SciTech Now Episode 324

In this episode of SciTech Now, creating an electromagnetic football; a conversation with the author of “The War on Science”; an app that helps people manage and invest money; a robotics summer camp; and why do squid release ink?



Coming up, an electromagnetic football.

Effectively, what we're doing is we're taking the football and turning it into a magnet.

So you can see, as he's running down here, the ball really is changing directions as he moves it in his arm and runs across the field.

The war on science.

When we become vulnerable to disinformation campaigns is when science becomes so complex that it's not really accessible in that know-how way.

Building robots at summer camp.

And the kids come to robot camp.

And they'll learn about robotics and gears, electrons, all kinds of things.

But they get to build a robot that they take home at the end of the week.

Well, I had a little help with -- with the mother chip and with the screws.

But everything else, um, I did.

The mysteries of squid ink.

For as long as we've been studying squid, we've known that they release ink.

But in that whole time, we thought that the ink was simply a visual defense.

We've hypothesized that there's actually additional uses for squid releasing ink.

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.

Football is an American tradition, sometimes full of camaraderie, team loyalty, and nail-biting referee decisions.

But what if the refs could use electromagnetic waves to help pinpoint exactly where the ball landed to make their game calls?

We go inside the lab to learn more.

[ Cheers and applause ]

Football fans know that tracking a football isn't easy.

The game is fast.

The players are big.

Coaches and even referees know that, too.

The trouble is, inches matter in football.

The exact location of the football can determine whether a player gained enough yardage for a third-down conversion.

The exact location can also show if the ball crossed the goal line for a touchdown.

In short, the spot of the ball can affect who wins the game.

Just watch what happens in this Appalachian State football game.

Can you tell if the ball crosses the goal line?

Now, engineers at NC State may have a way to know for sure.

What we do is we turn the football into a small electromagnet.

The scientists work with Carnegie Mellon University and Disney Research to create a way to track a football in three-dimensional space.

You can do -- you can do left, right; forward, back; up, down is three.

And then the football can be rotated this way, and the football can be rotated this way.

So he could actually track the football in any orientation around.

It's all done using a low-frequency transmitter that is integrated into the football.

This is the rechargeable battery for the device.

And then here's the actual transmitter.

This is the on-off switch, so they can turn it off.

These are the two wires from the antenna coming up into the transmitter.

And here's the key -- the transmitter creates a current in the wire, which turns the ball into a pretty simple electromagnet.

This time-lapse video shows how it's all put together.

The ball is deflated and unlaced.

The bladder is removed.

And then a wire is wrapped around the bladder several times.

The bladder is put back into the football.

And then the antenna and the transmitter are epoxied together to make them more durable.

Everything is then packed back into the football, which is laced back up and then reinflated.

The weight is within the standard deviation of accepted professional football weights.

The ball is carefully balanced.

If you think about a science experiment you might have done in school where you wrapped a coiled wire and then connected the coil of wire to a battery and then looked at what happened to a compass, you're measuring the same sorts of things that you did with the iron filings and the permanent magnet.

In one case, it's a permanent magnet.

The other case, it's created by the currents.

But the fields are very similar.

And effectively, what we're doing is we're taking the football and turning it into a magnet, just like the coiled wire that you did in the science experiment in school.

And here's how it works.

Watch the player, and then watch the arrow on the side of the screen.

You know, everybody likes to do something cool.

Everybody likes to see something that's entertaining.

So you can see, as he's running down here, the ball really is changing directions as he moves it in his arm and runs across the field.

So you can see not only his location but also that orientation.

And you see, there's a red and a yellow line.

And the yellow line's really telling you the orientation.

So when the ball's flat, horizontal to the field, the yellow line's straight.

And as it tips up, that yellow line gets shorter and shorter and shorter.

There's a series of antennas placed around the field to track the signal produced by the transmitter.

A computer uses the data to place the ball.

This is one just showing the accuracy.

So we've got one of our researchers walking the line.

And this is showing the direction of the ball, so it's pointed to his right.

And he's within one foot of the goal line, mostly within 6 inches, as he walks.

And remember, the football is producing a low-frequency signal.

That's important because low-frequency signals pass through the human body.

The ball won't get lost in a pile-up of players.

We use magnetic waves, which may not mean anything to most people.

But typical radio waves get absorbed by our bodies or get shoulder pads, helmets, metal things.

The magnetic waves tend to ignore us.

We're sort of transparent, if you will, to the magnetic waves.

So by using magnetic waves, when all the players huddle around the ball, the waves just propagate through them.

And we can see them just fine.

So the players themselves don't affect the fields we measure whatsoever.

And the electromagnetic signals produced are good for tracking a football and safe for people.

There actually is an analysis that we had done where you actually calculate... You take a human body model, and we calculated the football sitting right here, if you held it, how long you could hold it.

And I think you could hold it for a full 4 or 8 hours, and you'd still be below all the acceptable limits.

Researchers admit the system needs fine-tuning.

But the NFL and several other sports leagues are reviewing the technology.

And it was just -- it was just cool to be able to do something that enabled us to interact with a sports team.

And that was so easy to understand.

You know, a lot of the work we do in research doesn't always take us into something that's exciting and also that you can share.

Science and technology impact many public policy issues today, from energy and the environment to public health and privacy.

But how is public opinion and knowledge of science informed or misinformed by our political discourse?

A new book titled 'The War on Science' is starting conversations about the relationship between science and democracy.

This segment is part of our ongoing series of reports, 'Peril & Promise: The Challenge of Climate Change.'

Joining me today is science advocate, filmmaker, and author Shawn Otto.

Thanks for being here.

Thanks for having me.

So I love how you describe the shift from understanding science among common people from know-how, knowing how to put together maybe a radio, to magic.

I don't know how to put together my cellphone.

And how that shifted things from knowledge to belief.

That's right.

How has this shifted how we talk about scientific issues, especially in politics?

Science isn't really something that we should be thinking about in terms of belief.

When we become vulnerable to disinformation campaigns is when science becomes so complex that it's not really accessible in that know-how way.

And then we have to trust what other people say about it.

And it gets into those areas of belief and whether or not you believe in climate change or whether or not you believe that vaccines don't cause autism.

Right, and I wanna go straight to the first question in your book.

Who is waging the war on science?

There are actually three areas that it's being waged.

One is by fundamentalist evangelicals who really object to what modern biological sciences are saying about human reproduction and sexuality and about origins.

They have been developing language to refute science for about 25 years now.

They're... The next one is coming out of actually left-wing academia, a post-modern movement that refutes the idea that there's any such thing as objective knowledge -- that science is just another way of knowing, like any other kind of truth.

The problem is is that that group has taught most of our journalists for two generations that there's no such thing as objectivity.

So we see the, kind of, evolution of post-fact politics that we're seeing now, where journalists don't take a position on whether something is supported by the evidence or not.

And the third area, the third front on the war on science, is the one that's probably the most powerful, that you're exploring right now, in some ways, which is about climate change.

But it's also about other areas in -- of environmental and biological science that show that we ought to regulate some industry function.

And industry turns around and invests to create uncertainty about that science to shortchange the democratic process.

When you talk about the media, because that's such a big way that people get information, and then they're bringing that to their dinner table conversations --


What is the responsibility of media to find that truth that's not going to be an oversimplification and not going to be a false objectivity?

Well, it's really a profound responsibility in a democracy.

That's really the original conceived purpose of the free press.

That's why Thomas Jefferson really advocated for the free press so that the people could hold those in power accountable to the evidence.

And when the press has moved away from the idea of that there is evidence that you can hold the powerful accountable to and gotten into this idea of 'We're going to just wash our hands of it all, and we'll present both sides.

And we'll find a scientist in one side that's representing all the known hard-won evidence created from billions of measurements over decades.

And then, well, because we have to be balanced, we'll find somebody with a different opinion from the 'other side,'' Then that creates a false balance between opinion and evidence.

And what that winds up doing is skewing democracy further and further towards extreme opinions by elevating those unsupported opinions and acting as if they have the same weight as the tested evidence that we've developed through science.

So if users -- readers and viewers can't always rely on what they're seeing and hearing, where should individuals find the information that they need to know?

It's getting harder and harder to do that, especially with... You've heard in the last couple of days, talk about Facebook and other social media groups, Google, and about how people are tending to isolate themselves in social bubbles where they're surrounded by people who think similar to them.

And social media is now the number-one sharing of news clips.

So people wind up seeing very different realities, sometimes, and very different accounts.

And that, again, allows disinformation players... And in the climate battles, for instance, they're spending about a billion dollars a year to create uncertainty about the findings of climate science.

So who should we be looking to to correct all this misinformation?

It's very difficult.

That's why there is a growing movement of fact checking. and SciCheck do a good job with that.

But we need a verification process.

And the media really needs to start rethinking their role in democracy and what their purpose is.

Their purpose is not necessarily to be an outside player outside of a democracy.

It's to hold the powerful accountable to the evidence.

And that's one of the reasons that I've written the book and am talking about it.

Shawn Otto, author of 'The War on Science,' thanks very much for being here.

Thanks so much for having me.

So MyFin is the easiest way to manage and save your money.

The problem that we're solving is that the average person has about seven different financial accounts but doesn't really understand enough about finance to take action.

So as a result, they don't save.

They don't invest.

And really, they don't do much with their money other than spend it.

So we're trying to change that by building an app that speaks our language and makes finance easy and enjoyable.

So what our app does is it shows you all of your accounts in one place.

It aggregates all your spending into simple pockets and shows you exactly what you want to know.

And then it gives you smart alerts and recommendations on how to improve.

So what we do is, you know, we try to, one, create an interface that is very simple and also delightful, right?

So a lot of the times, when you look at your bank account, it feels very sterile.

We try to add a little bit of personality to what we do.

And we do that through copy and text and also the branding.

So Fin is really... He's your friend, right?

He's the one that you want to ask about any finance question you have.

So, really, you know, what we're trying to do is -- is create this brand that people associate with that's different from your traditional financial advisor or legacy bank.

A lot of our friends had no idea what to do with their money, right?

They didn't really know where to go.

They didn't really know who to ask.

And it was kind of crazy to us that they were making all of these different mistakes.

And we thought that were a lot of money-saving opportunities by simply, you know, moving money from your checking account into an investment account.

It's completely free.

Anybody can download it.

Really what we're trying to do is create transparency among all of your different financial accounts, right?

Because the biggest problem is you -- you don't know where your money's going.

And when you have multiple credit cards or multiple accounts, you know, it's hard to aggregate them.

And it's hard to get a clear picture.

At the Mad Science Summer Camp in San Antonio, Texas, kids are spending their summer vacations building robots.

Up next, a look at what the next generation of robotics engineers has in store.

Mad Science is a franchise out of Montreal, Canada.

We are all over the world.

And what we do is we are experts in hands-on science for children.

So we cater to pre-K up to 12 years old.

And we just teach them to get excited about science with a more hands-on approach than other book learning or so forth.

So they get to do more things themselves.

And hopefully that sparks an interest and they carry that throughout their life and become, you know, great scientists in the future.

We're here today in San Antonio Mad Science camp.

It's robot camp.

And the kids come to robot camp.

And they're learning about robotics and gears, electrons, all kinds of things.

But they get to build a robot that they take home at the end of the week.

So this summer, they're building the Kingii Dragon.

And they do everything from the beginning to the end.

They do all the things themselves, all the gears, all the motherboards, wiring, the whole bit.

And when they leave, they have a working Kingii Dragon.

I would say this camp is a very great camp.

And this is the first camp to actually make the robot and make it work.

All the robots work.

The Kingii Dragon is what they're building today.

And the cool thing about the Kingii Dragon is it has two modes.

So they have to fix the wiring to their motherboard just right.

So it has a mode where it will come to you, like, friendly and the little frills on the neck will 'ch-ch-ch-ch'... Or it'll back away from you.

So there are sensors in the front of the -- the face of the Kingii Dragon.

And so it's just going to depend on what mode you have it in, whether it comes towards you or whether it's going to back away.

The thing that I like about it the most, I mean, it's colorful.

It's large.

But when you pick it up, it's almost like, 'Oh, I have a real dragon... Or I have a real -- real dragon -- a real lizard,' because its legs are moving if it's on.

So it's almost, like, 'Ah!'

It's really, really cool for the kids.

And when it moves, you have the eyes.

You have the frill around the neck.

The legs are going to move.

And also the tail kind of wags around.

His name is Mustang.

And I named him Mustang because my friend really wanted a lizard, a real one.

But I didn't really have one.

And he wanted to name him Mustang.

And so I gave it the name because of my friend.

That's a great name.

And did you build Mustang all by yourself?

Well, I had a little help with the mother chip and with the screws.

But everything else, um, I did.

There's the first mode.

The middle mode is to run away or come... I think it's run away.

And the other one is it'll -- and if anything is in front of the sensor, it will follow it.

But if it thinks something... If it's going to hit something, it backs up.

It puts out its frill like this picture, and it, and it backs out and tries to go another way without it running into every -- anything.

Mad Science is very mobile.

For most of our program, we come to you at your home, your school, party location.

For summer camp, we can even bring a camp to you if you have a group of 15, and you're like, 'I want to do robot camp in my house.'

We can bring everything to you.

For the summer camps, we do have locations that families travel to.

But the majority of our programming is us coming to schools, to corporations, to movie theaters, or people's homes, like for a party, for example.

We bring it to you.

And we provide everything that we need.

So it's kind of no muss, no fuss.

Scientist just comes to you and takes care of everything.

I feel great now that I've been here, done that.

And I've also been to the other camp, the spy camp.

And -- and I hope I get to do another camp next year in summer.

So we're at robot camp here today.

But we have, actually, nine different camps that we offer.

And so we run the gamut from everything from inventors and inventions, chemistry, to engineers, machine mania.

We have a spy academy and a secret agent lab.

And then, during the school year, we have what we call workshops and classes.

They go all over the science spectrum.

I mean, everything covered -- earthworms, dry ice capades, slime, electricity.

You name it.

So if you have a science need, we can definitely cater to it.

Since scientists began studying squid, they've been trying to understand why squid release ink.

Could squid ink be used to attract a mate, repel predators, or confuse prey?

Up next, 'Science Friday' takes us inside the lab at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California, where scientist Stephanie Bush searches for these answers.

My nickname is Dr. Steph-lopod.

Should I do this, too?

We're in the necropiscatorium at MBARI.

It actually means the dead fish room.

So this is Taonius.

It just says squid and then, in parentheses, vicious.

For as long as we've been studying squid, we've known that they release ink.

But in that whole time, we thought that the ink was simply a visual defense.

But we've hypothesized that there's actually additional uses for squid releasing ink.

And it would be great if we could set up an experiment in a giant tank that replicates the conditions of the deep sea and put some squid in there.

But that's currently not an option.

One of the first things we thought of is, 'Maybe the ink contains chemicals that are repellent to a potential predator.'

If you're a predator swimming through the ocean and you run into this bad-tasting thing, you might stop for a second and kind of, you know, shake your head and try and get rid of that from your olfactory system.

And, in the meantime, the squid is getting away.

Then there's the other side of that, equally possible.

The ink just smells like squid.

And that is actually an attractant.

So the predator is out to find squid, to eat it.

So if they come across some ink, and that ink smells like squid, they're like, 'Ooh, I'm close.'

That could distract them for long enough that the actual squid gets away.

It could be a possibility that a squid would use ink to attract a mate.

The deep sea is a huge habitat, and it's completely dark.

And you don't necessarily want to be swimming around all the time, potentially bumping into predators, when you're trying to find a mate.

A low release of a few puffs of ink, and, as the ink dissipates, another squid might sense that ink and know, 'Okay. I should, you know, look around a little bit more.'

You can think of it as the lazy man's way of attracting a mate.

One of the coolest things that has been found recently by some Japanese researchers is that there's a species of pygmy squid that actually release ink as they're hunting.

So they'll release a few puffs of ink and then swim through those puffs of ink and grab prey.

So it's a visual distraction from their prey instead of their predators.

Some gnarliness.

Oh, that looks disgusting.

This is nasty.

Actually, these ones look pretty cool.

The one on the right is Taonius.

And the one on the left is Galiteuthis.

There are hundreds of species of squid, and all of them that have been studied release ink.

One of the core tenets of science is to continue questioning the things that we know and the things that we think we know.

We want to constantly challenge the, sort of, firmly held beliefs that we have in science.

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.