SciTech Now Episode 416

In this episode of SciTech Now, we meet researchers who study thousands of worms at a time; we learn what mystery meat was served at the 1905 Explorers Club Dinner, learn how students are merging arts and engineering to create innovative products; and a company in San Antonio, Texas working on perfecting indoor navigation using Earth’s electromagnetic field.


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Coming up... step inside a worm motel.

Manipulating all these worms' lives, you do sometimes feel like an all-powerful being.

The Explorers Club mystery meat.

The dinner was pitched as something prehistoric being served.

A unique collaboration merges art and engineering.

It's a blend of three disciplines of engineering -- computer, mechanical, and electrical.

Advancing indoor navigation.

I could see this becoming more universal, where almost all public spaces will have this kind of technology.

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.

Nematodes are microscopic worms that occupy nearly every habitat on Earth.

In an effort to get to know these creepy crawlers, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia created worm motels to study thousands of worms at a time.

Our partner 'Science Friday' has the story.

So, you're kind of plopped down into a small room.

There's food all around you, as much food as you could possibly want for the rest of your life.

You are now in the WorMotel.

And then you kind of just go on living your life, moving around, eating as much as you want until you die.

My name is Matt Churgin, and I'm a postdoctoral associate at the University of Pennsylvania in the bioengineering department.

So, the WorMotel is an array of 240 wells that we can use to monitor individual animals for long periods of time.

They're one-millimeter long, free-living nematodes.

We culture them on agar plates, which are just kind of like a gel, and they eat E. coli bacteria.

They live about two to three weeks, and they're kind of a popular-model organism to study aging.

We know a lot of genes that affect life span and health span, but there are 20,000 genes in the worm's genome, which is pretty similar to humans.

And for a lot of those genes, we have no idea what those genes do.

So the ultimate goal is to understand better the aging process.

We ended up creating a 3-D-printed mold, and then we can easily cast WorMotels with a silicone rubber.

We add agar to each well, then add bacteria on top of the agar.

And then we have a device that automatically shoot a single animal into each well.

So, the worms eat bacteria, and we can engineer the bacteria such that, in each well, the bacteria turn off a specific gene in each worm.

And, that way, we can see what the effect of turning off that gene is on the animal's life span and their health during the aging process.

Basically, everything is controlled.

So the size of the well is controlled for each worm.

The amount of food is controlled.

The temperature is controlled.

There's a carousel which has a bunch of plate stacks, which is where the WorMotels actually live for most of their lives.

Then, right next to that, there's a robot tower that can spin around and grab a plate out of the carousels and then spin to the other side of the robotic tower, where there's three imaging stations.

And then, once per day, it will image it for 10 minutes, turn a blue light on to wake the worms up, image for another 10 minutes, and then pick the plate up from the camera and move it back to the stack.

The more a worm moves, the more pixels will have changed.

And we use the amount of movement as a proxy for how healthy each worm is.

It's certainly the most simple measurement of health because we don't have to do any more complicated, invasive sort of procedures.

About 500 of these 240 well plates will fit in the robot system, so we probably end up testing 2 million animals.

It's not really been possible to monitor changes in behavior for so many animals automatically.

I don't think it's possible without the WorMotel.

You know, manipulating all these worms' lives, you do sometimes feel like an all-powerful being kind of watching over thousands of helpless creatures.

But, yeah, it's definitely a lot cushier than in the wild.

In some ways, these worms are pretty privileged, I would say.

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Since 1905, the Explorers Club, which promotes scientific exploration and field study, has been holding annual dinners known for serving adventurous, exotic cuisine.

One of the most talked-about dinners was in 1951, when the club reportedly served woolly-mammoth meat from Alaska.

Since that dinner, there's been much debate about the woolly-mammoth main course.

Scientist Jessica Glass of Yale University joins us to discuss that infamous meal.

Could it have happened?

Could there have been woolly-mammoth meat?

Absolutely. Yeah.

There's cases in the past of scientists uncovering woolly-mammoth meat that was so well-preserved that the meat actually looked edible.

It was never found in blocks of ice, but rather frozen in permafrost.

And the Explorers Club had always served meat and exotic animals from expeditions that its club members went on.

And so it was definitely plausible that woolly mammoth could've been served at that dinner.

But where would they have been roaming, and where would it have been found in 1951?

So, supposedly, it was found on Akutan Island, in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.

And woolly mammoths have been found all over North America and Siberia, and the unique thing about this specimen was that there weren't any cases previously of woolly mammoth having been collected from Akutan Island.

The other interesting twist to this story was that it actually wasn't labeled -- the meat specimen we had wasn't labeled as woolly mammoth.

It was labeled as Megatherium, which is a genus of ancient ground sloth.

And so this is where the mystery began.

Megatherium was only found in South America.

They hadn't been recorded north of Peru, and other species of ancient ground sloths had been found in North America and even in Alaska, but not Megatherium.

And so there was this whole debate originally about whether was it woolly mammoth or was it Megatherium.

Was woolly mammoth kind of a cheap knock-off 'cause they couldn't get Megatherium and so they just had some woolly mammoth lying around?

Well, the dinner was pitched as something prehistoric being served.

And the man who supposedly -- There were two men involved who supposedly collected the meat.

The first was Father Rosecrans, Bernard Rosecrans Hubbard, and he was known as the 'Glacial Priest.'

He was a geologist and famous explorer, and he was a professor of geology at the University of Santa Clara.

And he, along with Captain George Kosco of the U.S. Navy, supposedly found this woolly mammoth/Megatherium ancient specimen in the glacial ice of Akutan Island and shipped it back to the Explorers Club, along with a bunch of other sort of Arctic-themed meal components, which we know were true.

They had glacial ice from Juno.

They had lichen.

They had giant king crab.

They had a bunch of other interesting Arctic specimens.

So the fact that these men could've brought back a mammoth was entirely plausible.

Was there any test -- I mean, they don't leave a little sample of the meat of the dinner forever and ever in an archive somewhere.

Is there any test that we could do to figure out what was eaten?

Well, that is exactly what happened.

So, the cool part of it -- There's a couple interesting players involved.

The first was a man named Commander Wendell Phillips Dodge, and he was the organizer of the dinner at the Explorers Club, and he was a noted impresario.

He was a promoter for Mae West.

He was also a famous explorer.

And the second character involved was a man named Paul Griswold Howes, and he was the curator/director of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut.

And, in 1951, he was on an expedition, and he wasn't able to attend the dinner, so he wrote to Wendell Phillips Dodge and said, 'Please may I have my portion of the meal?

I'd like to display it in the Bruce Museum in Greenwich.'

And Dodge answered back and said, 'Absolutely.'

He personally filled out the specimen card with the chunk of the meat preserved in ethanol and sent it to Howes at the Bruce Museum.

And on the specimen label, he wrote not 'woolly mammoth' but 'Megatherium.'

And if you look at accounts, interviews of people who attended the dinner, there was some confusion about whether it was woolly mammoth or whether it was Megatherium, giant sloth.

They were eating it anyway.

They were eating it anyway.

There were mixed accounts about how it tasted, and they weren't really sure, and so there were a couple of articles published, but one of them ended up sticking, and that was published by and it said that they ate woolly mammoth.

So for the last 60 years, that's been sort of taken as fact.

But in the collections of the Yale Peabody Museum, where I used to work as an undergraduate, we had the specimen of Megatherium meat, and I thought it was fascinating because it said this was potentially 250,000 years old, it was served at the Explorers Club dinner in 1951, and I thought it was just crazy that people would eat something that has been dead for potentially thousands of years.


So, flash-forward to 2015.

I was back as a PhD student, studying genetics, and I was taking a class on mammalogy.

And our professor, Eric Sargis, mentioned in class that there was this specimen of sloth meat and, if anyone wanted to do the genetic analysis on it, then come and find him after class.

So I sprinted up to class.

Of course, there was no one else there [Laughing] that was interested.

But I said, 'Oh, I know about the specimen.

It's my favorite.

I want to do the project.'

And, at that time, I was doing my PhD in genetics, so I had the expertise to start.

So I teamed up with Eric Sargis -- he's an anthropologist -- and another PhD student in geology called Matt Davis.

And I ended up sequencing the DNA, and we were --

And? Drumroll, please.


It was actually green sea turtle.

It was neither mammoth nor sloth.

Matt found a confession by Dodge that was in the Explorers Club journal, and it was a correspondence between Dodge and Paul Howes, where Paul was confused 'cause he said, 'I heard that it was mammoth.

I heard that it was sloth.

What is it?'

And Dodge writes back a very, very confusing, winding series of letters where he says, 'It is sloth -- it is Megatherium,' but then talks about these sloths eating pteropods, which were like ancient marine -- or, no, they're still in existence, but marine sea creatures.

And, at one point, he says, 'Could I have found, perhaps, a potion to change giant ground sloth into which is 'green sea turtle.'

So this correspondence was kind of forgotten, and even by the Explorers Club members.

So, how do the explorers feel that they were... well, hoaxed, pranked, punked?

At the time, I think they were actually relieved because the Explorers Club is a club that promotes scientific research, exploration.

In the past, it was very common for any scientist to go and sample their research specimen.

Were green sea turtles plentiful back then, or were they rare, too?

Back then, they were plentiful.

They were actually quite popular, especially among the elite.

And we know now, after the fact -- We actually obtained the menu from that 1951 dinner.

And they served green sea turtle in a soup as an appetizer, and they pitched it along with something that was prehistoric.

So it makes sense in retrospect that Dodge made this claim, he built up the dinner, and then just took some of that turtle and put it in the jar and sent it to the Bruce Museum.

All right. Jessica Glass.

Thanks for solving the mystery.

Yeah, thank you so much for having me.

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A joint-degree program at two universities in North Carolina allows students to merge arts and engineering to create innovative products.

We go inside the studio for a look.

You're looking at a cutting-edge way to train the next generation of engineers... in the art studio.

We'll see how an engineer and how an art student kind of designs that separately, so it's kind of an interesting project.

Junior Travers Thurman is part of a new collaboration at the University of North Carolina Asheville.

In it, art and engineering students work together to design products.

This aluminum prosthetic is the result.

This part is gonna be strapped to the arm like so, and then this part will attach from the front, about right here.

And it can hold about any tool.

I came up with a writing device to help either people with arthritis or possibly arthrogryposis so that, if you can't articulate your fingers well, then you can still be able to write.

And there's good reason to blend art and engineering.

Just listen to Fiona Popp describe her design.

This is just where your hand sits when you're writing, so it could've just been anything, like just an oval or something, but we wanted to make it something that was interesting to look at.

And then this part is the part that I fabricated separately.

It's just made out of PVC pipe and a bolt.

So the idea -- what I'm gonna end up doing is gluing it onto here so that you can put the pen inside and then tighten so that the pen stays still.

And then, with this attached, you'll be able to move this around, and it'll be like you're writing.

And so what the art students bring to the table is they bring an understanding of art and design concepts.

What the engineering students bring to the table may be a little bit different way of looking at something and how it might work, how it might function, how it might be made.

And what they gain together when they're in assistance together, they gain an understanding of both of those things, working side by side, collaboratively.

They also gain an understanding of each other's perspective, which they have to have when they enter the job market.

[ Machinery whirring ]

Technology, especially 3-D printing, makes this collaboration possible.

Intricate objects that can only be designed on a computer can then be 3-D printed, and that printing can be used as a mold for casting.

It makes it so that you can modify the design more easily.

You can add to it, take away from it, and if you are doing this by hand, you would have to create a mold and then pour your wax into the mold.

And if there's something different about that, you have to redo your entire mold if there's something you want to change or something that's not quite right.

But with the 3-D printing, you can just tweak it in the program, in your model on the computer.

It's much more easy to modify, and then you just hit 'go,' and it prints it.

The collaboration between art and engineering is part of a joint-degree program between UNC Asheville and North Carolina State University.

It focuses on mechatronics.

And just what is mechatronics?

It's a blend of three disciplines of engineering -- computer, mechanical, and electrical.

And the purpose is to train people to design automated devices in their entirety -- the whole system.


[ Indistinct conversations ]

There's a world of difference between 3-D printing and mold pouring, but faculty members say the program is a reflection of the changing workplace.

It's not enough to simply know a process or a technique.

Workers need to understand each discipline and be able to collaborate and work across disciplines.

Do it hard.

Harder, harder!

The program also reflects what engineers call the 'intrinsic need for beauty.'

The most sought-after objects, whether consumer products or buildings, are not only functional -- they are also attractive.

My mother has arthrogryposis in her joints.

They're contracted together in a way that she cannot articulate her hands very well.

I just remember growing up and watching that struggle.

And so I think this will enable her to write easier.


Technology like is used in engineering is changing our world, and if we don't learn to integrate our personal creativity, our love for learning, and our use of technology, we're lost.

So I think not only do we belong, but we are an important addition.

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A hospital, a shopping mall, or even your house -- just some of the indoor places people may soon be able to navigate with satellite maps.

A company in San Antonio, Texas, is working to perfect indoor navigation using the Earth's electromagnetic field.

Take a look.

The reason for indoor positioning is GPS signals don't work indoors.

So when you're outside, you can get a GPS signal, you have a line of sight to the satellites, and you can get about 30-feet accuracy.

When you come indoors, you can no longer see the satellites, so you lose any kind of reference to satellites.

We developed a way to get indoor positioning using magnetic fields and Wi-Fi signals.

And by combining the two, we can actually resolve to a much better answer using the two signals.

The access points are all over in most commercial buildings and even homes.

You can see about 50 access points from all your neighbors.

So you can actually utilize all these broadcasts that are coming off these emitters for triangulation, and that's how we develop our technology towards those two ambient signals that are already in existence.

So our solution doesn't require any infrastructure be installed, and that's one of the great things about our solution right now.

Garza explains his indoor-mapping technology has many applications, ranging from on-site asset management to safety.

And all the mapping data is acquired by this sophisticated indoor-mapping robot.

So, one of the things I want to show you, Chris, is a lot of the technology that's actually tied into this robot to do these very accurate surveys.

One of the things we have here is we have three antennas, and those antennas are actually used to receive all the signals from the access points, the Wi-Fi access points.

These antennas are pretty specialized, so they're not your run-of-the-mill antennas.

We actually had them developed for us, so they have a very evenly distributed receive field because of the measurements we use.

So those are a little expensive, the specialized antennas.

The other thing we have on here -- and it's a little hard to see because they're so small -- the MEMS magnetic, magnetic sensors, are these little red printed circuit boards.

And those are very small but very sensitive.

We're able to measure one microtesla at a time.

Not sure that means anything to you, but it's a very small measurement of magnetic fields, so we have that kind of resolution.

And then, additionally, as part of the navigation system that we have here, is we have the lidar.

So this lidar is actually scanning very, very fast, and it's actually taking measurements of all the walls very, very fast -- and about 200 hertz.

And then, also, we have this red box over here.

That's the inertial-measurement unit, and that's the one that I was talking about aircraft have, that it tells you the pitch, roll, and yaw of the platform itself, and we can tie the laser data with the inertial-measurement data to tell you exactly where those lasers were pointing at that specific point in time.

And then, additionally, some of the stuff we have down here is typical for most robotic platforms.

We have motor controllers.

So these motor controllers drive the motors forward, backward, sideways, left and right, and it's actually got a process center to calculate how much torque and all that stuff that needs to be put into the motors, as well.

And then one of the last things that we have on the robot is obviously a lot of processing power, so inside this chassis here is probably about four computers.

We have three ARM processors that are running in parallel, and then we also have what they call an 'embedded single board computer,' and it's basically like what you would find in a four-core laptop, like a Core i7.

It's basically that but much smaller, and it's embedded into the chassis, so this robot actually has a lot of processing power, probably about twice as much as most laptops nowadays.

One of the neat things about this robot is that we have a Web controller, so we can drive it using the Web, Web interface, or we can also drive it using the standard remote controller.

One of the things I wanted to show you was the wheels.

The wheels have rollers on them.

They're pretty specialized, and they're called Mecanum wheels.

The reason that makes them special is this robot can actually go sideways.

So, one of the things we do, once we map the building and survey the building, is we have to process the data to match the data to the floor map that we've created.

And so we've developed a tool that helps us do that, and one of the tools that we use is actually embedded into Google Earth.

That helps us visualize how the data is actually correlated to the Earth in latitude and longitude.

And as you could here, we have the floor plan that we developed from the Geekdom seventh floor.

I want to thank Geekdom, actually, for letting us use their space.

And you can see all these little dots here is where the robot has actually traversed the space, and those are all the individual positions that we've actually collected data.

And what we do, once everything is lined up here, the next phase we do is actually take all this data, run our algorithms on it, and develop what we call 'signature databases.'

What does Garza see as the future of this indoor mapping technology?

So, I could see this becoming more universal, where almost all public spaces will have this kind of technology, and you'll be able to navigate, especially in a hospital.

Like, 'I need to go make a doctor's appointment.

Let me go see the foot doctor on the seventh floor.'

You open up your app.

You say, 'Doctor X. Navigate.'

And the system will say, 'Hey, you got to get on this elevator, go up six floors.

You get out here, hang a right.

You go down 10 meters, hang a left, and there's the doctor's office.'

That's where it's going.


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... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪