SciTech Now Episode 320

In this episode of SciTech Now, the physics of snowboarding; a look at the Maker Movement with serial inventor Michael Dubno; the untold story of the African American women who helped NASA win the Space Race; and researchers at Yellowstone National Park are tracking grizzly bears.


Coming up, the physics of snowboarding...

With our snowboards, when you bend them, you actually have more potential energy, and when they snap back, that potential energy turns into more kinetic energy, sending the rider up higher and, really, just giving them a board that feels like it's more alive, more responsive.

...the gadgets of the future...

We started an event called Gadgetoff.

We had jet-powered Merry-Go-Rounds, we had a giant spider that would drive, and we also had the person in charge of Solar System exploration for NASA.

So we had a very interesting mix.

...the African American women who helped NASA win the Space Race...

They were in a separate office, they had separate bathrooms, and a separate eating place in the cafeteria, but they were aeronautic ground troops of the Space Race.

...tracking grizzly bears...

My whole life, grizzly bears have been protected.

They've always been this iconic species.

To actually see them be on the edge of where they've recovered enough to where they don't need to be listed is a cool thing to be a part of.

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.

Snowboarders hit the slopes each year to seek thrills, but that rush of adrenaline is actually dictated by physics.

Now, a snowboard shop in Winfield, Pennsylvania, is using science to pioneer a new kind of snowboard.

Let's take a look.

On the powder or in the park, snowboarding is pure physics, a mash-up of energy and momentum that keeps thrill-seekers gravitating toward the mountain every winter.

But does adding more science equate with more fun?

We traveled to Winfield, Pennsylvania, to find out.

Welcome to the snowboard farm.

Home of Gilson Snowboards, Nick Gilson is the C.E.O. and president.

The mission of Gilson is to create the most fun snowboards in the world.

By adapting the geometry of the shape of the bottom of the board, we can actually build boards that are more fun to ride, and that's really what keeps us going every day.

His partner, Austin Royer, is in charge of operations.

They both started as science teachers.

Their first design was a classroom project.

We brought in an idea that I had had when I was their age, in middle school, which was basically, you know, why are boats curved when they're moving through water and snowboards are flat when they're moving through snow, which is solid water?

Made two snowboards, took them out to the mountain, tested them out, and they were terrible.

It was probably the worst snowboards I've ever rode.

They were really stiff, they were really, you know, really heavy.

Pretty much like riding a canoe down the mountain.

Trial and error led to this, a collection of boards Gilson calls the most advanced in the world.

Their claim to fame -- the soft edge.

So, the soft edge is a smooth bend in the base material that allows you to do a very new maneuver on snow.

It allows you to drift.

So very much like a surfboard, you can move laterally through the water.

A snowboard, historically, is always sort of up on one edge or up on the other, carving one way or the other.

The 3D design keeps the edges off the snow until you need them.

For experts, it means new tricks.

For beginners, a new learning curve.

So, you know, a beginner, you're not gonna catch as many edges, so you're gonna have somebody that is just starting off from snowboarding being able to have more fun faster.

Performance is the big payoff, but the science really starts in the shop.

The core takes shape here, 100% Pennsylvania poplar, routered to exact specifications.

Gilson has four different models.

This machine can make them all.

The graphics are applied using sublimation.

A printer converts solid ink directly to a gas that permeates the plastic.

The base is assembled by hand.

It takes about 100 clamps per board and industrial super glue to attach the steel edge.

So, this is what it looks like at the end.

You know, you got your plastic here, and there you can see the metal edge has been applied the whole way around.

Now it's time for assembly, and Gilson starts at the molecular level.

The more oxygen that we have on the outside of our plastic, the better bond it would have to our fiberglass.

So if you apply lots of energy to those side walls and oxygen bonds to the outside, it then allows it to bond to the fiberglass.

After flame treatment, the layer-by-layer assembly begins.

A mix of epoxy and hardener is applied to a sandwich of plastic, fiberglass, and wood.

Then it's off to the press.

Our presses allow us to press with uniform pressure, and that allows us to get really good clarity on our boards.

We also use a hot-water system which recycles the hot water, so we're energy-conscious, as well.

So the first board that we press also helps us press our third and fourth and fifth board.

After 40 minutes, it's time for the finish.

The 3D design has another advantage.

You can only see it on the finished product... ...and that's the flex.

Just like the corrugations in cardboard or the ridges in a tin roof, that fiberglass, that structural component is going to be curved.

And so when you have a curved shape, it's stronger, and when you bend a curved shape, it comes back harder.

And so, with our snowboards, when you bend them, you actually have more potential energy, and when they snap back, that potential energy turns into more kinetic energy, sending the rider up higher and really just giving them a board that feels like it's more alive, more responsive.

The Gilson team is proud of the science, but really, it's always been about the ride.

Probably the best experience that I have is when I'm actually out in demo and I'm letting people ride them, and they're telling me how much they like it, and I see their name on the production list the next day.

You know, watching someone accelerate, literally become a better snowboarder in a pretty quick period of time and do things that they didn't think were possible and seeing their reaction, hearing their reaction is just -- it's like beyond inspiring.

It's like 20 cups of coffee.

It just makes me want to get back to work.

As the Maker Movement has gathered increasing momentum over the last several years, makers have been showcasing their ingenious inventions, from tentacle lamps to video games.

Now, one innovator and former Wall Street executive is finding ways not just to fuel his passion for gadgets but to share it with students around the country.

Michael Dubno, thanks for joining us.

So, let's talk a little bit about this, the odd route that you've come to being an inventor or being a maker.

How did Wall Street get you to video games, get you to this basement that we'll talk about?

Well, I think we have the order slightly backwards.

It was actually video games that got me to Wall Street.

And so I had written a Top 10-selling video game in the 1980s, and it turns out the technology for doing real-time trading has a lot of similarities to a video game.

If the video game doesn't operate at full speed and things like that, it doesn't really work very well, and the same is true for high-speed trading.

What got you into designing a video game in the first place?

I found it fun to play, and so, just like any kid, I enjoyed video games.

But I always liked to take things apart to figure out how they worked.

So any time I saw any game that anyone else wrote, I wrote it, as well.

And any time I saw anything in hardware, I did that, as well.

So, after the banking experience...

The traumatic banking experiencing...

Traumatic banking... After that, you had a little bit more time on your hands.

What made you want to sort or double-down on going back to the workshop and inventing?

Well, I never totally left it.

So, what I would do at night, after I was doing, you know, running a very large organization, is I would actually tinker.

I would tinker with software, I'd tinker with hardware, and in fact, during that period of time, I actually built a robot that was capable of navigating around the room accurately, talking, picking up things, and that was 31 years ago.

So I never really left it.

After I stopped working full-time on Wall Street, it just became clear that this was a fun thing to spend my time doing.

You know, tinkering used to be this sort of RadioShack subculture, et cetera, et cetera, but the Maker Movement has really become a much more mainstream idea -- kids trying to do this in their high schools, encouraged to do so, fairs that are happening.

You started one, literally from your own house, as well.

So, we started an event called Gadgetoff.

We had jet-powered Merry-Go-Rounds, we had a giant spider that would drive through, and we also had the person in charge of Solar System exploration for NASA.

So we had a very interesting mix of people.

And a lot of that was actually serendipity of invention.

So if you think about all these people, they're all inventors of some sort.

Some are inventing things that one would say are frivolous or artistic, and some are inventing things that may save lives in the end.

But it turns out that they all worked together in this synergistic way, and they get benefits from meeting each other.

So, let's talk a little bit about this basement that's becoming legendary.

It's not like any other Brownstone in New York.

What's in it?

Well, most people wonder whether I have a permit, is the first question.

So there are laser-cutters, plasma-cutters, computer-controlled mills, welders...

It seems like everything necessary in every Batcave, right?

I mean, what prompted you to get all this stuff and put it that close to home?

Well, it's interesting.

So, sometimes, tools actually stimulate what you invent.

So I bought a laser-cutter, and what I found with the laser-cutter is I can easily cut plastic ears.

And it turns out, there's a 2,200-year-old computational device called the Antikythera Mechanism.

That device is 30 gears or so, that they know of, and another 20 or so that they're uncertain of.

And so I was able to cut that on the laser-cutter and put this together instead of having to hand-machine every single piece of bronze that the ancient Greeks did.

How do you encourage young people to get into following this passion?

I mean, a lot of kids like to play video games, but how do you expose to them the idea that they can actually help create it and that says fun?

So, let's even talk about the initial problem, right, which is a lot of the way school is taught is by rote.

It's almost a religious type of teaching.

'This is how to do this formula.

This is what the answer is.'

We teach, and then we practice that, and then we test it.

And so, what we want to do is we want you to experiment and fail, and so it's learned.

And so we want you create while doing it.

So teach, practice, test.

Of course, if someone teaches you something that is wrong, that's problematic.

It may lead to a dangerous society.

But if we actually get you to solve problems, then you see that any problem you can solve going forward.

So what we do is we give you a problem, in fact, that's too hard.

And the robotic stuff that we do, the problem is too hard.

You don't have enough time, you don't have enough people, you don't have enough money.

Wait a minute, that sounds like business, right?

And then, amazingly, you solve it because we didn't tell you how.

And you started to research online how to solve it.

You experimented, you failed, and you got there.

And the confidence, the abilities that come out of the kids that go through this are substantially greater to the point where institutions like MIT actually seek out these kids.

You mentioned this, the STEM Center.

This is almost a little bit of a prototype.

What are you trying to build, and how can it scale?

So, there's a STEM Center, or more a physics education center in Israel called Hemdat.

And what they were doing is they realized that the school system in Israel wasn't really capable of teaching deep science to the kids.

Either the science was changing, the equipment was too difficult to maintain, too expensive, the expertise was too difficult to maintain, and so, what they did is they created this institute, and they bring kids, high school age, into classes.

They teach them a real class, and then they go back to their school.

And so what we want to do is actually similar but across all the STEM fields and focusing specifically on technology and engineering, simply because those are not well-taught in the New York City school system.

And how much money does it take to build one of these, and then how many of these can you build?

Well, we have different models, and so we have looked in the back of libraries, in unused space.

That is not really what we're hoping to accomplish.

And so, it'll be something in about the $5 million to $10 million range, to open up a real center that actually tests what we're trying to test.

And it will hopefully serve a number of schools in a district, maybe 20, 30 schools in a district.

I think it's incredibly important for people to actually learn and understand how the world works.

I think it's really dangerous to the world when they do not.

And I think our last election might have shown some of that, where people believe facts that are not necessarily facts.

And so if you have a discipline for learning something, questioning something, taking it apart, and understanding it yourself, then you might come to really strong conclusions that are based on facts as opposed to based on mythology.

Michael Dubno, thanks for joining us.

Thanks for having me.

You've heard of Neil Armstrong, but what about Eunice Smith?

In her book 'Hidden Figures,' Margot Lee Shetterly tells the story of the human computers, a group of black female mathematicians who at the peak of the Space Race and the Civil Rights Movement worked behind the scenes at NASA.

Reporter Andrea Vasquez talks to Shetterly via Google Hangouts.

Margot Lee Shetterly, thanks for being with us on Google Hangouts.

Thanks, Andrea.

I'm really glad to be here today.

So, in your book, 'Hidden Figures,' you explain the human computers who worked for NASA.

Who were the human computers?

It's really interesting, this term 'computer' because today, we think of the computer, you know, that we use to connect like we are right now, you know, and our telephones, our cars, our toasters, but a computer simply was a job title, you know?

Originally, it referred to somebody who computed or who did math all day, like these women did.

So before there was an electronic computer, there were rooms of people, usually women, who did all of the hard work of processing and analyzing data that came from things like aeronautical flight testing, which is what the predecessor to NASA spent all of their time doing.

So, that is, in a nutshell, what these women dedicated their professional lives to.

Earlier in history, around World War II, women got into computing because so many men were soldiers and were deployed, but what sort of precipitated these women who were working during the height of the Civil Rights movement and the Space Race?

You know, just as you said, World War II, a lot of men, mathematicians, went off to fight.

This happened at the same time there was a skyrocketing need for aeronautical research because, you know, the airplane was a decisive factor in the Allied victory over the Axis forces in World War II.

But the specific event that led the black women to come to Langley was a gentleman named A. Phillip Randolph.

Now, everybody knows the name of Martin Luther King.

A. Phillip Randolph was a Civil Rights leader in the '40s, you know, the '30s, you know, somebody that we all used to know and has faded from history.

But he really pressed then-President Roosevelt to open the Federal Government, the Civil Service, Defense Industry, all of those jobs to African Americans.

President Roosevelt in 1941 signed an executive order integrating the federal government.

And about two years later, the first five black women walked through the door at what was then called the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

And that moment is really where my book, 'Hidden Figures,' begins.

And getting them into the job roles is one thing, but then what was the work environment like once they got there?

Right, so, the work itself, you know, the black women and the white women essentially did the same kind of work, you know?

In the beginning in particular, they were organized into pools.

So the same idea that, you know, you hear about these secretarial pools where there are a lot of women and they would sort of send the work to the women in the pool, the women would do the work, and send it back.

Well, they, you know, decided this was also a really efficient way to deal with the computing work.

But because this happened in Virginia, because it was in the Jim Crow South, the women had to be separate.

So there was a white computing pool.

It was called the East Computing Pool because it was on the east of the campus, and there was a West Area Computing Pool, and that's where the black women were.

You know, following the law at that time, they were in a separate office, they had separate bathrooms, and a separate eating place in the cafeteria.

But they did the same work as their white counterparts.

So, following the real pioneers in that, the initial human computers, what was sort of the lasting impact and legacy in the culture at NASA?

So, my father, he's now retired, but he spent his entire career at NASA Langley as a research scientist.

He came in the late '60s, and by the time he got there, these women, these black women, had already been on the job for two decades.

We always think of, you know, men being the pioneers in civil rights and engineering and all these kinds of things, but the fact is, the first professional African Americans at NASA were actually women.

But these black women also opened the door and provided their shoulders to the next generation of black men who went in and became engineers.

In so many ways -- You know, they were on the job for decades, you know, they were sometimes literally hidden in the sense that they were in this different office, but, really, I think more accurately, we just didn't see them or pay attention to them, and yet, they were aeronautical ground troops, you know, ground troops of the Space Race.

We wouldn't have gotten those amazing moments like John Glenn circling the Earth and Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier, you know?

And we wouldn't have seen people who came, you know, later, like Christine Darden.

She was somebody who really was able to let her talent shine in her, you know, aeronautical Sonic Boom technology.

You look at the head of NASA -- a black man, Charlie Bolden, and a woman, Dava Newman, who is the Assistant Administrator, the Deputy Administrator.

They're leading the space agencies.

So, you know, I think the legacy of these women lives on in so many different places around us today.

And from what you learned for the research for your book and also from your father's career, what is the impact of having diversity within an agency like NASA that's doing research and working on these innovations?

You don't know if you have the best people if you haven't looked everywhere.

It's about looking everywhere to find the best talent, bringing them in, and then giving them the tools and providing the environment so they could succeed because, you know, when everybody succeeds, the entire organization does a lot better.

So 'Hidden Figures' is a really great example of that, where a door opened, these women came inside, and all of a sudden, they were able to help our country achieve some of the things that it wanted most.

And I think that's really what we want now, you know.

Our economy today is based on technology, and there's a lot of talk about -- how is America going to be competitive if it doesn't fill these technology jobs?

Well, I think, once again, what we have to do is look everywhere because if we reach out and find the right people, I think, yet again, we'll find that we're able to achieve more than we expected.

Margot Lee Shetterly, author of 'Hidden Figures,' subsequently made into a movie, thanks so much for joining us.

It's been my pleasure.

Thanks for having me on.

Less than half-a-century ago, grizzly bears were on the path to extinction.

Now, a group of biologists in Yellowstone National Park are placing a watchful eye on grizzly populations by outfitting them with collars to track their every move.

By knowing their whereabouts, biologists can help protect grizzlies from existing threats.

This story comes from the environmental team, EarthFix.

Take a look.

Beyond the rhythm of water and the sway of woods is a wild sound -- [ Breathing deeply ]

A grizzly bear, snoring inside a trap.

[ Snores ]

The key to being successful with grizzly bears is being patient and investing the time and effort you need to capture bears.

A few hours earlier, Grizz #1225 was unconscious on this makeshift operating table in the woods.

Biologists took samples and fit the animal with a tracking collar.

He's a perfect example of what a young male grizzly bear should look like in a quality habitat -- a beautiful bear.

Grizz #1225 lives in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Feeding bears in Yellowstone was once common.

The practice stopped in the 1970s, but grizzly bears were dependant on the handouts.

They had to learn to find food in the wild, go without, or be put down as trouble.

They don't want garbage, per se, but if they find it, then they eat it, and that's where problems come in.

By 1975, the government added grizzlies to its list of species facing the threat of extinction.

Their numbers dropped below 200 in the Yellowstone region.

Today, there are more than 1,000.

Is that a one-year?


Okay, that's it.

10% of them are collared so biologists can track their every move.

Tracking starts as soon as the bear leaves the trap.

People don't really understand how often bears actually move through this area.

And it's a tribute to the bears and, really, their tolerance, and, really, what they're looking for.

A male grizzly's range covers 2,000 square miles.

It's pretty incredible, the distances these bears cover and why they do it.

It just continually raises so many questions as far as -- We always think we're starting to get a glimpse of what they're doing, and then something new will come up and it blows your mind.

Researchers like Nichole Walker follow the bear's path on foot.

She checks the area for collared bears before she leaves the truck.

If we hear a beep, it means that there's a collared grizzly in the area.

Hearing a beep is bad.

We don't want to hear a beep.

Static is good.

If we hear a beep, we leave.

Walker's trying to understand why the bear was here, but for personal safety, she doesn't want the bear to be here when she comes through.


She hollers often to make her presence known.


There's a high level of anxiety sometimes, but it's also a big thrill to be out here in Bear Country and investigating and seeing things that a lot of people don't get to see.

Walker finds clues -- a fresh day bed dug behind a log and bark peeled back by a bear searching for bugs to eat.

This research may help recovery efforts in other regions, like Washington's North Cascades.

Knowing where grizzlies go and what they eat matters.

Our research has indicated one of the big things that they're eating are ants.

Ants are sustaining a lot of bears in the Island Park area, and you just think of an animal of that size sustaining itself on tiny ants.

Ants, berries, road kill, and, yes, still today, sometimes garbage.

Every year, we have conflicts to where we have to go and try to manage a conflict bear or manage people who were making poor choices.

Yellowstone's grizzlies spent the last four decades expanding on the landscape they share with humans.

Now it's people who are facing some adjustments.

Bear population is growing, and they're in places that they haven't been, and now it's at the point where we have to change some of our behaviors.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is working with the Forest Service to bear-proof campgrounds.

You know, it's easy to work with kids, and it's the parents or the grandparents who are like, 'I never used to camp like that, I don't see the need to do that.'

These measures aren't just to keep people safe.

They're also to protect Yellowstone's grizzlies from the bad habits that got them in trouble just a few decades ago.

My whole life, grizzly bears have been protected.

They've always been this iconic species that is kind of hidden or really secretive, and there's not a lot known, and we're starting uncover a lot of that.

To actually see them be on the edge to where they've recovered enough to where they don't need to be listed is a cool thing to be a part of.

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...