StarTalk from the Hall of the Universe. So we're talking about my interview with Jimmy Carter. And his efforts to eradicate the Guinea worm. Something of your specialty, Mark.

Siddall: Yeah.

Tyson: You think about these kinds of things all the time.

Siddall: Every day.

Tyson: Which creeps me out, I just want you to know.

Siddall: Okay, that's fine.

Tyson: Okay. It doesn't creep you out.

Siddall: No.

So the Guinea worm, it's not called the American worm.

It's not called the Russian worm.

Siddall: No.

Tyson: It's not called the Cuba worm.

It's called the Guinea worm.

But nobody wants a disease named after their country.

Siddall: That's certainly true.

Tyson: And President Carter knew this, he knew this.

Siddall: He did, he did, indeed.

Tyson: And he used this to his diplomatic advantage.

Siddall: Yeah.

Tyson: Let's check it out.

Jimmy Carter: We had a very difficult problem in Ghana, which started out with 126,000 cases and it got down to about 35 or 40, and it stayed there for about ten years.

So I finally went to the president, three times, and told him that we're going to change of the Guinea worm to Ghana worm.

Right, because it's named after where it was first discovered, I guess, or diagnosed.

Carter: In the country of Guinea, yes, that's true.

Tyson: Wow, that's an awesome thr*at.

Carter: And we raised a lot of political pressure on him.

He finally got the word and he became interested.

Now we have zero cases in Ghana.

Tyson: That is a clever peaceful thr*at.

I've got to remember that.

Carter: Sometimes, they got kind of angry with us, but, uh, it worked.

Nice: Nice.

Tyson: The man was just throwing it down.

Nice: You know that is, that is... I mean, that is a great little ploy.

Tyson: You know, Carter pulled off some more.

He had some more tricks in his bag.

You know he's a... he wants peace.

What's the... what's the hashtag?

Siddall: Uh, waging peace.

And he actually used the Guinea worm to achieve peace in one incident.

Siddall: Absolutely.

Tyson: Let's find out how he did it.

Carter: They had a w*r going on that was fought in dry seasons and wet seasons.

The dry season was when Sudan with t*nk and so forth could travel easily.

The wet season was when the rivers flooded, and the Southern Sudanese could prevail.

So I went there, and I negotiated for quite a while with the south and north.

Finally, they agreed on a ceasefire just so that we could do away with the Guinea worm, both in the north and south.

And they still call it the Guinea Worm ceasefire.

But they quit fighting for more than six months.

Tyson: That reminds me of... you know you read about in the first World w*r, there was the Christmas ceasefire, or the Easter ceasefire, and it's a glimmer of hope that there is some humanitarian dimension in us all.

Carter: And it shows that if you give people a chance in a very poverty-stricken country to correct their own problems, they do it superbly.

Nice: Wow.

Is it possible that he could give Congress Guinea worm?

Cause that would be awesome.

Tyson: So Mark, what is the relationship between disease and w*r?

There's a very strong correlation.

Probably the best example is if you go to the CDC website or the "W.H.O."

Tyson: Center for Disease Control.

Siddall: Centers for Disease Control website, or the World Health Organization website.

You look at the distribution of polio right now.

There's fewer than 500 new cases of polio a year, but they're in Waziristan, they're in Syria, they're in Southern Somalia, and they're in northern Nigeria.

These are places of conflict.

And, in fact, when I was with the Carter Center in South Sudan, there was some conflict going on very nearby that really gets in the way of infrastructure.

And what goes on in a w*r torn area is an inability to provide services, and an inability to track cases, and find out where they are.

Both of those, at the front end and the back end, you lose the connection to health care.

And it's devastating.

Tyson: So clearly, there are all kinds of challenges on this w*r on germs and parasites.

And we'll find out how culture has played a role in the history of these diseases when we come back to StarTalk.

We're back. Star talk, Hall of the Universe.


Nice: Hey.

Tyson: Mark.

Siddall: Yes.

Tyson: You're helping us out here.

We're trying to get rid of the Guinea worm via our exhibits here and the Carter Center.

Nice: And I am actually going to count my appearance on this show as my contribution to the eradication of the Guinea worm.

Tyson: Put that on your résumé, Chuck.

When it happens, and I will say Chuck Nice.

Comedian and eradicated Guinea worm.

Tyson: Guinea worm. So, are we there?

We're close. 126 cases left on the planet, down from three and a half million in 1986 because of the effort of the Carter Center.

This is awesome, and you're working with him.

I've been working with him in the field, and principally, been working with him on this exhibit that we've got here at the American Museum of Natural History.

And that's a terrific thing because it's about celebrating this success as it's happening.

Tyson: In real time.

Siddall: In real time.

So, it seems to me that there may occasionally be forces operating against success.

We talked about w*r.

Siddall: Yeah.

Tyson: We talked about education.

Siddall: Yes.

Tyson: Uh, anything else?

Siddall: Sure.

In South Sudan in, uh, in the, in Mogos, in the containment center that we were in, there was a young man who came in who had a Guinea worm.

The local physician, with traditional healing methods, said it must of got it because one leg was in the spirit world and one leg was in the natural world.

Of course this isn't really how things go on, but...

Tyson: Thanks for telling us.

Nice: I was gonna say.

I don't know what to believe anymore.

Tyson: Remind you what show you're on and what network this is appearing on?

Thanks for that assurance that his Guinea worm affected leg was not in the spirit world.

It's straight forward enough for people who, like the three of us, would say, "well clearly, that's not the case."

He got it from some water he drank the year before.

But the connection's not that obvious to people who aren't that educated.

Tyson: The time delay prevents that, I guess.

Siddall: Time delay is huge.

Tyson: I asked the president, President Carter, what challenges he's faced in this.

Let's find out.

Let's find out where he takes us.

The Guinea worm exists when you have a rain pond near a village, and that's the only source of water.

So the people living in the village know that their ancestors lived and their parents lived and they lived, because that pond existed.

And sometimes they look on the pond as sacred.

And for us to go in and tell them that the pond, which you consider to be sacred is causing this disease, they have an adverse reaction to it.

And also the medicine men and other things, quite often they make their living wrapping the Guinea worm as it emerges from the body.

It takes about 30 days.

They wrap it around a stick about as big as a pencil, and you can make it come out in 20 days.

That's the only way they've had to treat it for thousands and thousands of years.

So when we tell them what causes it, and what to do about it, sometimes we have an adverse reaction.

As a matter of fact, that's really the symbol for the doctor, the caduceus.

That's what I was wondering because there's a serpent wrapped around a...

Jimmy Carter: It's not a serpent, it's a Guinea worm.

Tyson: It's a Guinea worm, okay.

Carter: Yeah, that's my interpretation.

And it's in the Old Testament too, the fiery serpent that attacked the Israelites coming out of Egypt was a Guinea worm.

Tyson: By all accounts, a Guinea worm.

Carter: Absolutely.

Tyson: So it's been with us for a while.

Jimmy Carter: For a long time, but it'll soon be gone.

Tyson: Wow, so if there's ever a new-new testament, they'll mention you and say, "he got rid of this."

JC saved the day.

Nice: The new-new testament. With the new-new JC.

Tyson: That's exactly right.

So, all right.

So you have cultural traditional practices.

Siddall: Sure.

Tyson: And without referencing whether they work or not.

Siddall: Right.

Tyson: But with this time, this one year time delay, one could invoke practically anything they happen to do at the time as a possible cure.

Siddall: Absolutely.

And there were communities that were really upset about putting larvicides, something that will k*ll those inner... those water fleas, because this is a place that has been life giving to their families and they don't want anybody to mess with it.

Tyson: What do you do about that?

Getting a jar of water and filtering it, concentrating all those little fleas and showing someone in the light with a magnifying glass, all of the stuff that's living in the water.

Tyson: In the filter.

Siddall: In the water after you've filtered it, convinces them that maybe they don't want to drink this.

Nice: That would do it for me.

Siddall: And that's...

Nice: Got to tell you.

Siddall: But all that is education.

Nice: Right.

Siddall: And finding the right way to convey information.

Humanity is not refractory to education and information.

I disagree with you there, Mark. I'm sorry, I live in America.

And uh, we...

Yeah, what country you live in, Mark?

Nice: We hate education, I mean, seriously.

Look at what happens when you talk about vaccines.

And you give people the science, and they say "no, no, no."

You're just saying that because you're like part of the conspiracy.

For example, you say...

I got to agree with Chuck on this.

You're saying humans are fundamentally not refractory.

Siddall: Refractory to education.

Tyson: Sorry, my vocabulary is not there.

So, fine.

But you look around, and you see people in denial of the role of vaccines.

Siddall: Yes.

Tyson: You see measles outbreaks in Disneyland.

So where did... what are you saying?

Siddall: I think the fault is that a couple of scientists incorrectly educated people about something that wasn't true.

It's not that the people are refracted to education.

They're hungry for it.

Tyson: Ooooh, so it's one of our own.

Siddall: Of course.

Nice: Et tu, Brute?

But you know, I think the other thing is what, what, what going back to the Guinea worm, when you talked about the demonstrable properties of being able to show people.

Siddall: Sure.

Nice: I think that has a lot to do with it.

Tyson: That's potent, that's potent.

Nice: People are afraid of science.

I don't know why, but they're... they're just afraid of science.

And if you can show them like, "hey, man, science is your friend. It's okay."

Like I think they'll be more inclined to accept it.

Tyson: We'll bring Chuck next time.

Siddall: A lot of people were afraid of polio when it was k*lling their family members.

Nobody's afraid of it any more. Why?

Cause of a vaccine.

Nice: Right, exactly.

You know, I asked President Carter which nasty parasites or diseases he's targeting next, coming up on StarTalk.

Welcome back to StarTalk.

I'm your host Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Chuck, Mark.

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson: We're trying to eradicate the Guinea worm.

My interview with President Carter took me to new places, and you've been helping me understand this problem, thanks.

Thanks for that.

Let me ask you, though, if the Carter Center manages to completely eradicate the Guinea worm.

Siddall: Yeah.

Tyson: A parasite that affects only human beings.

Siddall: Yes.

It will go extinct, is that correct?

That is correct.

Now you study parasites. You love you some parasites.

Does this upset you?

Siddall: Not in the slightest. First of all, I think...

Tyson: I don't know why I didn't expect you to say that.

I thought you'd get all sentimental about it, right?

Siddall: I'm very sentimental about parasites.

But I'm sentimental about my 11-year-old daughter.

And I know that everyone who lives out there with an 11-year-old daughter or an 8-year-old daughter is sentimental about those people too.

I think that if there's a parasite that goes extinct... if we go extinct, then we don't have a moral responsibility to save it.

In the sense that for the Guinea worm to not go extinct, would require that we assign someone's child.

Nice: Right, to have it.

Mark Siddall: To carry it.

Is that gonna be your child? Is it gonna be yours?

Is it gonna be mine? And are we gonna do that out of some weird sense of ecological guilt?

Are there colleagues of yours who think differently?

Siddall: There are no...

Tyson: Can you keep it alive?

Can you put it in some cadaver leg or something, just to keep it alive, just 'cause you find it amusing?

No, although, that's actually been done with small pox, unfortunately.

It's still around. People can still get infected.

Guinea worm is an animal.

Once you freeze an animal, for example, it's d*ad, it's not coming back.

Do I have colleagues who disagree with me on this?

None that I know of and if they did, they wouldn't be my colleagues anymore.

And if they did, just give... let them be the hosts of the Guinea worm.

Nice: You love it so much, why don't you marry it?

Siddall: But I would, but I would even be opposed to that cause it maintains a possibility that you can have an outbreak in other people who didn't ask for it.

And this is really where we get to even on measles.

So I, I had to ask President Carter once the Guinea worm is eradicated, cause we're down to 126 cases.

Siddall: Yes.

Tyson: So we're counting down to minutes on that.

Siddall: Which is huge.

Tyson: It's huge, down from millions.

Siddall: Three and a half million at least in 1986.

Tyson: Right, okay, so, it's okay.

So when they first, when he first took on this challenge.

Siddall: Correct.

Tyson: So I had to ask him what's next?

Let's find out what he told me.

We have other diseases on our horizon.

One would be onchocerciasis, or river blindness, and another one might, in the future, might be trachoma, that also causes blindness.

And so we deal with matters of this kind.

Malaria is another one that's not so neglected as others.

Tyson: With a huge fatality, I mean, world fatality, from malaria.

Carter: Exactly, yeah that's true.

And so the Carter Center is constantly on the cutting edge of assessing which diseases can be eliminated from a particular region.

For instance, we've now just about eliminated all of the river blindness or onchocerciasis in this hemisphere.

We only have a tiny little tribe of people in the border between Venezuela and Brazil that still has river blindness.

For six countries in Latin America, it's just about gone.

So it'll soon be gone from this hemisphere.

And we're working on that in Africa as well, so river blindness is on the target.

Nice: Wow.

Tyson: So Mark, what is river blindness?

Siddall: River blindness is caused by the larval stages of another nematode, instead of it being in like a water flea like Guinea worm.

Tyson: Nematode is your word for what we call worms.

Siddall: It's a worm. Sure, uh, the and those...

Why don't you all just say worms, then?

Siddall: Well.

Tyson: Why do you have to make a three letter, a three syllable?

Mark Siddall: Cause leeches are worms too, and they're not the same, I could go on for an hour about worms.

Tyson: Okay, I will stick with nematode.

Alright, so go.

Nice: Let the man have his nematodes.

Mark Siddall: So in this...

Tyson: I didn't mean to get in his nematodes. I'm sorry.

Siddall: River blindness is a condition that is caused by a worm called onchocerca volvulus, which we call oncho cause that's easier.

Nice: Right.

Siddall: But the larval stages will run around in your body.

Sub, underneath the skin.

Tyson: How do they get in?

Siddall: They get in by the bite of a black fly.

That's why it's called river blindness.

Nice: Course it's gotta be a black fly.

Tyson: I keep telling you, Chuck, it's not.

Chuck Nice: Mm-hm.

Tyson: It's, it's, it's, it's...

Nice: It's okay. I'm just saying.

Siddall: They get in by the bite.

They get in by the bite of a fly in the family.


Siddall: Simuliidae that happened to be very dark in color.

Uh, but the larvae run around.

Tyson: It's a multi-racial fly. That's right.

Siddall: All right, river fly.

We should call them river flies.

Nice: River flies.

Tyson: Yeah.

Siddall: Because they actually lay their eggs in rivers, very fast, flowing water.

That's why it's called river blindness.

But the larvae get around and they start getting across the eyes, and they scar the cornea.

Nice: Oh.

Siddall: And that causes blindness.

Now there, there are whole communities in Africa that for hundreds of years, if not thousands of years, the young lead the blind.

Because when you get to twenty years old, you're blind.

That's just the way it goes.

Nice: That's awful.

What parasites do you want to see eradicated next?

Does your list agree with the president's?

Mark Siddall: Yeah, my list actually agrees very clearly with the president's and the, the World Health Organization, and the Center for Disease Control.

And there are few things that really make a disease eradicable.

I wish Ebola was, but it's not.

Because there are reservoir hosts like bats.

The things that really just involve humans are things that we can get in front of, where we got the technology.

Maybe it's a...

Good reason to prioritize those.

Siddall: Absolutely.

We could get these things done in fifteen to twenty years.

So maybe we need more science fiction movies that show parasites, cause Alien had parasites.


I got my list here. Star Trek II.

No, no, Star Trek...

Nice: Yes, that's the earwig, man!

Tyson: The earwig! Ooh! Ooh!

Nice: Oh, that was nasty!

Tyson: Wrath of Khan.

Nice: Wrath of Khan!

They like, they put him on his knees.

He was just like, oh. And they go, oh my, I know.

You haven't recovered from that scene.

I'm still freaking out about it!

So I mean in the real world, you know. My friend Bill Nye the science guy.

He's gonna explain why scientific advances you probably take for granted may be the only reason why you're alive today.

Next on StarTalk.

We're back on StarTalk talking about diseases.

Nice: Yes.

Tyson: And parasites and stuff.

You know, in this segment, we occasionally like to feature a little contribution from a good friend of mine, Bill Nye the science guy.

He recently moved to New York City.

Anytime we get him to contribute to StarTalk, we have to like chase him down and catch up with him wherever we happen to find 'em.

While we've been talking about parasites and he has something to say about how science can help keep us alive from things that would have surely k*lled us in a time gone by.

Siddall: Okay.

Bill Nye: Greetings, sir, may I have a hotdog, mustard and relish?


If you're a big living thing like a human, you might think your enemies are lions and tigers and bears.

Oh my, but oh, no, no.

It's tiny things like germs and parasites.

They've wiped out whole societies and civilizations with things like the bubonic plague, Ebola, and the flu, and who knows what else is out there in the bush or elsewhere just waiting to come and get us?

You need a microscope with special skills even to see them in the first place.

That's why so many people around the world have trouble accepting how dangerous they can be.

Many germs and parasites enter our bodies through the water we drink.

So by understanding the science of disease, we've designed filters that are so fine they block out the germs and parasites and don't let them enter our bodies in the first place.

We've been able to preserve the lives of millions of people around the world, raising their quality of life and making them more productive so that people everywhere enjoy longer, healthier lives.

It's wonderful.

Oh, man.

That is wonderful.

Nice: Wow.

Bill Nye died twelve hours later from eating that hotdog.

Nice: Yeah, I was going to say, half the stuff he talked about was on that hotdog.

Tyson: No, Bill Nye said it all.

I mean, the real enemy is microscopic.

And you said earlier in this show that we're not just humans living apart from the rest of the bacterial kingdom.

That they are within us.

Siddall: Absolutely.

Tyson: Living and working.

Mark Siddall: Yeah.

Where a human, or where the human species starts and stops, is actually very fuzzy and the fuzziness comes from our...

Wait, that sentence is freaking me out.

Say it like again, but don't freak me out.

What do you mean, the definition of a human is fuzzy?

What does that even mean?

Well, the definition of a human is pretty clear.

Your skin stops here, but then there's the bacteria on it, and then maybe the virus on the bacteria, so maybe it's not right there, but that goes for the species too.

Tyson: Oh, the boundary.

Siddall: Yeah, so where does the species start and stop in, in, in...

Tyson: And then you go interior.

Nice: So where do I end and my bacteria begin?

Siddall: But then, there are things that move between you and other human beings that, that can only move between you and other human beings.

Nice: Yes, and I had that checked out, and apparently...


Tyson: You went to the clinic.

Nice: Right...

All I'm saying is they gave me some pills.

Everything's fine now.

I think fundamentally...

As a parasitologist, I look at the world through different glasses, and I don't see people or species as these separate entities.

They're all connected through things they eat, and where they crap, and who eats whose crap.

But there's this intricate deep web-like connection of all of life, and parasites are just a great manifestation of that.

Tyson: How many species of living organisms exist within us at any given moment?

Approximately, approximately.


Nice: Wow.

Tyson: What?!

Siddall: Well when you call... I mean the virus.

Viruses and bacteria, and the, and the, and the...

So we are vessels for the lives of 200,000 different species of micro-organisms?

Siddall: Sure, I hate to say something as trite as we're all connected, but we're evolved in concert with the microbiota, the parasites.

No creature on earth lives or dies in vain.

Siddall: Exactly.

Guys, we got to wrap this up. This has been fun.

Siddall: This is great.

Tyson: I feel like enlightened. Mark, I got to have you back again.

Siddall: Thank you.

Nice: Good stuff.

Siddall: Thank you for letting me be here. It has been an honor to work with President Carter on this exhibition, and I'm really happy that you're really talking about it here on the program.

Tyson: Yeah, we're talking about it. And Chuck, thanks as always for being on StarTalk. Guys, we're out of here.

This has been StarTalk from the Hall of the Universe at the American Museum of Natural History. I've been your host, Neil deGrasse Tyson, your personal astrophysicist. And, as always, I bid you all to keep looking up.
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