SciTech Now Episode 329

In this episode of SciTech Now, Hillary Lewandowski encourages young people to give coding a try; a curator at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum explains how design can challenge social and economic inequality in our country; an ongoing science experiment that may have found the fountain of youth; and NPR’s Adam Cole joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss hydras.



Coming up... The case for coding.

My title is Drupal Developer, so I will use Drupal to CMS, which is a content management system, to build the skeleton of a website, and then I will code in a language called PHP to fill in all the custom requirements on the back end.

It is very normal in a coding job to be one of the few women, but it doesn't present any problems because men are very open to hearing new ideas, and that's one of the great things that a woman in a man's field can bring to the table is thinking about problems in a different way.

Great design from coast to coast.

And these particular designs that were included in the exhibition address real-world problems, solve issues, and really address complex and systemic issues that are confronting the United States today.

The animal that wouldn't die.

The hydra -- that's what it's called -- has extraordinary powers of regeneration, almost as if it's built not to die ever, which is ridiculous 'cause everything dies, we assume.

In science, however, you don't assume, you check.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...


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.

In today's Digital Age, it's no surprise that many lucrative jobs require coding skills.

The increased demand for skilled programmers has led to a push for schools to implement coding into their curriculum.

In this segment, we meet Hillary Lewandowski from Detroit, Michigan, who discovered her love of coding upon entering college and now encourages young people, especially young women, to give coding a try.

Commercial Progression is a company that builds websites for people, so a lot of what we do is higher education.

So a college will come to us and say, 'We want a website for our faculty to be able to enter in grades,' and then we'll sit down with them, gather all the information we need to build the website, and then build it for them.

My title is Drupal Developer, so I will use Drupal to CMS, which is a content management system, to build the skeleton of a website, and then I will code in a language called PHP to fill in all the custom requirements on the back end.

My job is a very typical example of what a Drupal Developer does, but there are a lot of other things that you can do.

You can specialize in working on the pretty front end, or you can specialize on working on the very technical back end of the website.

You can also be promoted to something called an Architect, and that's the one who decides how the website is structured.

One of the toughest parts of any development job is being able to understand what the client wants.

A lot of times they'll tell you what they think they want, and you go and deliver it to them, and that's not exactly what they needed.

So you need to be able to talk to people and figure out what they need versus what they want, and give them the combination of those two things.

Working at Commercial Progression is a lot of fun 'cause they understand that working as a developer is really tough and taxing.

You're doing a lot of thinking.

So there's a lot of opportunity to relax.

We watch television shows while we eat lunch together.

It is very normal in a coding job to be one of the few women, but it doesn't present any problems because men are very open to hearing new ideas, and that's one of the great things that a woman in a man's field can bring to the table is thinking about problems in a different way.

The industry is changing, and more and more women are getting jobs in coding, and I am seeing a lot more women, but it's not as many as I would like.

I think we have unintentionally discouraged a lot of girls from getting into careers in science from a young age, and I think we do need to turn it around and encourage them a lot more because I think at some point, they just get discouraged, and we need to keep up with that support so that they can reach their goals.

I didn't now that I wanted to work with computers and programming until about a month before I got into college.

I saw my dad doing a lot of side projects with websites, and I thought that looked really cool, so I just went for it.

Anyone who thinks that they are interested in trying out computer science, there are a lot of online tools to try and see if you like coding, to practice some coding samples.

There's a ton of websites out there.

Codecademy is a big one, where you can just take some little online classes, and it will teach you how to write, like, a little game, and that's a good way to figure out if you like coding in general, and just playing around with stuff in your free time and having a little side project is just the best way to prepare for majoring in computer science or getting a job coding.

I wasn't sure I liked to code until I was 18 years old.

I was really worried that I was gonna go into my college computer science courses and be the only person who's never really coded anything before, but that's not how college courses are structured.

They always explain everything from the beginning, so I didn't miss out on anything.

I wasn't behind the curve.

Everything worked out.

One of the great things about being a coder is that you don't need that traditional computer science education to code.

You don't have to go to college.

You can go and major in something else that you find interesting.

As long as you know how to break down a problem into little pieces, you know how to code.


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The impact of great design can be seen across the nation.

An exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, 'By the People,' highlights how design can even challenge social and economic inequality in our country.

Curator of the exhibit, Cynthia E. Smith, conducted more than two years of field research in search of collaborative designs for more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable communities, and she's here with me now to discuss the project.

So, what makes good design?

I think it's a combination of innovation addressing -- especially in these particular designs that were included in the exhibition -- address real-world problems, solve issues, and really address complex and systemic issues that are confronting the United States today.

But it seems less about the designer and more about the sort of population or community that is going to interact with it or be served by it, too.


Most of the designs in the exhibition were created in collaboration with communities.

You end up with a much more resilient and sustainable and something that really reflects the needs of the community directly.

And what's interesting about this exhibit is this isn't just about architecture, it's not just about the spaces created, but it's really -- I mean, you have one, the mobile market on wheels in Chicago, and then different type of wheels that almost looks like an Erector Set, but a pedal-powered cultivator, right?

So what was the thinking behind all these different objects and what do they have in common?

I think, across the board, the designers are thinking of ways to share resources more broadly to create more just and equitable communities.

So how does this address that question that you have is how can design address the world's most critical issues with funtionable, affordable solutions?

It takes a range of approaches and strategies.

You have something like the Farm Hack Culticycle, where a group of young farmers decided that they wanted to improve agriculture in the United States.

Agriculture is -- with climate change, extended growing seasons, large industrial farms, and so they came together and said, 'We could share knowledge further,' and so they created an online database, where they have collected and disseminate over 150 machine tools.

The one that we have on display in the exhibition is the cultivator, which -- Actually, they call it the Culticycle, which is a cultivator, but it's essentially a tractor that can be adapted very easily, and then offline, they come together in these Farm Hack events, where young farmers, hackers, makers, engineers, designers get together and build them and add high technology to this very low-tech machine, so it's pedal-powered.

Anybody can use it.

They add a tablet to it, a digital tablet, where they can map the terrain, test the soil, and so it's combining both high-tech and low-tech technology with science to transform agriculture in the United States so it's more resilient and adaptive.

In a way, it's kind of the fundamentals of what the country was built on -- really, almost what any society's built on.

They have a problem, they figure out how to solve it.

They come together, they share the wealth and the result.


And I think you pointed out another one, the one in Chicago.

This was a group of young architects that partnered with community advocates to take old city buses and transform them into one-aisle produce markets that they took into food deserts.

Now, food deserts, for people who don't know, are places where brick-and-mortar stores don't exist, so people have to buy at a local bodega or market, and so they went in and brought these old city buses outfitted with fresh produce, bringing health messages.

The Mayor, the current Mayor right now, is hoping to eradicate all of the food deserts throughout Chicago.

Obviously, full-time stores would be great, but this is a great stop-gap in between, and the idea can scale.

A lot of these ideas are not limited to the spaces that you found them in.


With the mobile markets, the produce markets, they found that there was demand there, so brick-and-mortar stores actually began to move in, so there was real impact using this innovative design.

I would say, also, one of the other designs that's included in the exhibition is text4baby, which has become very popular, and it scaled up very, very quickly.

And for people who don't know what it is, this is for expecting mothers to get information at just the right amount of time as they're progressing through their pregnancy, right?

Yes, timed to whatever month that they are.

Get this checkup, go to this to make sure you're checking in with this doctor or you're having these vitamins, or whatever it was, right?

And what was interesting, I thought, and one of the reasons I included it in the exhibition, the idea came out of Africa and South America, that this designer was working in those places, and he was delivering health messages, and it wasn't happening here in the U.S., and so he brought this idea back to the U.S., partnered with the Centers for Disease Control so we have scientific messages, the Wireless Foundation and mobile carriers so they're delivered free, the White House Office of Science and Technology -- so they came up with a broad strategy, and over a million mothers are receiving them now, and they're very effective.

A recent study found that mothers who were scheduled to have vaccinations, they received a message, they were two times more likely to have the vaccinations.

So it's effective.

And it's great design.

Cynthia Smith from the Cooper Hewitt, thanks for joining us.

Thank you.


My name is Ivaylo Getov.

And my name is Mandy Mandelstein, and we're the cofounders of Luxloop.

We're a creative technology studio that makes experiences and tells stories that are enabled by tech rather than focusing on a specific piece of tech itself.

We do stuff that brings people together, is participatory, gets you off the couch, and gets you to have a shared experience.

Currently, we're working on a project in Minneapolis at the Minneapolis Institute of Art called 'Overheard,' which is a narrative that's embedded into the space of the museum.

It's all audio.

The way you interact with it, is that you download an app on your phone, and then you put it away, and then you just wander about the museum as you would on your regular museum visit.

There's five character narratives that are embedded within the space, so you will happen on these characters, and it's as if they're in the same room with you, looking at the same art, except they all have their own agendas of why they're there.

It's based on us being very entertained by listening to other people's conversations at museums and sort of just making up stories on our own about why they might be there or what made them say that really obscure thing.

And that's like a large-scale spatial experience, and on the other end, we've done music videos that you have to keep alive by keeping their heartbeat up on your phone.

We write custom software.

We've done interactive installations.

It really scales the whole gamut because we like to think of an idea that would be cool, and then we figure out how to enable it.

We really want to expand on the Spatial Narrative project we've done.

We want to do it again closer to home.

We're in New York and L.A., so we want to try that, try a different version of that.

It's a project that can happen in any sort of social space, any kind of museum.

Another museum would be fun, a different kind of museum would be fun.

It would be fun to see how that changes the stories.

We work with artists a lot.

We work with agencies.

So it can run from anything from a useful utilitarian, fun, participatory thing to something like a wall of eyes that looks at you as you walk by and makes you feel a little interesting.

We've both worked in film and documentary and commercials for many years, and that's how we actually met and realized that we were both interested in how tech could intersect with the storytelling elements and with the visual elements we were already working in, and we just started working on projects together, and now we're here.

We try to start by thinking of how technology can make something possible that would otherwise be impossible instead of saying, 'Let's work with phones or with VR, with any specific piece of technology,' and try to find something to do with that.

We want to tell a story about people in a museum, so then we found the best tech that would enable us to tell the story the way we wanted to tell it.

[ Keyboard clacking ] ♪♪ ♪♪

Planets with rings generally form far from the Sun, such as Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

At those larger distances, the temperatures are cooler and compounds such as water ice condense into solids.

This allows the planets to become much larger.

Those larger planets form a disk around them much like the disk in which the planets themselves form.

In that disk, moons and rings form.

Rings are just collections of small particles like moons that are too close to the planet to be able to accrete to form a moon.

Closer to the Sun, where the temperatures are higher, there's not enough raw material to form rings that can last for the age of the solar system.

We would expect to see rings around planets like our own giant planets around other stars, as well.

As young children, we learn a hard truth.

In the end, all animals die -- or do they?

Next up, we have the story of an ongoing science experiment and a freshwater animal that just may have found the fountain of youth.


One day 250 years ago, a young teacher named Abraham Trembley was walking through a field, and he came to a pond, looked in, and there in the water he saw this thing.

It was very little with wavy tentacles on top and a tubelike body, and just to see what would happen, he cut it in half.

Much to his surprise, instead of dying on the spot, the animal grew back into two full-sized adults.


So he did it again.

The same thing happened.

And again.

This animal just wouldn't die.

The hydra -- that's what it's called -- has extraordinary powers of regeneration, almost as if it's built not to die ever, which is ridiculous 'cause everything dies, we assume.

In science, however, you don't assume, you check.

So, in the 1990s, a curious young scientist, Daniel Martinez, having heard that hydras go on and on and on, decided to do an experiment.

He gathered a bunch of hydra from a pond in Long Island, New York, put them in some tanks where he could keep an eye on them, and he thought, 'I'm gonna wait until I see them die naturally,' and hydra do die.

You take them out of water, they'll shrivel up.

But in a natural environment, nobody knows.

So, Daniel waited.

First his hydras had babies.

Then a week passed, then months passed.

Meanwhile, Daniel's school year ended.

He got a job out west in California.

Rather than miss the death of his hydras, he put them in a cooler, traveled cross-country with his brother, and every day wherever he was, he fed them, washed them, and he waited.

A year passed.

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Then two years, three years.

Still no deaths.

Four years out, Daniel published a science paper that said hydras apparently never die.

Well, what he really said was, 'Mortality Patterns Suggest Lack of Senescence In Hydra.'

Now, you think four years is kind of a short-term for a claim like this.

I mean, a lot of us are past our fourth birthdays, and we still expect to die, but here's the thing.

There's a well-known pattern in nature.

The sooner you have babies, the sooner you die.

If you're a tiny fly, you have your babies quickly, after a couple of weeks, and you die, Mm, here after a couple of months.

If you're a huge elephant, you wait 13 years to have your babies, you live for another 40 or 50 years, and then you die right around here.

And this is true across the animal kingdom except when it comes to hydra.

Remember, hydra have their babies after a couple of days, so they should die after, say, a month, but Dan's hydra had lived for four years when he published his paper, and they are still going strong today.

They've now lived for more than eight years.

That is 100 times their expected life span.

That's like an elephant living for 5,000 years.

It's like everybody else got the memo that in the end, you die, but not the hydra.

So what's going on?

Daniel says, 'Here's my theory.

Most animals, humans and hydras both, begin with a cell, a single cell, and they multiply.

In humans, our cells multiply a lot, then specialize, age, break down, and eventually they wear out, and so we die.

In a hydra, the cells, 'A,' don't specialize much.

Most hydra cells are embryonic cells, and embryonic cells, like embryos, they're simple and great at staying young.

So you can watch them here moving up the tentacles, moving down to the foot, and before they have a chance to get much older, they flake off to be replaced, as you see here, by newer cells.

Over four years, the hydra replaces all its cells, its entire body, over 60 times.

Every cell in the body is completely new every 20 days.

It even looks like a fountain of youth.

So, for all intents and purposes,' Daniel says, 'these animals are' -- and I want to use his word -- 'immortal.'

Joining me now is Adam Cole, the creator and host of NPR Science YouTube Channel, Skunk Bear.

So how is it possible that these hydra can keep doing this?

It's all about simplicity for them.

They don't have to create a lot of the specific organs or body systems that we do, and that means their cells can be very simple and just constantly replenished.

Where are they usually found?

There's all different subspecies or species of hydra, and they're found just in freshwater ecosystems all over the world.

Has there been any controversy over the findings that Martinez had?

Um, I think there's a lot of people who have called him and said, 'How can we make this into a facial cream?,' or sort of these rejuvenating treatments, and I don't think he has much interest in that area.

And does hydra have a natural predator or no?

I'm sure there's things that eat it.

It's just one of those little squishy things that runs around.

I'm sure there's -- You know, whatever's up the food chain one rung is definitely eating them.

Are they unique in this, or are there any other...?

There are some others.

There's little planarian worms, these tiny worms that people believe have a similar ability.

There's a jellyfish, tiny, little jellyfish that people think, also, never dies.

The thing they have in common is they're all very simple and all very small.

This makes me think of the -- Was it the 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,' the Marvel, and always fighting Hydra -- cut off one head, another one springs up?


That's sort of -- I mean, the legend of the Hydra is what gave name to that fictional organization and this animal.

All right.

Adam Cole from NPR's Skunk Bear.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.

Learn more about the biologically immortal hydra on our website,

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... ♪♪