SciTech Now Episode 601

In this episode of SciTech Now, a revolutionary mission to the moon, a rosy solution to clean water, tackling mental health through tech, and the science of mudslides.



Coming up, a revolutionary mission to the Moon...

The far side of the Moon is a technological feat.

...a rosy solution to clean water...

In our technology, we actually use very inexpensive materials in treating water.

...tackling mental health through tech...

The rewards, to me, were when I have teachers coming up to me and saying, 'Thank you.

You saved my student's life.'

...the science of mudslides.

The descriptions you hear from people that it sounds like a freight train coming up at you.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ...and contributions to this station.

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

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

Let's get started.

Dave Mosher is a science reporter who has written for National Geographic News and

Throughout his career, he's watched humans and robots launch into space, flown over the North Pole to catch a total solar eclipse and toured a cutting-edge nuclear reactor.

He joins us now to discuss China's mission to the Moon.

All right.

First of all, I guess there's kind of three different sections that I want to talk about -- the science, the potentials and the politics here.

Let's just...Why go to the far side of the Moon?

The far side of the Moon is a technological feat.

If you're China, and you're trying to show how awesome you are, this is a great thing to do.

It requires, you know, another satellite that you've got to put kind of, like, behind the Moon so you can relay the signals.

That's something NASA has never really done before, and it's also just a place nobody has ever soft-landed.

We've, like, impacted some things there and tossed up some dust to look at it, but we never soft-landed a spacecraft there.

Nobody has until now, so it's just a really big feat to do, but there's also some really cool science you can do down there.


What kind of science?

Why is the dark side, or I should say the far side of the Moon more special or more interesting?

Yeah, so the far side, which is the correct term, is more interesting because it is blocking all of Earth's radio transmissions.

You have an incredibly clear view of the radio night sky, pretty much the entire electromagnetic spectrum, and also, when it becomes dark, it's also blocking the Sun, so you're blocking the Earth and the Sun.

You can look farther back in time with the clearest view of any position basically near us...

So that's the place where you'd want to put a telescope.

Yeah, and there's also some... They're also in the southern... the South Pole of the Moon, where there's some really interesting stuff going on with water and also geology.

There's this huge impact site, and it was so big that it was thought to have pushed up some of the mantle onto the surface, so if you can look at that mantle, you can understand the history of the Moon as well.

Well, what's the big deal with having water on the Moon?

What do we do with it?

Water is hugely important.

Water is hydrogen and oxygen.

If you can split that with electricity, solar panels, nuclear power, you have rocket fuel.

You can go pretty much anywhere in the solar system.

You can go outside the solar system if you have a fast enough rocket, so it's an incredible resource.

You could build a Moon base there.

You could create air and other things for people and create a permanent settlement there.

So that kind of leads me to the kind of the third rail, which is politics.

What are the implications of this?

Why is it so significant for China to undertake this now?

So they''s... Are you a dove or kind of a hawk here?

That's kind of the key question.

The doves would say that, you know, China is doing something really important and sort of, almost like extending a hand out to NASA and saying, 'Look, we can do this, too.

Let's do this together, and let's go farther and higher than ever before.'

Of course, there's US law preventing NASA from doing exactly that, so that's going to have to change.

The hawks would say, you know, 'This is a really kind of scary thing.

This is China's move to sort of conquest space.'

We're hearkening back to Cold War-era sort of ideas about 'the red Moon,' you know, the Soviet Union building bases there and doing things we can't see or know about.

So I tend to be on the 'dover' side.

I think that China really wants to be involved.

I mean, we're already trading so much with them...


...that if we work together, we could do a lot more.

Are there concerns about any regards to the country having this kind of vantage point?

Does that open up surveillance on this planet?

Are there now satellites or potential for satellites that could be capturing lots more communication?

So the Moon is so distant, it doesn't really make sense to perform espionage out there.

If you're really nutty, you could build, you know, a missile silo there, but that's going to be way too expensive and cost prohibitive.

You'd want it much closer to Earth.

Yeah, and frankly, cyber attacks are the new nuclear attack these days with infrastructure and things like that, so it's... From a military standpoint, it doesn't make much sense.

What kind of minerals are on the Moon that we might be interested in?

So the number-one mineral, as we discussed, is water.


If you can split that, you have rocket fuel.

You have oxygen for crew, but there's also a thought that billions... over billions of years, because the Moon doesn't really have an atmosphere, hasn't really eroded at any significant way other than meteorite impacts, there's a lot of helium-3 there.

If you can take that helium-3, mine it efficiently, which may be incredibly difficult -- we don't know how to do that yet -- bring it back to Earth, you have a perfect fuel for fusion, for fusion reactors, for creating bountiful, intense supplies of energy with the next generation of power plants.

All right.

Dave Mosher, thanks so much.

Thanks for having me.

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A rose is certainly beautiful to look at, but a new device is proving that the rose has more substance than just its beauty.

An associate professor at the University of Texas in Austin is using the rose as inspiration for a new water filtration device.

Here's the story.

Solar-steaming is a technology based on the use of sunlight to heat up liquids like water into vapor and then contaminates like bacteria and toxic ice can be left behind.

After the water evaporation and then we condense the water vapor back into liquid, and then we have clean water.

As far as I know, there's a very limited amount of work... There's no work investigating how to transfer the vaporized water back into liquid-state water so that people can drink.

So my reason that every home can have such kind of system to change the natural water, like, from rivers, ponds or lakes into clean water so that everybody can easily access clean water.

In our technology, we actually use very inexpensive materials, and the material is very effective in treating water, so we actually make a synfuel material that's based on filter paper, and then we coat it with a kind of polymer that can effectively absorb sunlight and change the sunlight into heat.

This polymer is called polypyrrole.

So then we just basically functionalize the filter paper with this polypyrrole [ Speaks indistinctly ] very black synfuel materials, and it's also very inexpensive.

Then we fold it into different ways.

Then I was thinking, 'Why not we just make a paper-based solar-steaming materials into a shape of a rose or a shape of flower petals,' you know, so that... Because this shape is so unique, actually, it can interact with light very effectively because many petals are closely, like, stay together and also, the surface area is pretty large because there are many of them in a small area, so water can evaporate faster, and the efficiency can be great.

It actually is mimicking really, like, natural roses.

Because a rose, you can see, it'll draw liquid from the stem, and that actually goes throughout those petals so that it can look so fresh and beautiful, and finally, the water molecules evaporate through these petals, so this is exactly what happens in nature and what happens in our roses.

The difference is only that we have a black rose.

In nature, people sell them, say, black roses.

Here is a solar-steaming and collection device.

There are two parts.

The first one is the condensation in cover, so one way [ Speaks indistinctly ] have this kind of evaporate the water vapor out, then this cover will help actually to condense the vapor to the liquid water.

The second part is the inside part is a vial we can store the contaminated water.

There, we put our rose with [ Speaks indistinctly ] the contents inside the vial.

Because of the kind of capillaries' force, the contaminated water will keep pumping up to the top surface of the rose.

Then, once we put the condensing cover on the top of the holders, so the water evaporates through the rose and condense at the top of the cover.

Then the water will flow, allowing the top surface to the outer basin, and we can collect the clean water.

In about 20 to 30 years, the population can be doubled, so then, at that time, the natural resources will be a problem, including clean water, and we really need to think ahead of time about this problem.

At the growing mental health crisis among its youth, the state of Utah has created an app that's saving students' lives around the state.

The SafeUT app gives students 24-7 help through chats and tip lines, revolutionizing the mental health sphere.


Utah is not immune to dealing with a lot of mental health issues and emotional crisis.

The attorney general's office, both here in Utah, as well as in Colorado, started conversations about wanting to implement a tip line very similar to the tip line that Colorado implemented after the Columbine shooting, and as our state talked more and more about it, they really wanted that tip line for school safety, but they also wanted to address mental health issues in our youth here in the state of Utah, and so it became a much bigger idea than just a tip line that goes to law enforcement but also have live therapeutic dialogue about mental health issues or other stressors or emotional crisis in someone's life.

The SafeUT app is a text app in which students K through 12, as well as higher education in the state of Utah, can either submit a tip to their school anonymously -- could be anything from, you know, a bullying issue or a drug-use issue, all the way up to guns at school.

There's also the option to a live chat, and so that's just a back-and-forth therapeutic dialogue with a clinician.

I knew nothing about the suicide domain coming in to this project, so it was really eye-opening.

I had asked UNI about things like, 'Do kids call the suicide hotline?'

And the response was, 'No.

Kids never call the hotline.'

And the reality is texting is really the language of today's youth.

There's four main areas of the overall system.

There's the mobile application.

There's the desktop app that counselors use.

Then, there's also a portal for the educators, and then there's the back-end services that everything communicates with.

So in the design of the application, we really tried to figure out what was the easiest, quickest way to get them in and get them getting the support they need.

Submitting a tip is a little more in-depth, but that's you're submitting something to the school, so that's going to require a little more information, but we only require, I believe, school and a quick blurb on what's going on.

All the other fields are optional, so they can just fly right through and submit that if they need to.

For the chats, that was kind of the other thing that makes it super easy and quick is you open the app.

You hit chat, and you're in basically a texting interface similar to iMessages or Messages on Android, and you can just tap send.

It'll say tip received, and within 3 minutes, sometimes even less, you can get a response.

On the back-end part, there are counselors that are running the desktop application 24-7, and as soon as a new encounter arrives, they get an alert, and then of course when new... Even if the encounter is existing and new messages come in, same thing happens.

There's an alert that a new message came in.

One of the nice things about the application is that it now allows the crisis counselors really to deal with multiple chats at the same time.

Before, they were really limited to kind of one-on-one, and that had been a struggle.

That was a major pain point for them.

We realized really quickly, was a challenge as were rolling out the SafeUT app was the ability to do some of the basic, kind of clinical and therapeutic skills over a text message versus being on the phone versus being in person.

Over text message, you lose all nonverbals, and so we had to find ways, how do we develop rapport with the youth in a way that's helpful and effective and bring in... and kind of engages them quickly so we don't lose them because it's really easy to just stop texting.

And then how do we assess risk, or how do we assess someone's mental health or their current emotional state just using words that are typed out on our screen, and then really be able to engage in this really nice, therapeutic dialogue where people feel like they're getting what they need?

A lot of crisis work is being able to make a connection really quickly with someone and then be there in the moment with them in the moment with them, in the emotion with them and then help them kind of deescalate out of that and come up with a 'What am I going to do now?'

kind of plan moving forward, and so learning how to use technology to do that has been actually really exciting and a great challenge for us, and I think we've developed some kind of our own best practice if you will in ways that we've found really effective in doing that in a text message fashion.


We launched the SafeUT app a couple years ago.

I think we were the first high school to initially roll it out, and we've helped, since then, a lot of other high schools and school districts, superintendents, help bring it on at each of their schools statewide.

It's a utility that I think all schools should be using, not only in the state of Utah but, you know, something that really should be looked at and expanded nationwide with the increase in mental health and depression and anxiety that we're seeing with youth today.

We've had a tremendous amount of success with students utilizing it.

In fact, I think we're one of the highest utilized schools in the state as far as the SafeUT app goes, but it's been a tremendous utility for us and a big benefit to students and us as staff.

We've seen a lot of positive gains in using it.

Microsoft had just bought a development piece for developing an iOS and Android from a single code base.

It's called Xamarin.Forms.

It was actually our first foray into this new technology, and it really allowed us to cut down on development time dramatically to be able to take something that would require almost, what, two, three different languages for the different platforms into one that we knew and have used for, you know, the past decade, being able to develop that, and it runs on Android and iOS, and it's been great to be able to do that because it allows us to, again, get new stuff in more quickly.

Thank you for calling the crisis line.

How can I help you today?

The rewards, to me, were when I have teachers coming up to me and saying, 'Thank you.

You saved my student's life,' or parents coming up to me and saying the same thing, 'Thank you.

You saved my kid's life.'

That's the best rewards.

I have six kids.

Knowing that I'm developing something that's going to help them as well as friends and family has been... just been amazing to be a part of that.

It's really cutting-edge.

Not a lot of places are doing something like this, you know, this kind of technology and pairing it with mental health, and so it's really rewarding to have a new place where people feel comfortable reaching out for help, so it's extremely rewarding to be able to be a part of that and be a part of developing something that truly can be impactful to our community and to people's lives.

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In the recent past, Southern California was hit with the worst mudslide and debris flow the region has seen in decades after wildfires scorched hundreds of thousands of acres of land and heavy rains hit the area.

In this segment, we take a look at what scientists are doing to learn more about these natural disasters.

December 2017, Southern California fell victim to the worst wildfire ever recorded in state history.

The Thomas fire burned nearly 300,000 acres, scorching everything in its path, all the way from Ventura County to Santa Barbara County, which is about 2 hours north of downtown Los Angeles.

No sooner were Californians out of harm's way from the devastating blaze, Mother Nature dealt a different kind of wrath.

In January, heavy, intense rains caused unprecedented mudslides and debris flows in the Montecito neighborhood of Santa Barbara County because of all the scorched earth from the Thomas fire.

Twenty-one people died in this disaster.

More than 100 homes were destroyed, over 300 damaged, and part of one of California's busiest highways, Highway 101, was shut down for nearly 2 weeks.

Kate Scharer is a geologist with the United States Geological Survey.

She was part of the response team, which aided in the Montecito rescue effort and also helped with damage surveillance and assessment.

Today, we met Scharer out here at a debris basin in the Sylmar community of Los Angeles County, located at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains.

In December, parts of Sylmar were also scorched from what was known as the Creek fire.

The material that you can see on the landscape is what becomes a debris flow.

A common word that's used to describe is actually a mud flow.

We like to use the term debris flow because it includes not just mud from the soil but also the big rocks, the trees, big chunks of the bedrock or the hill slope that can get entrained in these flows as they go downhill, so the reason we like to say debris flow is it's a huge variety of material that comes down, not just mud.

Is that what causes the devastation?

Is it the velocity and the violence of the flow, or is it something else?

It's certainly the velocity of it.

Debris flows can move as fast as 30 to 40 miles an hour.

If you think of yourself driving in a car at that speed, you certainly wouldn't want to hit anybody, right?

When you envision that you could take all the material on the landslide... in the landscape and have it move that quickly in a slurry that has a concentration of, like, cement, for example, and it's moving that fast, it can take you out very quickly.

Scharer explains that these charred hills here in Sylmar are exactly like the hillsides in Montecito after the Thomas fire.

The inferno burned all the living and dead vegetation that had sheltered the soil.

The lands quickly eroded because there was no protective shield or barrier from the debris flow.

You can see where there used to be vegetation before the fire, and that vegetation, all of the roots that go in, the smaller plants that have burned up, all of those roots go in and basically lock the soil into the bedrock.

Once you have this burn, those roots that act like the staples that hold the soil into the ground are all gone, and so for 2 to 5 years after one of these fires, you can expect that if the right kind of rainstorm comes through, material will get mobilized, just this thin veneer of soil and rubber will get mobilized, and can come down in a debris flow.

There is no way to quickly get away from this once the land starts crumbling down?

That's correct.

The descriptions you hear from people that it sounds like a freight train coming at you, So you can envision... You have boulders out in the Montecito area.

We were measuring boulders that were 2 meters high.

That's taller than me, and...

And you're 6 feet tall.

Yes, and so those things were coming down with a velocity of 40 miles an hour.

That's equivalently a truck coming at you.

I have not seen a debris flow this bad within the last 20 years.

Janis Hernandez is with the California Geological Survey.

Hernandez was also part of the team out at Montecito helping emergency responders and also documenting the path of the debris flow and mudslide.

Debris flows are characterized as sediment, rock, wooded debris materials, air and water that just get entrained and mobilized in a rapid deposit that come barreling down the canyons at a rapid pace, and as this material works it way down the slopes, it's picking up stuff.

We call it entraining, but it's picking up stuff from the sides, from the front, and it's just making the mass even greater.

If, at the bottom of the canyon, we have a debris basin down there, it's supposed to catch this heavy material and allow the lighter material, the water, to flow out of it, but in the case after a fire, there was just too much material to come down, and the basins filled up, and they overtopped, and all that material was spilling out into the neighborhoods uncontrollably.

If you happen to be home, you most likely will become part of that deposit.

Enough material came out of the canyons to fill perhaps 300 football fields.

Now the California Geological Survey is educating the public.

CGS has compiled a safety and preparedness checklist for all California residents and any other US residents who live in parts of the country where they could be victims of wildfires that could lead to mudslides or debris flows in the future.

First, CGS says it is critical that residents heed all evacuation warnings from local law enforcement and weather service officials.

Secondly, CGS tells residents to expect debris flows for 2 to 5 years after a wildfire.

It takes intense rain, typically about 1/2 inch per hour to a recently burned slope, to trigger a debris flow or mudslide.

Thirdly, monitor all national weather service or local weather forecasts for flash flood watches or flash flood warnings, and fourthly, if you must shelter in place, choose your location in advance and stay there and find the highest point of shelter, such as a second story or rooftop.

To help with these lifesaving efforts, geologists are combining science and technology to map the post-fire danger zones for potential mudslides and debris flows.

It's a collaborative effort with USGS and CGS and other technical specialists, such as hydrologists, engineers, the US Forest Service and the Weather Service.

Together, they are helping create specialized landslide maps.

Scientists track and then map things like soil texture, burn severity and topographic information.

Geologists are also using aerial imagery and satellite data and a technology called LIDAR.

LIDAR is another mapping technique using laser beams flown from an airplane to collect information.

LIDAR can see through things like trees, brush and other vegetation, and with digital processing, get detailed imagery of everything on the ground like homes, buildings, creeks, rivers, drainage systems, and it can identify any type of terrain, be it rough, hilly or mountainous, helping geologists study landforms as if they're under a magnifying glass.

Is there any way that this can be prevented, or is Mother Nature just going to do what Mother Nature does?

Mother Nature is going to do what Mother Nature does.

When the rain comes down, no vegetation, loose soils, it's just a recipe for disaster.

You basically get buried by the debris.


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... ...and contributions to this station.

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