SciTech Now Episode 342

In this episode of SciTech Now, the training of America’s astronauts; a look into the research of hacking the human body; a middle school’s STEM Day motivating future scientists; and a look inside the lab at the Material Research Institute at Penn State University.



Coming up, the training of America's astronauts.

If you want a star and it's not in your view, you have to know which way to go by looking at the sky that you can see.

Hacking the human body.

And now she can see with this device that lets her see through her ears.

STEM Day motivates future scientists.

The lesson is about circuits and just making game boards, sees what's conductive and what's not conductive, or what's an insulator.

The remarkable qualities of a two-dimensional material.

We're actually looking at new materials that could potentially replace silicon so that we can make more powerful or more energy-efficient devices.

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.

Many of America's astronauts learned celestial navigation at Morehead Planetarium on the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill campus.

More than 50 years after training there, former astronaut Jim Lovell returns to Morehead.

Here's the story.

NASA sent all of its astronauts to Morehead Planetarium in the early days of the space program.

The agency's space pioneers may have been flying to the heavens, but they needed to know how to manually navigate, using the stars, in the event of mechanical failure.

You have to -- If you're sitting in it, you only see part of the sky, so you have to really get to know the stars to figure out -- If you want a star and it's not in your view, you have to know which way to go by looking at the sky that you can see.

Jim Lovell made eight trips to Chapel Hill to learn star navigation.

It provides an astronaut with a personal, uncomplicated way to place his location in the sky and in relation to Earth without using flight instruments.

Sometimes, Earth wasn't even in view.

We learned about the stars themselves.

I mean, looking at the dome and then looking at the constellations -- First of all, we looked at the constellations, because they were the guide for us to look at the stars in those constellations.

The planetarium's 13-foot Zeiss projector displayed the stars on the building's dome above them.

Astronauts would sit in a movable chair under a hood modeled after the window of the Gemini spacecraft.

And, so, if you look out one of those triangular-shaped windows, you just saw a triangular shape of the sky.

And so the stars that you wanted to navigate perhaps were not there.

We only had 37 stars in our computer of which to use.

Lovell is the only NASA astronaut to make two trips to the moon but never land there.

He used those navigation skills learned at Morehead on his second trip to the moon, on Apollo 13.

That's when an oxygen-tank explosion turned a lunar mission into a get-back-to-Earth-safely mission.

I saw the warning gauges on our two oxygen tanks, with one of them zero, and I could see the needle go down on the other one.

And, consequently, I knew that we were in deep, deep trouble then.

To cap that off, I looked out the side window, and I could see the gas escaping at a very high rate of speed, which told me that, shortly, we would be out of oxygen.

Because we used oxygen to produce electricity, we'd be out of electricity.

And because we used electricity to control the gimbal our vehicle, we would lose our propulsion system.

So we were -- Well, it's the low point, probably, of the flight, because we knew we were in deep trouble, but we had no way, at that time, to think about how to get out of it.

Lovell's greatest memory came on his first trip to the moon, in 1968, when Apollo 8 became the first spacecraft to orbit Earth's neighbor and witness the first earthrise.

On Apollo 8, when I put my thumb up to the window, that behind my thumb that I could hide was the Earth.

And I knew that, just 240,000 miles away, there was a body that had approximately 5 or 6 billion people on it, all striving for the same things in life.

And I really thought that for a while.

Here is this body, and all around is space.

I could see the moon right there, and the Sun was behind, but everything that I'd ever known is back there.

And I thought to myself in reality -- and, of course, it reinforces itself over the years -- really, that God has given us this stage.

God has given us this stage in which to perform.

And how that play turns out is really up to us.

Lovell is 89 years old, more than 50 years removed from space flight, but he is optimistic about space exploration.

However, he admits he's not sure whether it will be done by the government, private enterprise, or both.

And I hope that we first start going to the moon, because we barely, you know, examined the moon, and then use that architecture, the infrastructure of making moonflights rather common so that we could expand that to, eventually, you know, to a mission on Mars.

For centuries, researchers have searched for ways to assist, rebuild, and augment the human body.

High-tech prosthetics, tissue regeneration, and pharmaceutical engineering are just a few ways that scientists are pushing boundaries in the field of bioengineering.

Joining me now to talk about some of today's leading research in tech is Adam Piore, author of 'The Body Builders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human.'

We've been trying to hack our bodies to go faster, to jump higher for a long time, but, really, just in the last 25, 30 years, the mechanics of it have gotten a lot more interesting.

Yeah, I'd say, I mean, one thing that it's enabling this revolution is computer processing power and also our ability to sense and characterize the way different parts of the body work together.

So, you know, one of the first people I talked about in this book is Hugh Herr, who's at MIT.

And he was a double amputee, who lost both his legs to frostbite and was a rock-climber.

And he has basically built these bion-- Now he is the leading prosthetics engineer at MIT, and he's built these prosthetic limbs that pretty much mimic the lower human limb.

And, you know, there's only a few hundred constituent parts in the lower leg, and so that's a manageable thing for sensing technology now to pick up.

And he can then look at the different ways that the constituent parts fit together and affect one another and then put that on a microcomputing chip and emulate that in robotic limbs.

And that's just in one particular lab and one particular limb.

I mean, we're talking about now people are trying to use all this tech to figure out what's going on inside, as well as outside.

Yeah, I mean, what we're seeing with Hugh Herr and what he did with the human leg is sort of a preview of what's to come.

We don't yet have the processing power to, for instance, decode all of imagined speech with billions of neurons, but I did -- You know, that seemed, to me, to be the far frontier of what people are trying to do.

So I went to a lab of a guy named Gerwin Schalk, who's in Albany.

And he's actually trying to restore the ability to speak to people who are locked in, trying to actually decode the neural signals in their brain.

And, you know, what they've discovered is that, when we talk, but also even when we imagine talking, the brain sends a copy of the instructions that it would send to, you know, our throat and lip muscles to the auditory cortex as an error-correction mechanism.

And this occurs even when we're just imagining talking.

So he's actually able to see that neural signature, but, you know, there's a lot of noise.

There's billions of neurons to sort through to try and figure out what those words are.

As I started reporting these things, the things that really stuck with me were the people on the extremes, who had lost abilities and were regaining them, like Hugh Herr, who, when he first lost his legs, he would dream every night of running through a cornfield behind his house with the wind on his hair.

And then he'd wake up and he would realize he'd never be able to run again.


Now he jogs every day around Walden Pond.

It's incredible.

And, you know, there's this woman named Pat Fletcher, who was blind.

She lost both her eyeballs in a grenade-factory explosion.

And she used to love nature.

And now she can see with this device that lets her see through her ears.

And her brain has learned -- Once she gets the signals in there, her brain has learned to recognize that it's a representation of the visual world and route it to her visual cortex.

And she saw a mountain for the first time in years and started weeping.

Where is the top-end limit here?

I mean, it seems that, on the one hand, you have kind kind of the Ray Kurzweils of the world, saying that we will reach singularity at 2029, where microprocessing power might come close to all of the axons and neurons that we have firing in our brains.

You know, I've definitely have written about that and thought about that.

Gerwin Schalk, you know, like I said, is doing the most sort of cutting-edge thing, which is, like I said, trying to decode billions of neurons for speech.

He sort of thinks it's inevitable that, someday, we'll all be able to tap into a giant hive mind.

You know, we won't need Google.

We'll just ask a question and we'll know, immediately, the answer.

And we'll all know what each other is about, and it will be this amazing humanity.

That kind of boggles my mind.

I mean, I have read many of the books on ethics and futurism, Ray Kurzweil, but, for me, a lot of them were -- You know, they weren't as specific as I wanted.

I couldn't evaluate them and tell what was really possible and why.

So, you know, I'm a reporter, so this book was sort of an exploration.

I wanted to go out, understand the technologies and figure out, you know, is it really possible that we'll reach a singularity.

What are some of the ethical dilemmas that we'd be facing as these technologies become more available?

Well, that was -- Yeah, that was another issue.

I tried to bring up the ethical issues whenever I came across them, but the answer I found was just that it depends, you know?

As one military scientist said to me, 'Is a baseball bat a good thing or a bad thing?'

It's a good thing if you play baseball with it.

It's a bad thing if you use it as a club to beat somebody over the head with.

So I tried to point that out.

I went to the Beijing Genomics Institute, and they have a project that's very controversial there, to reverse-engineer the genetics of intelligence, which is a long way off, 'cause there's so many different genes involved.

But I talked to one of the researchers there.

I said, 'Doesn't it alarm you, you know, that maybe the rich will have access to this and not the poor?

And are you worried about this?'

And he thought everyone would eventually have access.

And he said that he thought a parent should be able to decide if they want their child to be really intelligent.

But then I said, 'Well, is there anything that alarms you?'

And he said, 'Well, if there was, like, a really ruthless tiger mom and she wanted to engineer her kid to have perfect intelligence and sociopathic tendencies with no empathy or altruism, that is an alarming thought.'

And I thought, 'Yeah, that is kind of alarming.'

Yeah, that is an alarming thought.

All right.

So, is there -- From the people who are benefiting from this, how have they seen their lives change?

You said that there was a woman who is blind who was able to see again.

I mean, that's a -- Again, I don't know what it is that she saw and whether that matches our definition of what that mountain would look like.

She is a special case, 'cause she had sight before.

So some of those neural pathways existed, but she actually regained 3-D depth perception, which is pretty remarkable.

And, like I said, they brought her to Harvard Medical School, and they -- What it does is -- it takes a picture and it turns the pixels into sounds, and our brain is capable of discerning maybe 30 or 40 different sounds at the same time, different tones.

So, over time, since the brain is a pattern-recognition machine, it learns to route it to the visual cortex.

And, so, they scanned her brain with these soundscapes, and it was -- her visual cortex lit up.

But, at the same time, they jingled keys, and that went to her auditory cortex.

And the way that it's been described to me is, in part, you know, the world when you're blind is intensely claustrophobic, you know?

It doesn't exist beyond what you can touch with your cane or your hands.

It expands a little when it rains.

You know, there's depth.

But for her, that's what happened.

When the soundscape machine started playing these sounds in her ears, the whole world expanded.

And she could see into rooms and she could see into the sink and she could see patterns.

She got lost in the patterns on the wallpaper in her dentist's office, for instance.

And, yeah, I just love those stories, you know?

Just great stories of human resilience and adventure.

You know, there's so many of them that these technologies are unleashing.

Adam Piore, the book is called 'The Body Builders.'

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you.

Up next, we visit Cyberchase STEM Day at Centennial Middle School, a STEM magnet school in Dade City, Florida, where sixth graders learned about everything from reefs and rockets to conduction and computer programming.

Here's the story.

Centennial Middle School in Dade City, Florida, is a STEM magnet school.

To kick off the new school year, they're holding a Cyberchase STEM Fair.

We're trying to get the students to realize that the science, technology, engineering, and math -- not only are they going to really be beneficial to them in the long run, as far as careers and jobs that haven't even been invented yet that they might be competitive for, but also just to realize that learning and critical thinking really can be fun.

Teacher Bobbi Starling is in charge of this STEM Fair, which goes on all day for these sixth graders.

It's comprised of six interactive stations.

There's one that is 'To Infinity and Beyond,' where they are testing to see if the shape and size of fins and nose cones effect the aerodynamics of water rockets that are launched.

At another station, they are using some virtual reality with Google Cardboards, and they're exploring underwater reefs and they're looking for signs of healthy and unhealthy reefs and comparing those.

At another station, they're coding a robotic ball called a Sphero.

And their Sphero will actually paint for them, so they're making some black-light paintings.

Another one of the stations is catapult launching.

So, there, students are actually building catapults, and they're testing to see how angle and force and speed affect the trajectory of these marshmallows.

Another one of the stations, they're actually using sumo jumping drones, and that was kind of a math focus there.

And then there's a station called the 'The Cyclone Makers,' where they are using a 21st century invention kit called Makey Makey.

And they are testing circuits and conductivity.

So, there, they are creating some different circuits that are musical.

They made game controllers out of Play-Doh.

They've made gummy-worm pianos.

You just have to hold the ground and touch it.

And Makenzie can grab me, and it also completed the circuit, so she can play, too.

[ Piano plays ] It's just one big circuit.

It was really great to actually hear the students just collaborating with each other, and then you could see the critical thinking that was going on in the Makey Makey station there.

This Cyberchase STEM Fair is part of a collaboration with PBS Learning Media, the Cyberchase program, and WEDU.

All of the lessons that we are doing today on STEM Day actually came from PBS Learning Media resources.

A lot of those were Cyberchase resources.

And so the students actually had some learning before we went out there.

We used that learning to kind of focus on our STEM Day so they could then go and test their knowledge and what they had learned and hypothesize and see what happened there.

For example, when they did the V.R. exploration, being able to use those Google Cardboard goggles and then to actually go underneath the reef and look for signs and things themselves and interact was something that had them all hooked, and they were really super-engaged.

The interactive rocket-launch program helps students prepare for launch day.

The interactive from the rocket launch is something that the kids love, because anytime that they are able to engage and interact with things, I think the learning really sticks.

And they're remembering which rocket design they picked that went the farthest, and then they're able to apply what they did there, digitally, to the actual rockets that they launched today.

Oh, wow!

One of the most popular sessions was at the Cyclone Makers room.

Daisy, from the Design Squad, introduced the students to Makey Makey, the invention kit.

And so they really were able to relate to her, and she has fun and she makes some controllers out of gummy worms to play 'Fetch!', PBS kids game.

Myka Wilks is in sixth grade and is enjoying being creative with her Makey Makey kit.

The lesson is about circuits and just making game boards, sees what's conductive and what's not conductive, or what's an insulator.

You can connect circuits and make really cool things, like a Makey Makey piano or a Makey Makey game board.

Some students use bananas, Play-Doh, and gummy worms as conductors.

Makenzie Reed joined Myka in creating a game controller using Play-Doh.

The game that we were playing was on a website called Scratch, which you can go on and find all kinds of programs.

And what we were doing was the 'Mario Bros.'

So, the Makey Makey takes what you can do on the computer and makes it bigger controllers so it's easier to access than having your fingers crammed up on the keyboard.

The lesson is about conductivity and why some materials work better than others to create a circuit.

Water is very conductive, and you can see a lot of them that are up there have a lot of moisture in them, like gummy bears have a lot of that moisture, and so do bananas.

And the Play-Doh does have, you know, the moisture to keep it malleable.

In the 'Ready, Set, Launch' room, students are learning the science behind an ancient device.

We mixed science with history.

So, they were able to take a catapult, an ancient tool, and talk about potential energy and the kinetic energy.

And the kids loved it.

They actually built their own catapult, using tongue suppressors, rubber bands, and a bottle cap and launched marshmallows.

As a history teacher at Centennial Middle, Clay loves combining history and science and watching how the students respond.

They got very competitive.

They all wanted to have the longest shot.

It started out, the first class shot 15 feet.

The final class shot 22 1/2 feet with a miniature marshmallow.


Principal Rick Saylor explains why they wanted to bring a Cyberchase STEM Fair to this new magnet school.

We thought it was a great way to kind of jump-start the year, as a STEM magnet school, to get the kids excited about learning and using some different tools and strategies that they cannot only use today, but also carry throughout the rest of the year in their learning as they achieve the normal standards we would teach during a normal school year.

Today, what I saw was -- I always called it, when I was a teacher, that light-bulb effect.

This just wasn't a light bulb.

This was a Sun going off in these kids's brains as you watched them engage in this learning, whether it be the Makey Makey station or launching a rocket, going to the catapults, using the drones, the virtual reality.

Wherever they were, you could just see the excitement and the learning.

For Bobbi Starling, it's all about preparing future scientists and engineers.

The excitement that they have from this day is going to kind of carry them forward and get them really interested in some of those STEM careers.

And there's kids that are talking about wanting to be engineers.

And there are kids that want to design rockets.

And so this kind of gives them a spark or an idea of what maybe they could look for, career-wise, to come and gets them just really excited to move forward.

Scientists are experimenting with graphene, a 2-D material created at the atomic level, to see how it can enhance our electronics.

We go inside the lab at the Material Research Institute at Penn State University to learn more.

Meet Frank.

Frank is a furnace, a furnace that heats up to about 2,400 degrees Celsius.

That's about 1/3 the temperature of the sun.

And the J.A. Robinson Research Group at Penn State's Material Research Institute uses it to make something called graphene.

Graphene is the first of what's being called 2-D materials.

They're strong, thin enough to be measured in atoms, and have the potential to change electronics forever.

Electrons can move faster in this material than any other material known to man.

So that means it's like a superhighway for electrons.

The speed at which they are able to travel is on the order of about 100 times faster than silicon.

The comparison to silicon is important.

Right now, silicon is at the core of every computer chip.

Those chips use transistors to process the information going into or heading out of your cellphone or computer.

Right now, industry giant Intel is using silicon to make a 14-nanometer transistor, the smallest on the market.

You can fit about 5,000 of them across the width of a human hair, and each one can send more than 100 billion electronic signals every second.

2-D materials could make those transistors even faster.

We're hitting the limit of being able to make it smaller and smaller without needing to put in a lot more power and a lot more electricity into it.

And so we're actually looking at new materials that could potentially replace silicon so that we can make more powerful or more energy-efficient devices.

If you're able to do that, then you're able to continue bringing things online, like enhancing virtual reality so you can make -- Because it takes a huge amount of computing, computation effort.

But before these materials can be used in electronics, they need to be produced and perfected in a lab.

That means using high-tech furnaces, like Frank, to continually make the materials and high-tech lasers, like Lucy, to examine them.

The things that we're growing are things that we can't see.

And so we need to actually identify that what we thought we just made is, in fact, the thing that we just made.

We will shoot laser lights at materials in spectroscopy, and the materials will refract the laser light coming back to the instrument.

This process is called Raman spectroscopy.

The light bouncing back is shown by something called a spectra.

Scientists use it to determine the quality of the material.

If they need a closer look, they use this -- the Titan electron microscope, a crown jewel of Penn State's Materials Research Institute.

It is powerful enough to see individual atoms.

That means imperfections, no matter how small, have no place to hide.

The process at Penn State is slow.

The biggest chip manufacturers can make billions of silicon transistors every second.

Members of the Robinson group are working with a single sample at a time.

In order for us to be able to make that amount of volume, we basically need to take what we can do with the state-of-the-art tools and science and basically scale it up to industrial levels.

And that's not very easy, because when you scale something, a process, up to that level, there's a lot of things that change.

But these scientists believe they're building a solid foundation that will push 2-D materials closer to the mainstream.

Graphene research, 2-D research, at this point, is still very much an academic exercise, but there are a lot of people, including ourselves here at Penn State, that are really trying to push this so that it goes beyond academia and really does make an impact on our everyday life.

We know that we are working on something that is next-generation technology.

So that's really exciting.

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... ♪♪