SciTech Now Episode 301

In this episode of SciTech Now, Science Friday looks at a desert phenomenon in Death Valley; how technology and new voting apps are impacting our journey to the polls; how studying craters left by meteors and asteroids can help us understand what killed the dinosaurs; and examining the microbiome of the human underarm.

TRANSCRIPT

Coming up, when it rains, it blooms.

A lot of desert plants have some sort of protection.

This one here stinks.

Not the flowers, but the leaves themselves.

Election technology beyond the voting booth.

A significant percentage of campaign spending is now going to these technologies -- sometimes directly investing in startups, or just investing their operating capital in the services of startups.

Clues about ancient life in an asteroid crash site.

If we can find our models are correct, then we can say, 'This is in fact how much energy we think was released by this impact.'

And finally, the microbiome of the human underarm.

Once you stop wearing product, you sort of have this clean slate now, and the microbes that grow back the fastest are the types of staph bacteria.

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.

When it rains, it blooms.

Beneath Death Valley lies a massive seed bank of desert wildflowers.

And when heavy winter rains soak deep into the soil, these hidden wonders spring to life.

Some call it a beautiful revolution against the tyranny of the desert, while others simply refer to it as a 'super bloom.'

Science Friday gives us looks at this desert phenomenon.

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This arid wasteland is the hottest place on Earth, boasting annual temperatures in excess of 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Salt and rock stretch on into oblivion.

But beneath the sun-scorched sands lies a sleeping beauty.

When the time is right, it will rise up in an act of defiance against the inhospitable terrain.

And it's not alone.

There are others.

Thousands upon thousands of others.

Together, they prove that even in the most hostile of climates, there is still the potential for a grand efflorescence.

A super bloom.

I'm amazed at what can survive here.

I've been a park ranger here for about 25 years.

I've seen three of these super blooms.

1998 was my first one.

And then 2005 was the next one.

And then this year, of course.

'Super bloom' is the unofficial term used to describe an above-average bloom of desert wildflowers.

They're impossible to predict, as they are completely reliant on an overabundance of rain -- a scarce commodity in Death Valley.

Despite a four-year-long drought that has been plaguing Southern California, the heavy winter rain in Death Valley proved sufficient to trigger this super bloom.

A lot of desert plants have some sort of protection.

This one here stinks.

Not the flowers, but the leaves themselves.

And it smells like the rankest armpits.

This is a Death Valley sage we're seeing here, growing out of the rocks.

When it's in bloom, it has these fuzzy cowlicks on the plant, so they look like little lambs' tails.

This flower here, this is one of my favorites.

This mysterious white flower, it's called gravel ghost, which I think is the perfect Death Valley wildflower name.

Here's an interesting one.

This is a rock mimulus.

They're sometimes called Death Valley monkeyflower.

It only grows in cracks in rocks, only in Death Valley, only in a few canyons in Death Valley.

So it's a rare treat to get to see them.

An average year here in Death Valley for rainfall is little less than two inches.

Which is really, really dry.

We are the driest place in the nation.

You need a slow, drenching rain, not one of those summer thunderstorms that quickly sweep away.

When enough rain comes along, soaking deep into the soil, all these hillsides that are normally just barren, in a super bloom, almost everything is covered with flowers.

Seeds may lie dormant for years or even decades waiting for enough rain to support their life cycle.

Fortunately, they come equipped with a natural insurance policy -- a protective coating which prevents them from sprouting prematurely.

This coating may be wax-, protein-, or chemical-based, and requires a generous amount of water to fully erode it before allowing the seed to properly germinate.

Things are pushed right to the edge of what they can tolerate here.

That's the celebration of life here in Death Valley.

That's life at its peak.

Advancements in technology have taken elections beyond fundraisers, debates, and polling booths.

Here to talk about trends in election tech is Brian Hecht, our resident serial entrepreneur and advisor to many digital teams, including our own.

So, each election cycle, in each election, we say, 'Oh, it's the digital age.

Are these campaigns really competing?'

There's, as expected, a new fleet of technologies, platforms, apps that are coming up to help the campaigns figure us out and turn us out to the polls, right?

So, let's start with one.

Polis.

Yeah, Polis is interesting.

Polis is -- they call themselves 'Waze for elections.'

Waze is that GPS app.

Waze is the GPS.

It's like Google Maps.

It's owned by Google.

And what people may not realize is that door-to-door door-knocking, canvassing in the neighborhoods is one of the most effective ways of persuading voters both to make up a decision and to come out to vote.

Some people say 15% to 20%, right.

It's like the Avon lady.

So, what Polis does is it not only figures out the ideal walking route, which a lot of map apps can do, but it melds that with voting data.

So, not even just what your party registration is, but they are now collecting and aggregating data on who slams the door in your face, who is open to changing their mind at the last minute.

And they use a sort of very sophisticated algorithm and aggregation of data.

So while your canvassers are going and knocking door-to-door, they're also inputting information about the feedback that they get.

So, on the Waze app, I say, 'Hey, there's a wreck up ahead,' and I press a little button.

I guess on this app, I'd say, 'Well, this person's kind of open to changing their mind.

Maybe somebody else should knock six weeks from now.'

That's correct.

They will give you the, you know, sort of the wording that you should use for a given person given their concerns, and it'll even tell you -- it'll adapt the routes based on what kind of location you're in.

So, in New York, they know that people don't like to cross avenues, so they'll keep you on one side of the street.

In Florida, they know there's a lot of gated communities, so they will route you either around them or keep you in the gated community.

Okay.

NationBuilder is another one.

They are kind of a one-stop shop for campaigns.

If you think about it, running a campaign is a very complicated affair.

You have to have a website, you have to have registration lists, donor lists, accept fundraising, do polling, and things like that.

They have a new service, which I found fascinating, called RunForOffice.org.

And what this does is, if you area civic-minded individual and you're thinking about getting involved by running for office, you go in, you type in your address, your exact address, and it will tell you all the offices that are available for you to run for, all the way from governor and senator, all the way down to dog catcher and mosquito-control board.

Right.

And I did it.

You know, I found out that, you know, I was available to run for City Council.

But it even told me I was, you know, eligible to run for governor of New York.

Unlikely to do so, but good to know.

And it tells you how many signatures you need, what the deadlines are.

And then, of course, that's good for them, because, you know, you sign up, you figure out what you're gonna run for, and then you use the platform.

And GroundWork.

GroundWork represents an interesting phenomenon, especially at the presidential level.

So, presidential campaigns, technology gives them such an edge that they don't necessarily want to share their technology with other campaigns.

So they sort of develop arm's-length companies that help them deliver their technology they need.

So, GroundWork is a company that's actually funded by Eric Schmidt...

From Google. Right.

...who's the executive chairman of Alphabet, the parent company of Google.

They're very data-heavy.

They will help drive, sort of, you know, what is the messaging on a fundraising letter?

Should it start by saying, 'Hey, there, it's Hillary,' or 'Hi.'

You know, it can make a huge difference.

They will decide where the media buys should go.

There's sort of an interesting angle here, which is that this is a way for Google, effectively, to sort of have a work-around, almost like a super PAC, to donate talent to the Clinton campaign by running this startup, whose only client is the Clinton campaign, which is very interesting.

It also addresses a key challenge, which is that hiring engineers for a campaign is very difficult, 'cause engineers are in great demand, and they don't want to take a temporary job that only lasts for nine months.

So they'll go work for this company that then outsources them to the campaign.

All right, so, how much of an edge is there in this?

I remember covering the last cycle between Obama and Romney.

Right.

Well, there are estimates that -- there was a four-point margin between Obama and Romney in that election, and there are estimates that 2% -- 50% of that margin -- came from a technology edge.

It's not a new phenomenon.

I mean, we remember, in 2004, the Howard Dean campaign sort of kicked this off back then.

It was Myspace and things like that.

But it has become so important now that a significant percentage of campaign spending, whereas it just used to go to media buys, is now going to these technologies -- sometimes directly investing in startups or indirectly investing in startups, or just investing their operating capital in the services of startups.

All right.

Brian Hecht, thanks for joining us.

My pleasure.

Geological findings indicate that 66 millions years ago, an asteroid hit the Earth in an impact so strong that it led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Now researchers are studying the asteroid's landing site off the coast of Mexico in search of clues of how life recovered after.

Reporter Andrea Vasquez has the interview via Google Hangout.

Sean Gulick, thanks for joining us.

My pleasure.

Can you explain what would have happened during the event when the asteroid hit the Earth, and how that created what you're looking at today?

Sure.

So, 66 million years ago, a 14-kilometer-wide -- at least that's what we think -- asteroid, a rocky asteroid, struck the Earth at about 20 kilometers per second -- so, incredibly high velocity -- creating a very large impact structure.

And we know something about how these structures are formed, but only primarily from models.

And so what we're interested in doing is collecting the rocks within the crater to actually calibrate those models, and tell us if this is in fact how they work.

And, specifically, when it hits, it's much like a rock hitting a pond.

So, if you throw a rock into a pond, it kind of opens up a hole, which then maybe splashes back upwards and collapses outwards as the sides collapse in, creating kid of a wide, flat crater from an initial kind of deep, narrow crater.

And so that's what we think happened beneath the Yucatán Peninsula.

And the peak ring is specifically important in your research, isn't it?

Can you explain what a peak ring is and why it's so important?

Absolutely.

So, it turns out that impact craters have sort of a set of forms, if you will, land shapes that are common at certain size ranges.

So, when we hit the largest class of impact craters, we start to see features in the center of impacts like rings of mountains, which we call a topographic peak ring, that we think are the rocks that would have been brought up from the deepest levels within the target -- inside the Earth in this case.

Brought upwards above the Earth's surface and collapsed outwards to form this ring of mountains.

And if so, it would tell us that our idea that targets being hit by impacts temporarily behave like a fluid, with this incredible amount of material coming from deep and being resurfaced onto the planet's surface, is the correct way to think about the problem.

And so the peak ring is the best place to test that idea.

Does this crash site at Chicxulub resemble the landing site or crash site of other smaller craters and asteroids that have hit the Earth?

So, there's two ways to answer that question.

One is that -- are the target rocks different here?

And it turns out the target rocks in the Yucatán Peninsula are different in the fact that they're largely limestones, largely carbonates, but also a large amount of evaporated ocean sediments.

We call them evaporites.

It turns out that those rocks may be really important from the standpoint of the mass-extinction even that followed.

But in addition, it's actually basically a crustal location, so we're looking at deep rocks that are probably granites.

And so what we were hoping to test would be, if we drilled the peak ring, would we see uplifted deep rocks -- i.e., would we see granites -- or would we see something that came in very shallow -- i.e., would we see limestones -- within the peak ring?

But as far as the impact site in general, it has all of the normal crater shape and all of the normal landforms that we see not just on Earth, but on every large impact on the moon, on Mercury, on Mars.

It doesn't matter.

It appears that if you have a big enough impact, you create the same sort of features.

You create this basin with this ring of mountains in the center, and melt sheets inside that.

And, so, to test how impacts work across the solar system, we can do so by drilling in the Yucatán Peninsula.

And what are you looking to find out about the event that actually led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and what happened thereafter?

We have a lot of people who attempt to understand processes by getting the right physics into their computer models and then running these models until they match our observations.

And right now, our observations have been largely geometry.

What's the shape of the crater?

How deep is it?

Things like that.

But not specifically 'What are the rocks that make up key features within the crater, like the peak ring?'

And, so, to understand those processes, we kind of need to understand the amount of energy involved.

And if we can find that our models are correct, then we can say, 'This is in fact how much energy we think was released by this impact.'

I mean, our initial estimates are that it's an enormous amount of energy, something like 100 million atomic bombs worth of energy in a single event.

Wow.

So, you know, much larger than any earthquake or any volcanic eruption that we're normally used to thinking about.

As far as why that's an extinction event, well, then we also need to use these models to understand how much of the volatiles, how much of the material that you can combine with the atmosphere or with the ocean are released.

And that again comes back to understanding the fundamental process of how impacts work.

So, if we have a lot of these evaporites -- ocean sediments, for instance -- or evaporated ocean -- there might be a lot of sulfur.

And, so, that, for instance, if it all gets vaporized and all put into the atmosphere, it combines with the atmosphere to become aerosols, which is a great way to help block the sun, along with the dust, for instance.

And that is ultimately what scientists think led to an ice age that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs?

The initial effects of everything raining back down to Earth might have created a heating phenomenon around the globe -- scattered wildfires and raising temperatures locally.

That could have actually caused a lot of extinctions.

But perhaps not enough to kill everything off, or to entirely take away even any one given species.

So, instead, we think the long-term effects are actually potentially more important, where all of the dust, the aerosols in the atmosphere, could have, as you said, caused a cooling event afterwards, but also potentially chemical changes.

So we could expect that a lot of the material getting into the oceans could have caused ocean acidification -- you know, a changing of the pH -- maybe even metal poisoning.

So, there's a lot of ideas, but we do think that if you add them all up and you make it global, it seems like something like 75% of life went extinct because of this event.

Well, we can't wait to see what else you find from this investigation.

Well, thank you.

Thanks for being with us.

Our pleasure.

Your armpits carry millions of tiny microbial organisms -- living bacteria that grow and interact to produce particular odors.

A team of researchers from North Carolina Central University is studying how products like deodorants and antiperspirants change the makeup and diversity of the bacteria in the human underarm.

Let's take a look.

This is a story about pits.

No, not the barbecue kind.

There are no construction pits, either.

And it's not even about the pits in fruit.

[ Pop music playing ] Yeah, we're talking those pits.

It is gross to think about, because when it smells, it's really bad.

I don't think about it, but I know the ladies do.

So I got to stay fresh for them.

That's right -- armpits.

Because the reality is, cold day or a hot day, your armpit is a warm, damp place.

And if you're a bacteria, that's a happy place.

Actually, when talking about armpits, it's not the person that has the odor.

It's the bacteria living on the person that produces the odor.

The bacteria metabolize the sweat and, well, give off the smell.

Think about it.

North Carolina summertimes, you know, you're hot, and everything's going on, so it wouldn't surprise me at all.

However, wearing antiperspirants and deodorants doesn't just affect your social life.

It significantly changes the type and quantity of microbial life that lives on you.

More specifically, the chemicals alter the microbiome of the human armpit.

So, some of our research studies started looking at how does your use of antiperspirant or deodorant or maybe no product, how does that influence which microbes live on your skin?

But to understand what's living in your armpits, you first need a refresher of what underarm-hygiene products do.

Take deodorants.

Deodorants contain things that typically kill off microorganisms.

So, things like ethanol or other antimicrobial agents to kill the microbes.

And sometimes they also contain fragrance or other products that have a good odor.

And antiperspirants.

The antiperspirants contain aluminum-based salts.

And the aluminum-based salts will get into your apocrine glands, these sweat glands that produce sweat, and they will block those up so that you're not producing as much sweat.

So, if you don't produce sweat, there's no food for the microbes, so then there are no microbes there.

Presumably.

And we ask them to sample their armpit.

And so they either wore a sleeveless shirt or tucked away to have some privacy, and they [Mimics swabbing sound] you know, sample their armpit.

Researchers took daily armpit swabs from 17 men and women over the course of eight days.

Basically, we have their bacterial cells on here.

Some participants used deodorants, some used antiperspirants, some used no product at all.

The study's subjects then followed their normal hygiene routine on Day 1, quit using all products on Days 2 through 6, then only used antiperspirants on Day 7 and 8.

Bacteria, you know, we can't see them on the swab, we can't see them on your skin because they're individual cells.

Researchers then cultured all of the samples to determine the microbes growing on each participant, and how they changed each day.

While the number of microbes varied widely in the first days of the study, by Day 6, the amount of bacteria for all participants was about the same.

But what we do here is, by giving them this artificial food source and letting them grow, we're letting each particular species, all those cells, multiply to be big enough -- we call them colonies -- that we can see them and observe who's there.

And researchers found dramatic changes in microbial organisms between Day 6, participants' last day of not using any product, and Day 7 and 8, when subjects began using antiperspirants.

Without products, microbes thrived in the armpit microbiome.

Once you stop wearing product, you sort of have this clean slate now, and the microbes that grow back the fastest are the types of staph bacteria.

But once products were applied, there were very few microbes found in the samples.

It was proof how products dramatically change the armpit microbiome environment.

You can just imagine this is like, you know, just had a field, and a fire just went through and wiped out all life there, right.

So, when you wear deodorant or antiperspirant, you're probably wiping out most of the life on your skin.

And so then what grows back first?

Well, it's the weeds in the field, but it's the staph on humans.

So, that's some of what we're looking at.

Although we do see some of the Corynebacteria growing back.

Those are slower growers, typically, but some of those do come back, as well.

Researchers also did genetic sequencing on the samples to identify the specific bacteria and determine how various products affect microbial diversity over time.

Each sequence has been generated from a different sample.

The samples turned up a greater diversity of microbes in the armpits of people who wore antiperspirants.

That might surprise you, because the products are designed to block sweat glands.

But...

You're introducing, you know, a very different environment, right.

You're selecting, for, potentially, different bacteria to grow.

Both tests confirm that using antiperspirants and deodorants completely rearrange the microbial environment on your skin, including what's living on us and in what amounts.

It might smell a little funky the next day, or other days you might be like, 'Huh, I don't smell too bad.'

Until now, nobody knew what microbes were there, or how daily habits changed it.

And a lot of people don't think about it.

And I think our research isn't really telling us all the answers as to whether this is good or bad, but it's getting people to realize, 'I never thought about what this might do to my skin and the microbes on my skin.'

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... ♪♪