SciTech Now Episode 307

In this episode of SciTech Now, Kenneth Catania of Vanderbilt University studies the curious behaviors of electric eels; learn how lightbulbs can change our daily lives; Meet Dr. Aziz Sancar, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in chemistry; and engineers in Orlando, Florida, are using VR technology to give soldiers real-world training.


Coming up -- when eels attack...

They're essentially a series of batteries lined up one after another in series, the way you might put a whole bunch of batteries in a long powerful flashlight.

And those add together to give 600 volts.

...illuminating the International Space Station and your home...

So light and life are converging, and we're beginning to understand all these new ways we can use light to help the body heal, to help cells heal, to help us sleep better, to help our body just manifest all these different functions.

...profile of a Nobel laureate...

He would often be looking over our shoulders and interpreting our data, knowing what we had done and what the results were before we had even figured it out.

...and, finally, virtual reality, real-life experience.

In order to allow these soldiers to come into our simulator and train as close to reality as possible, we wanted them to come with their real weapon, not a fake toy weapon or a simulated weapon.

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.

Electric eels zap fish and other underwater prey, but what would make them leap out of the water and shock a land animal, like a horse?

Kenneth Catania of Vanderbilt University is researching this curious behavior, first described by a 19th century naturalist and explorer.

Up next, 'Science Friday's' Luke Groskin takes us inside the lab where Catania uses unconventional props to decode eel behavior.

Most of the things that I have found in studying these eels have been things that have just sort of fallen out of watching the behavior.

And the most recent one certainly falls in that category.

As I approached the electric eels, the bigger ones would periodically turn around, make a very rapid approach to the net, and then sort of leap up the handle towards my hand while giving off high-voltage volleys.

I was recording the high-voltage output through electrodes that went into a speaker, and it was quite shocking to experience.

In the midst of sort of thinking about what all this meant, I came across a really amazing figure showing an experience by Alexander von Humboldt in 1800.

'[ German accent ] We were conducted by the Indians to a stream, which in the time of trout, forms a basin of muddy water.

To catch the gymnotid with nets is very difficult.

The Indians therefore told us that they would fish with horses.

The extraordinary noise caused by the horses hooves makes the fish issue from the mud and excites them to the attack.

A contest between animals of so different an organization presents a very striking spectacle.

The Indians prevent the horses from running away.

The eel, being five-foot long and pressing itself against the belly of the horses, makes a discharge along the whole extent of its electric organ.

The horses are probably not killed, but only stunned.

They are drowned from the impossibility of rising amidst a prolonged struggle.'

[ Ominous classical music plays ] [ Music ends ]

This was a total spectacle.

Now, when I first heard about that story, I was very skeptical.

Why would eels go on the offensive, and could they possibly attack horses?

I have a broad interest in brain evolution and different animal sensory systems and often really intrigued by the outliers, sort of mysterious animals.

So, the electric eels are really interesting in that they are not related to other freshwater eels.

They're really an electric fish, and I kind of like to say the electric eel went down the weapons-of-mass-destruction pathway from that origin.

[ Sparking ]

Most of the eel's body contains electric organs, with the head giving off a positive charge and the tail negative when zapping a fish.

They're essentially a series of batteries lined up one after another in series, the way you might put a whole bunch of batteries in a long powerful flashlight.

And those add together to give 600 volts, ultimately, for a large electric eel.

In the few years that Catania's been studying eels, he's looked at how they stun their prey.

[ Sparking ]

The eel can remotely activate the prey's muscles through the nerves to temporarily paralyze it, and that is the same as a Taser.

And eels can control the intensity of their shocks.

So, what would make an eel emerge from the water as recounted by Humboldt and now seen by Catania?

To find out, Catania used some unconventional props.

So, what I did was, to take what I thought was a good stand-in predator, a prop crocodile head, and I drilled holes in it and put LEDs that could be lit up by the electric eel as it ascended out of the water.

[ Electric current scratching ] And I wanted to take it a step further and get people to imagine what it might be like if this actually happened to them.

So I took some sort of Halloween zombie arms and put LEDs into these, as well.

[ Electric current scratching ] Normally the eel is in the water and a lot of this electric current spreads out.

What was interesting is the voltage increased as the eel rose up out of the water.

By placing its positive end against the potential threat and rising up out of the water, it makes a new current path to create the circuit through the threat.

This isn't a hunting behavior, though.

The eels were not looking at the horses or Catania's zombie arms as prey.

In the Amazon, there's a rainy season and there's a dry season where a lot of fish, including electric eels, get caught in these residual pools.

And actually, that's exactly what was the case when Humboldt went to collect the electric eels.

Those eels were trapped in a drying pool from a stream.

They can't retreat, and so they need another option to defend themselves.

It's a situation, I think, where the best defense is a good offense.


The distinction between brain and mind is a subtle one that has engaged philosophers for 500 years.

Brain is an organizational reality of nerve cells that are connected.

The brain contains almost as many nerve cells as stars in the known universe.

So it's a big number.

Mind is a mysterious product of what the brain does.

So mind research is based on the idea that, to behave, to be subject to an interview by a Stentorian interviewer involves movement.

Without movement, animals have no ability to communicate with their fellow beings to avoid being eaten alive, to decide to become a predator.

All of this is movement.

Facial expressions, emotional states are conveyed through movement of muscles in the face.

Every aspect of artistic endeavor involves movement, the ability to paint a canvas, the ability to play the violin.

I've never played the violin in my life.

But the ability to convey that aspect of things is all movement.

Astronauts at the International Space Station experience 16 sunrises and sunsets a day.

To combat chronic insomnia, NASA has installed special light bulbs.

Now these bulbs are available to consumers.

Fred Maxik, founder of the Lighting Science Group, joins me now.

They seem like normal bulbs in normal lamps.

What's so different about them?

What's different about them is how we build up the spectrum inside them.

It's just not the white light that came off an incandescent bulb.

It's not the white light that came off a CFL bulb anymore.

Now it's a bulb that's being built using LED solid-state devices, and we're actually able to custom tailor a spectrum for a specific biological effect.

So the effects, for example, are somebody who's tired and travels a lot and wants to sleep.

How much of an impact is that last light bulb that we see during the day impacting our sleep?

Well, a great deal, actually.

We have these receptors in our eyes, these ganglion receptors, and these receptors are non-visual.

And if you stimulate them with typical light before you go to bed, the latency effect on getting a good night's sleep could be 90 minutes to 2 hours in preventing you from going to a deep sleep and preventing you from secreting melatonin in the evening.

So it's a pretty significant effect if you have the wrong light before you go to bed.

What about the light that comes out of our TVs?

A lot of people watch TV before they go to bed.

And we're developing new apps and new methodologies around it because it's actually a fairly narrow spectrum of light that's causing the problem.

It's this bluish, cyanish peak at about 480 nanometers that's creating this non-visual stimulation that's telling our bodies to wake up.

So there are apps now on phones, on screens to try to change the color, and they kind of dim after sunset and they keep dimming throughout the night.

Do those work?

They help. They help.

They're a partial solution.

The best solution is just shut everything off, right?

We evolved as diurnal animals.

We're used to daylight and nighttime, and that's what resets our clock every day.

It's what helps our body heal at night.

But if you have to have something on, let's define the right type of light to use to put on so it doesn't disrupt our natural function or let's create these apps that dim or sort of deteriorate or diminish the light that'll cause the most harm.

The science behind this was tested with these lab rats that are stuck in a space station.

That's where it started.

A lot of the work here came out work we've done with NASA over the years.

And what we've found is we could actually take a blood sample from a person in realtime, turn on a light, and actually watch hormones change.

Where do you see that progressing to?

If you know this much now, in five years out, are we gonna see a different kind of light bulb everywhere around us that is cued into these?

We're coming of an age of this wonderful digital convergence, right?

So light and life are converging, and we're beginning to understand all these new ways we can use light to help the body heal, to help cells heal, to help us sleep better, to help our body just manifest all these different functions.

And we've tracked some of these photoreceptors, and scientists out there have been doing wonderful work there.

But there's a lot to still be discovered, and it's being discovered almost on a yearly basis now.

You know, I've heard about, for example, a certain color of light that helps you get to sleep, as you said.

I've heard about a certain kind of light that helps people who are depressed or with seasonal affective disorder.

They sit in front of a light box, right?

So, you know, can you kind of rattle off maybe in a list for me different kinds of lights and the effects that they have on us?

Especially when you said healing.

I never thought about that.

The first one is obviously pre-sleep.

We're already working on that, and that is a warmer white spectrum that is taking out this sort of blue area, this 480-nanometer peaked area, that is causing this disruption to your normal sleep.

Then there's another light that will help awake alertness, help you study, help you retain things, and has yet a different spectrum in it, more of a blue-enhanced spectrum with a 480 peak but still looks like a very, very natural white if it's done well.

There are a lot of researchers now doing work on how we create lights that will help our body heal in ways that people looking at hormonal-based diseases, some of the cancers -- breast cancer, testicular cancer, prostate cancer -- that seem to have triggers where these hormones were disrupting with light or affecting with light.

And therefore the treatment of those cancers and the possible delay of the onset of those or the growth of those can well be found to be triggered by these lights in the future.

Fred Maxik, this is fascinating stuff.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Thanks so much.


After Aziz Sancar spent his life researching how damaged cells and DNA heal, now he's the newest Nobel Laureate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This is his story.


This isn't just a story about Dr. Aziz Sancar winning the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

We'll get to that.

No, this is a story about dreams.

[ Applause ] Growing up in rural Turkey in the 1950s, Sancar imagined himself playing on the Turkish National Soccer team.

I was a good goalkeeper.

Yeah, and so -- I think I needed probably four inches more in height and a little more buff to be, you know.

If you look at Howard, Tim Howard, right?

That kind of physique is for... So I decide not to.

But dreams come in different ways.

Dr. Sancar eventually got an autographed jersey from the Turkish National Team, but that was because of another dream.

It turns out finishing at the top of his class in medical school and even practicing medicine wasn't enough.

He wanted to understand how medicines work at the cellular level.

This is a very important biological fact.

It is an important part of being alive.

Thus began a career of long hours, constant repetition of experiments, scrambles for funding, and long odds that research will yield the expected results.

Dr. Sancar joined the UNC School of Medicine in 1982.

He leads a team of 10 researchers working to understand DNA repair.

Every question is really important at the basic level to understand how everything works, right?

And so we're trying to understand this basic process.

And eventually that does lead to breakthroughs that cure diseases or prevent.

As these results came out in the form of films or whatever, he would often be looking over our shoulders and interpreting our data, knowing what we had done and what the results were before we had even figured it out.

He was on top of everything.

The team uncovered one of the few major repair mechanisms our bodies use to keep cancer at bay as we are bombarded by environmental factors such as sunlight and pollution.

Those factors constantly damage the DNA in our cells.

In the process called nucleotide excision repair, molecular mechanisms identify, remove, replicate, and repair damaged DNA strands.

It's such a fascinating molecule, and he appreciated the mysteries of it early on and wanted to really delve in.

And as a result, he's made fundamental discoveries in how DNA repairs itself, which is so important for life and it's also important for cancer therapy.

Without that repair system, DNA would mutate and lead to cancer.

The enzyme has two cofactors or small molecules that are associated with the protein.

One is an antenna of solar panels sitting on top of the enzyme and the other is in the core, and the antenna absorbs the light, transfers the energy to the catalytic converter, and that repairs.

I mean, it's a fascinating thing.

It can't get any better than this.

But some dreams never go away.

Just look outside Sancar's office.

You'll find that soccer still plays a big part in his life.

Specifically Carolina Women's soccer.

Outside his office door hangs an autographed jersey from Carolina's Women's Soccer team to their number-one fan.

It's alongside Mia Hamm's jersey.

[ Cheers and applause ] In what he calls one of the most exciting days of his life, the team presented the jerseys to Sancar in a special meeting to congratulate him on winning the Nobel Prize.

And you go to a lot of games, don't you?

I try not to miss any of their home games.

And when you step inside his new office in the Genetic Medicine building on the UNC Chapel Hill campus, it's one of the rewards of being a Nobel winner, you find another dream.

Sancar and his wife Gwen, who is also a biology professor at Carolina, are passionate about helping students in Turkey.

The couple bought a house in Chapel Hill to provide temporary housing for Turkish students attending the university and to serve as a Turkish cultural center.

The couple is setting up a scholarship program for Turkish students to study at Carolina, and there's also a program helping teach science and math to 7,000 girls in Turkey.

It's no surprise Sancar is a celebrity in his home country.

There's a national stamp with his image.

He's also been presented with national awards.

They acknowledge the importance of hard work, and that is my suggestion, my advice to students.

Thank you all very much.

He's a celebrity in North Carolina, as well, but for Aziz Sancar, it's still about the dream and inspiring other dreamers.

You have to learn.

You have to compete with other great scientists in the world.

And here a Turk from the boondocks of Turkey comes and competes with the best scientists in the world and made this accomplishment, and I am to my countrymen and to colleagues.

It is our duty to contribute to humanity.

It's not just for our own good.

The technology used to create virtual worlds and environments has advanced rapidly in the past few years.

Today the engineers at Serious Simulations in Orlando, Florida, are using virtual experience to assist in real-world training.

From soldiers to surgeons, virtual simulations are becoming a common teaching tool.

Here's the story.

What I'm doing right now is I am painting our training space.

This is so the cameras can calibrate each other and know what they're looking at, know the space that they're gonna be tracking.

We call this our tracking volume.

Serious Simulations is taking virtual-reality training to the next level.

One of our guiding principles is to make our simulators as realistic as possible and that realism requires them to have complete freedom of movement without wires, without artificial backpack computers, and that requires a very accurate tracking system.

There are eight cameras mounted on four towers, and those are all routed to the computer, and the computer does software processing on the camera images in realtime.

It tracks the human body, the positions of all the arms, hands, fingers, head, et cetera, and translates that in realtime onto an avatar in the virtual world.

The company develops simulated training exercises for people doing dangerous jobs, including soldiers and first responders.

So the trainee sees himself by wearing a head-mounted display as the avatar in the 3D virtual world.

And as he moves in the physical space, he sees that avatar move identically in the virtual world.

Where the touch, the feedback, even the smells is possible to add into the full immersion experience.

Therefore he becomes immersed in that environment.

It becomes natural feeling to be in that environment.

And we achieve what we call a suspension of disbelief.

[ Insect buzzes ]

When they're in something real, in their mind you can often stress them out a bit.

Positive stress is always good for higher levels of concentration and better training outcomes.

[ Machine gunfire ]

Chris' military experience proved invaluable in his new role with Serious Simulations.

I spent several years in the Army as an officer, and one of my final assignments was managing the creation of a video game which came to be known to the public as America's Army.

We wanted to connect with young people through this fairly new venue of video games at the time and create a story about the Army but by the Army.

Upon returning to civilian life, it was a natural transition to combine the latest technology in video games and military training.

But we took this attack of very high realism, unencumbered movement, 100% real equipment in the simulator, no wires, so those were kind of tall orders for us in the first two years.

Chris and his team received their first patent for a technology they call Zero Frame Latency.

We did that so that we didn't add any more additional latency penalty, latency being the lag time that's involved between generating an image and its movement and having it displayed to the individual.

So this clear box is a demonstration of a head-mounted display in a box to make it absolutely visible of what's going on.

So inside every HMD, or head-mounted display, there is a display screen, one or more of those, a battery, some electronics.

And because this one is wireless, we also have a wireless receiver inside of this box.

And the beauty of the system is that all the electronics and tracking systems are actually in the visor.

So as soon as he's finished, we can actually just remove the visor and attach it to the next person, attach it to the next person.

So it's a very, very high throughput system.

All of these are central to making our technology work, creating the only wireless package for very wide field of view, high resolution displays out there.

[ Gun firing ]

The system also allows trainees to use their personal gear, adding another level of realism.

We have a saying here that 'if it's real, then it's right.'

And weapons for both police and for military are quite individualized now in order to allow these soldiers to come into our simulator and train as close to reality as possible.

We wanted them to come with their real weapon, not a fake toy weapon or a simulated weapon.

We also allow the trainees to wear 100% of their real combat gear with some overlays for the simulation.

Chris knows the value of real-world experience firsthand and employs individuals who are on the same page.

I like employing veterans just because we have a common background, common experience.

And I like to give back a bit by helping their transitions into civilian life.

There's lots of opportunities, lots of careers within the military that translate very well into civilian-sector jobs.

And resetting your mind a bit and resetting your vocabulary and resetting your expectations as you exit the military can make it quite successful.

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.

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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪