SciTech Now Episode 336

In this episode of SciTech Now, the creation of the Vaux’s Swifts new habitat; a look into Darwin’s unseen manuscripts; Calwave Power Technologies is harnessing the renewable power of ocean waves to produce both electricity and freshwater; and Penn State students predicting perfect sunsets.


Coming up, birds' new habitat...

The idea is this will be the first one, and if it works, we're going to have one of these maybe every 100 miles all the way along the migration.

...Darwin's unseen manuscripts...

We have an almost day-by-day account of his thinking, becoming convinced of evolution as a fact and then seeking to apply it.

...harnessing the energy of waves...

We're able to harness the power efficiently, so that's one criteria.

But at the same time, we can also survive storms really well.

...predicting perfect sunsets...

If you asked 10 people what their version of a great sunset is, you'd probably get 10 different answers.

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.

Vaux's Swifts, a group of migrating birds, are known for the dazzling displays they create as a funnel into brick chimneys to roost for the night.

But as some brick chimneys are being replaced and demolished, these birds are losing their habitat.

Our environmental reporting partner Earth Fix has the story.

[ Laughter ]

Urban bird watching doesn't normally require stadium seating, but that changes on September evenings in Portland.

At Chapman School, huge crowds gather to watch as thousands of Vaux's Swifts prepare to drop into the chimney to roost for the night.

They are gathering and swirling in every direction, and then as they somehow collectively decide this is the place to be for tonight, they start forming into a funnel, and then birds will just start dropping faster and faster out of this funnel.

What triggered that, how they don't bump into each other... All these other cool questions in science.

It's just an amazing phenomenon.

It's dramatic, and you can see it in the evening.

You know, you don't have to get up early in the morning like all the crazy birders do, and see this giant collection of birds disappear.

Swifts would normally roost in hollow old-growth tree trunks, but most of those were wiped out by logging.

So the Swifts started using old chimneys instead.

Inside, they cling to the walls and huddled together to stay warm, but now these chimneys are disappearing, too.

The chimneys that work, all of them had to be built before World War II.

Around 1940-ish, fire codes changed, and they had to put in a liner.

Before World War II, you made your chimneys just out of bricks.

And the little birds can hang on the bricks.

But when they put a smooth concrete liner inside, they've got nothing to hang onto.

So the ones that are being used now are old and crumbling and ready to fall down.

Older chimneys aren't likely to survive a big earthquake, so many of them are being torn down.

Larry Schwitters is leading an effort to save or replace the Swift habitat in these chimneys.

His latest project is in Albany, where the city recently demolished an old firehouse.

It doesn't look like it has much of a chimney, but nearly 20,000 Swifts were known to roost there in the spring.

Where will they go now?

Schwitters is hoping they'll fly a few blocks farther to a new chimney he's building just for them.

A dedicated Vaux's Swift roost made this way has never been done before.

The idea is, this will be the first one, and if it works, we're gonna have one of these maybe every 100 miles all the way along the migration.

So when the chimneys crumble and get torn down, this way, they still got a place to roost.

The concrete cylinder is made up of thick pipe sections.

This is like a Tinkertoy project.

This is LEGOs all over again, for big boys.

I think there's half-a-dozen pieces of concrete stacked one upon another.

It's designed to function just like an old brick chimney.

Jim Fairchild with the Audubon Society of Corvallis is hoping the birds will like it just as well.

A lot of chimneys nowadays have a liner that's a smooth surface, which is great for smoke and so forth, but not so good for the Swifts.

You usually don't see this in big pipe sections.

But here, the birds can hang on with their little claws, and this scoring has been done on all of the sections to the very top of the chimney.

But how do you get the birds to switch over to the new roost?

This is genuine Vaux's Swift guano, A.K.A. Swift poop.

The idea is we throw it in the chimney in the bottom, and it's got an odor supposedly that the Swifts can smell.

And if they fly over it and take a sniff, they will think, 'Hey, Swifts have used this before.

This is a good one.

You can smell it.'

The sweet smell of success, Larry.

Will the birds go for it?

They don't know.

There is no guarantees this is going to work.

This is the pilot project.

This is an experiment.

What we think we need to do is get these birds the first migration that they come through, that they don't have a roost site.

That's why we're in a hurry.

For weeks after the chimney is complete, they watch the sky at dusk and wait.

Now, where are they?

So far, the birds have flown by the new chimney, but they haven't gone in yet.

Well this is maybe the 11th or 12th day of monitoring the use of the tower here, seeing if any Swifts are coming in.

And so far nobody's investigated it that we've seen.

A lot of the Swifts are hanging around above the fire station.

Sometimes they will drift this way, we'll see them over in the parking lot.

They haven't abandoned the demolished fire station roost.

They're still looking around.

When the birds are in view, they have a trick to lure them in.

So, now there's about 30, 35 birds over there.

So I'm going to go ahead and turn on the broadcaster.

We have half-a-dozen tracks and let's turn up the sound.

The broadcaster is just sending out Swift calls.

And the idea is -- 'Where are these other Swifts?'

Birds are often communicating with each other and we're guessing that those birds checking out the old fire station are maybe wandering over here to see who is here.

Without the fire station chimney, it's unclear where the Swifts will go to roost.

But they're not coming here, at least not tonight.

Fairchild says he's prepared to wait.

Our guess is it will probably be several years before we have any idea if this is working or not, and we'll probably have to give it half-a-dozen years to really start getting a handle on it.

It could be a perfect design for them, but it is something that's hard to gauge.

Every year, the birds migrate south in the fall, and they come back in the spring.

Eventually, he hopes to see a display just like the one at Chapman School, with thousands of birds stopping in for a good night's rest.

Charles Darwin, English naturalist and biologist, dedicated his life to the study of natural sciences -- most famously, evolution.

Many of Darwin's theories have been published, though a substantial number of his original documents have been out of the public eye in an archive.

Now the American Museum of Natural History is working to digitize these Darwin documents and, for the first time, make them available to the public electronically.

David Kohn, Director of the Darwin Manuscript Project at the American Museum of Natural History, joins me now.

How many materials -- How many documents are we talking about here?

We estimate about 96,000.

We've done about 25,000, but we have a plan for doing the whole lot.

This is a prolific individual.

Oh, absolutely.

I mean we don't, you and I, it would take us a lot of time to generate 96,000 pieces of anything, right?

Absolutely, but we're talking about a lifetime of scientific endeavor.

Give us a range of some of the things that you've seen that you didn't know kind of existed.

I mean, you are somebody who studies this closely.

You've done this for years and years.

When you saw this collection...

I first saw this collection in 1974, and I was looking for one particular thing.

I was a graduate student.

And I had no idea of the breadth of the collection.

And at that point, it was fairly un-catalogued and certainly digitization was out of the question.

And it was a sea of paper.

And chaotic.

And I just felt like I was hearing the sea pounding, and it's just a terrific opportunity to study the intellectual development of this intellectual giant.

So you kind of see that process as you go through time.

We do.

So how does he form an idea about, you know, something that now we take for granted, but that was really one of the first people to start to log and document this idea's creation?

I mean, there are so many of those in his archive.

But, of course, the big issue would be, how did he discover natural selection?

And we have an almost day-by-day account of his thinking, first becoming convinced of evolution as a fact, and then seeking to apply it and compare, looking at different subjects like comparative anatomy or geology and geographic distribution and saying, 'Well, if you make the assumption of evolution, how does that comport with what we do know, and how does it change?

How can I translate that into an evolutionary perspective?'

He's laying the foundations of evolutionary biology.

Anything surprise you?

I mean in the last 40-something years, whether it was the quality of the artwork, or...?

The artwork is pretty bad.


I mean he's not -- I mean, I love what he does, all right?

But he's not a good draftsman.


Some of it is pretty horrible and very impressionistic.

And he'd, you know, just catch an idea and then have a child -- one of his sons -- redraw it or be the original drawer or draftsmen, and they were pretty good.

Is there a subject matter that you connected with?

I mean, I started out as a botanist, as a terrestrial plant ecologist.

And Darwin is sort of the core of modern evolutionary botany.

And one dimension of that is his discovery of what I call the meaning of flowers.

What is the function, or evolutionary function, of flowers?

If you think of a flower, there are hermaphrodites, they have male and female in the same -- typically in the same flower -- and you would think that the function would be reproduction, but that's only half the story.

They really are structured, he comes to understand, to attract pollinators to bring the pollen of one flower to another to distribute variability.

And without genetic variability, evolution would not happen.

We would grind to a halt.

Any of the original documents gonna be on display at the museum?

Yes, yes, the museum actually has two pieces of his 95,000 but they're wonderful.

One is a draft piece of the origin of species.

There are only 31 pieces of the original draft that survived, and we have one.

When you were a young researcher and you found this collection, what are you hoping happens when this full digitized collection goes online?

I think we have the possibility of understanding at a very fine level of detail, his intellectual development.

And one of the things that he does is cut up pieces of manuscript and redistribute them to different parts of the archive, so he is making these connections.

We've actually had a recent development in that, working with some programmers who came from the museum.

There's this phenomenon called a hackathon in the library where we are based.

Gave them a number of challenges.

One was, can you reconstruct these pieces of paper that are scattered?

Give us a means of doing it.

And I used to do this by eye.

Maybe 45 or so or 50 of them have been reconstructed by eye over the last couple of decades.

They found a way, an algorithm for doing this and kind of fully transform them, and they have already found -- what was it? -- 37 by two weeks ago, and they met yesterday again.

All right, David Kohn from the American Museum of Natural History.

Thanks so much.

Thank you.

We know about solar energy and wind energy, but one company in California, CalWave, is harnessing the renewable power of ocean waves to produce both electricity and fresh water.

As part of our ongoing series of reports, 'Peril & Promise: the Challenge of Climate Change,' CalWave co-founder Marcus Lehmann joins me now via Google Hangout.

Marcus, thanks for joining us.

First of all, explain what CalWave does.

Yeah, thanks for having us.

And we're developing a new technology that is similar to the offshore windmill, but uses the power of ocean waves to generate electricity.

And as a second application, we're looking into desalination for freshwater production.

Well, harnessing the power of a wave has been around for a while, but how do you figure out where to put this, and what kind of an object is underwater that creates this energy?

Yeah, so that's really our big innovation, that we're able to harness the power efficiently so that's one criteria.

But at the same time, we can also survive storms really well.

And that's what we found were exactly the two features that a windmill needs to survive and operate and be commercially competitive.

And, yeah, we've implemented similar features into our design.

One of the things that I've seen is this idea of a wave carpet.

Is that the core product?

So that was our initial technology.

We started as a shallow-water design, close to shore.

That's also based on the research here conducted, and then based on that initial concept, we further developed it as part of the U.S. Wave Energy Prize.

So the Department of Energy started a nationwide competition similar to the XPRIZE, and, yeah, we've been competing in that for two years and advanced quite well.

So, give me some idea of how much energy you can generate with this wave carpet on a per-square-meter basis, or how it compares to, say, solar or wind on the land?

Yeah, so, we see that one of the advantages of wave power is actually that it's not competing directly with solar and wind.

It's more complementing.

And I think in the future, we need the mix of all renewables available, and so wave power can contribute with a resource that is more predictable.

That means the utilities and the consumers, they can plan better ahead.

With solar and wind, it's very volatile.

That means any other second, the wind can change, and so we need a lot of storage or a very fast ramp-up of gas power to complement that.

So that's the first one -- It's really the predictability.

The second one is the energy density, as you mentioned.

So, on average, the climate we're targeting at the moment has 50 to 60 kilowatts per meter of coastline in California and Oregon, and other locations like Hawaii.

And so that gives an advantage that compared to a windmill where we say a square meter of wind has one kilowatt, yeah, we require less land and hope in the long run, actually, to also become less carbon efficient, or less carbon impactful, because of the pure energy density of waves.

And what about the fact that so many populations live near water?

And usually one of the big challenges is getting the power from the wind turbines to the cities where people live.

Yes, so, we see the fact that we are fully submerged allows us to be closer to the load centers, and we found in the U.S., actually, half of the population lives within 50 miles of the coastline.

That means having a technology that can be close to the big load centers on the cities like San Francisco or L.A.

and the other coastal cities and the West Coast, that gives you great advantage because the cable costs are going to be lower.

And also transmission lines are not needed.

So, one of the concerns people always have is what's the impact on the ecosystem where these things are placed?

Whether it's a wind turbine and the birds that might be affected or solar panels and what happens to grazing lands?

What happens underwater if you're putting out these wave carpets or other devices?

Yeah, so, I would say our structure and the structural impact can be compared to other existing offshore structures.

So, as you mentioned, windmills, they have fast-moving blades, and they're not used to it because that normally doesn't happen in nature.

So they can't see them.

They just fly through it and think there's no obstacle.

In our case, we're moving with the water particles, with the wave motion.

So the mammals can actually see it.

It's like a pier, you would say.

So they're able to notice it and pretty much navigate around it.

But where are you in terms of the competitive landscape?

Are there are lots of other companies trying to harness wave technology now?

Yes, it was actually quite interesting.

It is an early-stage industry compared to wind and solar, but we're moving forward quite well from the concept phase to a demonstration phase.

So there are multiple test sites.

The U.S. actually just awarded a group in Oregon to implement a 40 million test site that is planned to go online in 2020, exactly to facilitate this demonstration phase.

And that's a very critical step for us, because that's how we can prove the cost competitiveness of this technology and how we can operate it.

So, what's the best-case scenario?

Let's say five years from now, if we're having another conversation like this, you're standing in the gleaming giant lobby of CalWave.

What do you hope happens, and how do you see this technology rolling out?

Yes, so, for us, the next phase will be demonstrating the technology before we really provide it as a solution to the market.

And an ideal scenario in 5 years is that we can co-locate offshore wind and offshore wave sharing infrastructure, sharing installation, reducing the costs for both technologies.

And also kind of utilizing the cable connection, interconnection at its most efficiency, and, yeah, I think there are great challenges -- I mean, there are still challenges ahead, but it's a huge potential where multiple offshore technologies can collaborate.

All right. Marcus Lehmann, co-founder of CalWave.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you so much.

The perfect sunset lights up the skies with stunning colors and dramatic views, a sight not to be missed and you may not have to miss one ever again, thanks to former and current Penn State students.

They've built a model that predicts when and where a perfect sunset will occur.

Take a look.

Sunset is no mystery.

We know to the minute what time it happens every day.

But you never really know for sure if the evening will simply fade to black... ...or flare up for a glorious finale.

Until now.

A group of former and current Penn State students are using the same data meteorologists use to predict the weather to predict fiery skies, and it all got started with a box of pizza.

We knew Steve was one of the best computer programmers we knew here at Penn State University, and he was a meteorologist and a meteorology student.

So, Jake and Ben actually messaged me.

I was a sophomore at the time, and they promised me free food.

Of course I said yes.

That meeting between Jacob Deflitch, Steve Hallett, and Ben Reppert was the beginning of

The website publishes four maps a day predicting the best places on the planet to view vivid sunsets and sunrises.

But before they could forecast beauty, they needed to define it.

So, the biggest concern right off the bat was the fact that if you asked 10 people what their version of a great sunset is, you'd probably get 10 different answers.

So then we started thinking to ourselves, 'Okay, what constitutes a good sunset?'

The group opted for vivid colors over clear skies, and that was the foundation for their formula.

It takes into consideration moisture at more than a dozen different layers of the atmosphere, pressure patterns, and clouds -- an ingredient the group considers the canvas for the perfect sunset.

It's kind of if you think of like a big projector screen at a drive-in movie, the radiation, the visible light from the sun illuminates the underside of a deck of high clouds and then projects light onto it.

A custom algorithm crunches the data and scores the best locations with the brightest colors.

It didn't take long for the concept to catch on.

So, on the 22nd of November, four days after our launch, our model was predicting this incredible strip of color along I-95.

The big hubs -- Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston.

And we thought, 'Okay, tonight's gonna be, like, a crazy night for interacting.'

They were right.

This is the map they put out, and this was the sky.

And I was -- 'Okay, well, this is just about to go next level,' and then, you know, CBS contacted us.

How do you predict the perfect sunset?

We've decided to go along a scale of vividness.

How bright.

Yes, how bright -- I guess you could say the 'Wow' factor.

Since that forecast in 2015, has been featured on 'CBS Saturday Morning,' 'Good Morning America,' and on websites like Slate and

So I wanted to find out for myself.

Does it work?

All right, so I'm standing outside of my office at Innovation Park.

The map was a bright orange when I left.

Take a look at the sky.

It's beautiful, full of bright pinks, oranges... This video probably won't do it justice, but it is awesome.

I would say that this is a verified forecast for tonight.

We touched on a lot of photographers, meteorologists, television meteorologists, filmmakers.

We really opened up our own eyes to just how much of an audience there is for this.

The team has recently brought on a fourth member to help them create an app and an interface that will allow outside developers to use their data.

But as they focus more energy on the business, they're trying not to forget the most important part of any sunset -- seeing it.

We get so caught up in our daily lives with using electronics, and we're stuck in an office behind a cubicle on a daily basis, that we seldom go out and just take a breather and enjoy what we have around us.

My goal is for it to be used by anyone who loves the sunset and sunrise.

The bottom line is provide a tangible relation between the weather.

Stopping and really taking time to pause within your busy day, and just admiring what nature has to give you.

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...