SciTech Now Episode 412

In this episode of SciTech Now, a look at NASA’s mission to find life on Mars; understanding cybersecurity; the Gulf’s oil spills effect on fish; and Newton’s Law of Motion on the baseball field.



Coming up... NASA's mission to find life on Mars.

We're interested to understand if the planet Mars was ever inhabited.

Cybersecurity offense.

We're a big believer that we have to give people the tools to understand how things can go wrong in computers in order so they can protect them.

The Gulf's oil-spill effect on fish.

What we're trying to do here is gain a better understanding of what happened to those animals, in a controlled environment.

Newton's law of motion on the baseball field.

When he throws the ball, it is going to start out going faster, and then gravity is going to take over and air resistance.

And the ball is going to slow down, changing the speed.

It's all ahead.

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.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is getting ready for the launch of the next-generation Rover, with the hope of finding life on Mars.

Scheduled to launch in July 2020, the new rover is using the most advanced technology ever to bring scientific data collected by a robotic geologist on the surface of Mars.

Here's the story.

'T' minus 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5 4, 3, 2, 1.

Main engine start.

Zero. And liftoff of the Atlas V with Curiosity, seeking clues to the planetary puzzle about life on Mars.

For the last 20 years, NASA has had a constant robotic presence on Mars, mostly looking for signs of water.

The Curiosity rover has been stationed on the Red Planet for the last five years.

Now NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena is getting ready for the launch of the next-generation rover.

It's called Mars 2020.

You could say it's the Curiosity rover on steroids.

Instead of looking for things like signs of water, NASA's trying to find signs of life.

Was there life on Mars billions of years ago?

With a scheduled launch date of July 2020, the new rover is using the most advanced technology ever to bring science data collected from Mars back to Earth to help answer that question.

Do you believe, as a scientist, knowing what you do, there was an ancient life on Mars?

I believe it's absolutely possible.

Ken Williford is a geochemist with JPL and the deputy project scientist for Mars 2020.

Williford explains the main objectives of the new rover mission.

So, we're basically acting as a robotic geologist on the surface of Mars.

So we're trying to understand how the rocks we see around us, how the rocks we find were formed and how they changed over time.

The second objective is to do what we call in situ astrobiology, the study of life outside Earth.

And we're interested to understand if the planet Mars was ever inhabited.

And that's where we start to do something like planetary paleontology.

And paleontology on Earth we might think of as, you know, studying dinosaurs.

We think of planet paleontologists as, you know, 'Jurassic Park,' running around looking at dinosaur bones and so forth.

What we're doing is microbial paleontology.

We're studying the potential ancient record of life on Mars and looking at the ancient record of life in the solar system.

The third objective is to use the data we collect with our various scientific instruments as we explore our landing site to find the best locations in our landing site that we think have the best hope of preserving signs of ancient life or signs of ancient environmental change on Mars.

And we'll go to those locations and we'll sample them.

Mars 2020 is kind of like the Indiana Jones of the solar system, in search of ancient artifacts.

Part of the way NASA scientists plan on doing this is to collect as many rock samples as possible.

This is the most challenging robotic development that JPL has ever embarked upon.

JPL's Keith Rosette is part of the team that manages the development of Mars 2020.

He explains the rock-collection process.

This is the test arm and drill that will be mounted onto the Mars 2020 rover.

Our drill is a rotary percussive drill.

It's like the drill you would use to cut into concrete or a jackhammer here on Earth.

It spins and has a hammer that pounds onto it that helps us cut into rock.

It collects the sample into a tube that is inside the bit, and the robotic arm brings that back inside the rover, where we then seal it up in a tube and get it ready to come back to Earth.

We hope to find signs of past life.

We hope to find some fossilized remnants of microbes.

We hope to find organic molecules.

Anything that might indicate that there was life in Mars' ancient past.

Jim Lewis is helping unlock that ancient past.

Lewis is a JPL physicist working on Mars 2020.

He is a manager for what's known as MOXIE.

MOXIE is a demonstration mission.

It's one of the seven competitively placed instruments on the Mars 2020 rover.

What it does is -- it converts Mars' atmosphere into usable oxygen for humans.

Now, why do we need oxygen for humans?

We need oxygen for two things -- for breathing, for humans to breathe, and, also, we use it as a propellant for rocket fuel.

Now, it's a demonstration mission.

That means that we're not storing huge amounts of oxygen.

We're just demonstrating that we can produce it on Mars.

Once we demonstrate that, then we'll send a larger mission to collect many bottles of oxygen for use.

And, just for clarification, you folks aren't sending a human to Mars -- just yet, anyway.

No, no, no.

We're nowhere near that.

For now, humans on Mars are not the What about the

The more we know about the surface of Mars, the better prepared we are within NASA to send humans to the surface and bring them back safely.

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According to my next guest, hacking shouldn't be looked at in the context of good or bad, but rather as a necessary skill.

Joining me now is David Brumley, director of Carnegie Mellon CyLab's Security and Privacy Institute and faculty adviser to CMU's hacking team.

So, what's CyLab, first of all?

CyLab is CMU's Security and Privacy Institute, where we focus on, really, all the different areas that need to come together to create effective cybersecurity solutions.

And part of this is teaching your students how to hack, but responsibly.

Yeah. We're a big believer that we have to give people the tools to understand how things can go wrong in computers in order so they can protect them.

And there's actually competitions where you guys figure out how to measure who the best hackers are.

What do those competitions entail?

There's competitions throughout the world.

There's competitions in Russia, in Korea, here in the U.S.

And it's really this kind of underground community, if you will, of hackers who go into a room.

They're all given identical computers with identical software.

And the goal is to break into your opponent while preventing them from breaking into you.

And how have you done?

Well, we have a pretty good team.

There is something that's considered, really, the Super Bowl of hacking called DEF CON, where we've won three out of the past four years.

And when you say you're breaking into the other person without them breaking into you, in simple terms, how do you do that?

Well, computers are written by people, and people sometimes make mistakes when they write programs.

Just like if you're writing an essay, you may have spelling, grammatical, or, worse, logical errors.

These happen in computer programs, as well.

And so the job of a hacker is to understand the computer so deeply that he can find those problems, demonstrate that they're real, because people don't want to just speculate about problems, and then fix them.

What happens after these people get this?

Do they go into the security industry?

There's a number of jobs out there.

In fact, computer security is growing 2 1/2 times that of the national average.

It's also a really high-paying job.

The national average is $93,000 a year, starting.

So it's a huge market.

It's a growing market.

There really just aren't enough people doing this right now, so it's a great place to get into.

And as we become more enmeshed in the Internet, as the Internet of Things start to pervade our lives more, in a way, those are all different opportunities for security or lack of security to exist.

Yeah, these are all opportunities.

As we rely more and more on technology, everything from self-driving cars to public announcements to E911, these really enhance the quality of life, and we need to make sure they're secure and safe.

What's a tip that you'd give people that perhaps are not looking enough at in their daily lives?

Well, I think, in our daily lives, one of our biggest problems is -- most people have no idea how cybersecurity works.

They just don't have the basics down.

And, so, at Carnegie Mellon, one of the things that we have a big initiative on is a cyber-aware generation.

We think understanding basic cybersecurity is something everyone should know, because we're all choosing passwords, accepting terms of service, giving information to Google and Amazon.

And we really need an education about what are those implications?

And, oftentimes, it seems that it's the humans that are the weak link in the chain.

Often, it is, so the humans often have no idea about computer security.

They've not been trained in how to protect systems.

They've not been trained in the importance of, for example, patching software.

And I think that we can do something about that by making computer-security education one of the basics that we focus on.

As we kind of go forward five years, 10 years, is there a technology arms race, or is this between kind of locks and lock pickers, that there's constantly going to be this battle of creating a more secure environment and somebody figuring out how to poke a hole in it?

Well, I think so, but I wouldn't term it a rat race.

Really, the goal of cybersecurity research is to take entire types of attacks off the table.

So, for example, right now, a lot of our software is plagued with a particular type of vulnerability called a buffer overflow, and research has shown how to get rid of that.

The great thing is -- when we start to make these incremental changes in cybersecurity, we start building new technologies that create new business opportunities.

The example I always think of is Amazon.

I shop on Amazon, and that only works because cryptography is working correctly.

Software security is working correctly.

There's network security.

And, so, there's this rat race of -- or there's this opportunity to keep building more and more secure technologies, and then getting to this place where people start to be able to trust their technology is the goal.

Do you see a scenario where normal, non-tech companies have to start thinking about how to secure their information, regardless of whether they're in plumbing or whether they're Amazon?

I think everyone needs a basic understanding.

You know, there's these malicious programs out there today that can infect anyone, that while encrypt their hard drive and demand a ransom.

It's called ransomware.

People need to be aware of computer security so they can avoid threats like that.

So, when your students are not working on becoming the Super Bowl champions of hacking, are they participating in communities that are figuring out, here is a list of all the known ransomwares out there.

Here's the patches that should be installed.

I mean, how does the kind of academic community work in this world?

Well, the academic community works on creating new technologies that are more secure.

These technologies end up in things like Google Chrome, a web browser millions of people use, or Apple Safari or an Internet Explorer.

So part of what our students are doing is creating these more secure technologies that really impact everyone's life.

All right.

David Brumley from CyLab at Carnegie Mellon University, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.

More than 210 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico during the spring and summer of 2010 from the Deepwater Horizon oil well.

In this segment, we go inside the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, where scientists are studying the long-term effects of the oil spill on fish.

Here's the story.

This is the Mote Aquaculture Research Park just east of Sarasota, Florida.

Scientists here have been studying ways to raise fish for both the dining table and the research lab.

What we're doing here is developing the technology to produce marine species in sustainable manners.

And we use our systems and the biological advances that we make with these different fish to try to advance the development of aquaculture in the United States and also to help restore declining fisheries.

I came here to meet with Dr. Kevan Main and the researchers looking at the effect of oil on fish.

A unique project that we've been working on for the last couple of years has been to look at the use of cultured fish in order to examine what the impacts are from environmental assaults that might happen in nature.

One such assault was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

We all sat mesmerized for months during the summer of 2010, wondering when they would ever cap the well 1 mile deep at the bottom of the Gulf.

As this drama played out on our TVs at home, scientists immediately began studying the impact on the environment.

What we're trying to do here is gain a better understanding of what happened to those animals in a controlled environment.

And so we do everything, from spawning the fish to produce the test animals that are going to be used in the experiments, to raising them clear up to adult size.

And then, throughout the research trials that are done by the Ecotoxicology group, we then keep those animals alive.

Dr. Dana Wetzel heads up the toxicology research at Mote Marine Laboratories.

Oil -- if it doesn't kill an animal, it certainly could then ultimately compromise it in a number of different ways.

It could compromise its immune system.

It could compromise its ability to reproduce, its behavior.

There are a number of facets to the impacts on an organism's health.

Could you give us a brief overview of the process by which you guys take this large oil spill and then emulate that in the lab on a smaller scale?

What we're trying to do is evaluate different habitats within the ocean, different niches.

So we're looking at fish that live in the water column.

We're also looking at fish that live coastally, that are used to being in the near-shore environment.

And then we're also looking at fish that are burrowing in the sediment.

They're benthic fish.

We have pompano that represent living in the water column, and we're exposing them to an oil-and-water test solution.

We have red drum, who live, coastally, near-shore, and we're exposing them to an oil-contaminated food.

And then we have flounder, which are benthic organisms, and those are exposed to oil-contaminated sediments.

So we're trying to emulate three different types of exposures with three different species of fish.

The research here is focused on long-term effects that go far beyond the initial fish kill at the Deepwater Horizon spill.

A lot of times, what we have a tendency to do is to count the number of dead animals from a spill and count the number of live animals and use that as a benchmark for understanding the impact from an oil spill.

But, in actuality, oil -- if it doesn't kill an animal, it certainly could then ultimately compromise it in a number of different ways.

It could compromise its immune system.

It could compromise its ability to reproduce, its behavior.

There are a number of facets to the impacts on an organism's health, rather than just, is it dead?

I also sat down with microbiologist Andrea Tarnecki, who's looking at bacteria in and on the fish.

So, fish have some bacteria that will cause disease, and they have a much larger percentage of bacteria that are beneficial.

And they're doing all the same good things in fish that they're doing in people.

So they help with digestion.

They produce vitamins and amino acids that the fish can use directly.

They boost the immune system of the fish.

And they also help fight off potential pathogens, as well.

So, I'm looking at the changes in the bacterial communities of the fish as they're exposed to oil and the dispersants, versus fish that aren't exposed, looking at things like differences in bacterial diversity, which is the total number of species of bacteria.

Alongside that, I'm looking at comparing those changes with what's happening inside the fish itself.

These scientists have collected massive amounts of data, which will take several months to evaluate.

The process is complex, but a few initial pieces of the puzzle are beginning to form.

And what we found is that the fish that were exposed to oil were significantly impacted, both in the amount of the sperm motility, and viability was far less in the oil-exposed fish than it was in the control fish.

And then the egg production was far less.

When we're all done, we're going to have, you know, hundreds of thousands of data points that we're going to have to strategically piece together and understand what's going on in the big picture.

Right now, you know, we have little pieces that have been answered like, how much have they accumulated?

Are they responding with gene expression?

Are there some genes that are being elevated and some that are being suppressed?

Are they exhibiting oxidative stress?

Is there any evidence of DNA damage?

So, the answer is 'yes.'

We're finding little pieces and parts of all of those.

When we are able to put it all together, I think we'll have a very compelling story to tell.


Baseball's long been known as America's favorite pastime, but science may provide a different way to view this sport.

A closer look reveals that physics, the branch of science concerned with the nature and properties of matter and energy, is what actually powers baseball.

And while 17th century British physicist Sir Isaac Newton didn't play baseball, the laws of motion he crafted are in action all over the baseball diamond.

Here's the story.

Baseball has long been known as America's Game.

[ 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game' plays ] There's the baseball we all know -- balls and strikes, hits and runs, and don't forget hot dogs and cotton candy and root, root, root for the home team.

But if you attend a Durham Bulls game on Education Day and you meet several science teachers, you realize there's a part of baseball fans may not think about.

I used to think that baseball just was about the food and the crowds and having a good time, but a close analysis of baseball shows you it's really more about science and math.

But a ballpark hot dog is still the ultimate, isn't it?

Oh, absolutely.

You can't just come for the academics.

You need the food, too.

Physics, that branch of science concerned with the nature and properties of matter and energy, is what makes baseball possible.

When I look at baseball as it applies to science, I think of Newton's law of motion.

The 17th century British physicist Sir Isaac Newton didn't play baseball, but the laws of motion he crafted are all over the baseball diamond.

Take a look.

Newton's first law of motion states that... The baseball would simply stay on the ground forever, until the pitcher applied a force to pick it up.

Once it's thrown, the baseball would keep going until the force applied by a bat hits it or a catcher catches it.

When the pitcher pitches the ball, two things are going to change -- speed and direction.

When he throws the ball, it's going to start out going faster, and then gravity is going to take over and air resistance, and the ball's going to slow down, changing the speed.

Also, if the ball is up in the air, it's going to change direction.

It's going to go from the air down to the ground because of gravity.

Now let's go to Newton's second law.

In other words, the greater the mass of the object being accelerated, the higher the force must be.

Think about the pitcher again, but this time, substitute the baseball with a bowling ball.

The pitcher can't throw the bowling ball at a high rate of speed, because the mass of the ball is greater than the amount of force the pitcher can apply.

So, what about a batter?

The faster the ball comes, the more force that the batter has to apply to the ball to get it to go farther.

The less the ball weighs, the less he has to apply force.

The heavier the ball is and the faster it goes, the more force that the batter has to apply to hit the ball as far as he wants it to go.

Now to Newton's third law.

It states that... Or, put another way, when forces collide, every force exerted by the first is met with an equal and opposite reaction by the second force.

That's what happens when a batter gets a hit.

The action or force of the bat hitting the ball reduces the reaction of the ball changing direction and moving away from the force of the bat that acted on it.

So, what happened there?

So, the force of the ball coming in contact with the bat -- Even though the bat is applying force to shoot the ball out, the ball is also causing an equal amount of force to go into that bat.

So to get a hit, the bat must apply an equal amount of force to force the ball to change direction.

Objects push equal on each other.

So when the pitcher is holding the ball, the ball is starting to go to the ground.

But the pitcher has to use an equal amount of force to keep it in his hand, or else his hand would just go like that, and the ball would fall.

Now let's look at another example of what happens when a force is applied in baseball, this time, what happens when a pitcher actually delivers a pitch.

It turns out, the major difference between a fastball, curveball, slider, and screwball is the direction in which the ball spins.

That's because the spin causes the ball to disturb the air around it.

Anything you throw with over-the-top spin, you're going to get the downward action on the baseball.

The spinning of the ball forces the air on one side of the ball to move faster than the other, in effect, changing the air pressure surrounding the ball.

That means the velocity of the air, relative to the ball's surface, is larger on the bottom of the ball.

The air pressure is higher.

So, as the spinning ball throws the air at the top down, the higher air pressure at the bottom of the ball pushes the ball up.

That's what makes the ball curve.

And the effect of the spin is powerful.

A ball spinning at 1,800 revolutions per minute will turn about 15 times in its journey from the pitcher to home plate.

That spin rate adds about 1 ounce of force on the ball, and that causes the ball to change its direction by about 1 1/2 feet.

In the end, science may provide a different way to view America's game, but...

You see all these kids come out.

That's why I like to play, because whenever I was there age, I wanted to be where I'm at now.

So that, to me, is the biggest part of baseball.

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.

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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.