SciTech Now Episode 411

In this episode of SciTech Now, a look at how one school is turning data into sound; engineering bird-friendly glass; a study that contributes to a healthy brain; and technology creating clean water and cool air.



Coming up -- turning data into sound.

I tell people it's a lot like visualization, conceptually, except you're doing it for your ears.

Engineering bird-friendly glass.

And it transforms that space that's occupied by the window into a barrier that birds will see and avoid.

Studying a child's brain.

There's very good reason to think that we can eventually identify brain biomarkers that could predict who's gonna get autism.

Nanotechnology to create sustainable living.

We found more than four-dozen potential applications that we can pursue with this material.

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.

When you think of research, you probably think of graphs, charts, and spreadsheets.

But what about sound?

Professor Mark Ballora from Penn State's School of Music is discovering the world of sonification and turning data into sound.

Take a listen.

[ Faint beeping ]

When we think about science, we usually think about something we can see -- perhaps a model of an atom, or watching cells divide, or looking at a graph of data.

It's not often that we listen to science.

That's exactly what Mark Ballora, professor in The Penn State School of Music, does.

Welcome to the world of sonification.


You're taking information, you're taking data points, and you are transferring them into a sound property of some type.

So, you might have a sequence of numbers that you convert into a melody -- a simple example.

[ Keyboard clacks ] I tell people it's a lot like visualization, conceptually, except you're doing it for your ears instead of for your eyes.

And people say, 'You sonify data? Why?'

One important one is accessibility.

One such scientist who uses sonification to analyze data is the astronomer Wanda Díaz-Merced, who lost her sight due to illness.

She worked with some scientists to create a program that rendered these graphs as sounds, as melodies.

And she says she's able to work at the same level that she worked at when she was sighted, by listening to the graphs.

And there was also an unexpected benefit beyond accessibility -- one that had benefits for her sighted colleagues.

She discovered that there were some electromagnetic resonances.

Nobody had detected these by looking at the graphs.

By listening to the graphs, she discovered that they were there.

So it's like, 'Wow, they made a discovery through listening that they hadn't been able to make by looking at the graphs.'

Mark himself would discover unique ways of using sonification while coming into contact with some unlikely collaborators.

During a sabbatical doing sonification work at Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology, Mark would come in contact with Mickey Hart, one of the drummers of the Grateful Dead.

I saw that he was working with George Smoot, a cosmologist at Lawrence Berkeley Labs who had been a co-Nobel laureate in 2006 for his work in cosmic microwave background radiation.

He had joined forces with George, and they were making this outreach film called 'Rhythms of the Universe.'

There was a note in it that said 'We're going to keep working on this film, and we will be exploring new forms of sonification.

And anybody who has data sets they'd like to contribute could contact Lawrence Berkeley Labs.'

Mark would end up contributing a number of sonifications to 'Rhythms of the Universe,' including a sonification on cosmic microwave background radiation.

[ Magnetic humming ]

I like to think of it as you're finding the music in science.

You're finding a way to make science musical.

That, to me, is going to be the key to future discoveries in sonification.

These kinds of sonifications brought attention from other scientists, including from renowned Penn State meteorologist Jenni Evans.

Over the last 20 or so years, my group has been among a now-growing group of people around the world looking at tropical cyclones that move out of the tropics -- like Hurricane Sandy, for example -- and change their structure.

Professor Evans' group developed the Cyclone Phase Space to do this research.

She asked Mark to create sonifications from this data, and also to combine it with other key dimensions of a cyclone.

And Mark actually combined those descriptors of the storm with the more traditional intensity and location.

Mark started with 11 storms, but then it developed into something bigger.

And then, she thought, 'What if we took a global view?'

And we looked at a whole map of the Earth, and we saw, as she put it, the spaghetti of storms that took place over the course of a 12-month period.

And she picked 2005.

That was a pretty active year.

This Spaghetti of Storms sonifications is what you see and hear in this animation.

[ Whirring ]

When you look at them, it might look like the center's in the middle of some curved band of clouds.

So, you think of the center in the traditional way for a tropical cyclone.

But as it's moving out of the tropics, it's actually off to one side.

The center's off to one side of that cloud.

And so, having the sound of the symmetry lets us know that.

Mark hopes to continue pushing the boundaries of sonification, where it will become an integral part of science.

There's also the hope that it will help students learn science more effectively.

I'm thinking of my kid here, who's going into the third grade, as he starts taking science classes, and they start teaching him how to listen to graphs as well as look at graphs.

As people of his generation grow up, they will simply expect that.

♪♪ ♪♪

Every year, hundreds of millions of birds die from accidentally flying into glass buildings and windows.

But now, new types of glass may make this easily preventable.

Daniel Klem, Professor of Ornithology and Conservation Biology at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, has helped to create bird-friendly glass.

He joins me now.

Hundreds of millions of birds -- Is that possible?

Oh, yes.

In fact, one might argue that this is one of the most underappreciated source of bird mortality worldwide.

And that's more than we're talking about oil spills, and all --

Exactly, exactly.


In the 1990s, my very first -- one of my first research papers that I wrote about this had 100 million birds as the lowest estimate.

And you need 333 every year to equal how many birds die on one year in the United States of windows.

But nobody's talking about windows, and we should.

You see, every once in a while, people put up a giant 'X' or put up a little silver foil.

Does that work?

It does.

You know, one of the first things I did was -- Somebody used to sell a decal, a hawk silhouette.

This comes from research in Europe about birds being innately scared of predators.

But putting that decal in the window wasn't really helpful at all.

But you need to put enough decals such that they're separated -- and this is very critical.

What my studies have revealed, for example, that you have to have -- If you're gonna orient these elements, whether it's the hawk silhouette or diamonds or circles, they have to be four inches apart in vertical columns, or two inches apart in horizontal rows.

Now, like with the glass issue and the birds behaving as if it's invisible to them, they're not talking to us why this works.

But my general interpretation is that birds give a little bit more room to fly around tree trunks than they do branches.

So, otherwise they would basically try to slide through?




So, you need to cover the window completely.

You need to have these pattern elements, uniformly separated by these distances, to completely eliminate the collisions.

Then they recognize the window as a barrier to be avoided.

But then, it doesn't necessarily feel like a window anymore if you've got stickers all over it.




And that's why, for many, many years -- really decades, because I started studying this in the early 1970s.

And the issue is that people would tell me -- even the most ardent conservationists -- 'You go mucking around with the way I look out my window, you're gonna lose.'

So it's been a struggle.

It's been now almost four decades that I've been working on this, and we're only now beginning to see glass manufacturers -- and even then, very few of them placing what's often referred to as 'visual noise' on the window to alert the birds to the danger.

So how do you design a glass that gets around that, that's still see-through and...?


Well, there's a couple of ways in which these patterns are applied.

One of them is called 'ceramic frit.'

They bond with high-temperature ceramic to the glass surface.

The other one is acid etching.

Both of them give our human eye the same kind of visual impression -- and that is like a frosted area -- that we instituted at our institution when we got around to remodeling.

What it is is a series of dots.

They're about 1/4 inch apart and spaced by about 1/4 inch.

And when you stand right next to it, it looks formidable.

You can hardly see through.

But you step back a couple of feet, you can look through it.

So, if you're willing, right, to put up with this sort of modest amount of visual noise, then you'll be successful.

There's an architectural firm in Chicago that's just recently completed a building where they placed this kind of frit on the first four stories.

And how's it working?

Oh, it works well.

I mean, again, it really does solve the problem.

Again, it transforms that space that's occupied by the window into a barrier that birds will see and avoid.

Now, in this very same corridor in our campus, right -- We have had this up now for at least four or five years, not one window strike.

But the conventional windows around the rest of the building -- About a dozen birds a year die.

The elegant solution is sort of the cutting-edge area.

That's the area where we use ultraviolet signals, where we humans don't see them, but birds do.

So, picture being able to look out your window.

And so, those conservationists that had that problem, it's gonna go away.

But the problem has been -- for me, anyway -- is that although I have had some industry cooperators to produce some prototypes for me that I've been able to demonstrate worked, they're not willing to commit the investment, because they don't know whether they're going to get their return.

If I can use their language, the hole in their business plan is how many bunny-huggers or tree-huggers are going to buy the glass.

But that's not the issue.

I've tried to convince them that the world needs retrofitting.

The world needs attention to this issue.

And, as far as I'm concerned, the world is... Our national parks -- You can't go to a visitors center in a local or state or national park without seeing it lavishly covered with glass.

And, sadly, sort of the dirty little secret is that it's also killing the birds that people come to see.

Daniel Klem of Muhlenberg College, thanks so much.

Oh, you're very welcome.

Thank you.

Early childhood is the most rapid and dynamic period of brain development.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, researchers with the Baby Connectome Project are studying the factors that contribute to a healthy brain and early indicators of autism.

Here's the story.


You're looking at 3-D images of children at 6 months, 12 months, and 24 months.

The changes are dramatic.

That's because early childhood is the most rapid and dynamic period of brain development.

There is so much being learned in a short period of time.

But it turns out that brain growth is not uniform.

Obviously, when the brain grows from a small brain to a large brain, it's not a proportional growth for all part of the brains.

Different part of brain has different trajectories.

Some of the region grows faster, some of the region grows slower.

[ Children playing ]

The fastest-developing areas of the brain coincide with skills the child is learning at that time, such as fine motor skills, walking, speech.

The area grows because neural connections are being made.

This is the baby's eye, and this is the brain inside the skull.

And, basically, what you can see is -- The cortical rim here is the gray matter of the brain, and that's where all the neurons are.

So, that's where kind of the work of thinking and sensing things and all of that happens.

And then, this lighter place here is actually what we call the white matter, and that's the connections between the neurons.

So, a neuron that's here that wants to talk to a neuron here has to communicate through a long track that goes through the brain.

♪ And you know it, clap your hands ♪ [ Clapping ]

Those discoveries stem from the Baby Connectome Project.

It's a four-year study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.

The project aims to produce unprecedented information about early brain development from birth through early childhood, as well as the factors contributing to a healthy brain.

So, this screen image, you know, from the same subject, same case.


And you have the image acquired at 2 week, 3 months, 6 months, 9 months, and 12 months.

For the project, researchers are performing safe and non-invasive brain scans of 500 children aged 0 to 5 years.

It looks like, in the first year of life, that the sensory motor regions of the brain -- the motor cortex or the visual cortex that we process visual information -- is more developed at birth.

It's already kind of coming online.

And then, in the first year or two of life, the higher-order places of the brain that do thinking and higher-order integration of information, they develop very rapidly in the first year or two of life.

And where are those on that?

So, where's the part that's already good?

Well, the motor cortex is roughly in here, and the visual cortex is in the back here, and then some of the higher integrative functions are in the front cortex here and the parietal cortex right in here.

You would be surprised how much of the brain grow in the first year of life.

I mean, it grows to almost 90% of the adult brain size within one year.

So, our goal is to use a non-invasive imaging approach to really understand and characterize and quantify the change associated with structures, functions, and some microstructural changes.

And so, coupled with that, then we can learn about, well, so, if a subject start to walk, which part of brain actually responsible for all this behavior changes?

Or, if a toddler start to be able to become more attached to their parents, for example, which part of the brain is actually responsible for attachment?

Scientists also hope that, by identifying the factors that contribute to healthy brain development, they can also learn how to predict whether infants at high risk will develop autism.

There's very good reason to think that we can eventually identify brain biomarkers that could predict who's gonna get autism.

That opens up the door to intervention in the first year.

Of course, we don't know what interventions to use, but we have some ideas.

It's a time when the brain is much more amenable to change, much more plastic.

It's a time before the onset of symptoms, so we don't have those difficulties to deal with.

And there's, I think, a lot of excitement about the potential promise of that.

Scientists are using brain scans to study infants at higher risk for developing autism because they had an older sibling with the disease.

When we put a child that's gonna end up with autism, at two or three, next to a child that is not gonna end up with autism, at six months, we can't really distinguish them, as far as the features of autism.

It's not till the second year -- or late in the first year, the second year -- that autism kind of unfolds or emerges.

Our group has begun to study the brain changes that go from not having autism to having autism.

And so, one of the most exciting areas is that we believe we're beginning to have the evidence that we can predict, in the first year of life, based on brain biomarkers, in what we call high-familial-risk kids -- so kids that have an older sibling with autism, that are already at an increased risk, but that we can predict who's gonna develop autism.

The imaging really is just kind of a tool, an essential tool, to move us forward to coming up with prediction and targeted treatment.


Nanotechnology is a manipulation of matter on the atomic, or molecular, level.

A small, innovative company in Odessa, Florida, has used this form of technology to create clean water and cool air to foster more sustainable living.

Here's the story.

This is Aqualyte, a thin film polymer with special properties.

It's an organization of the solid plastic material, and we have regions in there that like water molecules and draw them into the plastic, and we create a channel of water molecules from one surface to the other, but it's a solid plastic still, and so oxygen, nitrogen, and the other components of air generally don't pass through.

As the chief technology officer of Dais Analytic, Brian Johnson sees their creation holds many benefits.

Aqualyte is a solid material, and it's a very chemically resistant material.

It can operate in extreme conditions without the deterioration you see in a lot of other materials.

This amazing chemical compound is created on-site in their lab for testing and modification.

It allows us to do product variations and to work on the chemistry of our material itself.

So, we do reactions here which involve modifying the plastic starting materials and turning them into something unique.

Dais Analytic chemist Leena Patra builds polymers in her lab.

Polymers are long chain molecules and, with a little tuning, can take on unique properties.

We got base resin materials.

To that, we add certain chemicals of which we try to tune in the properties to it and get to our Aqualyte material.

After we get the Aqualyte material, which is completely dried-off powder, we dissolve it in a required solvent to get a casting solution.

And then we take the casting solution that we create, and we can do a small-scale-tests cast.

What we do is we draw down a thin film, and then evaporate the solvents out of that film to leave behind a thin plastic sheet.

What we're doing here is for test purposes -- a small-scale, slow sort of production, but allows us to do new things and try them out, so that we're ready to take the polymer to a commercial facility, where it's put onto a 100-foot-long machine and turns out in a long roll at high speed.

One of the first applications they've developed with Aqualyte is ConsERV, an energy-recovery ventilation system.

You need to bring fresh air into your building for the health and safety of your occupants.

But it's often at a different temperature -- at an uncomfortable temperature, but, more importantly, it's got the wrong humidity.

And so, our material's ability to transfer water molecules makes it possible to transfer both the heat and the humidity of that incoming air.

Senior mechanical engineer Lacy Aliff explains how they go from sheets of film to become a viable device.

It's a layering process.

So, the first thing they do is they attach a flow field to the membrane, and then they stack that on top of each other.

And for each layer, it's rotated 90 degrees to get the different air flow.

You put the two end plates on each side, you put corner brackets on the end to secure everything, and that's pretty much a core.

The engineers at Dais are always looking at how to improve the product.

We have an open bullpen back there.

We're not in these little cubicles where everything is separated and confined.

But we're always talking to each other.

And all this collaboration leads to a big need for prototyping.

If we ever wanted to create a new flow field for ConsERV, normally, what we would do, we would either get a part molded so that we could create the flow field, and that takes a long time.

It's expensive -- thousands of dollars.

But what the 3-D printer allows us to do -- quickly make new flow fields in a matter of days and then put them into a core, try out different geometries, different spacing between consecutive layers, and it really lets us help test new ideas quicker and gets results quicker, but also cheaper.

They run testing on these devices under controlled laboratory conditions.

We're able to simulate outside air on one side of a membrane, and then inside air on the other side, and that helps us calculate and judge how effective our device would be.

It's something that's critical to us for developing new products.


They have also developed a powerful system for water purification.

Our NanoClear product takes the dirtiest water that you can find, which is industrial-waste water, and it turns it into water that is hundreds of times purer than needed for potable water.

It's even more pure than you'll get out of reverse osmosis.

This water-purification system, called NanoClear, undergoes rigorous testing.

Our NanoClear test rig circulates extremely salty water at high temperature past the membrane.

It has a vacuum device that pulls the vapor out and condenses it into clean drinking water.

The company has partnered with its local Pasco County water-treatment system to run a large-scale testing operation.

They've allowed us to install this demonstration unit, a pilot unit, for our NanoClear product.

It's located at a reclaimed water facility, and so we're taking the reclaimed water and treating it.

For the engineer, it's all about persistence.

With any product development in engineering, you design it as best you can the first time, but it rarely comes out perfect the first time that it's made.

You're always going through these iterations and making improvements.

That's one of the most exciting parts of the job, is the constant difficulty, but once you get to the end and you get that perfect part, it's incredibly rewarding.

For the chemist, it's all about making a difference.

I feel proud to be a part of this company because, in today's world, we need pure water, pure air, and definitely we are making an impact in the world by giving people clean water, clean air.

And for the chief technology officer, it's all about the new discoveries that await them.

We found more than four-dozen potential applications that we can pursue with this material, and there's a lot of commonality between them.

Anytime you can move water to make someone's life better -- whether it's in the way they use energy or the water they use -- that's where we see ourselves as having a role.


And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website.

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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪