SciTech Now Episode 425

In this episode of SciTech Now, we explore a Texas state-of-the-art ocean simulation lab; see what the future of space holds; how radium leads to scientific discovery and workers’ rights; and a study to see if black bears and humans can co-exist.



Coming up, deep-ocean technology.

The majority of the work we're doing is to verify that the piece of equipment that's going to go down into the ocean is safe to use.

A race for space.

The ultimate hope is, we'll find a way to make economic value in orbit, around the Moon, on Mars.

An element of mystery.

This was a kind of poisoning that was also incredibly insidious.

It took years to show itself.

Can bears and humans live together?

Humans are starting to live in places that are occupied by bears, and our bears have shown themselves to be very tolerant.

It's all ahead.


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.

The Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, has a state-of-the-art ocean simulation lab that tests deep-ocean technology.

We go into the lab for a look.

The testing here in the OSL is primarily to validate that the piece of equipment is going to be safe to use.

By and large, that is what we are doing.

We also do some basic research where we're looking to prove out new technologies.

That's a little bit a smaller portion of what we do, but the majority of the work we're doing is to verify that the piece of equipment that's going to go down into the ocean or maybe up into space or down into a deep oil well is safe to use and will perform.

A lot of the equipment that goes into the ocean or anywhere else, for that matter, is under a lot of stress.

It's seeing environments that you don't normally see and can be tested anywhere except for specific labs like the Ocean Simulations Lab.

We simulate an ocean environment that can stress these devices to their maximum and beyond, so that when they are used in the ocean, or if they're used in different systems, we can be assured that they've been highly tested and will last many, many years.

In the past, we've seen failures of things in the ocean or on land or anywhere else, for that matter, and we've learned from those things.

We bring them in here.

We test them to extremes, the highest extremes that we can, and once in a while, if we are lucky, we get a chance to break it at the end just to see just how tough it really is.

The oil country tubular goods, which are all your pipes that go down into oil and gas wells, they have a collapse rating that we need to verify for all mill runs of that type of pipe.

That is external pressure, hydrostatic pressure, that's applied to the pipe until failure to verify that all of the materials coming off that mill run will collapse at something greater to that minimum stated value.

For instance, if it's 5,000 PSI, we know that those pipes have been tested and collapse at actually a greater range.

It's very important that the piping under the sea that is transporting the oil stays at certain temperatures.

We want that oil to stay hot.

We don't want it to cool down rapidly because that creates hydrates.

It creates wax, paraffins that clog pipes.

It's very bad news.

We saw this during some of the accidents that we've seen out there.

So the testing that we're doing here for the insulation of this piping is very important.

I can give you an example.

Here we have a basic 10- to 12-ounce Styrofoam cup.

Well, when you subject it to sea pressure, just like you would the insulation that's going around these pipes out there, it shrinks, and it shrinks down about this small.

So here you can see the difference.

This is only a few thousand pounds of pressure that has shrunk this cup down to 2 ounces from 10.

So as you can see, it's lost all of its insulating properties, and obviously, it's not going to work anymore.

The same thing would happen to the insulation that surrounds the pipe out there that's transporting the oil across the sea floor.

So a large part of what we do is verifying that those oil country tubular goods meet their collapse rating, and you'll see us tape the ends of the pipes to make sure that they hold out the pressure from the inside.

We run them into our tanks.

We pressurize them up, and you'll hear an audible clunk as that pipe collapses.

And then we'll record that pressure, provide the dimensional data to the clients, and that way, they have the record that, yea, verily, that piece of equipment was validated for the service it was going to be put in.

One of my other sections that I manage here at Southwest Research Institute designs and builds submersibles for clients.

We built the Alvin submersible titanium hull.

It's one of the oldest research submersibles that the US uses.

It's owned by the US Navy, operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

The original Alvin was designed for about 4,500 meters, and they wanted a new one that goes to 6,500 meters.

It covers about 99 percent of the ocean, everything but the hadal zones, the deep trenches that are out there in the ocean.

So this one is able to cover the vast majority of the ocean and do the research now.

Now, one of the things that our engineering group is able to do is the testing here using the OSL facilities, which adds value to our customers because not only can we do the engineering, the fabrication, the design, the analysis work, but then we can bring it over here and do the testing to validate that everything works.

We get with third-body certifying agents, and we get them to certify that we did everything according to the rules, and we deliver a final product to our customer.

Most of the things that we've done have been to improve our clients' products.

We're here to benefit government and industry and our neighbors out here in San Antonio and around the world.

If it's been at the bottom of the ocean or if it's been to deep space, parts of that have probably been through this lab.

We're here to make life better for everybody, safer for everybody and to do it cheaply and as a not-for-profit organization.

And to that end, that's what the OSL is doing here.

We protect man when they go to the ocean for pressure vessels, for equipment.

We protect man and the environment from hazardous actions that might be caused by doing the research or the exploration that we're doing in the deep ocean and, indeed, in deep space as well.

So when we're testing these things to make sure that they're going to work once they're put into service, mankind benefits from that effort just by saving in cost by reducing the risk and making sure that we understand what we're doing before we actually get out there and do it.


Major players and corporations are competing to colonize the Moon, send civilians into space or be the first to land a spaceship on the surface of Mars.

What does this mean for the future of space?

Tim Fernholz, a reporter for and author of 'Rocket Billionaires,' joins us to discuss the future of space travel.

So the title of the book, 'Rocket Billionaires.'

We heard about Jeff Bezos.

We've heard about Elon Musk.

You know, for a while, there was Virgin Galactic...

It's still there.

...with Dave Geffen, right?

So what are all these guys doing?

What do they want to do?

I think they want to change the world.

It's different for each one of them.

Elon Musk's vision is of a multi-planetary future for human civilization.

We would colonize Mars so there's redundancy.

Jeff Bezos subscribes to an idea of moving industry and humanity to space stations off planet to protect the Earth.

Richard Branson, who owns and operates Virgin Galactic, is more of a Earth-focused space company.

They want to fly people, ultimately, around the world from city to city in sub-orbital space planes.

You know, they have all benefited from the industry that they are disrupting, which is, kind of, NASA, right?


I mean, there was all that, decades of rocket science, which is hard, that had to get them to a place where they could build on it.

It's absolutely the case, but the industry they're disrupting isn't NASA.

You know, NASA is a government space agency.

They are disrupting the Boeings and Lockheed Martins and the Northrop Grummans of the world, who are primarily government contractors.

And what is exciting and new right now is technology has advanced to the point where it's cheap enough...


...and inequality has driven us to the point where individuals have enough money that they can bring private competition into the space industry.

And the ultimate hope is we'll find a way to make economic value in orbit around the Moon, on Mars, and that is what will bring people to space.

Are there any guidelines?

If you had a billion dollars or $10 billion, could you just start a space company?

You sure could, and a lot of people have tried, and a lot of people have lost a lot of money doing that because, as you say, it is very hard.

But what you're really asking is, 'Can these guys do anything they want without the public say-so?'


And the answer right now is, 'No.'

They are dependent, often, on NASA for know-how, for funding.

Elon Musk is the most successful of these entrepreneurs with SpaceX.


That is a company that would not exist without NASA's help.

And they're dependent on launching their rockets from, you know, US Air Force launch sites.

What is true is there's not very much regulation right now.

The laws that govern space were designed at a time when only a nation-state could get to space.


And now, Elon Musk just sent a Tesla into solar orbit, which is crazy, and people are starting to take another look at these laws, and under the Trump administration, we're seeing a big move to ease regulations and make it simpler for private companies to launch more stuff into space and do more in space.

Is there a tension then between the existing government subcontractors or contractors that have had their run of the place and these upstarts that are showing up and possibly eating their lunch, saying, 'Hey, you know what?

If I can send a satellite up for a lot cheaper and a lot faster, look out'?

There's a ton of tension there, and they are literally eating their lunch.

There's a company right now called United Launch Alliance.

It's a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and for almost a decade, they had a monopoly on US government rocket launches, charged upwards of $150 million per launch.

SpaceX came along with a rocket that costs about half that much.

They had to sue the US Air Force to win the right to bid on those contracts and break that monopoly.

That's how disruptive they were.

These are private companies really with one big investor each, and that gives them a lot of freedom that these companies who are dependent on Congress don't have.

Bezos and Musk have very different strategies and world views on how to get things done, too.


You know, I think Elon Musk is a brilliant engineer.

He doesn't take 'no' for an answer.

He's very driven, and he is a little bit impulsive, and he gets seized by the big idea and runs for something.

But what's interesting about his company is that it's really designed to bootstrap itself.

You know, when he got started, he was a very wealthy man by our standards...


...but he couldn't run a space program.

So he's broken into markets doing work for NASA, doing work for commercial satellite companies that's allowed his company to grow, and that discipline makes them really successful right now.

They launched 18 rockets last year.

They might launch 30 this year.

Jeff Bezos has a lot more money than Elon Musk.

He's the richest man in the world, I think.

I haven't checked the stock market today.

Yeah, yeah.

And his company is all along the long view.

They're not worried about revenue from other, you know, sources.

They're building their own technology, and only last year did they announce, 'Oh, we're going to have a rocket. We're going to sell,' you know, 'flights to satellite companies.'


They are really focused on developing their own thing, their own vision.

What's the likelihood... Five years out, ten years out, let's say both of these companies are successful.

How does space look different?

What SpaceX wants to do in the near term is launch a huge constellation of broadband Internet satellites and compete with telecoms and drive down the cost of Internet access.

It could change the way we communicate.

That would be huge.

Blue Origin ultimately wants to get in a similar business of launching satellites, but what both companies need to prove is, there's a market for either launching people into space as tourists where they can be self-sustaining, that extracting resources from the Moon or asteroids is something that will keep a business going, or even manufacturing new things in space like high-capacity fiber-optic lines that you can't do in Earth's gravity would justify their investments.


And so that's the bet they're making, is that these new markets will emerge, and what is fascinating is, even though these are two very different men and two very different companies, they've both settled on the idea of 'We need to build reusable rockets in order to make this happen.'

And I think that's fascinating that that's the strategy and the technology problem they both want to solve.

All right.

Tim Furnholz of and the author of 'Rocket Billionaires.'

Thanks so much.

My pleasure.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the newly discovered element radium was used in everything from body lotion to tonic water.

But when the poisonous side effects of radium took hold, a group of working-class women launched a groundbreaking battle that influenced the future of scientific discovery and workers' rights.

Here to tell their story is Kate Moore, the author of 'The Radium Girls.'

Thanks for joining us.

So who are the Radium Girls?

They are perhaps the most courageous women I've ever had the privilege of discovering, frankly.

In short, they were, as you say, poor, working-class women who worked in watch-painting factories during the First World War and the roaring '20s.

They worked with a luminous radioactive paint, and they were taught to lick point, which means they were taught to put their paintbrushes between their lips to make a fine point on the brush for the delicate handiwork they were doing.

And in so doing, they ingested radioactive paint, and this resulted in radiation poisoning that had never been seen in human beings before, and the reason these girls are so extraordinary is because of how they dealt with that situation.

So they had to fight against the received wisdom of the age that radium was safe.

They had to fight against very powerful corporations, who didn't want to admit responsibility for what they'd done to the women, and in so doing, they've left us this extraordinary legacy of workers' rights and scientific knowledge.

They're amazing.

Why was radium so widely used as the time?

It was seen as a wonder element.

I mean, I think in the same way that today, we're always looking for, you know, what's the new big thing that's either going to make us younger or, you know, make us live longer.

Radium was the thing that people thought was an elixir of youth that would make, as one advertising slogan put it, 'old men young.'

Tell me about the side effects.

Tell me about what these women lived through and experienced.

Well, I mean, it is really horrifying -- there's no other way to put it -- how the radium was kind of treated in the women's bodies.

Essentially, it's sort of chemically similar to calcium, and we all know if we drink a nice glass of milk, the calcium goes straight to our bones and makes them strong.

Now, when the women ingested the radium, the human body was sort of fooled into thinking it was calcium.

So it went to the women's bones, and there emanated its radioactive power.

So the symptoms that the Radium Girls suffered was their teeth falling out, their bones fracturing spontaneously, their legs shortening.

And this was a kind of poisoning that was also incredibly insidious.

It took years to show itself.

Later, it started developing sarcomas, cancerous tumors, in the women, and they were like a ticking time bomb, so some women didn't get sick for decades, but the radium inside their bodies always came calling in the end.

So I'm assuming the companies that might have been responsible for all this said, 'Hey, you can't prove this.

This woman hasn't worked for us for 10 years.

This is a cancer that she got from somewhere else.'

You're absolutely right.

There was a real shirking of the responsibility, and, you know, make no mistake.

I've read the company memos.

That was motivated by a desire that their lucrative industry, you know, the products you talked about at the top of this piece, you know, this radium industry that included radium therapeutics, radium cosmetics, radium chocolates, you know, radium water that people drank as a kind of health tonic, this was big money.

It was big business, and the Radium Girls, in bringing their unique and never-before-seen radium poisoning to light, threatened the bottom line.

So tell me.

What are the consequences?

I mean, they... What was their fight like, and then what did they get accomplished?

Grace Fryer, who's one of the lead litigants in the lawsuit that these women launched to try and protect other workers and sort of bring this to public attention, you know, she's suing her company and giving evidence with a steel back brace on her back, you know, to keep her erect.

Catherine Donahue, another of the Radium Girls, gave evidence on her deathbed, and so this really was a fight to the death and an altruistic fight because radium poisoning is fatal, and as the Radium Girls are fighting for justice, they are not doing it for themselves.

They're doing it to protect other workers.

So were there laws that were changed?

Was there scientific practice that was changed?

And then did we come to the conclusion that radium, in fact, is dangerous?

Yes, absolutely.

All the things you've mentioned.

So it was a very long legal battle that the women fought.

You know, they, you know, as I say, they were trying to overturn the received wisdom of the age, so all the big business was against them.

They struggled to find a lawyer.

They struggled to find doctors who would believe them, and that court case that they embarked on did change laws.

New, you know, laws were written.

They overturned the legal wisdom of the time because people were up in arms saying this is an outrage, and they also changed safety standards not only for people working in radioactive industries that last to this day, also in historic contexts, so workers on the Manhattan Project are protected because of the Radium Girls.

And I think the other thing is the scientific knowledge they've left us.

As I say, this was a type of poisoning never before seen.

People didn't understand what internal radiation did to the human body.

The book is called 'The Radium Girls.'

Author Kate Moore, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to people.

Thank you.

In North Carolina, black bear populations have grown, but so has urban sprawl.

One 5-year study looks to see if black bears and humans can coexist, and the results might surprise you.

Here's the story.

They get used to us sometimes, where you may... I see some neighbors yelling to get them to leave the garbage alone or something, you know?

Mike Ruiz keeps a sharp eye and a video camera on the wildlife in his Asheville neighborhood.

And then the neighbor is, like, warning me, like, 'Mama in the yard over there,' and I'm thinking, 'Wait a minute.

Me, babies, mama.

This is not good.'

Yeah, so...

He's especially watchful for the big wildlife, the North American black bear.

I got a pretty good video of some when they were down near the front of the driveway, and it was nice.

Yeah, I will get in the car sometimes, so I'm not always, you know, unprotected.

So in the car, I feel safer, and, like, if I see a bear go up this way, I've gotten in the car, and I've driven because I figure out where they're going to come out up there, and then I'm waiting for them.

And then up there, I get some good footage, you know, when they cross the street.

Ruiz is the community recorder of bear sightings.

People alert him to bears.

He records video and then posts it to a neighborhood news website.

Some will be very, very scared and really be appreciative when I post a video of where they are, especially some that walk their dogs, and they don't want to encounter a bear because a dog can go crazy and start, like, barking and all this, and the bear might, you know, hurt the dog.

So there's some who really like to keep track of where they're going and what time of day.


And that raises the question, can bears and people coexist?

You know, we've never done a study on bears living in more human-developed areas, and we were seeing over the past 10 to 15 years that it appeared in certain places, bears were living in more developed areas, that they were tolerating the amount of human disturbance and development better than we expected.

The black bear is a North Carolina wildlife success story.

There were only about 1,500 black bears in the state in the 1970s, but thanks to research, changes in hunting regulations and the creation of bear sanctuaries, black bears made a comeback.

Now there's an estimated 17,000 to 20,000 black bears in the state.

About 7,000 black bears live in the western mountains.

The rest live in the coastal plain in the eastern half of the state where there are fewer people, and there is plenty of open farmland and forest.

So, you know, the human population is growing in North Carolina.

Humans are starting to live in places that are occupied by bears, and our bears have shown themselves to be very tolerant of humans and human disturbances, so really we're trying to see, how can we educate people to coexist with these bears, basically to be tolerant of these bears, as well as what can we do to make sure that we are managing the bears based off of science and the best knowledge possible?

The 5-year urban bear study focuses on Asheville and Buncombe County.

That's where the most human-bear interactions are reported.

The study involves trapping and tracking radio-collared bears.

You can see one of the bear collars used in the project in Ruiz's videos.

For the urban bear study, we try to collect the location when the bear is inside city limits every 5 minutes.

We're trying to get fine-scaled movements, again, to identify how those bears are moving through Asheville and taking advantage of those, you know, habitat corridors.

But once the bear is out of Asheville, we have it where we get a location every 1 to 2 hours.

It's a perfect opportunity to really look into human-bear interactions.

Researchers believe their findings will help scientists manage bear populations not only in North Carolina but around the country, and there are plenty of questions to answer.

How bears are using this really fascinating part of our state that's suburban and urban... What's their reproductive rate?

What's their survival, causes of mortality?

Is this population a source population, meaning they're growing bears in Asheville, and those Ashevilles are then, those bears in Asheville are dispersing to the surrounding area?

Or is Asheville a sink, meaning the bears are just coming in Asheville and staying?

How are they moving?

Are those bears, with all the artificial-food resources, the bird feeders, the garbage, are they having more cubs?

Are they bigger?

Are they healthier?

What's their timing of denning, and what are the characteristics of the den sites?

How about wildlife-type diseases?

Scientists have already made one major discovery -- bears and people coexist quite well.

In fact, bears can thrive in a major city.

Well, so, you know, black bear, I mean, it's a wild animal, and it should be treated as such, but it's not something that you have to fear.

It's something that you have to respect.

Justin McVey fields about 500 calls about bears every year as a biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

It turns out, wildlife management is people management.

The main thing to remember when you're living in bear country is just to keep those human-caused food sources put up.

Keep those trash cans secured.

Once you have bear activity on your property, make sure you don't have those bird feeders out.

And bears are very adaptable.

They're very smart, and they don't mind us nearly as much as we mind them, so they don't mind living in close proximity to us.

They don't mind denning in close proximity to us.

Wildlife is a part of North Carolina.

It's a part of our history.

It's a part of our culture.

It's a part of our landscape.

And it's important to have these animals in our ecosystem.

A lot of folks like to see the wildlife, and, you know, woodpeckers, you know, anything.

I...A lot of wildlife here, beautiful.

And that wraps it up for this time.

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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.