SciTech Now Episode 243

In this episode of SciTech Now, accessing oceans for scientific research; what happens when two black holes collide?; giving medical students a new way to study anatomy; and a look inside Howe Caverns, which may provide insight into how the world began.


Coming up, a close-up look at the deep sea...

The first time we even had a seismometer on the seafloor, we powered it from the vessel to test it.

Within about the first 30 minutes, we started seeing earthquake activity, so that was very exciting.

...the sound the universe makes...

They record the ringing shape of the space, and they literally play it back through an amplifier and a speaker system.

So you can listen to the machine in the control room.

...and finally, inside an ancient cavern.

And a lot of the deposits and shells from the sea settled to the bottom and built up layer upon layer, forming the rock.

And then, after many years, it got higher and higher through the different periods, and hardened into the different rock layers that you now see.

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.

The oceans are the world's largest ecosystem but have remained difficult to access for scientific research.

Now the Ocean Observatories Initiative is working to change that.

This new research collaboration among universities and institutions has built an innovative underwater observatory to usher in an era of scientific discovery of our oceans.

I recently went into the lab at the University of Washington in Seattle to learn more.

While humans have explored land and space, the deep sea poses some of the greatest exploration challenges of the day.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Ocean Observatories Initiative was created to advance oceanographic research, and to explore this mysterious dark frontier.

So, this is a bit like mission control, you know, in Houston.

Instead of going to space, you're going...



As a part of the Ocean Observatories Initiative, John Delaney and his colleagues at the University of Washington have developed a method of observing the ocean floor that could signal a real turning point for the field of oceanography.

So, turning the level around.

I was very frustrated by the fact that we would be in the submersible, Alvin, on the seafloor, two miles down, looking out the window, and we would be there for five hours, and then we'd have to come back up to the surface.

So the idea was, if we had a permanent presence there, a way of being there continuously without being there, that was the major step forward.

This team at the University of Washington has designed and constructed a Cabled Array, a network of fiber-optic cables placed on the seafloor that gathers data such as temperature levels and seafloor pressure, and that sends information back to the lab.

We're learning how to use, basically, a system that has 140 sensors on it.

We have five senses, and we keep track of touch, taste, feel, and smell.

We're doing that offshore in a way that's never been done before by people in the United States.

By using these data points, and even photographic snapshots of the ocean floor, scientists are able to observe otherwise inaccessible underwater substances and occurrences.

You can track changes over time.

You can say, 'On January 1, let's have it 200 meters below every year or every month or every week.'

The ability to design these systems to do both things, to track powerful transient events that take place that we never are able to follow because we don't have ships out there all the time.

We can also program them so that they make careful measurements year after year after year after year that are comparable.

All right. Ready?

So, this is probably one of the most common types of oceanographic sensors.

It's called a CTD, for 'conductivity, temperature, and depth.'

So, by measuring pressure, you can determine the depth.

And the temperature and the conductivity will give you the salinity of the water.


The first time we even had a seismometer on the seafloor, we powered it from the vessel to test it.

Within about the first 30 minutes -- this is about 3:00 in the morning on the vessel -- we started seeing earthquake activity.

So that was very exciting and very satisfying, to know that the system was working, and it was recording.

By using the Cabled Array to observe underwater volcanoes, not only do these scientists get a window into the dynamic ecosystems around these volcanoes' hydrothermal vents, but also a possible source for predicting earthquakes on land.

If we begin to understand the rhythms of underwater volcanoes or the rhythms of subduction-zone dynamics, we will begin to get better insights into what the precursor events are that allow us to begin to anticipate changes that are taking place.

70% of the volcanism on the planet occurs underwater.

I grew up by Mount Rainier, so I was always aware of volcanoes.

But it never occurred to me that underwater was where it was happening.

Deborah Kelley, a chief scientist on the team studying underwater volcanoes, says they could provide clues about how life began on Earth.

One of the most profound discoveries ever made was hydrothermal vents, because until that time, the basic knowledge of our planet was that life was driven by the sun.

And so when they found these vents in the absence of sunlight -- it looks like an oasis of life on the seafloor -- it really transformed our understanding of how life is on our planet, and now most people think that's where life started.

Getting to know the smallest organisms thriving on the vents may translate into better pharmaceuticals, and perhaps even potential tools to combat climate change.

So, these organisms live in perpetual darkness.

No oxygen.

They use CO2.

Carbon dioxide, methane.

If you bring them up and stress them out, they produce different kinds of antibodies.

As our bodies become more resistant to tetracycline or penicillin, that maybe we could start getting medicines from the sea through these microbes.

And then the other part is, many of these cells have doubling times of an hour.

So, you can imagine a system where they take in carbon dioxide, which is -- you know, it's impacting our atmosphere and the oceans -- ocean acidification.

So people are looking at some of these microbes to see if you could -- could you sequester carbon dioxide using a microbial model.

While the potential applications of the data gathered from this Cable Array are wide-ranging, it's the interconnectedness of the data that Delaney says makes this project particularly effective.

If you only studied one part of the human body, that's the part you would understand, but you might not understand how it works for the entire human body.

So at some level, you have to understand the entire system.

And that's what the ocean is.

It's our life-support system on the planet.

We need to understand all the pieces.

The data that these scientists are gathering is being shared with other scientists in the field, and with the public.

Now we're looking at an international laboratory where anybody could have access to this data and it doesn't cost them.

Whole new sets of people can see what we're doing and play in that same world.

While the full impact of this project has yet to be realized, many argue that it indicates a watershed moment in the field of oceanographic research.

It's exactly what research is about, is posing a major question, and then figuring out how you can get to the point where you can manage or understand the system better and better.

And that only comes from being present in the ocean.

We've got to be there in the ocean 24/7/365 for generations.

That's the key.

If two black holes collide in space, more than a billion light-years away, do they make a sound?

A team of scientists recently announced that, in fact, they do.

Here to tell us the story behind the breakthrough detection of gravitational waves is physicist Janna Levin, author of the book 'Black Hold Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space.'

So, what does it mean when black holes are colliding and we heard a sound?

Well, the black holes colliding are kind of like mallets on a drum.

So you should think of space-time itself -- the three-dimensional space we live in and the one dimension of time -- as being like a drum.

And when these mallets are moving around, they're ringing the drum.

The actual shape of space starts to ring.

And this creates gravitational waves.

Now, the gravitational waves travel throughout the universe, and it's very hard to disturb them.

So, for the 1.3 billion years since this collision, they've been on their way here.

You know, meanwhile, multi-celled organisms were fossilizing on the Earth.

You know, when they get towards a near nebula outside our solar system, Einstein starts theorizing about curved space-time.

When they enter the orbit of the solar system, they just have hours.

And this instrument, LIGO, was developed over 50 years.

During the time of the advanced runs, the hits from the Southern sky rings a machine in Louisiana.

Seven milliseconds later, it's recorded in Washington state, where the second machine is.


So, you had confirmation.

You had two sources.


But it's literally like measuring the shape of a drum, which is what the instruments do.

They record the ringing shape of the space, and they literally play it back through an amplifier and a speaker system.

So you can listen to the machine in the control room.

In your book, you say if two astronauts were floating near where this was happening -- if that was even possible.

Just a thought experiment -- that they wouldn't see anything.

But they would hear something.

That's right.

So, this collision, as far as we can tell, to the best of our knowledge, happened in complete darkness.

But it was the most energetic event we've detected since the Big Bang.

More power came out of this collision than all the power of all the light of all the stars in the universe combined.

But it came out purely in the gravitational waves.

And so if you were an astronaut floating by, it would be dark, but it could technically -- I mean, we think it's at least hypothetically possible, ring your auditory mechanism, and you would hear the black holes colliding without an instrument between you and the sound.

Of course, by that time, it'd be too late, and you'd probably be sucked into the --

You'd probably be dead.

Yeah, there's that.

There's that.

So that's a downside of the experiment.

To get to the point where we had measurement devices is a pretty amazing scientific journey in itself.

Incredible, yeah.

That humans had to do a whole lot to even figure out what to listen for.


At the time that people like Ray Weiss, one of the original architects -- Ray Weiss and Kip Thorne, Ron Drever -- started thinking about building these instruments, people weren't even sure gravitational waves were real.

Even Einstein kept changing his mind.

Are these real?

Are they not real?

It's not an easy problem.

And not only that, they didn't know black holes were real astrophysical objects.

So they were really dreaming of making a recording device, this cosmic recording device, kind of before it was plausible to do so.

It was a 50-year campaign.

And you've followed the scientists kind of the front lines of this, and they didn't really -- they had to kind of double check and triple check, like, 'Is this really a blip or is this a thing or what?'

[ Laughs ] Yes.

So, imagine their surprise the morning of this detection.

They had just installed the advanced components.

I mean, it had taken a couple of years to integrate them and to lock the machines.

Very technologically sophisticated machine.

It's measuring changes in the shape of space-time over four kilometers, which is the scale of the machines, of less than 1/10,000 of the width of a proton.

I mean, this is just a phenomenal technological achievement.

But even though they had reached that point, they weren't sure they were gonna succeed.

And even the months leading up to locking this machine, they thought it might be three years out, or maybe never.

I mean, nature doesn't always comply, right, and give you what you need.

So they really just had basically turned the machine -- the advanced machine on after all of these years.

And I think they were very surprised.

Rana Adhikari, who's one of the experimentalists on the team, said, 'Oh, come on.

We just turned the thing on.

There's no way.'

He said it even took him a day to even look at the data.

He was incredulous.


And that was the reaction, I think, of a lot of people at first.

So does that mean there are more of these explosions happening or have happened over time and we just haven't been able to sense them?

Yes, exactly.

So it's already honing in on the science that we're discovering that black-hole/black-hole collisions are maybe more frequent than we previously thought.

It's very hard to see black holes, so we don't have great numbers on two black holes colliding.

We have no numbers on that.

It's the first black-hole/black-hole merger we've ever detected.

And the black holes were also big.

They were both 30 times the mass of the sun.

One was even bigger than that.

And that was unexpected.

So there's a lot of things we've learned just from this one event.

And the anticipation is that every time the instrument is online, it will ring with black-hole/black-hole collisions, maybe neutron-star/neutron-star collisions, maybe stars exploding.

Maybe. If we're really lucky.

And if we're really lucky, it'll be something we haven't thought of yet.

Someone in the audience, they say, 'Okay, fine.

So you got these big sensors that you've built.

We've spent all this time and energy and money just figuring out how to learn something like this.

But what's the practical impact of how these technologies influence our lives?'

I mean, usually it's bleeding-edge research that ends up translating into something that we are all familiar with, we'd take for granted.


You can get a new ringtone for your phone.

[ Both laugh ]

Just that.

Well, I mean, really, what scientists will go through, what they'll do to climb that mountain, you know, is so tremendous that there's always some technological implications.

We don't maybe know it right now, but there's no question that this was a -- even if it hadn't succeeded scientifically, which would have been terribly heartbreaking, it already was a technological achievement.

And that will leak into other fields.

So there's quantum aspects of this instrument that are very sophisticated, that cross -- you know, there are crossovers with other fields.

Time will tell.

All right.

Janna Levin, professor in the Department of Astronomy and Physics at Barnard College.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you so much.

Good to be here.

Here in Arkansas, we are doing a lot of work on how to apply virtual-reality technology to non-gaming and non-entertainment industries and groups.

This is called Anatomical Eyes.

So, it's an application geared to refresh your anatomy knowledge.

So you have a full-size virtual cadaver that you can interactively dissect.

And as you are doing the dissection, the different clinical names of the organs or the bones or the muscles then will appear as you're doing these dissections.

So, it's intended, again, more as an anatomy refresher or an entry-level anatomy-learning tool.

One of the goals of our work is to give, in a sense, access to a virtual cadaver to every single student, and they can practice their anatomy, they can observe, also, variations.

Because, again, in the current situation, the students have whatever they have that semester.

Whereas in our situation, because it is digital, we can introduce abnormalities -- you know, some disease, some tumors, some deformations -- so they can expose these students to maybe some rare diseases that they might not see very often in their practices, but actually incorporate it in the digital model.

A popular tourist attraction for some, Howe Caverns, located about 100 miles east of Syracuse, may even hold some answers about how Earth began.

We venture underground for a look at this natural wonder.

Here's the story.

One of the things that's unique about Howe Caverns is that it does have actually a stream in it, which is very unusual for caves in the United States.

And we're one of the few that has a boat ride.

And to me, when you're down there, and you're thinking about the cavern, you just -- you know, if you put your head in a time mode, it's just the immense amount of time that it took for everything to go on down there.

400 million years ago to form the rock.

And then the amount of time that it took for the water erosion to form the cave, and then the different amount of time that it takes for the dripping water to form the formations.

It's just -- if you think about the time, it's really amazing, and that water did all of that.

[ Water rushing ] The formations in the cave, we have three different types, basically -- stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstone.

Those are all formed by water seeping through the soil.

It picks up carbon dioxide as it comes through the soil, and that forms a very weak carbonic acid.

And when that comes in contact with the limestone, it dissolves a little bit of it.

And then when the water drips through the ceiling of the cavern, the carbon dioxide gets released, and the tiny deposit of dissolved limestone, which has changed names -- now it's called calcite -- builds up, forming the formations.

And depending on how fast or how slow or if it's just flowing down the side of the wall depends on which formation that it forms.

If you start with the geology of Howe Caverns, you have to start with the rock.

You know, how did the rock get here?

And we have to go back over 400 million years ago, during the Silurian Period.

In that particular point in time, the United States was sort of on its side.

Where we are here in New York state was actually below the equator.

And this part of the state, and much of the country, was underwater at that time, and a lot of the deposits and shells from the sea settled to the bottom and built up layer upon layer, forming the rock.

And after many years, it got higher and higher through the different periods, and hardened into the different rock layers that you now see.

And then there was a fracture between the layers, and water started running through the fracture.

And after many, many thousands and million of years of water erosion, it carved out the hole that is now Howe Caverns.

And the stream's still running that did that.

It varies in volume from time to time, but as long as that stream still runs, the cavern still forms.

If you look over the railing to the right, you'll see a rather large flowstone formation.

And we call this Henry the Turtle, 'cause he kind of looks like a turtle.

Now, back in the day when Henry was forming, the water used to flow in through the side wall here, run down over the formation, deposit its particle, and then run into the River Styx.

And at some point in time, the water just stopped flowing.

Now, Henry does serve us a purpose.

He's a water marker.

In the middle of his back, there are two little stubby stalagmites there.

And the River Styx, by the way, acts as a regular surface stream.

When there's excessive rain or when the snow melts, the water comes up.

And when there's drought, the water goes down.

The stalactites are the ones that look kind of like an icicle hanging down.

There's a 'C' in that word for 'ceiling.'

And the stuff that doesn't get deposited from the stalactites drips on the floor, and that builds up to form a stalagmite.

There's a 'G' in that word for the 'ground' or the floor.

And sometimes the minerals get mixed in with that, and they show up as different colors in the formations.

For instance, the calcite by itself will be a cream-ish color, off that way.

One of the other brown-ish, more cream.

The lighter color it is towards white, the more pure the calcite is.

Gray-blacks would be salts of alumina mineral.

Yellows would be sulfur, greens copper, and gray-blacks salts of aluminum.

It all started on May 22, 1842, when our founder, Lester Howe, noticed his cows standing in front of a bush instead of under shade trees, where cows normally belong on a warm day.

And he went over there to find out why.

And he found out those cows weren't so dumb after all, 'cause there was a nice cool breeze of air coming out from behind the bush they were standing in front of.

And he pushed the bush aside, and behind the bush was an opening in the ground, which turned out to be the natural entrance to Howe Caverns.

And he explored for a while, on and off for about a year, taking rope into the cave so he could find his way back out, and decided to open the cave to the public.

And tours started in 1843 from the natural entrance, which is a mile east of here.

And his tours could take anywhere from 8 to 10 hours.

They had a box lunch along the way.

They were $2.50 a person.

And it was quite a venture back in those days.

There were no walkways or railings or lights in the cave.

This is called the Cathedral Pipe Organ.

And the way the flowstone formed, it looks like the pipes of a pipe organ.

And directly across the path from that is the Canopy Over the Seat of the Bishop, also known as the Keyboard to the Organ.

Now, in the years before Lester Howe's tours, this flowstone used to go all the way down to the floor.

As a matter of fact, it looked very similar to the Pipe Organ on the left-hand side.

But some of the early tourists wanted to take home souvenirs, and, also, I imagine Lester Howe chopped some of this away so people could more easily get through here.

And they chopped off the bottom part of the flowstone here.

And flowstone, when it gets to the bottom and just sort of hangs off a rock, is also like a stalactite.

And a stalactite forms with a hollow in the middle.

Something like a soda straw.

And when you chop the bottom off, it leaves the hollows behind.

And it's said, if you're to stand under there and hum the correct low-tone note, that note will resonate in those holes, and it will sound like a note being played by the organ on the opposite side.

[ Humming ]

To the left is called the Pool of Siloam or Pool of Peace.

What this actually is is a reflection of the side wall and the ceiling above it.

Now, the reflection also makes the water appear to be extremely deep.

But it's not.

It's actually only about three or four feet deep.

The Lake of Venus is an eighth of a mile long, and it ranges in depth from two to eight feet.

Most places it's like four to six feet deep.

And the boats are 2.5 tons when they're fully loaded.

They were brought down in pieces and put together on the dock and placed in the water.

And you take the boat ride down the lake, which is about an eighth of a mile down.

At the end of the lake is the dam, and beyond the dam there's 2,100 feet to what was originally the natural entrance of the cavern.

Now, of that 2,100 feet, 1,800 feet of it still exists.

900 feet of it have been destroyed by limestone mining.

And there's a small portion left at the natural entrance.

I think the cave is what it's all about.

It's about coming to see what nature can do with water.

And just trying to explain that to people, and get them to have some understanding of what it is that water can do.

[ Water rushing ]

And that wraps it up for this time.

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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by...