SciTech Now Episode 517

In this episode of SciTech Now, battle of the beetles; solar power to save lives; the wizarding world of coding; and maintaining a clean ocean based economy.



Coming up, the science story of love and war...

These battles are very energy-intensive. power to save lives...

And they were all holding them, and they were all smiling.

...the wizardry world of coding...

Well, we want to show people the real code underneath.

...building up the blue economy.

The sea grapes are just a really beautiful species.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...


I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology and innovation.

Let's get started.

For male Japanese rhinoceros beetles, trying to woo a lady means they must endure a beetle battle royale.

Opposing males step into the arena, and a fierce jousting match begins.

The male that successfully ejects the weaker competitor is the victor, but there's a twist in this science story of love and war.

Two biologists at the University of Montana are now studying these Japanese rhinoceros beetles to get to the bottom of their complex sexual selection.

Our partner, 'Science Friday,' has the story.

Sometimes the difference in winners and losers has to do with who succeeds in reproducing, and that can be a vicious landscape of competition and battle.

Whenever a rival male comes up, they'll kind of size each other up.

They'll kind of touch horns.

They're ready to joust.

They're ready to push him away, pry him away, anything.

The winning male finally gets the female.

He doesn't just mate with her.

He sings to her first.

And they won't mate with the male.

They'll reject the male.

They'll resist that male.

And, you know, to the winner go the spoils, supposedly, except not so much.

My name is Jillian del Sol, and I study the Japanese rhinoceros beetle.

And I'm Doug Emlan, and I study the evolution of extreme weapons in animals.

The beetle that we focus on right now is called the Japanese rhinoceros beetle.

It's very hard to look at an animal the size of a chicken egg with an enormous horn sticking off it and not be curious.

An example I like to use is that's like walking around with a coffee table fused to the top of your head, and so we spent a lot of time looking at how the horns grow, learning about the genes and the physiological, hormonal pathways that help cause a weapon to be a weapon and said, 'Okay, now, knowing what we know about how these things grow, you could get in there and start looking at the behavior and see if you can explain, from a perspective of natural selection or sexual selection, what's happening in the wild with these animals in this different locations.'

If you're ever seen an animal where the males look way different than the females, you can bet that there's some sort of sexual selection going on.

We're going all the way back to Darwin here, right?

So sexual selection happens when the members of one sex must compete with one another or woo a member of the opposite sex to pass on their genes by gaining mates.

If you have weapons, you're going to be able to more effectively keep another male away from females that come in.

So in terms of the rhinoceros beetle, the males will guard these very kind of small, discrete sap wounds on the sides of trees.

So the females fly to these feeding sites, and they feed, and then they go off and lay their eggs.

If a male can successfully guard that territory, he will gain opportunities to mate with every female that shows up, and so that's a big deal, especially if you only have 2 months to live, 2 months to find a mate.

Now, standing there is not easy.

They have to fight rival after rival after rival after rival because there aren't very many of these feeding sites.

They don't just lunge into battle.

That's a really good way to get killed.

They sort of hang back, and they try to assess who's bigger.

And then if that's not enough, they'll push a little bit.

They'll spar, but they can get dangerous.

Not only is a male trying to pry the other male, but it's also clinging on to the tree for dear life, trying not to get pried up, so these battles are very energy-intensive.

And all the time that they're fighting, they're not feeding.

That's the irony.

They're standing over the food source.

That has led, in our system, to intense selection for ability to fight.

And because, in these fights, the males with the bigger weapons win, it's worth it to them to invest in a really big weapon.

The weapons, they're exquisitely sensitive to nutrition, but even given that, they grow relatively longer in some populations than they do in others.

A male in Japan that's the same size as a male in Taiwan is going to have a way bigger horn.

So our main hypothesis for why these beetles differ in horn size is that in a place like Taiwan, beetles will carve their own sap sites, and they do so in the thinnest-barked trees, including ash trees, and so where beetles can make as many territories as they want in a night, the horns suddenly don't become as important.

In contrast, in Japan, beetles cannot carve the really thick bark of the oak trees, so he had to work really hard to get that territory and to keep it, so the horn, all of a sudden, becomes very important.

But if everybody can make their own territory, then, yeah, you can fight all night long to guard that feeding site, but there's 27 other feeding sites, and females might not bother to visit you at all.

Why should they?

But it's only one part of the story, so here's a twist where Jill's work sort of pulled the carpet out from under everything that we thought we knew about these beetles.

When the winning male finally gets the female, we noticed that the males will spend up to a few hours singing to females.

What I actually mean is they squeak a lot.

They have multiple phrases in their songs, but they have a little grinding noise that they make as well.

These males who have already put everything into the weapons are now also having to sing.

He's there, and they don't accept matings from the male, so that's not supposed to happen.

The males have these big horns.

Why not pay attention to the horn?

They don't seem to care at all, so then you have a system where they're paying attention to something else, which, of course, gets us all excited.

So to find out what's going on, we are going to record a lot of these songs in the lab.

We have about 150 beetles in the lab that we are going to put them in our little sound recording studio and record as many male songs as possible to try and figure out how complicated these songs really are and what information they might be conveying.

The other possibility is that these animals live in a world of chemicals.

Their antennae pick up specific types of chemical signals.

So we're taking swabs of beetles now to see if the big males and the small males are chemically different in a way that might be informative.

We don't know.

We're going to look at everything, measure it all and sort of statistically parse it and see, is there something, when we look across individuals, that is sufficiently correlated with condition, quality, body size, that it could work as a signal?

I'm always surprised by these beetles.

And we thought we knew so much about them, and then we get to the field, and they're doing all these things that, by rights, they shouldn't have to do.

That gives us the chance to ask so many more questions about what might be going on.

Every question we try to answer leads us to another question and then another question.

I've been sort of sliding down that rabbit hole for 20 straight years, and I'm not tired yet.

They keep us guessing.

♪♪ ♪♪

Natural disasters like hurricanes Maria and Michael have notably increased in recent years and left behind great devastation.

A group of science and math professors and students have teamed up to play their part in helping towns and cities recover.

Using improved solar power technology, this group has helped rebuild schools, provide natural regenerative power sources and more in hard-hit places.

Joining us is associate professor of physics at St. John's University in New York, Dr. Charles Fortmann.

Thanks for joining us.

Tell us about the solar power project.

The solar project has two major facets.

One major facet was to address the hardship in Puerto Rico and supply power to a school that had access to cellphones but, at the same time, had no way to recharge the cellphones.

The other facet of this program was engagement.

We wanted to engage our STEM students and our non-science students and introduce them to the science community.

We are creating a science community at St. John's, and this fits into the tradition at St. John's University, which was founded by the Vincentian order, and their mission is to reach out to the poor.

A number of us went to an American Association of College and Universities meeting last November, and we listened to 3 days of talks and presentations about how to engage students and about how engagement of students increases retention, especially amongst at-risk and women students.

So this project helped different departments and different students with different backgrounds put a lot of what they were learning in the classes together, right, in building something that was practical and useful today for people who needed it?

Yes, and we did it together, common goal, common work.

When we built the solar cells, we were Skyping the school in Puerto Rico so they could see what we were doing, and we wanted a back-and-forth to continue with the school in Puerto Rico.

Did it work?

And we demonstrated how to use the solar cells, and we wanted to pull them in to be part of the process, and as things go forward, if the design isn't correct, it doesn't serve our purpose, we want to hear about it, and we want to address it, and we want to address it together with them.

So what do we have here?

This looks like a picture frame.

It's got a solar panel on it?


This is a... If one was to buy something like this fully made, it would be about $30.

It charges a cellphone.

We sourced the solar cells from China directly.

It was an experience for us.

There was a lot of logistical hurdles to jump over.

This solar panel was about $7.

Most cellphones need to have chopped DC 5 volts.

That means there's a break in it, and the electronics to do that can get expensive, and we could have done it ourselves, but we bought this for a dollar.


And we bought a car converter for cellphones and a cellphone power jack for cars for a dollar a piece.

So the total solar panel that we built was about $12.

So the designs for all of this is out there in the public sphere for anyone to use if they want to?

Yes, that's correct.

And so we had the resources to do it, and we used it as a community activity, and St. John's has another aspect to their education, and that's the academic service learning, where all freshmen are required to do a service during their freshman year and then reflect on it.

This fit into the academic service learning program, which has a purpose to expose the students to doing something constructive.

One of the ideas, and I think this is really important, is that a person graduating from school today can be technically excellent but not a whole person because they left their compassion behind.

Our students are motivated by the need in Puerto Rico, the academic service learning program is to serve where possible, and this fit into that.

So why focus on Puerto Rico?

Because the need was there at the time.

When we went to the AACU meeting and started to form this project, there was a presentation about the need for Puerto Rico's development and reconstruction.

An educator from Puerto Rico made a presentation, 'If there's anything that you guys can think of that could help us, let us know,' and one of my colleagues went up immediately and talked to her.

So what was it like when the chargers actually got into the hands of the people that were going to use them?

Oh, it was amazing because we wanted the students at the school to show us, 'Is it working for you?

How did it work?'

And they were all holding them, and they were all smiling that they got their chargers.

Are you working on more of these?

Right now, we're advancing the project.

We bought a couple large solar panels and a deep-well pump.

We heard from our contacts in Puerto Rico.

There's a need for clean water.

People are getting sick.

This happens when the water wells aren't deep enough.

It rains, and the farm effluent gets into the shallow wells, and the pathogens and so forth are there.

So the next project is to put a deep well in an indigenous community in the mountains of Puerto Rico.

It's got its challenges.

We tried... The first test happened at St. John's about 3 weeks ago where we took two 100-watt solar panels, a deep-well pump, and we wanted to test the efficiency, 'How high can we pump the water?'

So we hauled a hose up the outside of the building to the fourth story, pointed the two panels at the Sun, and we were getting a couple gallons a minute.

Charles Fortmann of St. John's University, thanks so much for joining us.

Oh, thank you, sir.

The Wizarding World of coding.

Children across the world are learning to code while diving into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

It's all because of a new STEM product called the Harry Potter Kano Coding Kit.

Joining me now via Google Hangout to show us how these wands are teaching kids to code is Alex Klein, CEO and co-founder of Kano Computing.

Thanks for being with us.

So what is the connection between Harry Potter and teaching kids to code?

It's pretty deep, and I think it goes beyond kids.

You know, if you look at the world we live in today, there are these 20 billion devices.

We all carry them around in our pockets.

We spend a third of our waking hours staring at them, and below the surface of the everyday, there are these wizards who write and speak these magic words that control these devices, that make the apps and services we depend on, and, most of the time, the rest of us never see this world of technology that can get into your head, make you think things, make you do things, technology that can move objects in the world around you.

So not unlike Harry Potter, who is introduced to this hidden world, who has the experience of revelation that these powers, they're not just for a secret subsection of unknown people, but for him and for his friends.

The Harry Potter Kano Coding Kit introduces, initiates the next generation into the magic of technology.

Arthur C. Clarke compared sufficiently advanced technology to magic, after all, and so the hero's journey we take you on with the kits, you know, building your own wand, learning to code, making your own spells, bringing them to life on a screen, is a pretty deep connection, we feel, between the mysterious worlds of wizardry and technology that enchant us even today.


So we have one of these kits that you've sent us.

This is... I've got a wand here.

I calibrate it basically by pointing it at the screen and making sure that this is in the center.

And then you've got different types of codes that really are just kind of fun little apps.

So when I move my wand up, the jelly beans keep growing up by 15 or 20 percent.

I mean, that's just one thing, but what's interesting is is that, when I X out of that, what it actually shows is all of the code that went behind it.

All of these different colors are, you know, it might be too small for the screen to read, but it says, 'When app starts, play this sound.'

'While the wand is moving up, do this.'

The speaker is set to X, and all of this is stuff that a student could actually just... You drag and drop, and you create this entire world, right?


So, you know, the purpose of Kano is to demystify technology and bring the joy of creating it to all people.

What that means in practice is we've taken powerful programming syntax and functions, and we've made it feel like a game, like, first blocks you can connect together, then real lines of code that you can type.

As you move through the world of Kano, you unlock new accessories, new powers.

You level up.

Your spells become more sophisticated.

You know, you can twist your wand to change the pitch of the song.

You can make it vibrate or rumble in your hand.

You can conduct music.

You can make objects appear and vanish, and then you can share your creations with others, so whether you're 6 years old and you just want to wave a wand and see a magical effect or you're a curious person of any age who's wondered how the technology we all depend on works, this provides sort of a peek behind the scenes that feels more like a game than homework.

So, really, when you're starting out in kind of the early parts of this app, you really... It's just as simple as adding a...I'm dragging a little blue that says, 'While wand is moving up,' and then I have a couple of different options.

I can change some sort of a particle fizz, and I can create a different color.

Looks like...Let me select a bright color that shows up.

And then let's make that full screen.

And let's see.

If I drag the wand up, there come some purple sparks.

So I guess it's...

I mean, you've just coded live on television, so kudos to you.

And then so this... What you're seeing here, and then there's actually another tab here, it says JavaScript... So explain.

For a young child, that might not be something that they pick up on, but what's happening... This is what, what I've just done but written in JavaScript, in that language?


So, you know, we want to keep it real.

You know, we don't want to just provide another layer that people become dependent on.

We want to show people the real code underneath, so, you know, we've had, using this system that combines, you know, blocks-based code and real text-based code, had, you know, kids in Sierra Leone make radio stations.

Kids in Kosovo automated the position of solar panels.

Older people, you know, veterans of Operation Desert Storm in the US make their own websites and host their résumés to get new jobs, so, you know, these powers are actually more accessible than most people think.

The problem is, you know, the development of computing over the past 20 years has taken us to a place where everything is premised on consumption, point and click, ease of use.

We're all very different people, but our devices all look the same, so, you know, the intent here is to open up computing to a more diverse set of activities that go beyond the surface level and to do it, you know, with recognizable stories and worlds like that of Harry Potter or Minecraft or Pong or Snake or music, make it feel mainstream and cool, not just like a sacred secret art.

All right.

Alex Klein of Kano Coding, thanks so much.

Thanks for having me.

Sea grapes, sea lettuce and dead man's fingers are just three of the types of kelp that a team of marine farmers in San Diego, California, hope to cultivate in their local bay harbor as a food crop.

Efforts to maintain a clean and economically viable ocean-based economy have supported entrepreneurial endeavors like this one.

Here's the story.

So this is the farm site.

Leslie Booher walks on a floating platform between an empty fish pin and the deteriorating Grape Street Pier.

This is where Booher and her partner hope to see a 90-foot-by-40-foot underwater farm take root.

It's quite compact, but, remember, we have 24 feet of water column to work with, so it's actually a pretty large cubic space when you look at it.

Twine will be strung across the space at varying depths, and that rope will anchor a number of different seaweed species, which started their lives in a lab.

They're growing on a large spool of... It's just twine around PVC pipe, right?

So once these juveniles are grown out on that spool, we transport the spool out, and then we take it on preset lines, and we just unspool it along those preset lines, and it just continues to grow on that line.

Weekly dives will allow the team to monitor how the lines and the fledging plants are doing.

Booher wants to make sure that other plants or animals don't move in and push their crop out of the way.

Then, about 6 weeks, they harvest.

In order to preserve the biodiversity, we don't want to, like, clear-cut every 3 months, right, so we want to selectively harvest and selectively plant so that we can kind of keep this three-dimensional structure the whole time.

The Sunken Seaweed company is a collaboration between Booher and her partner, Torre Polizzi, who's got a bucket with a few samples of what they hope to grow.

The light, leafy plant he's holding in his hand is not surprisingly called sea lettuce.

If you're a fisherman, or if you've been around boats, you've seen this growing off the side of your boat or on the ropes.

Polizzi says most people don't know it's a very nutritious and tasty sea vegetable, and there are a few more species the team hopes to put on local plates.

The sea grapes are just a really beautiful species.

The purple plant has bulbs that resemble their namesake.

They're edible.

They are used a lot as decoration at high-end seafood places.

Those seem perfectly suited for the delicate and expensive palates of local diners, but not everything they plan to harvest has that ready-for-market name.

Another one we have here is dead man's fingers.

Maybe not the best name...

These, yeah.

...for an ocean plant that they hope ends up in a fancy eatery.

Even so, Polizzi says the plants, which grow near the shore, where the tides wash over them, have a future.

Something that chefs have done with these is tempura them and put it in a lot of sushi recipes.

It's a really spongy, rather tasty species.

The small company got a boost from the Port of San Diego's Business Incubator.

Rafael Castellanos is the port's chair.

He says tourism, ship operations and retail already power a big chunk of the local economy, but the port is working to broaden the bay's economic palate.

There's a tremendous amount of opportunity here to diversify our lines of business in a way that is sustainable, and that's good for the port.

It's good for the environment.

It's good for the region and everybody in the state of California.

Castellanos says a fledgling oyster business near Tuna Harbor and this effort are part of what he hopes becomes part of the Blue Ocean-based economy, and he says the bay is clean enough to handle it.

We're getting all of the required health certifications in order to be able to sell these products, so we're not concerned about that.

We're very optimistic about that, and, again, we've been working very hard for many years to keep the bay clean and make sure it's suitable for this type of venture.

Lobster fisherman have already figured out a way to make an economic living beneath the surface of the bay, and now the port and the folks at Sunken Seaweed are hoping to do the same.

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 then, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

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