SciTech Now Episode 431

In this episode of SciTech Now, we explore the challenges of drawing extinct animals like dinosaurs; fabric as wearable technology; how blind fish can help humans with sleep problems; and the digestive power of goats.



Coming up... Drawing dinosaurs...

Accuracy based on what we know is one of the most important things I can showcase in my work.

...fabric as the new software...

The idea is to, in fact, transform the fabric industry into a service industry, uh, a -- an industry that could provide value-added services.

...could a blind fish help humans with sleep problems?

We've been trying to use them as a model to figure out how you could build a brain that doesn't need to sleep, or even what sleep's fundamental function is.

...the power of goats.

This is the epitome of sustainable agriculture.

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.

Paleoartists use fossils and scientific essays to depict animals that lived millions of years ago.

Paleoartist Gabriel Ugueto reveals the esthetic challenges he encounters when trying to accurately draw extinct animals, like dinosaurs.

Our partner 'Science Friday' has the story.

Science is allowing us to look at dinosaurs in a whole different way.

We know now what coloration they could've had.

We know a lot more about the way they were related to each other.

Every year, so many new species get discovered and described, so there is a huge amount of work to be depicted in illustration right now.

Many times, I finish an illustration and I said, 'Wow, this animal is amazing.'

Uh, the rush of creating something that looks so bizarre, and it fuels your imagination.

♪♪ My name is Gabriel Ugueto.

And I am an paleoartist and scientific illustrator.

Paleoart is the artistic representation of animals that are not alive today.

So, as an paleoartist, I end up illustrating dinosaurs, of course, extinct mammals, also marine reptiles.

Basically, anything that was alive a long, long time ago.

Paleoart works as a way to showcase the current evidence from paleotologists, from people that study any other extinct animal behavior.

So, for me, accuracy, based on what we know, is one of the most important things I can showcase in my work.

Growing in Venezuela, you are exposed to a lot of, you know, different animals.

I was obsessed with, uh, a field guide of 'Birds of Venezuela.'

That was a big inspiration of me, and I used to look at it, and say, 'One day, I'm going to do a guide, but of reptiles,' which was my main love.

I worked for a long time as a herpetologist, but I studied graphic design and illustration, and that's what I felt I needed to be.

So, nowadays, I work in books, in scientific journals online, in museums, TV documentaries.

When I get an assignment, you start with the bones and then -- then work outward from that.

And then I put in skin, color, based on where the animal lived and what period in time, and suggested habits of the animal.

I mean, they definitely have to have a detailed knowledge of her muscles attached to different bones.

So, it's very important to be very familiar with anatomy of modern-day animals.

We know that birds are dinosaurs, so they probably share a lot of things in common.

And a lot the ways they move and they look at the world, is probably similar, but the adding features to dinosaurs is still, uh, controversial for some people, I don't know why.

People that really want their dinosaurs to look like the ones in 'Jurassic Park,' but, I mean, [ Laughs ], we have now tons of dinosaurs that, in the fossils, are completely covered in feathers, and, I mean, from head to toe.

I think for a long time, paleoart suffered from skin wrapping everything.

We didn't give any room for fat deposits and muscles.

A lot of people have liked my reconstructions of Plesiosaurs, because I've made them really chunky, and I've also made them scaly.

And the reason why I've done that was that they discovered this small Plesiosaur, and it had skin impressions, which showed tiny scales, and very big fat deposits, which makes sense for an animal that is marine, because, think about whales and seals.

Sometimes, there are aspects about animals that surprise you.

You know, we grew up knowing about tyrannosaurs and everybody knows how small their arms are, but I guess that when you see something like Carnotaurs, which has like, really weird, even smaller than T-Rex arms, you're like, 'Wow, this is, uh -- this is really weird, but it was the way it was.'

Everybody's depicting dinosaurs from the Jurassic and the Cretaceous, but the Triassic is a lot of fun for a paleoartist.

There's nothing that looks like a Drepanosaur, there's nothing that look like an Atopodentatus.

There's nothing that look like Longisquama.

It's -- sometimes, they are so bizarre looking that you have to be careful that you are depicting them in a way that makes sense.

Realism is very difficult, because we don't exactly what these animals looked like.

It's just all suggestion and -- and interpretations, and, uh, we do what we can with the evidence that we have so far.

So, what's lost when you depict an animal inaccurately, is their sense of -- of being alive.

When I look at a Tyrannosaur with filaments and all this scarring in their heads, all these crests -- and we know they had keratinous crests, they look so much more real, so much more plausible, as an -- as an animal alive than a monster from a -- from a movie.

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Everyday items like watches and backpacks can now be turned into wearable technology.

But what if high-tech fibers and fabrics could set new expectations in how we use and wear our apparel?

Joining us to discuss is Yoel Fink, CEO of Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, and a professor at MIT.

Thanks for joining us.

So, we've got a bunch of stuff here, but let's start with the big picture, and then kind of work our way to the experiments.

What are you trying to do?

So, fabrics are among the earliest forms of human expression.

They've been around for thousands of years.

Interestingly, they haven't changed much over the entire course of history.

We're trying to change that, and we're actually taking fabrics and turning them into something that is very special, functional, and it's capable of doing things that are of value to us.

Ever since we had the cotton gin, we kind of figured out how to take this puffy, little plant, and then turn it into fiber.

Well, but you're using...what are you using?

Yeah, so, uh, our story begins, [ clears throat ], with, in fact, the filament, or the fiber itself.

So, if you think about a fabric, a fabric is just a, uh -- a collection of fibers.

And the reason this hasn't changed over the course of history, is because the fibers themselves have been made of a single material, like cotton, or glass, or plastic.

Um, in order to make a fiber that is highly functional, you need to combine the three ingredients in modern technology -- a conductor, an insulator that protects it from -- from the surrounding, and most importantly, a semiconductor.

And so, these fibers, in fact, have, for the first time, the three basic ingredients of modern technology in them.

Um, what makes it amazing, is we, in fact, start with a large object, which is identical in structure to the final fiber.

You could see, it has these three materials inside.

We heat it up and draw it in a furnace, into something which is, uh, hair-like dimensions.

So, you're designing the fiber, and combining all three elements in, and then --

And then drawing it down.

Yeah, we call it, 'drawing it down.'

And depending on what materials you put in and what architecture you decide to design it to, the function of the fiber is going to be different.

Okay, let's say, now, you have -- you have examples of things that are made with some of these fibers.

So, what is -- what's different about a backpack that's made with essentially a smart fiber?

Yeah. [ Clears throat ] Well, the first thing is that, you could begin to realize different types of devices in the fiber itself.

So, for example, you could get a fiber that emits light.

So, here's an example of a fiber that has an LED built into it.

Um, what's amazing about this technology is that --

So, now you could have clothes, or anything else, that are -- it's actually lighting up.

It's -- it's lighting up, but more importantly, it's communicating.

Um, you could, in fact, communicate through LEDs.

So, one of the areas that we're developing are fabric-based communication systems, um --

And that's waterproof?

And -- yeah.

And so, what's nice about this is that, unlike any other electronic system that you know of, this kind of works well underwater.

So, you could just put it in water, I'll hold it up, and you see that the fibers light up, really as -- as made, okay.

So, you turn it on, turn it off, it -- it actually works.

So, one area that we're developing is called fabrics communication.

And the key to that is -- is emitters, like the LEDs, but it also is receivers.

And this cap, for example, has fibers woven into it, that are capable of receiving optical information and converting it into audio.

You put this on, and stick the earbud in, and you will be able to hear -- hear the lights.

So, if I'm walking through a museum, and someone's, what, blinking lights at a certain frequency?

Yeah, so, you think about a lot of different situations where you're entering a building for the first time.

You know, it could be an airport and it could be a hospital, or it could be a museum, and you want to find your way around.

Well, the GPS doesn't work inside.

What would happen then, is you would get a cap from, uh, information, and they would ask you, 'Well, where do you want to go?'

And they'll program the lights, and the lights will essentially take you to where you want to go.


Add so -- yeah.

And when you weave in something into a backpack, what -- what can you do with it?

The backpack is connected to an -- to an app, and, um, when you hold it up...


...And I see it here, you could see that, um --

It's just automatic? Okay.

Yeah, there's an -- there's an 'augmented reality' icon.

And then you connect up, and this, you know, happened to be your backpack, and so you just connect into it.

Now, if you point it at the other backpack, and you need to be -- Little bit of a difference.

You see, that is my backpack, and you press on that, and you get to see the information that I wanted to share.

Is it just a specific spot?

No, no, no.

It is the entire, yeah.

There's a 24-bit code that's built-in to the backpack.

And what the app does is it reads this code, it associates it with the wearer, and it is able to pull information from the Cloud on what, in fact, that wearer wants to broadcast, what -- what person wants to communicate.

So, what are some of the applications?

I mean, right now, I'm -- I'm thinking, because of the backpacks, smart clothes that are kind of signaling whatever your identity is that you want to project.

We have fibers that are now capable of changing color.

And if you think about the different shirts you have in your closet, the only difference between them is -- is color.

So, give me an example here.

So, here -- here is a -- is an example of -- of a fiber that is -- is really, the first implementation of a color change.

Okay, but do I have to have it plugged into that box the whole time?

So, well, you could see, it has a dark -- um, it has a dark and it has a light, um... Now, if I keep it on light, and I disconnect it, you'll see that it actually remains so.

And if I reconnected it, and change it to black, it would also remain in the same way.

So, in fact, this does not require power to keep its color.

What is changing it?

Um, so, this technology is very similar to the technology that exists in the Kindle display.

Um, it is called 'electrophoretic.'

You have positive, uh, particles and negative particles.

The white are positive, the black are negative.

And when you -- and these fibers are filled with that ink.

So, I could have two suits in one?

You could have, and we think you're going to be able to have multiple suits in one.

We think you're going to be able to download designs to your fabrics in just in the same way that you download a newspaper, uh, or -- or the news onto your iPad.

At the fabric layer?

At the fabric layer.

So, it's not like a sticker that's sitting on top of the outfit, it is the outfit itself that's changing?

It is the outfit itself.

And if you -- you know, people are thinking about sustainability of fabrics, and the fact that there's so much waste in the fabric industry.

Um, you know, in a -- in a way, this -- what's going to happen here is similar to what happened to newspapers, where we figured out that, to deliver news, we don't need paper.

And to deliver design, we don't need fabric.

I mean, maybe I've watched, uh, too many superhero movies, but this is -- this is, um, sort of almost a chameleon outfit, that you could imagine, say, military camouflage, uh, kind of in a different environment.

Instead of having, oh, well, I'm wearing this particular camouflage, but the brush is different now.


Kind of like a chameleon that figures out how to change.


The -- the need to adapt your color and design throughout the day is not only a need for the military.

It's something that I think we all can relate to.

When can we actually see something like this on a -- a store shelf?

So, these backpacks are already commercially available.

Um, the fabric communication systems are very close to the -- to a commercial implementation.

Um, the center that I direct is called Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, is partnered with industry to do what you just said, is accelerate the introduction of advanced fabrics into, uh -- into products and into the market.

So, we expect big changes in, uh, you know, one-to-two years ahead.

Yoel Fink, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.

Could a blind fish help scientists learn more about human sleep patterns?

Neuroscientist Alex Keene from Florida Atlantic University studies the blind Mexican catfish with the hope of unlocking the mystery of sleep loss.

All right, thanks for being with us.

Sleep is something that most of us don't feel like we get enough of, so what can we learn from this particular fish?

Tell us a little bit about the fish.

What makes it so special?

Okay, a basic question.

How do we know when a fish is asleep?

So, how much sleep do these fish need to get through a day?

So, is the secret then, that perhaps they don't have any visual stimulus, 'cause they're not really seeing much, 'cause it's so dark?

Okay, obviously, the next question is going to be, when can I get that in a pill?

And... [ Laughs ] Right?

I mean, so how -- is it -- have you isolated it to just that variable?

So then, I'm thinking about, uh, the ability to stay up longer, just 'cause I feel like I need to get more done, but then you're saying that you could modify this in both directions to try to get me a better night's rest when I do have the time?

If we have this in our brain, as well, has there ever been any attempt to try to modify that, up or down?

Is that even possible?

So, right now you're studying mostly fish.

Are there any other kind of species that you've been curious about, that are exhibiting these kind of sleep patterns that we could learn from?

And you find this same hypocretin across different species, perhaps that would lend more credibility to your theory.

All right.

Best of luck to you.

Alex Keene from Florida Atlanta University.

Thanks so much for joining us.


The Great Lakes Basin is battling a constant influx of invasive species that threaten the well-being of its native flora and fauna.

These disruptions can cause tremendous environmental, financial, and even direct physical harm.

Now, biologists in Ottawa County in Western Michigan have found that the digestive power of goats may be the key to fighting these invasive species.

'Great Lakes Now' brings us the story.

It's a pretty quiet morning.

Usually, we have a ton of birds out here.

I'm kind of surprised how quiet it is. [ Laughs ]

Feel the storm coming.


They're hunkering down.

Hey, guys!

Oh, here they come.

Good morning, come on.

Want some treats?

They love woody species -- shrubs, trees, but mostly things that are vines.

And I'm like, oh, my gosh, that's exactly what I need help with.

The whole reason why we started the program is this plant right here.

This is called Oriental bittersweet.

It out-competes the native plants by basically, just covering them up.

You can see, it just twines around itself, and smothers all the plants around it.

Goats have always been around, they eat everything, so why can't we figure out new ways to help control things?

Working with Melanie, we started getting our kids out here, showing them what the invasive are.

And then my expertise is more in animal science, so helping that park system with my expertise in animals, we got to partner, and allow my kids to manage the goats.

And, you know, we always are trying to find new, unique ways of getting kids involved, and actually showing 'em truly what's out there, instead of just a textbook.

What are some hands-on labs that they can do?

And so, we have to teach about invasive species.

We have to talk about integrative pest management.

And we have to talk about animals.

And so, this was just a perfect partnership.

So, the other benefits of the goats is that they can reach up very high.

So, they eat anything that they can reach.

We're the lead goat, aren't we?

All right, now you got to get to the plants.

This is an example of what the ecosystem looks like after we have the goats here.

This is kind of our end product of, you know, the invasive is still here, but the natives are finally getting a competitive advantage, and able to kind of grow and adapt.

One of the things that is really just now being studied is the mental health.

And what they find is, because they're in these natural environments, they're able to climb over logs, and they play out here.

You'll see them do all kind of things that they couldn't do in like, an agricultural setting.

Not only is it something that this animal, this livestock is healthy and happy, it's enjoying its life while it's here, but it's more cost-effective, and it's dealing with a major environmental issue at the same time.

I mean, this is the epitome of sustainable agriculture.


And that wraps it up for this time.

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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

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