SciTech Now Episode 433

In this episode of SciTech Now, we take a tour of the Black Moshannon State Park; discover planets beyond our Solar System; explore the relationship between science and religion; and go inside the Witte Museum.


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Coming up, predator plants...

As the bugs fly into it and go down inside the pitchers, it's actually producing an enzyme which is going to break down the insects.

...discovering planets beyond on our solar system...

That gives us a little bit of more information to answering the bigger-picture question of, 'Are we alone in the universe?'

...the relationship between science and religion...

The difference between scientific pursuits and religious pursuits is the way of knowing.

...math to the extreme.

It's an exhibit that features all of the math underneath the things we love to do in our everyday lives.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III and contributions to this station.


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.

A bog is a diverse wetland habitat where you can find plants to eat and plants that do the eating.

We take a tour of a bog in Black Moshannon State Park in Pennsylvania.

Here is a look.


Welcome to Black Moshannon State Park, 3, 400 acres of protected land surrounded by another 43, 000 acres of state forest.

It's about as private as public land gets.

When you're here, don't count on cellphone service or Wi-Fi.

The tweets and snaps are organic.

The science is all natural, and the bog is really worth sharing.

A bog is wetland area, so you're going to have soils that are going to help hold the water in, low nutrient count counts, and you're going to have plants that are only specifically found in the bog like the carnivorous plants, the leatherleaf, and the sphagnum moss.

Don't worry.

We're going to talk about the carnivores, but the moss is the main ingredient in this habitat.

The sphagnum moss is found all throughout out bog area, and as the rain comes down, as water is filtering into it, it actually can clean out any pollution that may be in the water, so it helps give us good water quality.

The water is clean, but it's not very nutritious.

The moss absorbs the minerals and replaces them with acids, not a great environment for plants unless those plants have another source of nutrition.

Black Moshannon is home to three types of carnivorous plants.

The pitcher plant is the easiest to find.

That is our pitcher plant colony.

There's a few of those scattered throughout our bog area.

They grow in very large quantities.

As the bugs fly into it and go down inside the pitchers, it's actually producing an enzyme which is going to break down the insects, so it's able to get some of its food that way.

The pitcher plant is absorbing nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.

So does the sundew, but it has a different strategy.

The sundew is one of our carnivorous plants, and that is going to look like the Sun, with little rays coming off of it.

And the little tiny dewdrops on it are actually a type of glue that the plant produces so the insects get stuck to that.

And they actually will kind of close around it just a little tiny bit, and that is going to break down the insects and get its food.

When it comes to the bladderwort, all of the action is happening under the water.

Bladderwort is found throughout our lake area.

It actually looks like seaweed, and it looks like it has little tiny black seeds on it.

Those seeds are actually the bladders, and they have a little tiny trapdoor on it.

So as an insect, such as mosquito larvae, would swim by it, it triggers that door, and it opens up, and it sucks in the water and the insect, and then closes itself around it.

The carnivores love the bog, but don't get the wrong impression.

This is not a desolate wasteland where all bugs meet their doom.

It's an intricate and diverse ecosystem.

We have over 80 different kinds of dragonflies and damselflies here.

You can see larger animals, such as bear and bobcat like to be in those areas.

And it's also providing nice, clean water for the fish that like to live in our lake area behind us.

It's also one of the only places in Pennsylvania where you can pick wild cranberries.

Okay, let's do this.

It's pretty sour.

It's good.


So if you need a day to simplify, why not unplug and relax in one of the most complex environments in Central Pennsylvania?

[ Bird chirping] [ Theme music plays ] [ Computer keys clacking ] [ Computer keys clacking ] [ Computer keys clacking ]

In 2017, NASA announced the discovery of seven Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a single star called TRAPPIST-1.

Now, data has revealed new clues about the composition of these exoplanets and their potential to support life.

Astronomy and astrophysics professor at the CUNY College of Staten Island Emily Rice joins us to discuss.

How did we find these?

That's a good question.

We found these exoplanets the way that we've actually found most exoplanets so far.

It's called the transit technique.

So what we do is, just monitor the brightness of a star, and when we see the brightness dip by a little bit, and then that repeats several times at least -- So we want to see at least three dips kind of with the same amount of time in between them.

Then we need to rule out some other things, but we can determine that that dip is caused by a planet passing in front of a star and actually blocking the light from that star for just a little bit of time.

So if you were watching from a different solar system, you would basically see, 'Oh, this is when the Earth gets between us and the Sun.'


And this is when Mercury gets between us and the Sun, and so it would create some -- So from that, how -- And then we start to focus more attention to that area.


But then how do we know what the composition of the planets are like, whether it's inhabitable or not?


It's still -- From that really tiny dip, it's still a long way to finding out all of these different properties about the planets because really, again, all we're measuring is the brightness of the star and seeing these regular dips.

From the dips, though, we can get the relative size of the planet to the star.

So by assuming the size of the star, which is also kind of problematic in itself -- We have to figure out what the actual, physical size of the star -- It's not always easy.


Then we figure out the size of the planets relative to the star.

And that might give us a little bit of a hint as to what type of planet they are because we think that depending on the sizes of planets, that tells us a little bit about what they're made out of.

Like, Jupiter and gas planets are big.

Rocky, earth planets are small.

We don't think we can have a rocky planet the size of Jupiter.

But really, to know more about the composition, we also need to know the masses of the planets.

We can't get the masses of the planets directly from this transiting technique, but we can get it if we do a little bit of follow-up observations.

So if we are lucky enough that there's multiple planets in the system, which we are for the TRAPPIST-1 system, and then if those transits actually are not perfectly regular but change a little bit -- The technique is called a TTV or a transit timing variation.


So if the planets kind of tug on one another enough, that's caused by gravity.

And from that, we can determine the masses of the planets.

So we figure out the kind of gravity that a planet must be having to be able to pull or push another planet, and that means it has a core.

It is rocky.


That information, the mass information, combined with the radius information, with the size information, can give us what we call an overall bulk density of the planet.

And from that, we then try to infer composition because that's a little bit more constrained than just the size of the planet.

And then is it just about the sort of Goldilocks of it all?

Are you far enough from the sun?

Are you close enough?

But then, how do we know if there's water?


So, it's still a couple more steps to finding water.

So, in order to figure out kind of this habitable zone, also called the Goldilocks Zone, we have to know how far away the planet is from the star.

We can get that from just the transit itself, but then it also depends on the size of the star, the type of star that the planets are orbiting.

So a Sun-like star, we might think we know fairly well because the Earth is nicely in the habitable zone.

Mars and Venus are outside of the habitable zone.

But the interesting thing, especially about the TRAPPIST-1 system, is that there's lots and lots of exoplanets around stars that are not anything like the Sun.

And this TRAPPIST-1 planetary system is actually around a star that's much, much smaller than the Sun.

And so we can kind of -- I don't want to say guess, because it's a very, very educated guess.


But we can kind of estimate the habitable zone and how far away it is from that particular star, kind of understanding the stars as well as we do.


It's important to point out that this is not a trip that we're going to take any time soon.

How close is this system?


This system is still about 40 light-years away.

That means traveling at the speed light...


It would take us 40 years.

...which we can't do yet.


It would take us 40 years to get there.


So why continue to pursue this, because this is a system that we have studied a lot and know a fair amount about, compared to a lot of other things in space.

This particular system is just intense.

We should send everything that we have at this system.

This system, I just love it.

It is one of the closest exoplanetary systems out there.

In particular, it's really exciting for me because of the star that these planets are around.

It's a very low-mass star.

It's only about a tenth the mass of the Sun, and the cool thing about these stars is that they're everywhere.

There's way more of these stars in our galaxy than there are Sun-like stars.

And so the fact that we can find so many of these Earth-sized planets around this very low-mass star, it just means that these Earth-sized planets are probably everywhere in the galaxy, and we happen to have one really close by.

It's edge-on, so we can do these transit measurements.

We can do the transit timing measurements.

We can also start to do transmission spectroscopy to actually look at the atmospheres of these planets.

It's very kind of preliminary right now, but upcoming instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope will be able to break open this field.

And so the fact that we have this super exciting system so close by is just a fantastic gold mine for us to explore.

Even if we were trying to send messages there, it would take 40 years?



Right, to blink, 'SOS.


Just saying hello.'


It's a long wait.

'In the neighborhood.'

So is there -- What are we learning?

You know, a lot of times, the tools that we build in studying something like this end up having other kind of ripple effects.

I mean, they maybe improve our existing telescope technology or optics for our phones, who knows?

But what are some of the other things, as you pursue something like this, that we, as a society, benefit from?

I think this one kind of tells us to keep looking.

Like, this one, you know, even if this particular system, if these planets end up not having dense atmospheres, end up not being habitable, just the fact that we've found them and that we can study them so well around this low-mass star that's really everywhere, that kind of gives us a little bit of more information to answering the bigger-picture question of, 'Are we alone in the universe?'

I think a planetary system like this makes it much less likely that we are actually alone because there's so many more of these small Earth-like planets out there around these small stars, we can assume.

So does this mean that we will start looking around a lot more of these small stars, maybe much, much closer to us, and see if there are exoplanets circling them?

Yeah, absolutely.

In fact, the telescopes that made these discoveries about these exoplanets in the TRAPPIST-1 system are specifically designed to study these low-mass stars.

And so it's very exciting that very, very quickly, like, the instruments and the telescopes aren't even fully online yet.

The capabilities aren't even as great as they will be in a few short years, and so the fact that they did find this really exciting system relatively quickly, it bodes very well for the future of exploring planets around these small stars.

Emily Rice, thanks so much for joining us.

Thanks for having me.

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My name is Roger Rovekamp.

I work at the NASA Johnson Space Center.

I'm a robotics engineer.

I'm currently working in an emerging field called wearable robotics.

People are becoming more comfortable with the man and machine becoming closer together.

In the past, there may have been hesitation, or just the technology wasn't there.

It wasn't compact enough.

But now we've kind of reached a tipping point of sorts where all this technology is coming together at the right time, and we're seeing a lot of applications for it, especially in space flight.

The lower extremity exoskeleton is a wearable robotic.

It's got four active degrees of freedom and six passive degrees of freedom.

The applications are in assisted mobility, human augmentation, exercise, and applications that we haven't thought of yet.

There are a lot of terrestrial applications.

One very important application is assisted mobility, so we can assist people with paraplegia or just weakness and things like that.

A key component of this project was the opportunity to work with some people that had paraplegia.

The moment we got to work with them and kind of see the, you know, just the energy they had to put into what we were developing, it's just exciting.

I mean, there's so many applications, and you get the opportunity to work with such great people, and you get to help people.

Can't beat that.

We're very proud of the glove.

The technology for the glove was developed in collaboration with General Motors.

And with General Motors and NASA working together, developed 44 patents.

And some of those patents and that technology was put into the glove to assist assembly-line workers in manufacturing plants.

It's dynamic.

Human space flight is just a great cause, and now we're being able to apply that to terrestrial applications.

And that just makes it that much more exciting for me.

I love it, anything you can do to make life better on Earth.

The friction between science and religion goes back centuries.

While the conflict often lies in beliefs and research, the common ground between the two is sometimes left unexplored.

Join us as researchers dive deeper into this debate.

Cornell University was founded in 1865 as a nondenominational, science-centric university.

At the end of the 19th century, the predominantly Christian religious and social hierarchy was being challenged on a number of fronts by new scientific discoveries, and fields like evolutionary biology, geology, and physics questioned the biblical creation story.

Cornell University cofounder and president Andrew White entered the fray with an 1896 book that was widely read and had far-reaching consequences.

White himself always said that he was a believer, but he was concerned about the conflict -- the struggle between religion and reason.

He put together a book, published first in 1896.

I think it's very important to understand the context of that book, a lengthy period in which some of the fundamentals of religious belief were challenged.

White was blasted by Roman Catholic and fundamentalist Protestants for essentially destroying of Scripture.

But he was also embraced by secularists, by atheists.

The friction between science and religion is seen most clearly among fundamentalists who see the Bible as a literal creation story.

You can't impose religious belief upon the Bible.

You have to let religious belief come out of the Bible as an exquisite literary document.

I came here from many, many years working at the Vatican Observatory.

It has the Vatican name because it's the Pope's observatory, but it's not a religious institute at all.

Galileo said what the church said 300 years later, and, essentially, he said the Bible was written to tell us how to go to heaven and not how the heavens go.

The church did not officially accept that notion of Scripture, and many church men of various denominations today still do not understand that nature of Scripture.

It was difficult, I think, for White to accomplish what he had set out to accomplish, and that is a reconciliation of religion and science, which was his fundamental aim.

White was taken to believe that the domain of science was and should be larger and larger: the domain of religion, smaller and smaller.

And that, to people of faith, is wrong and dangerous.

I mean, the difference between scientific pursuits and religious pursuits is -- One of the issues is the way of knowing, epistemology, how do you come to knowledge?

Through the sciences, it's pretty clear.

In general, it's to collect data -- empirical observations, laboratory experiments, et cetera -- and gather that data and try and see if there is a way of explaining that data.

So science never possesses the truth.

It's in search of the truth.

It's always in search of the truth.

The way of knowing in, you know, religious belief -- first of all, it's not a way of knowing, primarily.

It's a way of loving.

Human culture is so rich: history, philosophy, theology, drama, sculpture, science.

Science is a very important part of our human culture, but it's not the only part.

Science is a way of knowing, and whether it can describe the totality of human experience is an open question.

But is it possible to be both a person of faith and a person of science?

The father of the argument seemed to think so.

White was responsible for the construction of Sage Chapel on Cornell campus, where he is interred.

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Whether we realize it or not, we use math every day from telling time to balancing our budget to cooking and shopping.

We visit an exhibit at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas, that uses interactive video games, animated movies, and even mountain bikes to show how math impacts our daily lives.

So this exhibit is '2 The Xtreme, MathAlive!'

And it's an exhibit that features all of the math underneath the things we love to do in our everyday lives.

It's all about nature and science and the culture that is math and the people that are behind it, and also the math elements that you don't even realize you're implementing every day.

So here we are in the exhibit, and you start off with this wonderful Sidebot friend.

And they're going to take you through all of the interactive elements of the exhibit, kind of show you all the math elements behind the stuff that you do every day.

Let's go.

So in Boarder Cross, the real challenge here is to figure out just the right angle for your snowboard to not only make the turns you need to make, but also maintain your speed because the steeper the turn you're making, the more acute the turn you make, the more friction you're going to have that slows you down.

But you also need to stay on the course, so there are some turns you have to make.

So this is a great area, too, because you have Ramp It Up, which is all about skateboards and the type of optimization that you need to do your tricks.

So it's a really cool interactive basis where you have this video.

You can learn more about that.

This type of interactive here is all about, like, civil engineering.

So that's the great thing about this exhibit, is that it's all math-oriented, but math applies to so many elements.

Here you get to make a building, and you get to learn about the ratio of the weight and the width.

And you can make roller coasters, all sorts of fun things like that, and it kind of applies how those math and civil engineering type of applications are used.

And it kind of highlights the whole family of things that you may not understand or realize that math was behind it.

That's what's so great about this.

This interactive exhibit demonstrates the math behind motion pictures by freezing and creating a 360-degree panorama from a single moment in time.

In this particular interactive, you can also, while you're here, cut out half of the cameras.

So in this 360 shot, there are 20 cameras around this top ring.

They all take your picture at the exact same time, and then the computer puts those together into a video, so it looks like one camera panning around...


...while you're frozen, but really, it's 20 still shots making a movie.


And then when you're looking at it on the screen here, you can actually cut out half of those cameras, and when you do, it starts looking really different.

So, a tessellation is an infinitely repeating pattern with all of the parts in that pattern fitting together perfectly.

There's some famous art, especially by M.C.

Escher, that uses tessellations.

And here what we have are these really cool mirrors and shapes that you can use to build your own tessellation.

And if you get down at the right level, you can actually see what it would look like infinitely repeated.


So here we are Flicker Fusion.

It's definitely a favorite for all the families that come here and my favorite because I love 'The Nightmare Before Christmas.'


And I am so interested how that stop-action-motion happens, and Sarah does a great job of explaining it for us.

So when we animate something, our eyes are taking in several pictures at once.

And when it's going fast enough, more than 24 flashes per second, it's so fast our brain can't tell separate images apart.

They actually use this a lot in any sort of movie or animation, and when it goes that fast, it starts to look super smooth.


And you can get a really cool image.

And here with Flicker Fusion, you can control how often the light flashes, how fast the platform spins, which gives you the really deep understanding of what speeds things need to be moving at to trick your brain into believing it's smooth live-action.

So, when kids and adults come to the Witte, especially in this exhibit, what's really cool is they may not realize how much they're learning.

They go through, and all they know is they're having a great time.

They're making memories.

They're getting, like, all of their wiggles out with all the family.

But then when they walk away, they actually are thinking about all the things they learned and they may not realize it.

And that's what so great about education here, is that you're learning with everything you're doing.

If you're designing a video game in here, you're implementing math, but you're playing a video game.

That's awesome.

So we brought this exhibit here really to help tell that story of nature and science and culture here in Texas, and how these things are part of our lives.

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 Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III and contributions to this station.

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