SciTech Now Episode 238

In this episode of SciTech Now, a New York-Historical Society exhibit on advancements in tech; the many connections between STEM and hip hop; the importance of charting and naming exoplanets; and the complicated physics behind removing dams.


Coming up, the evolution of Silicon City...

Women were key to the early development of the computers in the '40s, '50s, and even earlier.

So this concept that women didn't create computers and computer programming is just false.

...rapping Newton's laws...

You have to have at least five scientific phenomena described.

You have to incorporate formulas.

You have to apply it to real-life experiences.

But you have to do all of this through rap. to name exoplanets...

We think every star has a planet.

And, in our night sky, we have thousands of stars.

So, in time, if we find all of those planets, it will be a huge process to name them all, and probably a struggle to remember all of those names.

...and finally, a feat of physics.

Dam building goes in cycles.

You know, with climate change and everything, there's a lot more talk about building dams.

I think we, or at least, in the future, we'll have a greater understanding that there are downsides to dam construction

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Lewis B.

and Louise Hirschfeld Cullman, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, Shailaja and Umesh Nagarkatte, 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.

It's hard to believe that the cellphones that fit in the palms of our hands are more powerful than the early computers that once occupied entire rooms.

A New York Historical Society exhibition highlights these and other advancements from early innovations at the 1964 World's Fair to modern-day tech.

Reporter Andrea Vasquez has the story.

New York City has been at the center of many invaluable technological innovations, whether in the pavilions of the 1964 World's Fair or the depths of the idea factory, Bell Laboratories.

In the exhibition 'Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York,' the New York Historical Society chronicles the Empire City's role in the evolution of computing and technology.

New York is the social, physical, and economic center of the country, also the creative center.

Those things never ended, and now all the techies are back.

He credits New York City's density and geography with creating an environment uniquely suited for collaboration and innovation.

In the 19th century, everybody came here because they could.

They could live together and work together.

And then you need to develop a network, literally a network, like a telephone system, a telegraph system, all those sorts of things.

We have a subway system that works that way.

People interrelate in a physical and sort of social way in a way that they can't do anywhere else.

Much of the foundation for modern-day technology has roots in New York City as far back as the 19th century.

Samuel Morse's electric telegraph, developed in the early 1800s, broke ground with its ability to send electrical signals, which relayed messages through his Morse code.

At the turn of the 20th century, inventor Lee de Forest moved from Chicago to New York to join Guglielmo Marconi and other innovators in the race to improve telegraphic communication.

There, de Forest created the Audion vacuum tube, making it possible to transmit not only the dots and dashes of Morse code but also voice and music.

Decades later, AT&T's Manhattan-based research arm, Bell Laboratories, advanced de Forest's invention and later replaced it with the innovation of transistors in 1947, which were smaller, more reliable, and gave off less heat than their predecessors.

I'm glad to have this opportunity to tell you about the telephone switching center of tomorrow, the electronic central office, which is made possible by the magic of the transistor, and other tiny but amazing devices invented by the Bell Telephone Laboratories.

What developed in the period after 1947 was this idea of shrinkage.

There was Moore's Law, which basically said that things would collapse or be getting smaller on a yearly basis.

Even as technology shrunk, early computers were still too big and complicated for the consumer market and were rather used for industry and government.

In World War II, computers calculated missile trajectories.

But when few male mathematicians were available for the painstaking process of programming the massive computers, the Army recruited women to do the job.

And this one is an extraordinarily beautiful thing.

You can start to see mid-century design and how important that is to the idea of computing.

Well, these big computers were sort of specific, job-specific.

You couldn't just use it for anything.

They were developed for certain reasons.

And they would have to be used by certain people.

Women were key to the early development of the computers in the '40s, '50s, and even earlier.

So this concept that women didn't create computers and computer programming is just false.

Silicon City shows the evolution of technology we know today.

In the 1940s, 'computers' actually referred to the people, often women, who manually changed cables on the massive machines.

Over time, devices got smaller, more powerful, and consumer-friendly, ultimately replacing the supercomputer with laptops, tablets, and cellphones.

In the early days of tech, that miniaturization made computers consumer-friendly for the first time.

When IBM introduced its IBM 360 computer at the 1964 New York World's Fair, the company hoped the model would bring computers to the public, as well as broaden their industrial use.

Not only could the software be upgraded, these machines could perform different kinds of tasks.

And the thing that's very important about the 360 is that it was an interchangeable computer.

For the first time, you could actually have many businesses buy a computer.

You could change what you needed in a computer.

You could buy additional parts and so forth, very much the sort of way that we think about computing today.

IBM president Thomas Watson prioritized customers as well as innovation and helped turn IBM into a household name.

As tech gadgets made their way to market, consumers' experience and interaction with tech became crucial.

Computing was not in the center of everybody's scope.

It was somewhere outside.

And so brilliant people could gravitate there before they were left out.

Art and technology are necessary to sort of popularize and introduce people, on a personal level, to the idea of modern technology.

In the decades since, the importance of good design, as with all tenets of technological development and innovation, has only grown and evolved with each new generation of gadgets.

This is a very, very important thing about what we do here, is that, you know, you don't repeat history.

You learn history first.

And then you innovate.

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What do STEM and hip-hop have in common?

For Christopher Emdin, a science educator at Columbia University's Teacher's College, the answer is a lot.

Emdin has teamed up with rappers to co-design a hip-hop-inspired science curriculum.

He joins us now.

So, how do these two things intersect?

I just love the way you asked the question, like, 'How does this--' 'cause that's the reaction I get from everyone, right?

And I think it connects on a very fundamental sort of pedagogical space, right?

It's this notion of science being a subject area that young people are sort of least likely to be interested and passionate about, hip-hop being this cultural phenomenon that they're all consuming and really getting emotionally connected to and wanting to see the same type of emotion and response and energy that happens in hip-hop spaces within science classrooms.

And so the natural idea was, well, bring the science of the hip-hop into the science classroom and use that as a tool through which we discuss scientific phenomena and interrogate scientific questions and ideas.

And that's the fundamental idea behind it.

So is it about taking science teaching and turning it into rhyme?

Or are we talking about finding scientific ideas in existing lyrics?

So, it's all of that.

It's really, really layered.

So, an example would be one, identifying a lyric that might have some sort of scientific connection within it.

You know, Lauryn Hill will say, you know, 'Two emcees can't occupy the same space at the same time.

It's against the laws of physics.'

So why is she saying 'two emcees'? What does that connect to scientifically, right?

And then, it could be, well, scientists are, in many ways, the people within our society that gives us an idea about how the world works and the ideas about how to sort of navigate spaces and tell us about new things.

And for those in the hip-hop community, the hip-hop artists do the same thing.

So if we can make connections between the hip-hop artists and the scientists as these sort of, like, the spokespeople for the community, then we can draw these connections.

And then, another piece of it is pedagogical, right?

How do the science teachers learn how to teach it more effectively by using the hip-hop artists as role models with the call and response and their stance and their presence and their confidence?

And then, there's another layer of it, which is having youth use hip-hop music as a tool through which they describe scientific phenomena, writing raps about science.

So it's a sort of multi-layered process that, if all enacted, particularly with young people who are deeply embedded in hip-hop, transforms the nature of how they learn science but how they feel connected to the discipline, as well.

Because, right now, there is that gap, that lack of connection, especially with math and science.

Yeah, I mean, I would make the argument that the most significant issue, when it comes to having certain or particular populations engage in science, is not about the content.

It's not about the intelligence.

It's not having sort of the intellectual ability.

It's more of them not seeing themselves in the discipline or believing that they can do it.

This sort of STEM-phobia is a disease.


And young people catch that disease from as early as third, fourth, or fifth grade.

As soon as you get out of playing in kindergarten, you start thinking of it as only for the best and brightest.

And if somebody tells you or makes you feel like you're not part of the best and brightest, you sort of disassociate yourself with these disciplines.

And so part of my task is to make the reconnection present, so we can activate a passion and then connect that to learning and connect that to sort of rigorous interrogations of science and scientific phenomena.

What's a math or a science teacher in high school supposed to do?

What's something they can actually institute in their classroom?

So, there's a couple of things.

I think one thing you can do just, you know, on a sort of basic scale is have kids present or describe their science ideas and what they're learning in science in different ways including art, including hip-hop.

You know, online, there's exemplars of how we've done this project, called Science Genius, where the kids write raps.

So my new book is called 'For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood... and the Rest of Y'all Too.'

And in the book, I outline just strategies, like have conversations with young people in your classroom about how they're receiving your instruction and have them co-design a lesson with you.

'Well, Emdin, what if they don't understand the science?'

It doesn't matter.

They'll learn the science through the process of designing the lesson.

It's a really nouveau approach to just the whole teaching and learning exercise that I suggest should be happening in all classrooms but, in particular, in STEM classrooms because of the 'achievement gaps' that we find in these disciplines.

Well, that's interesting.

In the technology field, also design-centered, you know, kind of object creation is something that they think about in Silicon Valley.

Well, let's teach ourselves the process, think about what the end user has in mind, right?

And you hit the nail on the head.

It's really ensuring that teaching and learning practices in K-through-12 education actually replicate the type of creativity and imagination that happens with folks who are actually doing the scientific work.

You know, I make the argument that folks who use a hip-hop-based approach to teaching and learning are actually closer to what happens in STEM fields, in Silicon Valley, than what happens in traditional classrooms.

So we're essentially enacting approaches to teaching and learning that are so antiquated that it doesn't even really fully prepare the young people to have the kind of creativity and imagination and the marrying with the arts that actually happens with folks who are doing cutting-edge scientific research.

I've heard of Rap Genius.

What's Science Genius?

Science Genius is a competition.

And it is heavy.

And it's having young people write raps around what they're learning in science classes.

And that's easy enough, except now, we want them to be able to compete with young people in other schools across the city or even across the country.

And we're challenging young people to say, 'Listen.

We don't want the rap to sound great.

That's nice, but we also want to make sure that you have very rigorous science content.'

It's a really challenging rubric.

You have to have at least five scientific phenomena described.

You have to incorporate formulas.

You have to apply it to real-life experiences.

But you have to do all of this through rap.

And so, Science Genius is a city-wide competition where kids come together from across the city.

And they're gonna perform.

And they better rap and be good.

But they better have some scientific content in there, as well.

What does this do to a kid that didn't see themself as a scientist early on?

It changes everything.

You know, a young person who writes a Science Genius rap and gets to present at Teacher's College at Columbia University or at the Jacob Javits Center, they see themselves as being a scientist.

And this activates the resilience that you need for science, right?

So if you are deeply, emotionally connected to a discipline and you see yourself as being successful in it, you've been on stage performing science raps, and the whole audience says, 'Oh, my gosh. You're brilliant, and you're smart,' when you're in the classroom, and you face your first academic challenge, you activate a certain sense of resilience that comes from the fact that you've already built confidence around your ability to do well.

And so what it changes is we just have a whole new cadre of young people who want to be scientists, who want to have careers in a science.

And once you do that, we change the entire narrative.

And my argument is always this.

We are not going to be able to fill the gaps that we have in STEM professions in science and tech and engineering and math unless we change the big piece, which is the engagement piece.

Once you get people who have engagement and self-confidence around a discipline, and they feel like they can do well at it, you open up doors for new possibilities.

All right.

Christopher Emdin of Teacher's College at Columbia University, thanks so much for joining us.

Pleasure being here with you.

For years, distant stars were thought to be planet-free.

But we now know they have rings of exoplanets.

Sara Seager is a pioneer in the field of exoplanet characterization.

And her TED Talk titled 'The Search for Planets Beyond Our Solar System' was viewed by more than a million people.

Here in a Google Hangout with reporter Andrea Vasquez, Seager discusses the importance of not only charting these exoplanets but also naming them.

Sara Seager, thanks for joining us.

Great to be with you, Andrea.

First, can you tell me, what is an exoplanet?

What are these things that we're making such an effort to research?

An exoplanet is a planet that orbits a star other than the sun.

If you get to look up at the sky at night, well, we think that each one of those stars has planets.

Every star is a sun.

How would we relate that to our own solar system to give sort of a context or a point of reference?

Our sun has planets -- Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, et cetera.

And so all those other stars out there are also suns.

And they also should have planets, as well.

I mean, would you believe that astronomers have found thousands of planets?

And the most amazing thing so far is that not a single one of them is like our solar system.

In terms of atmosphere and dynamics?


Like, for example, they might have a Jupiter where Mercury would be.

Or they might have an Earth that is so close to the star.

These planets usually get names that are some combination of letters and numbers that probably no one knows other than you and your colleagues.

But why make this effort to give them more accessible names?

For thousands of years, since the time of the Greek philosophers, people have literally wondered about the stars and if there are planets out there.

So I think it's mostly a way, like, to share with the public, 'Hey, we have these great new objects.

What should we call them?'

And how are you choosing these sort of nicknames that are being submitted?

Well, in this particular case, it was officially organized by a group called the International Astronomical Union.

And believe it or not, they have been responsible for organizing names of asteroids and of new objects found in our solar system.

And they let organizations register and then propose names for a subset of planets, planets that are well-known and well-studied.

And after, that they actually let the public vote on it.

And they got something like 600,000 votes.

Any individual from the public can go on the website and vote for the proposed names.

So I imagine they'll do this again in the future, because there are way more planets out there.

Looks like there's plenty of voting ahead of us.

We think every star has a planet.

And in our night sky, we have thousands of stars.

And our Milky Way Galaxy, a collection of stars that our sun is part of, has hundreds of billions of stars.

So, in time, if we find all those planets, it will be a huge process to name them all and probably a struggle to remember all of those names.

And you and your team have been working on a project to be able to see those planets a little better.

Can you explain what you've been doing?

Well, what we want to do is block out the starlight so we can see the planet directly.

Now, our Earth -- You know, we see the sun every day.

It's big and bright in our sky.

But the problem of looking for another Earth is that that sun or that star is so bright and big.

And it's actually 10 billion times brighter than the planet is.

And to see that planet, it would be like asking someone, 'Can you make a measurement to 10 decimal places?'

And so what a team I've been leading is doing is we're creating a special light-blocking technique that can block out the starlight to 10 decimal places so that we can see the planet directly.

And this technique involves a very specially shaped screen.

We didn't invent the technique.

People have thought about it for many decades.

We call it the starshade.

And the starshade is literally a specially shaped screen that would go in space.

And it would be like putting your hand up to block the sun.

And that screen would fly in space, and the telescope somewhere else, like, that would be eye, would be formation flying with the screen.

So it's blocking the glare.

Exactly, blocking the glare so that no starlight at all enters the telescope.

This model of the starshade...


...which actually is a 1% scale model.

See how the petals are very specially shaped?

It's like a giant flower.

And the starshade actually is shaped in that very special way because it helps block out the starlight precisely.

And believe it or not, that starshade is only 1% scale.

That means the starshade would be 100 times bigger or literally about 30 meters in diameter.

That's 100 feet in diameter.

Is it deployed at its full size?

And how do you line it up to where it needs to be?

How to line it up is something we're working on.

And don't forget, we know how to dock at the space station, the International Space Station.

You know, astronauts go there.

And we send up supplies.

So we know how to line things up.

But we don't yet know how to line them up at such vast distances.

So it's something we're working on.


Well, we can't wait to see what you come up with.

Well, thank you.

Thanks for joining us.

Thanks a lot.

I'm Leslie Oliver Karpas.

I am the CEO and founder of Metamason, creating personalized medical devices in the form of CPAP masks to treat obstructive sleep apnea using a method for 3-D printing silicone that we developed.

So, I started 3-D modeling when I was about 12 years old.

I was a child prodigy at it and ended up interning for architecture firms when I was in high school.

My career kind of took me through a world of robotics and digital manufacturing while, at the same time, my family background's in medicine.

So I kind of had this legacy for what was going to be my innovation in healthcare.

We have created the world's first custom 3-D-printed silicone CPAP mask that's custom-fit to my face.

And to do it, we used this 3-D scanner, which is a by Occipital.

And so that takes a super-high-resolution scan of the face.

And then that enables us to print this guy.

This is a eggshell mold printed by 3-D systems.

That gets filled with silicone, thrown into an oven.

The silicone catalyzes.

And what you're left with is an unmoldable geometry that is medical-grade silicone.

Metamason's goal is not just to be a CPAP mask company but to be a custom elastomeric products company.

So our algorithms can take a 3-D scan of the body and generate different custom shapes that would fit themselves to it.

We also envision doing things like football pads, grips for sports equipment, then getting into, you know, apparel, like, anything, like, from a bra to a better pair of SPANX, to, you know, anything that needs to be elastic and formfitting and functional.

So it's really a blend of, I guess, the cutting edges of our space.

Dams can fundamentally change large swaths of river ecosystems.

But age, disuse, and advances in technology have made many dams obsolete.

We take a look at the complicated physics behind removing these iconic structures.

Our environmental news partner EarthFix has this report.

Grand Coulee Dam, in Washington state, the world's biggest concrete structure.

The mid-20th century was the golden age of dam building in the Pacific Northwest.

Transform a million acres of wasteland into productive farms.

Through these huge...

Salmon runs were still strong then.

And there were few concerns about protecting streams and fish.

Hundred of dams sprung up all over Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.

And now the federal government counts more than 2,200 major dams in the region.

About half of them are pretty small, under 20 feet.

But a 20-foot dam can block salmon from moving upstream just as completely as a 200-foot dam.

Now the dams are getting old, and many have fallen out of use.

There's a growing movement to re-evaluate dams, to figure out whether their purpose for making electricity, controlling floods, recreation, or storing irrigation and drinking water outweigh the challenges they pose for fish.

In some cases, the dams are coming down.

But it's usually not like this.

Most dams don't go in a puff of smoke with a giant stream of chocolate milk coming out the downstream side.

In southern Oregon, two dams, the Wimer and the Fielder, are being removed.

Usually, you very carefully route water around or through the structure.

And then, you slowly and methodically, with a dull butter knife, take the concrete down and gently place it on the side of the bank and into a dump truck.

These two relatively small dams pose big problems for fish.

In fact, they're considered among the worst dams for fish passage in Oregon.

Once removed, though, recovery is expected to happen quickly.

What we've been finding with these dam removals, which has been a big unknown, is that rivers reclaim themselves very quickly, a lot faster than people had realized.

And when they're gone, about 70 miles of salmon and steelhead habitat will open.

In recent years, dams are coming down faster than they're being built.

But this may be a short-term trend.

Dam building goes in cycles.

You know, with climate change and everything, there's a lot more talk about building dams, now or in the future.

But I think we, or at least in the future, we'll have a greater understanding that there are downsides to dam construction.

Dams and salmon don't do well together.

As long as there are people, there will be the need to harness and control water.

And that means most dams are here to stay.

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 the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Lewis B.

and Louise Hirschfeld Cullman, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, Shailaja and Umesh Nagarkatte, and contributions to this station.