SciTech Now Episode 309

In this episode of SciTech Now, child psychologists discover how and why many children develop imaginary friends; learn why technology companies design products that consumers cannot repair at home; RTI International is building a biofuels reactor, which turns wood waste into gasoline; and Utah’s Hogle Zoo is connecting sick children with injured animals to help them understand the healing process



Coming up, the real guide to imaginary friends.

When a child creates a relationship that is imaginary, what they put into that relationship is a lot of what they know about relationships.

It's all one person.

Designing for the environment.

The choices that they make back down in the beginning right in the concepts, like how are we gonna make this new cellphone?

How are we gonna make a new TV?

Or how are we gonna make a jacket, for example, will really affect the impact across the life of the product.

Finding alternatives to gasoline.

We're using hydrogen to move undesirable components that are in the intermediate to produce precisely hydrocarbons that fall within the gasoline and diesel ranges.

And finally, elephant genes hold clues for cancer researchers.

Suddenly, a light bulb went off.

And I thought, 'If we could get some of that elephant blood, we might be able to understand the mechanism behind why they don't get cancer.'

It's all ahead.

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

Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III.

And contributions to this station.

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.

Imaginary friends might be dismissed as nostalgic relics of youth.

But as we see in this third episode of the 'Science Friday' series 'The Real Guide to Imaginary Companions,' developmental psychologists use imaginary friends to study how children form relationships and exercise self-control as they grow.

They come in all shapes, sizes.


He's big?

He's this big.

Children surprise us all the time with what they come up with.

A shark?

This idea that something can be real and fantasy all at the same time, that's an amazing capacity.

Can you sit down?

To onlookers, imaginary companions often seem bizarre.

Who is Agridotus?

He lives in the floor with the ants.

[ Laughing ]

He lives in the floor with the ants.

Does he have a face?



What does his face look like?

The floor.


His face looks like the floor.


Can I try to talk to Agridotus?


Oh. Why not?

Because he's... He can't talk to you.

Does he play with the ants?


He plays with the ants?

And then they don't like him.

And they push him away.

But for developmental psychologists like Dr. Tracy Gleason, these creations offer valuable glimpses inside the minds of children.

When a child creates a relationship that is imaginary, what they put into that relationship is a lot of what they know about relationships.

It's all one person.

There's only one person's ideas about relationships operating in that scenario.

One little person whose real-world interactions with their peers can be messy.

Here is a person who doesn't know any more about the world than you do.

You have to try and formulate it yourself and figure out what that is about.

It's a lot of the blind leading the blind.

As a result of this lack of experience...

Children tend to create imaginary relationships that are not infinitely varied.

They actually look quite a bit like real relationships.

So either they're hierarchical, where usually the child is the parent, and the imaginary companion, they need a lot of nurturing and teaching and helping, or the relationship is much more like a friendship.

The child and the imaginary companion are kind of egalitarian.

To me, the question then becomes, why?

Why does one child create a hierarchical relationship and another child create an egalitarian relationship?

To answer this question, Dr. Gleason evaluated and categorized children's real and imaginary social lives.

Turns out you talk to a 3- or 4-year-old, and you say, 'Is your relationship hierarchical or egalitarian?'

you know, you don't really get good data.

So I might ask a question like 'Do you take care of your imaginary companion?

Or does your imaginary companion take care of you?

Um, who's the boss?'

Do you need to teach her a lot of things?


She doesn't know a lot of things.


Dozens of interviews later, she was able to see some patterns emerging.

Children with egalitarian relationships with their imaginary companions seem to be just a little bit ahead of their peers in using very pro-social, competent ways of coping with hypothetical social dilemmas, more so than children who had hierarchical relationships.

But this doesn't necessarily mean that imaginary companions make us better at socializing.

Theoretically, that's possible.

Theoretically, you create an imaginary companion -- that gives you practice.

You could practice positive interactions.

You could practice conflict resolution.

That could be very handy.

On the other hand, you could be really good at conflict resolution and create an imaginary companion as a place to use that skill that you already have.

Whether the imaginary companion is hierarchical or egalitarian, a child has to make a big step.

One of the beauties of having an imaginary companion is that it does give you this forum in which you practice perspective taking.

It affords the chance to have your mind and somebody else's mind in mind all at the same time.

And this ability to distance oneself by pretending can be particularly useful when encountering problems.

My own daughter had imaginary companions.

And she had the Wazet in the closet.

For her, it was a way to deal with and overcome her fear of, um, what -- what lies behind the closet door.

[ Growls ]

And the Wazet keeps all the bad guys away.

[ Chuckling ]

Pretending can also help with self-control.

To just wait for a snack, that alone can be kind of excruciating.

Or to control the urge to grab a toy.

That requires emotional self-control.

Many researchers, like Dr. Stephanie Carlson at the University of Minnesota, call this ability executive function.

And they've set up experiments to test a child's ability to harness it.

Which one of these characters do you want to pretend to be while you're working on this?

What we're doing is looking at how pretending to be someone else, like Batman, will potentially help with executive function skills, such as managing a frustrating situation.

A tempting toy is placed in a clear, locked box.

The child is given several keys and instructions to try opening the box on their own.

Now, none of these keys actually work.

Some of the kids are told --

To think about their own thoughts and feelings while they're working away with these keys.

Other children are instructed to think about themselves from a more distanced perspective and to pretend to be somebody else.

So while you're working on this, if you get frustrated, just ask yourself, 'How is Batman feeling?'

Being immersed in the self is actually counterproductive.

Then you start to ruminate and think even more about how frustrated you're getting.

When you distance from the self, you get a little bit more perspective on the situation.

Did you feel frustrated at all while you were working on that?



Pretending seems to help kids think through problems and solve problems as if they were a year older.

And a year improvement can make a big difference in the life of a child.

Of course, as adults, we often forget the role pretending or imaginary companions had on our development.

Instead, we remember bizarre details.

They looked like real mice.

But they had clothes on.

He could fly.

He could skate really fast.

She did not display magical powers.

But she did love mud pies.

He did a lot of bad stuff.

They didn't have, like, noses or mouths or eyes or anything.

Only a witch.

Only a witch is living at the bottom of a juice glass.

He was, you know, he was on the moon.

Like, of course you can't see him.

He's on the moon.

But we sure do miss them.

The imaginary things that I made up as a kid are still the things that I do now for a living.

He was just a good companion.

Like, he just made sure I was okay.

I wish they'd hung around longer.

Most imaginary companions disappear before puberty.

But the ability to imagine relationships never seems to go away.

Most people talk to others in their heads a lot of the time.

You might imagine saying something difficult to somebody.

And if their reaction isn't what you're really going for, you might imagine saying it a different way.

Quite common.

In many ways, technological innovation has improved the way we communicate, work, eat and live.

But many products may hold hidden consequences when it comes to waste management, over-consumption and the environment.

Sustainability strategist Leyla Acaroglu joins reporter Andrea Vasquez to discuss designing for the environment.

Thanks for being with us.

Thanks for having me.

What is the relationship between design and consumption?

Because that's not where my head goes when I think of design.

Fair enough.

I mean, a lot of people think fashion and interiors.

But, actually, design is this incredibly powerful force that we interact with every single second of our day.

Think about it -- from the bed you sleep on to the coffee cup you have, actually, to the whole coffee delivery system -- how did it even get to your door to begin with?

So, essentially, design is the construction of the material world that you and I live in.

And as a designer, what we tend to do is we solve problems with intent.

So we see something.

We think, 'We need to find a solution.'

That could be a product, a service or a system.

So the thing is is that everything's designed.

And everything's designed to get us to buy it.

What are the questions that these companies and designers need to be asking about what materials they're using or how they're designing these products?

Sustainable design is basically about understanding the impacts about the choices we make.

So a designer chooses, as you say, materials and processes, manufacturing techniques.

But, more importantly, they think about how a product fits together and whether or not you're locked out or you're allowed to repair it.

So most people won't be able to repair any of their cellphones or electronic items or you own right now.

If your TV broke, what would you do?

I would call someone who knew about TVs.


But, actually, your warranty would probably be void if you tried to open it up.

And a lot of technological companies now create special screws that have particular shaped, um, screw heads so you can't get into 'em.


So, basically, there's a trend towards technology being something that we kind of just lease rather than own.

And the reason that happens is because they want us to buy more televisions.

However, the problem is that if we take away the consumer sovereignty, and we take away the ability to repair and recycle at the end of life, we ultimately lose all those materials.

And we create bigger impact.

So the choices that they make back down at the beginning, right in the concepts like, how are we gonna make this new cellphone?

How are we gonna make a new TV?

Or how are we gonna make even a jacket, for example, will really effect the impact across the life of the product.

What will actually, um, dictate its entire life impact is how things are put together --


The weight of the material, so how much you use.

Essentially, what we're trying to do is figure out how to solve problems with less of an impact, less materials, less processes, without losing the quality of the product.

A lot of the failings -- we call them system failures -- happen when you or I don't use something properly.

And I'll give you an example.

Do you own a tea kettle?


Okay, great.

Ninety-seven percent of Brits in the UK own a tea kettle.

And a large percentage of them, around 68 percent, admit to overfilling it when they only want one cup of tea.


So most people kind of stand there --

Me included.

And they're like, 'Oh, it feels about right now.'

And they put it on to boil, don't think about it.

It's great, turns itself off.

The thing is is that with all of that extra water that's being boiled, we're wasting energy.

And you say refrigerators are another big perpetrator.

Specifically around food waste.

In the US, we waste up to a quarter of all food produced.

Globally, the United Nations thinks it's almost up to a half.

So that's food from, obviously, farms because they get damaged.

Or they're not to the standards, the aesthetic standards of supermarkets.

But more to the point, a lot of it's wasted from the home.

And I think we can all admit, you know, those rotten tomatoes.

They go in the trash or the half-eaten loaf of bread.

But the majority of our food goes a little bit sad in our refrigerator.

I thought it was my refrigerator.

Yeah. So the trick to this is to actually get a sealed container, like one of those containers with the little locks on the side.

I guarantee you your broccoli will stay crisp for three weeks.

So how do we get companies on the early end of a product's life and us on the later part of the life to really shift how we're designing and using these products?

First of all, we need to change the way we value products.

So a lot of products are designed to be very cost effective to the consumer without taking into consideration the impact that that has.

If a warranty is very short, it tends to mean the product's not made very well, just as a general rule.

If a company's gonna value their product for 10 years, they have invested in the materials and the processes.

But second of all, it's that we are actually pretty easily manipulated around replacing products.

Like, most people, on average, replace their cellphone every 15 to 17 months, even though they're designed to last three to seven years.

But imagine if the producer could find a way of creating a system or a service where you never actually really bought the phone.

Because, to be honest, once we're finished with them, we don't really need them.


But it's called a closed-loop system.

So if you lease the phone, and then when they came out with the new technology, you sent your old one back.

They sent you a new one.

But they designed that phone to be fully recyclable.

And then they have the materials for the next generation.

And they have you as a customer for life.


Thank you for explaining and for being with us.

No worries. Was a pleasure.

It's a topic of conversation for environmentalists and commuters alike.

Is there a sustainable alternative to gasoline?

In North Carolina's Research Triangle, scientists are looking to answer that question.

Here's their story.

It may look straight from science fiction.

But it's a state-of-the-art industrial setup housed in a very nondescript building.

It's on the Research Triangle campus of RTI International.

But before we talk about what happens inside, you must first know why it's here.

This is the story about the search for alternative fuel.

The technology that we're trying to develop is what they refer to as an advanced biofuels technology.

What that means is it's a non-ethanol-based, non-alcohol-based fuel that is a direct replacement for petroleum-derived gasoline and diesel range hydrocarbons.

Scientists are searching for a replacement for gasoline, which, of course, comes from oil.

Alternative fuels were all the talk when gas prices were this high -- Check the price -- and even higher.

The talk isn't as frantic when the price is a lot lower.

Still, energy independence and sustainability are important goals.

So RTI's scientists continue fine-tuning a process to economically and efficiently convert sawdust and wood chips into a transportation fuel.

The materials that we make in this group need to be evaluated.

And the work I do analyzes the materials to let us know if they're working properly, doing their job.

And also the products that come from the work that we do need to be tested for quality.

The process can be adapted to any biomass as long as there's carbon.

So we're using heat, catalysts and -- and time to kinda convert things thermally into intermediates that can be upgraded into fuels.

The nice thing about that is as long as it has carbon in it and it can be thermally converted, we can use it.

So it applies to a whole range of feed stocks from woody biomass that you would use, perhaps, in like a pulp mill or for paper production, byproducts from that process, grasses and straws that are grown purposely for biofuels, agricultural residues like corn stalks and stover.

So here's what happens to the sawdust.

We start with our feed stock, which, in this case, is just sawdust, woody biomass that's gone through a process.

We mix that in a reactor with a catalyst, which, as you can see, flows similar like water.

It's fluidizable.

So the catalyst is not only controlling the chemistry of the process, but it's also providing the heat-transfer medium that can actually drive the reactions.

So we take these two materials in the reactor, heat 'em up, transfer 'em around.

And then the products from there are three different materials.

First one is unconverted carbon or char.

This is much like you would see charcoal in your, uh, in your regular charcoal grill for cooking.

We also make an aqueous stream, which is, as you can see, somewhat colored and potentially dirty.

But there's a lot of carbon in here that we're trying to recover as well.

And then the third material is what we're interested in.

And that's our bio crude.

This is our organic fraction.

Researchers wanted to recover even more of the lost carbon.

But the bio crude then goes into a standard refining process to make a hydrogen-treated fuel.

We're using hydrogen to move undesirable components that are in the intermediate to produce precisely hydrocarbons that fall within the gasoline and diesel ranges.

Engineers say the process works.

But it's called an alternative fuel for a reason.

Biofuels cost more than conventional fuel.

The process is competitive when gasoline costs about $3 per gallon.

Our RND targets are all focused on maximizing the process to ultimately drive down the cost so that we can become cost competitive with existing technologies.

We're always gonna be challenged because we're starting off with a raw material that's not optimized for fuel production.

But that's the goal -- to process technology development -- is to really optimize that process, come up with the innovations we need to get around those technical barriers and then ultimately make this cost competitive.

But the one thing that we do have an advantage with developing biofuels is the environmental footprint of what we're trying to do.

We can actually reduce the environmental greenhouse- gas potential of transportation.

And that's one of our, you know, targets for biofuels is just to really focus on 'How can we environmentally improve transportation, you know, in the country using -- using these biofuels feed stocks?'

Why does the largest land mammal have a smaller chance of developing cancer than humans?

Scientists in Utah have pinpointed a superhero gene in elephants that could open the door to new possibilities in cancer research.

Here's the story.

I'm a doctor who takes care of children with cancer.

One of my particular areas of interest is in children and families who are at increased risk for cancer.

Over 16,000 children will develop cancer each year in North America.

And one child with cancer is one child too many.

And we're very interested and focused in our laboratory in trying to understand 'Why do kids get cancer, and is there anything we can do about it?'

I was at a medical conference one day where I learned that elephants rarely develop cancer.

This was a surprise to me.

But if you think about it, and you look at these wonderful creatures, they have so many cells in their body.

And they live 50, sometimes 60 years of age.

Just by chance alone, all these elephants should be developing and dying from cancer.

But they don't.

And that was really a very fascinating thing for me to hear.

You know your manners.

Suddenly, a light bulb went off.

And I thought, 'If we could get some of that elephant blood, we might be able to understand the mechanism behind why they don't get cancer.'

My name's Lauren LeCoque.

I'm the primary elephant keeper at Hogle Zoo.

And I take care of the elephants and the rhinos.

We actually get blood from the girls about once a week.

It gets down to our vet clinic, just like we would go to the doctor to get a checkup.

And it tells us their hormones.

We can check on their health.

So it's just part of our normal, everyday routine.

So when we collaborated with Dr. Schiffman, it was actually pretty easy for us to transition to getting him blood because we were already doing that with our elephants.

Behind the ears, they have very, very large prominent vein stack there.

And they actually use their ears as a cooling system.

So there's always blood flowing.

So, basically, the elephants lean in on either side.

They offer us their ear.

And then we draw from the vein back there.

Just like people, not all of us like going to the doctor to get our blood drawn.

So what we really try to do is work on our relationship with the elephants during the blood draw.

So it's a very positive experience.

They get lots of food, lots of praises.

It might be something that's a little uncomfortable for them.

But they really rely on our trust and our relationship.

Working together with the Hogle Zoo and the elephants and the blood from these amazing animals, we were able to take the cells into the laboratory and study how they respond to DNA damage.

And what we discovered astounded us.

When we looked at the elephant cells compared to people, we found that those elephant cells almost always died when they had any type of mutation.

It was as if the elephants had said, 'It's so important that we don't get cancer, why even try and stop the cell and repair it when we can just kill it and start over again?

That seems to be the safest way to make sure that mutations that can cause cancer won't be passed on.'

Elephants have extra copies of genes that are responsible in people for preventing cancer.

We all have two copies of a gene called P53, one copy from our mother and one copy from our father.

This gene called P53 is known as the guardian of the genome.

Its job is to fly around our cells and make sure if any mutations or changes develop in the DNA, that that cell is stopped and repaired or maybe even killed, so it can't go on -- pass on those changes that one day could develop into cancer.

Instead of two copies of P53, the elephants had evolved 40 copies of P53.

Dr. Schiffman's team is very enthusiastic about what they do.

And we're very passionate about elephants.

And so it's been very, very fun to work together to, basically, go to the same goal.

Unfortunately, almost 96 elephants a day are being poached for ivory.

So I think it's our responsibility to teach people about conservation and conserving the species.

So it's so important to protect elephants, especially because if people found out that elephants had the cure for cancer, they would really want to get on the bandwagon to help save these species.

And if we're saving kids with cancer and elephants, it's a win-win for everybody.

Nature has figured out how to prevent cancer in elephants.

Now what we need to do is take a page out of nature's playbook and figure out how to prevent cancer in people.

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.

Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III.

And contributions to this station.