SciTech Now Episode 317

In this episode of SciTech Now, spiciness explained; tech startups moving fashion forward; climate history on Mars; and cyber security experts explain the need for protecting ourselves from digital invaders.


Coming up, the magical effects of capsaicin.

Capsaicin is a molecule that will bind specifically to a class of receptors that are called TRPV.

And that is where you get the pain sensation of the heat.

Tech start-ups moving fashion forward.

The socks come in one size, maybe small, medium, large.

I have size-11 feet.

I should get size-11 socks.

You and I are not the same height.

We have the same tie length.

You know, we should probably get, you know, different ties.

Climate history on Mars.

We know that life on Earth is intimately associated with the presence of water.

And so for Mars, we know that it -- it had a much more Earth-like climate very early on in its history.

The importance of cybersecurity.

If you take a look at all of the cyber hacks and cyber breaches, I would say about 80% of them come from human errors.

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.

Like many spice junkies, Dr. Marco Tizzano once believed he could develop a tolerance to the burning, painful sensations generated by eating chilis.

But as a chef and researcher in chemosensory sensations, he now knows better.

Dr. Tizzano explains how the compound capsaicin creates a chemical cascade inside your body and why emotions might make chili lovers think they can handle the heat.

A lot of people enjoy, you know, stuff that is painful.

So I was one of these persons that say, 'Oh, I eat always chili pepper.

I can eat more and more and get accustomed to that and get to the next step and get into always hotter chili.'

In reality, it's not so simple.

Most of the time you're just, 'Ah, it's hot.'

And then you take another one and say, 'It will be less.'

And it's even more.

It's not the more you eat, the less you perceive that.

Marco Tizzano is an investigator at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, whose interest in the science of spicy didn't begin in a lab.

Nights and weekends, I was working as a chef, and I was fascinated by the idea of the other type of perception, of sensory perception -- how that works.

And that is how I started my adventure in science.

While Dr. Tizzano can cook many delicious dishes, his research has little to do with taste and smell.

Instead, his focus is on chemosthesis.

Chemosthesis is practically the science, the study, the perception of the pain transmitted by the trigeminal nerve.

Which branches out from a central ganglion in your head down throughout your nose, mouth, and eyes.

And so all these processes will just transmit the sensation from this periphery part to the central ganglion and give you a sensation of pain or cold or warmed, depending what you are using as stimuli.

In the case of chili peppers, that stimuli is a molecule known as capsaicin, which causes a burning sensation, amongst other maladies.

How does one molecule achieve such a lasting effect?

Capsaicin is a molecule that will bind specifically to a class of receptors that are called TRPV.

And they are in the mouth, the nose, the eyes.

So imagine capsaicin like a key and the receptor to be one like a door.

When the capsaicin will bind to the door, we open the receptor.

And the receptor will allow ion to run through it.

This change of potential will be transmitted through the nerve, to the central nervous system, to the brain, and that is where you get the pain sensation of the heat.

But then locally, there is this release of a neurotransmitter that is called Substance P and CGRP.

And those are the ones that will cause you the swelling, the pain, and the other sensations.

But then there is also fibers in the nose.

You will active there a local inflammation.

And that is why you have a runny nose or sneezing, because the same nerve is also stimulating the eyes.

Then you will have your watering eyes.

And because the whole reaction is meant to protect you from what your body has deemed unhealthy, there are few methods to stop the process.

You can't drink water because...

The sensation will come back again because capsaicin is still stuck on the receptor.

Another way is to drink something that contains fat, like milk, or something that contains alcohol, like beer, because the alcohol and fat in the milk will actually move that from the receptor.

So what if you expose the system over and over again?

Can you actually desensitize it?

There is all this study that they must train that very short presentation of a capsaicin molecule in a very short time frames will cause you to desensitize the receptor.

The perception that we'd be stronger and stronger and stronger until you stop because you cannot bare that anymore.

The pain does diminish eventually.

But that's not because you've gained a tolerance to the chemical.

What happens is that the receptor will not desensitize but it will internalize inside the membrane of the fibers because you want to protect the nerve from getting damaged.

If the pain does seem to go away in the long term, you might actually be damaging your nerves.

If there is somebody more sensitive to that, maybe it makes that system... And also, sometimes you cannot come back from that.

And you will lose that system.

And if all of this doesn't convince you that you can't just build tolerance to spicy food, just remember -- it's all in your head anyway.

There is several study that demonstrate that if you eat hot pepper or if you're a person that don't eat hot pepper and you provide them different concentration of chili pepper, both of them will describe, with no statistical difference, that this chili pepper were unbearable or mild or very bland, and that is because the people that eat hot peppers -- they perceive that as a pain, but they enjoy it.

They eat that and say, 'Oh, I can do that.'

But it's just because you want to do that.

But it's very painful anyway.

While runways and award shows continue to inspire what we wear, innovation around how we buy clothes seems to be running fashionably late.

The industry may be seeing trickles of technological advancement.

But many start-ups are responding with creative and common-sense approaches to purchasing and consumer experience.

Brian Hecht, our resident serial entrepreneur, joins us to discuss the tech start-ups and trends in the fashion industry.

Brian, I've got to ask, how much can technology impact how I pick clothes off a rack or how I buy clothes?

Yeah. Well, it's -- Fashion has sort of been the unloved stepchild of the technology revolution.

I mean, there have been start-ups that make it easier to buy through e-commerce with a wider variety or cool brands like Warby Parker or, you know, Bonobos.

But there's very little that sort of changed the relationship that we have to the clothes we wear, which is one of the most intimate choices, consumer choices that we have.

So I like these companies that we'll talk about because they really are taking a stab at coming at it from a different angle.

You know, I -- if you're super wealthy, you can have a tailor cut your clothes and have a perfect fit every time.

Your first start-up, Fittery, I'm assuming it's in the fitting space.


It is in the fitting space.

But it's specifically for clothes that you buy online.

I mean, we've all bought online clothes, probably.

This outfit I bought online.

And the problem is it's very hard to get something that fits, right?

A lot of people will buy three of the same thing and send back two and, you know, keep the one.

Or they'll buy and it doesn't quite fit but they keep it because it's too much of a hassle to return.

So Fittery makes it much easier to find what fits by not requiring you to understand a size chart, by asking you a series of natural-language questions and showing you pictures that allow you to figure out your body type and are your arms long or short that people like you and me can actually answer without a tailor.

And they don't sell directly to consumers.

They work with retailers so that you can go to a site for your favorite store or e-commerce site.

You put in your measurements, you have a profile, and then it'll suggest clothing across different brands that fit you, not just your strict measurements, but your whole body type.


A perfect fit would be a 3D print of it, right?

So Thursday's Finest -- what are they really bringing you?

They are bringing the revolution in 3D printing to fashion.

So, 3D printing, we think about these, you know, gigantic printers that use plastic and they print keychains or little sculptures or something like this.

They do this for knitwear, so things like socks and ties.

And they're coming into hats.

So if you think about it, you know, they create on-demand garments just for you.

So socks come in one size, maybe small, medium, large.

I have size-11 feet.

I should get size-11 socks.

You and I are not the same height.

We have the same tie length.

You know, we should probably get, you know, different ties.

So, they also, in order to reinforce their brand image and as a little incentive, they have custom embroidery because you're doing it on demand.

You're creating these things.

So, if you're old-fashioned, you can get your initials embroidered in, or you can get a tie that says, 'SciTech Now.'

And that might be fun, too.

Okay. All right.

Closet Collective.

It's Airbnb for fashion.

What does that mean?

Yeah. That's right.

I mean, if you look in your closet or I in mine, there are probably tons of things that you've bought that you've worn once or twice and probably some that still have the tag on.

And that is incredibly wasteful.

So this is a marketplace where, if that's you, you can lend out those clothes and make money by doing it.

You just take a picture of it, and you upload it to the site, just like you might do on eBay if you're selling something.

And if you want to borrow these clothes, they have 2 million different garments on the site.

You pay, one time, $45 for a one-month rental.

And it can't be renewed, so you can't claim, 'Oh, I forgot to return the thing I borrowed from my friend.'

Then you send it after your 45 days -- I'm sorry. It's 30 days.

You send it back to the company.

They take care of the dry cleaning, the logistics, the shipping, which is no small feat, given that you have garments coming from all around the country and then going back out, as well.

So it's $45 per item or flat?

$45 dollars per item per 30 days.

Okay. So, that means that you could have access to a $1,000 suit for $45 if that's what somebody's putting out into the marketplace.

Absolutely, and the founding story is it was two women who -- There was an event that was coming up, and they were always borrowing from each other's closets.

And they said, 'Well, wasn't there... Wouldn't it be great if there was a way not just to borrow one friend to another but to tap into the millions and millions of pieces of clothing that are sitting unused in people's closets.'

All right.

Brian Hecht, thanks for joining us.

Thank you.

It's a question scientists and sci-fi fans alike have been exploring for years.

Is there life on Mars?

To find the answer, scientists are studying the planet's climate history.

According to new findings using data from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, lakes and snow-melt-fed streams on Mars formed much later than previously thought possible.

Here to tell us more about these new findings and what they tell us about the possibility of life on Mars is Sharon Wilson Purdy, geologist at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Sharon, thanks for joining us.

Thank you.

So first of all, we know what climate is, but what is a climate history?

So a climate history is just the evolution of a climate through time.

So we know on Mars that the early climate was -- is -- was much different than it is today.

And what kinds of things impact climate history and what are you looking for when you're researching that?

The working paradigm regarding the sort of climate history on Mars -- this really envisioned a sudden decline in water-related activity early on in Mars' history.

And then it changed due to the lapse of the denser early atmosphere.

And then subsequent water-related activity has changed dramatically from then.

So, water activity being things like snow melt and rivers -- Is that what we're talking about?


So we're talking about, sort of, precipitation, whether it be in the form of rain or snow and then the subsequent runoff of that water on the he surface and collection of it into lakes and streams and oceans and that kind of thing.

What is the information that we know about Mars' climate history telling us about the possibility of life on the planet.

We know life on Mar-- Life on Earth, rather, is intimately associated with the presence of water.

So that's why, when we study other planets, we're specifically looking for evidence of water or past water.

And so, for Mars, we know that it -- it had a much more Earth-like climate very early on in its history, like 3, 4 billion years ago.

But the atmosphere changed and became very thin, and, subsequently, the climate was thought to become very arid and cold, very dry and cold.

How do we know we can apply the same principles that work here on Earth to the landscape on Mars in terms of water being an indicator of life, how things progress, those kinds of considerations?

Right. We don't know the absolute answer to that.

But what we do know is that here on our planet, life is associated with water.

So that's our starting point in terms of exploration of other planets.

And, you know, we don't know if life formed on Earth or if it was brought to Earth from, you know, an asteroid or a chunk of another planet.

So, you know, those are really big questions in terms of where did life begin, what is, you know -- is there life in solar system and all that kind of thing?


When we're talking about life, are we talking about humans and aliens?

Are we talking about cells?

Are we talking about dinosaurs?


So, in terms of life on Mars, we are just talking about the simplest forms of that, and that being sort of microbes or simple-celled things.

Like, we're not -- we're not anticipating finding a dinosaur bone or any bone, I guess, on Mars.

But that, again, would be a huge discovery.

That -- That would be a huge discovery.

Is the climate history going to impact actual Mars exploration and trips to the planet and the possibility of creating colonies there?

If humans were to go to Mars, you would want to go to a place that had natural resources, whether it's frozen water that you can use and that kind of thing.

And, you know, we spend a lot of time and effort studying different places on Mars for future landing sites.

Mostly, at this point, they're for robotic missions like the Mars Science Laboratory Rover and the Mars Exploration Rovers.

But, you know, it's -- We're getting there in terms of human exploration.

And, you know, colonization is a -- is a little further past that.

But it's definitely -- The climate history is important because it helps us understand, you know, where -- where the water was, where it is and -- and eventual, you know, tapping into those resources, perhaps.

What are you most intrigued by or excited about by these new findings, that water has been there more recently than we thought?

Right. So, the land forms that I study, which include the fresh shallow valleys and things like alluvial fans and deltas -- they're much younger than previously designated, so that implies that they are evidence that there was a much later period of what we think is widespread sort of global fluvial activity.

So it really extends the period of habitability on Mars, and they formed during a time that was always really thought to be much less favorable for precipitation -- in this case, in the form of snow and then the subsequent melting and runoff.

So the planet's timeline has just sort of shifted in what we understand about its development?

Exactly. Mm-hmm.

Okay. And what are you hoping to find next?

Or is there anything that you're looking for?

Right. So, the study that we recently did focused on a place on Mars called Northern Arabia Terra.

And so we chose that place because it has the most -- has one of the highest density of these fresh shallow valleys, which formed later in Mars' history.

But we know that they occur elsewhere on Mars in the northern and southern hemisphere, as well as near the equator.

But more research is needed to be done to sort of figure out the link between the northern- and southern-hemisphere land forms and the equatorial regions.


Well, Sharon Wilson Purdy, thanks very much for joining us and explaining these findings.

Thank you very much.

Today cellphones, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth signals can be a risky two-way street, offering hackers and malicious intruders pathways to invade our digital lives.

Up next, cybersecurity experts explain why they think we need to be more diligent about protecting ourselves from digital invaders.

Sri Sridharan is the chief operating officer for the Florida Center for Cybsecurity in Tampa.

This agency works with all stakeholders involved in cybersecurity, including state universities, government, defense, and industry.

The Florida Center for Cybersecurity has three strong initiatives.

Number one is to create cyber professionals who are qualified to take on the hundreds of thousands of jobs that are open today.

The second thing is research on the Internet of things, how to make that more secure.

Last but not the least, we are very focused on awareness to make sure that we educate the public, small to medium to large businesses, to make sure they are very aware of the seriousness of the problem and what type of cyberhygiene they need to practice on a daily basis.

Sri sees the explosive growth of the Internet of things is creating major security challenges.

Today, there are estimated to be about 10 billion devices that are being connected in the Internet of things.

And by 2020, the projection is somewhere between 20 to 24 billion devices that will be connected.

What this means is that there's a lot of communications and data interchange that's taking place between multiple devices.

I don't think the Internet of things is very secure, and people need to pay attention to it.

He recommends being proactive in securing your data.

Antivirus software, firewall protection -- these are all standard things that you can buy commercially in the market, and they do go a long way in protecting your system.

But those are not the only things that will protect you.

We need to be even more vigilant.

For example, if the manufacturer of these laptops and these smartphone devices send you updates, make sure that you apply those updates.

Secondly, passwords you can use go a long way of protecting your system, as well.

Use complex passwords that people cannot easily guess.

And our e-mails are an easy gateway for hackers.

Make sure that you're very vigilant about what e-mails that you read.

If you don't know who the author is, do not get curious to touch it, because that's one of the ways they try to incent you into opening the e-mail, and once you click on an attachment, for example, it downloads the malware, and once the malware is in your system, then it's very difficult to get out of the problem.

If you take a look at all of the cyber hacks and cyber breaches, I would say about 80% of them come from human errors where people are careless about what they do with phishing e-mails.

That gives the hackers the ability to steal your credentials and use them to infect your system.

The center works with Florida's universities to help coordinate cybersecurity research.

At Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, associate professor Wei Ding works with students in developing cutting-edge technology, including a way to protect your data on your cellphone.

Say somebody has steal, you know, your cellphone.

Or you lost your cellphone somewhere -- a movie theater or a shop.

The bigger risk is the data -- most people -- the data inside the phone.

Our paper was talking about how do we prevent this thing from happening?

The idea is we detect -- detect with -- write a program.

The program will detect when this phone is, say, fall into the -- the wrong hand.

And how that was done is it downloads through what you call the Wi-Fi footprint.

The app uses your Wi-Fi footprint to track the patterns of movement of your phone.

After a couple of weeks, the program knows your behavior or movement pattern and where you use the phone.

So, this way, if, then, say somebody steals your phone, then the movements of the phone probably will be different.

So that's the way we find out the phone is stolen.

At the University of South Florida, doctorial student Ian Markwood is investigating ways to make the power grid more secure.

Grid administrators are responsible for managing the flow of power to where it is needed and held back from areas that have plenty of electricity.

There are some attacks which can allow for an attacker to inject arbitrary information into this state estimation process, which can result in the grid administrators not having an accurate understanding of how the power is flowing.

And what that can cause is possibly too much power over a line, which could disrupt where that area is being serviced.

It could be that there is too little power being supplied, in which case, that can cause brownouts.

Ian is looking to trick the hacker by providing false information.

Some of this information is publicly available and facilitates the attack.

We're looking at masking that so that when they try to perform the attack, it doesn't work.

At that point, the grid administrators can be alerted to know that somebody was attempting to perform this attack and they can take the appropriate countermeasures.

That's similar to the concept of a honey pot.

You let someone get ahold of some fake information and let them do something with it so that you know that someone's trying.

Hacking the power grid is no easy task and requires special resources.

I wouldn't advise the general public to be scared of an attack happening every day by some random terrorists.

But at the same time, we do need to perform this research and achieve this safety so that when a well-funded and very motivated attacker comes along, we can prevent it before it happens.

Whether it is attacks on the power grid or our personal devices, cybercrime is very costly.

The cybercrime itself is expected to cost over $2 trillion in the next three to four years.

22 records are breached every second.

So this will be expensive no matter how you slice it and dice it.

I think the technology to solve the cybersecurity problem will evolve over the next 5 to 10 years.

And through those 10 years, things are going to get worse before they get better.

So it's a serious problem.

We've got to get smart about how we deal with it now until technology comes up with the right solutions to solve the problem and protect the infrastructure of the data that we are dealing with every day.

And that wraps it up for this time.

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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

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