SciTech Now Episode 319

In this episode of SciTech Now, the science behind goosebumps, an interview with NPR Science Desk reporter, Adam Cole; how do you measure vision? Minority inclusion in genome sequencing; and engineering the perfect pop-up book.


Coming up, the hair-raising science behind goose bumps.

A lot of species get goose bumps.

They're scared and they want to look bigger and so they puff up their feathers or their fur.

But for humans, there's so much more going on.

Making genetic research more inclusive.

Genome sequencing affords us the opportunity to begin to predict and prevent disease rather than react.

So if we're not including the populations of people who need genome sequencing the most, they won't be included in the future of medicine.

Engineering the perfect pop-up book.

Opening the page is a chain reaction sort of event.

That's where the energy is coming from to make these pieces work.

That energy is distributing out to the first mechanisms that are built off of it.

As you continue to open, there continues to be power, and that is moving further outward.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

Whether you call them cutis anserina, horripilation, or just plain chicken skin, goose bumps are a mysterious part of our body's fight or flight response.

So why do our hairs stand up when we feel fear, cold, or intense emotion?

As we find out in this segment from NPR Science reporter Adam Cole, there's more to those bristling bumps than you might think.


Why do we get goose bumps?

Sometimes it starts with fear.

The word 'horror' actually comes from a Latin word that means 'to bristle,' and the technical term for goose bumps is horripilation.

When you get scared, little glands on top of your kidneys release a stress hormone, adrenaline.

It rushes through your bloodstream, preparing your body for fight or flight.

It widens your airways and raises your heart rate so your muscles will have plenty of oxygen.

It dilates your pupils so your eyes can take in more light and see enemies in the shadows.

And in your skin, adrenaline causes tiny muscles to contract, producing bumps and making your hairs stand on end.

The medical term is cutis anserina.

'Cutis' means 'skin,' and 'anserina' means 'goose.'

Goose bumps look like the skin of a plucked bird, and apparently cultures all over the world notice that similarity, from Russia... to Japan... to Spain.

But in parts of Vietnam, they call it something like snail bumps, which also makes a lot of sense.

Unlike most human fight or flight responses, goose bumps don't seem like they'd help you out in a crisis.

But imagine you were a cat.

Fluffing up your hair would make you look bigger, less of an easy target.

If you were a hedgehog or a porcupine, goose bumps would raise your quills.

Goose bumps can also help mammals survive when it's cold out.

Fluffed up fur traps an insulating layer of air and helps them stay warm.

Our ancestors were hairy, and so, for them, goose bumps were useful.

We modern humans don't have much hair, but we still get goose bumps when we're cold or scared.

And lots of other times, too.

Scientists have studied chills brought on by getting a head massage, drinking lemon juice, looking at a picture of a kid, hearing fingernails on a chalkb-- Let's -- Let's not do that one.

And even listening to music.

[ Classical music plays ] Scientists have discovered that different people get goose bumps listening to different songs.

♪ She's an easy lover ♪♪ ♪♪

But why?

None of these things are that critical to our survival.

In fact, many of these experiences bring us pleasure.

These goose bumps might have something to do with feeling intense emotion.

We're so surprised or moved that, for a moment, our brains think there's an emergency.

And then when we figure out that there's no threat, we feel good.

That's probably why people are strangely drawn to horror.

Joining me now is Adam Cole, the creator and host of NPR Science YouTube channel Skunk Bear.

So, why is it that just thinking about this story has actually started to give me little goose bumps?

What's the power of goose bumps?

Well, I think it's especially interesting in humans, because a lot of species get goose bumps, right?

And it's pretty straightforward.

They're cold or they're scared and they want to look bigger, and so they puff up their feathers or their fur.

But for humans, there's so much more going on.

We can imagine something that makes us feel fear, and that will give us goose bumps.

We can also feel positive emotions like awe or just appreciation of things like music, and that might give us goose bumps.

I mean, what's the benefit that we get from that?

We don't look bigger.

You know, technically goose bumps might increase our size by a very, very small fraction, but why do we -- What's our --

Well, that's an interesting question and one that's not completely known.

One of the more interesting theories that I heard when I was doing the research for this video was that it's very beneficial for us to feel good when we feel in awe of something because that's a force that brings together communities.

So if you are confronted by a great leader and you're sort of a little bit intimidated -- Wow, that person's powerful -- if you don't have a positive way to respond to that, there's gonna be a lot of conflict in your society.

But if you can see that person and kind of feel chills, if you listen to Martin Luther King speak and you feel chills, that's something that brings a community together.


All right, so what are some of the things that give us goose bumps on a person?

Almost pictures or music, how is it that these kind of different senses all trigger goose bumps?

Well, I think it all comes back to that emotional -- the emotional basis of goose bumps.

Some of the things just don't make any sense to me at all.

One of the things mentioned in the video was drinking sour juices, which -- I mean, how does that -- There's some sort of discomfort or -- You know, there's a lot going on in our brains.

There's some wires crossed, I think, but some of these go back to emotions, some of them -- It's hard to say.

All right, Adam Cole from Skunk Bear, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.

♪♪ ♪♪

So, I think vision is really one of the most important senses that we have.

You know, we use our vision at every moment of our awake life.

And it really helps us understand the world around us and navigate the world.

And I study two particular aspects of vision, which are understanding -- The first one is to understand how we detect movement around us.

The other one is color vision, so how we manage to discriminate the different colors that are around us, you know, how is this blue, how is this green?

How can we tell?

How can we experience these different colors?

And so this is where the fruit fly comes in.

So the fruit fly is made up -- The brain of the fruit fly is made up of about 100,000 to 200,000 neurons, which is, you know, quite a bit less daunting than, you know, the amazing human brain.

So what I do is I can take a single fly that is alive and well, and I fix its head on a little platform.

It's still alive, it's still moving its legs, and I can open its skull.

You know, it's called a cuticle when it's a fly, but it's the same as your skull, as if I was opening your skull, to have access to the brain.

And then the specific fly that I'm using, I've made it so that one type of neuron is glowing green.

So maybe 800 neurons in the whole brain are gonna glow green.

And what I do is that I put this little fly that is held with its head and I put it in front of a kind of a 'fly TV.'

[ Chuckles ] It's a screen onto which I can project a variety of images.

And then I go with a recording electrode so I can record the electrical activity of these cells as the fly is seeing different visual scenes.

So we can, with this kind of experiment, can start to understand what each type of neuron is actually doing while vision is happening.

The quest to understand our human genes has revolutionized medicine, allowing scientists to better understand unique genetic makeups and improve the way we identify and treat disease.

But after a decade of research, scientists have found that indigenous and minority populations are underrepresented.

Dr. Keolu Fox, a human geneticist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Diego, is advocating for minority inclusion in genome sequencing.

Keolu joins me now.

Thanks for being here.

Thanks for having me on, guys.

And, so, to start off, why is 96% of genetic research focused primarily on people of European descent?

Yeah, so, the numbers are a little bit better recently.

They came out with a paper in and the numbers are somewhere kind of in the 80% range, but I think that mostly caters towards Asian populations.

I think the reason why this is happening is sort of twofold.

One is because of a history of exploitation of indigenous people's rights and their culture.

And then another, kind of the other side of the coin, would be something like nepotism -- that is, that the majority of the investigators that are either MDs or PhDs are white and cater to those populations.

And then there are other complications like access to healthcare and things like that, that people on reservations or homestead land in Hawaii, for example, have less access to.

What are the ripple effects of this gap and the importance of closing it?

Genome sequencing affords us the opportunity to begin to predict and prevent disease, rather than reacting to it.

So if we're not including the populations of people who need genome sequencing the most, they won't be included in the future of medicine.

And if you look at the trajectory that the White House, for example, is going with the Precision Medicine Initiative, it doesn't look like minority populations will be engaged in the most thoughtful ways.

So we really need to be creative about how we engage indigenous and minority populations in the future.

And can you back up?

What is the Inclusive Medicine initiative?

Oh, it's called the Precision Medicine Initiative.

It's a $215 million effort that was launched by the White House in concert with the NIH earlier this year, and their goal to sequence 1 million people's genomes in the United States of America.

And so if we're collecting -- Through genome research and sequencing, if you say every person's DNA and genetic sequence is like a fingerprint, and you're getting a wide sample to create kind of a baseline, and we're missing these populations of people, what kind of impact, also, does that have on the people's view of that research and what's coming out of it?

Well, one thing that's really important to think about is that we learn a lot from sequencing of minorities' genomes.

Things like sickle cell, for example, is a response to populations of people, mostly in Africa, being exposed to the malaria parasite.

So there are local adaptions on a global level.

We can learn a lot about disease predilection on the mechanistic level.

For example, Inuit populations in Greenland recently have had their genomes sequenced, and they learned a lot about the fatty acid gene region called FADS 1, 2, and 3.

And in that region, they're starting to understand the way that we metabolize essential fats, Omega-3s and Omega-6s.

And that's because these populations of people have been participating in a marine diet, mostly of whale blubber and fats like this over thousands of years.

Now, what's really interesting is, this lowers their predilection to heart disease, which is the number-one cause of death in America.

So when you think about the scale and what we can actually learn in terms of developing treatments, potential drug development, and these types of things, it's extremely valuable, yet we continue to exclude these populations.

So you've taken this on with Indigenomics, right?

A organization to sort of indigenize medicine.

Can you explain that?

What we're trying to do is we've started a non-profit organization, and what our goal is is to educate indigenous people on the potential use and misuse of genetic information so that they're not exploited in the future.

The goal really is to activate and democratize genome sequencing so that it benefits those people.

You see, we treat communities of people -- for example, the Navajo Nation is a reservation.

It should be treated like a sovereign nation, like any diplomatic relationship, like we have with France or Japan, for example.


And this creates a lot of complex relationships in terms of data sharing, biobanking... many kind of nuanced things that are extremely important in science, especially in the big data era.

So what we're trying to do is create technological independence and activate communities, citizen scientists, and really, really get them to put their stake and their spin on science.

All right.

And as you mentioned, one of the issues that have contributed to this problem is access.

One of the ways that you're working on solving it is through a new technology that's making this sequencing more accessible.

Can you explain what that is and [ Chuckles ] and how it's working?

Yeah, so, traditionally, genomes are sequenced using genome sequencers, and some of them are extremely large.

Picture, you know, something the size of a refrigerator, but the newer models that are coming out are about the size of the USB port.

You know, they're very tiny.

You know, you could fit one in your pocket, you could fit one in your backpack, and we are able to bring that technology into an indigenous space, sort of recasting, re-imagining, and de-black-boxing the hardware.

What this does is this creates transparency because you're not taking somebody's DNA and then leaving, never to return, generating data, and making your career literally off of the blood of indigenous people.

This way, we're activating people as citizen scientists, community members, and you really are creating transparency about how the hardware works.

And what's beautiful about this is that you could connect it to an iPad or a laptop and utilize cloud computation, and you really have your whole genome center in your backpack, and you can perform many of the things that we do in the Genome Sequencing Center here in somewhere like La Jolla or Seattle or Boston -- You could be doing that anywhere in a really remote area.

And that's a very powerful idea.

So, what kind of timeline do you see for minority populations and indigenous people to be a bigger part of genetic sequencing and research?

I would say right now is the best time.

I just got my Ph.D. in August, and I am more motivated than ever to make a difference.

And I think something we really need to focus on is educating the next generation of scientists in a world where it's predominantly filled with white males that operate as doctors, surgeons, scientists, and I think the inversion of power that we're observing in our latest election in the United States of America -- you're gonna see a lot of that sort of take place in the medical space, as well.

You're going to see the next generation of brown scientists become leaders and make decisions that reflect the diversity that we see in America every day.

Can't wait to see what that looks like.

Keolu Fox, thanks for joining us.

Thanks for having me on the show.

Hi, I'm Ellen Langer.

I'm a professor of Psychology at Harvard University.

People mistakenly seek certainty, think that once they know, then they're going to have more control over themselves, their worlds, but it turns out that the key to a successful, healthy, happy life is an acceptance of the inherent uncertainty in everything.

Once we realize that everything is always changing, everything looks different from different perspectives, we accept that we don't know.

Everything becomes new.

What happens when you think you know, you don't need to pay any attention.

When you're aware of that, this thing you thought you knew may actually be something different from the way you originally understood it.

Your attention naturally goes to it, and it turns out, the simple process of actively noticing new things is good for your health and well-being.

The neurons are firing.

Our research suggests that it's literally and figuratively enlivening.

So because things are always changing and uncertainty is the rule rather than the exception, what we need to do is embrace uncertainty, presume that we don't know.

That makes everything interesting, and it turns out that the consequences for all of us are enormously positive.

Growing up, you may have had a shelf with a few simple pop-up books.

Pull the tab and the cow's head moves from side to side.

Today's pop-ups are feats of engineering.

'Science Friday' talks to pop-up artist Matthew Reinhart about the mechanisms and structures that drive his designs.

There is something kind of, like, amazing about taking something that's just paper, just like this 2D thing, and sort of rearranging it and cutting it up and making it into something that you can't believe happens.

My name is Matthew Reinhart, and I am a pop-up book artist.

The background that I have in zoology and anatomy and all those sort of things, that comes in a lot to the way that I engineer because you look at the way things come together, the way things move.

If the body goes outward like this, you don't want the folds to be going inwards on something.

All these things work together so that it feels natural.

The other one that I think made the biggest impact on me were Transformers.

Just the actual toys, there was something about the way that they went together and became something else, those transformations, changing.

That aspect, I think, really stayed with me, and I think that that's why I still collect Transformers and have thousands.

I'll write out an outline, just a basic idea of what the pop will be... That's it.

I don't know how it's gonna happen with all the engineering.

I just know that that's what I want to happen.

The next step is actually engineering, by hand.

Like, there isn't a computer program that does this stuff.

It's like low-tech engineering.

We're using really simple stuff.

Me cutting up paper and folding it and taping it.

I use, like, an artists tape.

That makes a nice hinge.

There's another way that you can attach paper, you know, so that one piece will go through kind of another.

It's a really loose hinge.

There are really two main mechanisms.

V-fold is probably the most important.

It causes things to move in an arc.

Some of my pop-ups may use 20 of them all working in different directions to make one thing happen.

The second one is something called a layer.

Basically, a box that's flat, and then opening up.

So that usually is used for structure.

You have to first do the base structure and how that's gonna fit on the page.

You get the core built, and then the arms can work around it.

The V-folds that are moving directly off of the base page -- those are the first ones that are really gonna activate.

Opening the page is a chain reaction sort of event.

That's where the energy is coming from to make these pieces work.

That energy is distributing out to the first mechanisms that are built off of it.

As you continue to open, there continues to be power, and that is moving further outward.

You can build a V-fold, and you can build a V-fold off a V-fold.

I mean, it can go on indefinitely, and the further I work away from the base page, it's going to happen later.

Sometimes people only open it, you know, maybe 90 degrees, just to get a peek in there.

You want something to happen in that first bit that will get them excited.

And there are certain ways that you can adjust things so that something happens within that short amount of time.

Narrow V-folds, they open completely very quickly because there's not a huge arc that they have to move across.

But they also don't move very much.

There's also very wide V-folds that move like this huge arc.

So you may not see any of that action until those last moments before you open the book completely flat.

But usually, if you're working close enough to the center fold, then you're getting all that happening relatively soon.

There's sort of rules with some of this engineering, and I'll bend the rules to make those mechanisms work.

I've used different types of paper and things.

There's one pop-up from my dragons book that actually uses tissue paper garlands to build its body.

Usually, when you make a pyramid on a pop-up, structurally, it just sits there.

I didn't like the size that I could get from doing that, so the pyramid actually flips.

Later, I started making pops that there was some way of affecting that 3-Dimensional object to turn into something else.

It's like, I, you know, I cheat and get an extra pop in.

In LEGO, there's like -- I think it's the tallest one I've ever done.

It almost pokes you in the face.

You know, everyone who's seen it is, like, kind of freaked out that that thing can get, you know, like, this high within the book.

Most of what I do, I don't know how I did it.

I mean, I do, but I don't.

It's like, 'What were you thinking about on that one?'

You have to rebuild things over and over and over again, make sure they work right.

One little thing could go wrong, and you have to figure out things to counter that.

I built the Optimus Prime from my Transformer pop-up probably about 25 times because there's so many different moving pieces that have to work.

Making pop-ups is something a kid can do, you know?

You've got the material and you've got the tools, like scissors, and you've got some tape.

I do it for them.

I do it for, of course, myself.

I want to wow me.

I want to wow any reader, you know, at any age.

Hopefully it gets them excited about, like -- 'How's this done?'

'Can I do this?'

'I want to make this' and 'I want to be creative.'

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by...