SciTech Now Episode 502

In this episode of SciTech Now, we take a look at tiny museums; discover the hidden life of magnets; see how virtual reality can treat pain; and explore Jupiter.



Coming up... big ideas, tiny museums.

The museum lures people in by being unexpected.

The hidden life of magnets.

'How small can we make a magnet?'

And that translates to, 'How much memory can I put on a hard disk?'

Virtual reality to treat pain.

What we know is that there's actually something going on behind the scenes, within the brain, at the neurochemical level.

Exploring Jupiter.

When we learn about Jupiter's formation, we learn about all the planets, including Earth.

It's all ahead.

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


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.

Imagine walking through the mall and suddenly coming across a box full of information to explore.

MICRO, a company that produces tiny museums, is cramming small exhibits into boxes that can be placed in unexpected places, with the hope of integrating science and learning into people's day-to-day lives.

Our partner 'Science Friday' has the story.


The museum lures people in by being unexpected.

We have very carefully made it possible that you can approach it from all sides.

You know, we do put a lot of thought into how to make the object itself feel like an addition to the room, to feel like a beautiful thing.

Like, we can design this is in a different way to just make it informative and inexpensive to produce, and it becomes actually more a social experience.

♪♪ I'm Amanda Schochet, and I co-founded MICRO, which is creating a fleet of 6-foot-tall science museums that can go anywhere.

We have 15 exhibits packed into this 6-foot-tall box.

By shrinking this information down into boxes that can go everywhere, replicating the boxes, and putting them out into shopping malls, hospital waiting rooms, airports, all these transit hubs, we're getting them into people's spaces, you know, welcoming people in.

We want it to feel like a human-scale experience.

Traditional museums, they're amazing to visit, but they could reach more people, and they could reach a more diverse audience.

Museums are geographically clustered, especially in wealthier neighborhoods.

You know, if it's hard to get to a museum, then you might not go.

If it feels unwelcoming, then you might not go.

Maybe you don't know if you care about science or not, so you don't want to spend 20 bucks on a whole day.

There's a lot of reasons that people won't go to a museum.

At MICRO, the goal is really to reach people where they already are to integrate science, to integrate learning into people's day-to-day.

So we started with the Smallest Mollusk Museum.

The reason that we first thought up mollusks was actually because I misheard my partner, Charles, who said he was going to the Smallest Museum, and I heard 'the mollusk museum.'

[ Laughs ] Turns out that's where he was going, but the idea stuck.

There's all these great things that humans can learn about the world through mollusks.

We have a brains exhibit where we get to learn the different ways that mollusks think.

Octopus intelligence is a really interesting way to learn about potential forms of alien intelligence because it's so different than how we think.

We learn about clams who don't even have a brain at all and yet they're still able to function.

A big challenge of making these museums is just figuring out what to include.

We open up these amazing topics.

There are a million things we could have written about mollusks and put into this museum.

For every species of mollusks -- and there's hundreds of thousands of them -- there are infinite amazing stories.

We choose what to include in the museums based on our narrative.

We add a lot of way-finding so you have a discrete start and an end.

There's exhibits in the middle that show different levels of detail.

So there's the bigger-picture exhibits that kind of tell the whole story.

There's the more detailed exhibits that show you a little glimpse of how this works.

You know, mollusks are as different from us as we can possibly imagine an animal to be.

We want to get people to fall in love with them and to realize that, when you think about caring for the world, you should think about kind of the classically ugly animals, as well.

We learned the process of how to design a micro museum as we designed the Smallest Mollusk Museum, and now that's out in the world.

Soon, we'll be releasing our second museum, the Perpetual Motion Museum, which is about physics and engineering.

In terms of how that is then built, in the case of the micro museums, every topic ends up having its own distinct building that houses it.

And once it's designed, it's quite easy for us to replicate each one as demand requires.

I feel very lucky that I got to study science in school and that I got to work as a scientist, and I really wanted to share that with people -- how does life work, how do we think, how do we interact with the world.

At MICRO, the museum is really the place where you get to explore.

It shouldn't just be for scientists to get to look through that perspective.

♪♪ [ Computer keys clacking ] ♪♪

Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist, author, a self-proclaimed 'science evangelist.'

She is the creator of a podcast series called 'Science Underground.'

She joins me now to discuss the hidden life of magnets.

You've got the magnet that we are all familiar with from elementary school...

Right, right.

...and cartoons.

[ Laughs ]

But then there's also magnets in our everyday lives that we're taking for granted.


That's right.

Well, first of all, Silicon Valley, before it was Silicon Valley, should've been 'Iron Oxide Valley' or 'Magnet Valley,' because one of the biggest businesses was hard disks.

So that's one of the first places where magnets have tremendously impacted our lives.


Today they're in your earbuds.

There's a magnet that makes it so that you have high fidelity.

But it's also in your money, and so I want to show that to you.

In our money?

In your money.

Okay, so now you're pulling out a super-duper magnet...

Super-duper magnet.

...that you can find at science hobbyist stores.

That's right.

And if I were to have this dollar hanging from a string -- because it's a very subtle effect -- if I bring this magnet across, you'll see something.

Oh! Whoa!

So there is, what, metal in our money?

So, within the ink are small particles of iron that will, you know, prevent you from making counterfeit money.


So there's sensors within, so when you're putting your dollar into a machine for a coke, if you will, it spits it out -- it's sensing a couple of things.

One of the things it's looking is for magnetization.


And there's magnets in our cellphones, and we kind of know when our computer screen goes a little fuzzy, right?

That's right.

They seem to be everywhere and yet kind of this quiet metal that --

It is. It's very understated.

But without magnets, a lot of us wouldn't be here, because this is how we traveled.

We used compasses.

It's based on magnetism.

The Earth is a magnet, by the way.

[ Both laugh ]

So, how has our relationship with magnetism and magnets changed over time?

As you said, obviously, the first explorers figured that out, that there were these magnetic poles and that we could actually navigate.

And now we've got cellphone manufacturers putting them in and electronics manufacturers that use them all the time.

It went from magic, you know, with the lodestone, a very early mineral that people walked by and they saw that things were stuck to it, and so it had some kind of majestic to it.

Then it became something that was useful when we used it as compasses, and now we don't really think very much about it.

We kind of take it for granted, because our computers have memory, but we don't really realize that a lot of that is due to magnetization, due to magnets.

And the magnetization in memory, explain that connection to us.

What makes a hard disk a magnet?

Well, that's a very good question.

That was also my dissertation, so thank you very much.

[ Laughs ] Didn't realize that.

But the hard disk actually has a thin layer of crushed iron particles -- you could think of it that way -- in a paste.

And above it is something that reads it.

It's an electromagnet, and it can sense the ones and zeroes, the north and south poles, and that's translated into a language which eventually becomes like the letter A on your screen.

So, wow.

That -- You're blowing my mind right now.

So, basically, in there, that hard-disk drive --

The hard disk, the thing that's spinning really, really fast, it has a thin layer of magnetic material, and those little north and south poles, that's the ones and zeroes.

And so that tiny little thing that's scanning a hard disk -- or if it's a solid-state disk, it's a different kind of thing?

That's right.

It's a different technology, yeah.

That's all it is, is we're just recording ones and zeroes, right?

It's sort of like a record player, yeah -- only instead of feeling vibrations like we did with the stylus, now we're just sensing ones and zeroes, north and south, and that's getting translated into data.

So if we didn't have the ability to read the ones and zeroes magnetically, we would have none of this?

We would have none of this.

And let me tell you, the first hard disk which was created by IBM -- or one of the commercial ones -- was RAMAC.

It was about half the size of a refrigerator, weighed about a ton.

You needed like four guys to push it into a truck.

Now if I want a package for a hard disk, it comes in a small box.

This required lots of people to put it onto a plane, and its memory was five megabytes.


That's right.

So it could hold a selfie of itself.

[ Laughs ] That's about it.

That's about it.

That's about it.


All right.

So, when we think of kind of the evolution here, what is the next frontier for magnets, magnetism, and how we use magnets?

Perhaps it's in space travel or perhaps it's in our electric cars.

Well, it's always gonna be fascinating to us, even from kids, like, 'How small can we make a magnet?'

And that translates to, 'How much memory can I put on a hard disk?'

So that's a question that people are always asking.

You never have a magnet that's only a north or only a south.

They always come in poles.

There's lots of physics behind that that people are very interested in.

How do magnets behave in different temperatures, under different pressures?

That's also very interesting from a geological point of view.

So magnets will always be fascinating.

They've got utility, but there's always folks who are always looking at how interesting they are, as well.

All right then.

Always magnetic, Ainissa Ramirez.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.

Virtual reality has opened the door for endless possibilities in treating medical conditions, including pain management.

Chief medical officer of Samsung Electronics of America, Dr. David Rhew, joins us via Google Hangout to discuss virtual reality's advancements in the medical profession.

Thanks for being with us.

So, you've got a background in both engineering and medicine.

When you see what's been happening with virtual reality over the past few years, what's been going through your mind?

Well, I think the first thing is I'm surprised because I hadn't envisioned how consumer technologies that today are oftentimes thought of as toys, entertainment devices -- possibly even ways that you could consider using them for training -- could be used to actually treat medical conditions.

And that is something that we're starting to see not just through anecdotal evidence but through clinical trials.

We're talking about randomized controlled trials where patients that are hospitalized are randomized to VR versus watching the same type of content on a TV screen, are demonstrating statistically significant reductions in pain and in trending towards lower narcotic use, so some amazing results that we're seeing from clinical trials, and the patient stories are just as amazing, as well.

You know, we saw a glimpse of this in a story that we had done about how it's being used to prevent opioid addiction and, you said, decrease narcotic use.

I mean, the immediate aftermath of a surgery is one of those times where people start to get addicted at large numbers.

Explain how it works.

Why is VR successful at getting us to feel pain differently?

Yeah, I think the first thing that we recognize is that, when you put on the VR headset, you're immersed into a new environment.

And this new environment is, in many ways, tricking your brain to believe that you are in a different place, in a different state of mind.

And during that process, while it may just seem like you're being distracted from the pain, there's some neurochemical changes that are actually occurring.

We've seen this on functional MRIs, where the individuals that have pain, when they have a functional MRI, you can see a significant amount of activity.

But with the VR treatment and even after you've removed the headset, you can see that quiets down.

So what we know is that there's actually something going on behind the scenes, within the brain, at the neurochemical level.

And what's remarkable is, when you do take the headset off, for a large number of these patients, for one to two hours and sometimes longer, they're able to actually have sustained pain relief.

Now, what we believe is going on is it is in some ways breaking the pain cycle.

What ends up happening is, with many of these individuals, they are in such constant pain that it just feeds off of itself.

But when you break that pain cycle, you now have an opportunity to apply some of the techniques that we do know are effective -- mindfulness techniques, deep breathing, and other things that, when you were in the state of acute or chronic pain, it was difficult to recognize how to do, but you now have an opportunity to be able to apply that.

And that's given us the opportunity to start thinking about how we can use this not just for acute pain management but also for chronic pain management and for those addicted to opiates.

So, give me an example of how someone might be able to use this.

Let's say -- I mean, would a doctor be prescribing, say, 'Hey, listen, this is part of your pain-management regimen.

I want you to put this headset on for --' I don't know -- 'five minutes a day.'

Or how would it work?

Yeah, so I'll describe a little bit about kind of how it's been applied in the clinical setting and where we see it extending outside.

So, in many of the clinical trials, the way it's been set up is that an individual is introduced to the VR.

And these are individuals that have real serious pain.

We're talking about cancer pain.

We're talking about pain associated with post-surgery, even women delivering babies.

So what we find is that, in those scenarios, the first line of treatment is, 'Go to the narcotics, go to the opiates,' because, really, that's all we know of to address such severe levels of pain.

What we find is, though, when the headset is provided and the person is immersed into this environment -- it's typically about a 10- to 15-minute video, calming video.

There's music associated with it.

It's been well-curated to the fact that we know that this type of content seems to work very well.

These individuals, within about a minute or so, very quickly get into a different state of mind, and that creates a very calming effect that, even, again, as they take the headset off, they remain in this quiet, calm state that allows their body to be able to better manage that pain for a longer period.

And what we've seen is we've seen that period of pain relief sustained in such a way that patients that have oftentimes required the narcotic pill in the hospital have opted not to take it.

And then, when they're sent home, what's remarkable is that many of these individuals have learned to apply some of those techniques and they're now starting to use this as an alternative to the pill.

And this is why we think that this is such an interesting opportunity to apply this as a non-narcotic alternative to address the opioid epidemic.

Give me some of the benefits from a doctor's perspective on when someone is in a calmer state.

What can you do more efficiently or effectively with a patient if they are breathing more regularly, if their blood pressure's lower?

I don't know what else physically happens when I'm calm.

Well, there's a couple of different scenarios.

First and foremost, if you were to think about even before certain procedures, this is incredibly helpful, and we've seen this done in the preoperative period, especially individuals that are nervous for the surgery and have a high level of anxiety towards the actual outcomes.

This puts them in a state where performing the surgery under normal physiologic conditions is far better than having a person come in who's agitated, anxious, with high levels of catecholamines.

What you want to do is you want to get them into an optimal state, both mentally and physically, prior to the surgery.

After the surgery, same type of concept.

In order for people to recover, what you're really looking at is an opportunity to bring people into a better state of mind.

And it's not just for surgeries.

We're really talking about multiple different types of use cases, everything from obstetrics to medical treatments such as treatments for pneumonia and sickle-cell pain crisis in kids, so really ranging the spectrum from pediatric to adult to OB-GYN to medical-surgical.

I mean, is this something where you could see a child being distracted on something like a shot or a blood draw or even a trip to the dentist's office, where people are thinking about what's happening in their mouth so much and they're so hyperaware of it that they might be triggered to pain faster.

Yes, that is actually one of the common use cases, where people have been using this as a means to calm individuals down prior to surgery and even distract them during the procedure, so removing a cast, giving a shot, doing a dental procedure, all of which have been done.

They're highly effective.

Where I think it gets interesting, though, is when you take the headset off, because of the fact that you can't be in a virtual-reality world all the time.

And what we realize, though, is that most individuals have a difficult time with mindfulness techniques -- you know, the deep breathing and being able to better manage one's pain and stress and anxiety.

And so if we can use this as a mechanism to be able to then introduce those techniques to them, to the individuals so they can better manage these conditions, then we have a really powerful tool in our armamentarium to address conditions ranging everywhere from chronic pain to those who may potentially have anxiety, stress, and conditions that oftentimes complicate the medical condition because of the fact that these individuals oftentimes are nonadherent to the medications and essentially in a different state of mind.

So you're saying that really the VR might be a gateway to better health practices when it's on your head.

Absolutely, and that's really what we want to figure out, and we're doing some clinical trials.

Already we've done clinical trials in the inpatient setting, looking at how this works.

Demonstrated a 52% reduction with a randomized controlled trial performed at Cedars-Sinai.

So significant findings from a clinical standpoint in the inpatient side.

We're now working with Cedars-Sinai and Travelers health insurance to deploy this for patients with lower back pain and other types of orthopedic injuries that are on disability or workers' compensation, and what we want to understand is how can this be used for chronic pain or longer-lasting pain, in which case we're now starting to employ other techniques in addition to that -- use of wearables, other mechanisms for deep breathing.

We've got a Bayer TENS unit.

What we call the 'digital pain-reduction kit' [Chuckles] is being deployed because we think there's a variety of different tools that can be useful in terms of managing these types of conditions.

All right.

Dr. David Rhew, chief medical officer for Samsung USA.

Thanks so much for joining us.

My pleasure.

Thank you very much for having me.

[ Computer keys clacking ] ♪♪

In 2016, NASA's Juno spacecraft began orbiting Jupiter to gather information about the planet's formation and evolution.

In this segment, we sit down with the mission's principal investigator, Scott Bolton, who reveals some of his team's findings.

Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system.

Deep inside this gas giant lie the secrets of the solar system's creation.

So, the goal of Juno is to learn about how Jupiter formed and what does that tell us about the formation of the entire solar system.

Jupiter's the largest planet, so it likely formed first.

It used more than half of the leftovers after the sun was born.

And so when we learn about Jupiter's formation, we learn about all the planets, including Earth, and the way Juno learns about Jupiter's origin is we look inside to see how it's built.

What is the structure like inside of Jupiter?

How is it rotating inside?

What are the different layers?

And what is it made out of?

The Juno spacecraft arrived at Jupiter in 2016 and continues its extraordinary mission today.

Yeah, some of the newest results we've gotten have come from the gravity field, and we're learning that the zones and belts, what we thought was a weather layer on the outside of Jupiter, is actually penetrating quite deep, down to about 3,000 to 5,000 kilometers down.

And we can see from the gravity field that there's an asymmetry in the flows.

There's something moving around, just like the zones and belts that we see on the outside, 3,000 kilometers down inside of Jupiter.

No spacecraft has ever flown this close to Jupiter or this deep into its lethal radiation belts.

Well, we know pretty much where Jupiter is, and we're flying by it very close each time, but each time we get that close, we're updating what's called the ephemeris of Jupiter, or the orbit, exactly.

And so we're nailing it down.

So far, we haven't been surprised.

We've been able to target exactly where we want to go, and there's no big surprises, but we are updating that orbit in a big way, and at the end of Juno's mission, we will have a much better understanding of Jupiter's orbit.

While NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the day-to-day operations of Juno, it's principal investigator responsible for all aspects of the mission is Dr. Scott Bolton of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

What Juno's about is mapping Jupiter, and, of course, to map it, you would like to go over as many longitudes as possible and get a fine grid, so to speak, and right now we have a very coarse grid.

And so we haven't learned about all the asymmetries.

So when scientists came in, this was another surprise.

We went in to map the gravity field.

Everybody assumed it would be symmetric -- basically, north, south, and certainly longitudinally it would be symmetric.

But we found out that wasn't true.

So now, to really map the magnetic field and the gravity field, we have to go over as many longitudes as possible.

Each time Juno passes close to Jupiter, we go over a different longitude.

And so we have it designed so that, at the end of the mission, after 32 orbits, we will have a very fine grid.

And so that's what we're aiming for.

Dr. Bolton's interests go beyond space exploration.

He is involved with advancing the intersection of art and science, including collaborations with major musicians on projects like Apple Music's 'Destination: Jupiter' and, most recently, providing actual space sounds from Juno's Jupiter flight for the band Little Big Town's version of the Elton John classic, 'Rocket Man.'

And one of the interesting things is that, this little Juno, it's going to arrive at Jupiter, but I want to know how the spacecraft's doing.

I want to know how some sensors are doing.

The whole spacecraft is set up to send down tones during this critical maneuver when we go into orbit.

What they really are is musical notes that, based on what musical note is sent, how something's doing.

Is it working well, or is it not?

And it's kind of interesting that it all comes down to musical notes, basically.

We're gonna learn about Jupiter's interior and how it formed and what's it like inside, and so what that's gonna tell us is how giant planets work.

And giant planets are really important in the galaxy and in the solar system.

We see them around other stars, and so we're learning how solar systems are made.

We're getting the first step in the recipe of how you make a solar system, and that's really what Juno's about.


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... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪