SciTech Now Episode 602

In this episode of SciTech Now, the powers of the periodic table, a world first 3D system to protect college campuses, the seeds of ghost forests and transitioning to a blue economy.



Coming up, the powers of the periodic table...

As you move across, things react very differently.

Things give away electrons on one side.

Things receive electrons on another side.

...a world-first 3-D system to protect college campuses...

We can see real-time on a map our officers and their approach to an incident.

...the seeds of ghost forests...

It's a place where you have a lot of dead trees, large areas of contiguous forest that are just gone.

...transitioning to a blue economy.

We have such a freshwater advantage, 31 1/2 miles of coastline for the busiest freshwater lake than anywhere in the country.

It's all ahead.

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


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.

The periodic table of elements marked its 150th anniversary in 2019.

As it ages, it also continues to grow, adding elements and revising what we know about the basic building blocks of our planet.

Scientist, educator and host of the podcast 'Science Underground' Ainissa Ramirez is here to tell us about the power of the periodic table and how modern chemists use it today.

How did we came up with this 150 years ago?

Well, there were less elements back then.


And people have been trying to list elements for some time, and some scientists have made efforts to figure out, 'Okay.

Are there certain patterns?

I see that this stuff is very reactive.

This stuff isn't very reactive.

Can we make some kind of arrangement to put them together?'


But it wasn't until 1869 when Dmitri Mendeleev and also another gentleman, Lothar Meyer... He also had a periodic table, which not only listed elements by how they react, but also he started to see some patterns as well, and when he did it at the time, there weren't all these elements, so he actually saw some patterns, but then he said, 'You know, I think there should be an element here, but it's not here yet, so what I'm going to do is, I'm going to skip this space, and I'm going to keep going on with the rest of the elements that I have.' And he actually made predictions that we would eventually find those elements.

So he...

And he was right.

That seems pretty astounding to think about the idea that he saw enough of a pattern that he thinks basically, 'I've got A, B.

There should be a C.'

Yeah, but we don't know it yet.

Dmitri Mendeleev felt that he was so confident with his chart, when it was found, a gentleman wrote a little article about this new element that I found, and he produced all the information that he had about it, particularly the density.


Mendeleev saw it.

He's like, 'You know what?

I don't think you've got that number right.

It should be this.

Go back and do it again,' and the guy... He's this Frenchman.

I'm sure he had, like, a very strong reaction and said, 'Okay,' and he went back, and it ends up that his value was closer to what Mendeleev had predicted, so Mendeleev had a better sense of something than the gentleman who had actually discovered it.

And there is a reason that it looks the way it does, right?

Yes, it does, yeah, definitely.

Well, you can think of it as a map.

Because even you had all of this, you could visually display it in lots of different directions and ways.

I mean, why isn't it alphabetical?

Why isn't it by the number?

Right, right, right, right.

Why isn't it whatever?

But they've put it in, in a specific way for a certain reason.

That's right.

So certain... As you move across, things react very differently.

Things give away electrons on one side.

Things receive electrons on another side, and the way they react is very differently as well, so it's sort of a map to give you a sense of what's going on.

It gives you a way to make better-educated guesses about how things should behave.

And it's in a single snapshot.

You can start to see, 'Okay.

This column is X, and this row is Y.'


And you can see patterns very quickly.

There were earlier periodic tables that weren't in this chart form.

One kind of looked like this screw like you would see on a bolt, and it was quite beautiful, three-dimensional, but there's no way to visualize that and have a good innate sense of what's going on.


But with a table, you can just get a snapshot and say, 'Okay.

It's located here.

Even though I don't know very much about it, I can kind of guess how it will behave because its neighbors do this, and this other neighbor does that.'

So these are the elements that we can find on this planet.


But at this point right now, the only planet that we've technically explored is the Moon, right, and not really a planet, but our Moon, but we're finding that these fundamental building blocks are everywhere across the universe.

They are.

This is the stuff that makes up what we know as our world.

This is it.

And so even...

This is the menu.

As we think about, you know, sending a drone to Titan or going to Mars...


...we're basically saying that we haven't found any completely new Martian element yet, have we?

Well, I mean, this is the stuff of the universe.


We might find elements that we don't have here out there.


And that'll be further along, but we feel pretty confident about, you know, what we have here, what we have on here.

And what about the discovery of new elements?

I mean, there's kind of the most new section of the periodic table.


How do we stumble upon something completely new and different?

Well, that requires a lot of research where you're in the laboratory, and you're fusing things together.


I need this many electrons and this much stuff.

Let me see if I can'... And it's also the amount that's created is so infinitesimally small.


But it's enough to register, and you say, 'Okay.

I found this element.

Let's put this on the periodic table.'

And that... You got to have a few friends back you up on that.

That's right.

I mean, you can't just say, 'Okay.

I've basically mixed my coffee and my tea together.

It's a new element.'

'Now I have a new element.'


But I should let you know that, although it's an old chart, it's still heated.

There's still heated debates about it.

But what kind of debates?

All right.

This is chemistry-nerd...

If you talk to scientists...

...debates. right.

Helium, which we see over here, should it be here?

Should it be there, or should it be listed in this position?

Next to what, hydrogen?

Right above beryllium.

That's a heated debate.

There are these elements way at the bottom that behave very differently from the ones that are above it.


Now, although they're listed below it, you would think that they'd have the same behavior.

They don't.

Should they be there?

Should they be listed in a different way?

So there are scientists, chemists, that have debates about the periodic table.

Is it coming to the end of the information that it can provide to us?


That's what chemistry nerds do.

That's what they think about these things.



That's right.


Well, I'm glad they're thinking about that and not much more volatile conversations in America these days.

Ainissa Ramirez, thanks so much.

Thank you.


The universe today is filled with planets, stars, galaxies... But what came before?

♪♪ After the Big Bang, the early universe only had a few types of atoms, mostly helium and hydrogen.

Scientists believe that helium and hydrogen began to combine to form the universe's first molecule, called helium hydride.

These molecules led to the creation of new molecules that helped cool the early universe.

♪♪ Over billions of years, the universe transformed, becoming the complex place it is today.

Scientists have never found helium hydride in space until now, in a planetary nebula.

Flying high in the Earth's atmosphere with SOFIA, the world's largest airborne observatory, scientists finally detected this elusive molecule.

SOFIA, a partnership of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, uses cutting-edge technology.

Its instruments are easily upgraded, unlike other observatories in space.

SOFIA's detection of the first molecule that ever formed confirms a key part of our basic understanding of the early universe.

♪♪ ♪

In San Antonio, Texas A&M is the first campus in the world to use an indoor-positioning solution to provide a safer environment for students.

The new system gives campus police a 3-D view of buildings that precisely indicates where an incident is occurring, even in multistory structures.

Here is a look.

One of the neat things about the app too is, rather than relying on the app to connect the public with the dispatch and that's the only benefit, the officers get the alert at the same time dispatch does, so the officer can be en route to the location of the emergency at the same time dispatch is receiving the information.

One of the virtues of this app is that it not only allows law enforcement to track students, faculty, staff wherever they might be in a building where there's an emergency, but it also tracks law enforcement on campus as well, so they can utilize command and control to mobilize police officers and put them in the right place at the right time to address the situation.

So while dispatch is receiving two-way texting information or two-way call information from the caller and getting additional information for the officer, we're not having to lose time for that to be relayed for the officer.

The officer is already en route, and the dispatcher can then give the additional information to the officer as they're approaching the scene.

The SafeZone indoor positioning solution is so precise that campus police provide a faster response time no matter what the emergency.

So the safety beacons are Bluetooth, low energy, and they communicate with the apps on the phones, and by the positioning, it allows you to have a much tighter reporting mechanism to the comm center as to where that person is located at, but it's only when they activate the app.

It's not actively monitored, and it's not tracked until the public says through an emergency alert, 'Here, I want you to know where I am.'

Ideally, if students, faculty, staff on this campus have the app and law enforcement has the app, how that creates this synergy to allow this to work...

Well, we have our emergency notification system, and that's an opt-out system, so everybody is automatically enrolled in that system, whereas, with a phone app, you can't mandate what people download onto their phone, so we use this as an enhancement to our other existing safety measures on campus to allow the public to have that greater connectivity with our department and our providing a better service to them.

There is also heat mapping, and if something does happen that police need to review, there is instant playback.

To where the first responders that are responding to an incident that are on our system show up on a command-and-control map, so we know where our officers are at any given moment in time while they're on duty, so we can see real time on a map our officers and their approach to an incident.

These wireless, wearable alarms can pinpoint anyone anywhere on campus.

One of the neat things about taking on a campus safety app that has such a robust under-the-hood to it is we're able to have this command-and-control feature.

We're able to have these safety beacons that allow us better tracking and control regarding our response to an incident, knowing where the public is when there is an emergency, so having a construction standard for campus safety that we have these safety beacons installed throughout, we're the first campus in the world that has taken this technology and deployed it campus-wide and have adopted it as a campus-safety construction standard.

It is a strong partnership between Texas A&M, San Antonio; and CriticalArc, who manufactures the technology.

Those times when safety is paramount during an emergency, A&M students can now be assured that campus police can locate them sooner, and that ultimately means they can help them sooner.


As storms and droughts increase and sea levels rise with climate change, forested wetlands up and down the Atlantic Coast are transforming from once-vibrant ecosystems to now areas filled with dead or dying trees.

The accelerating spread of these ghost forests from New Jersey to Florida over the past decade has ecologists alarmed and eager to understand how they're formed and what effect they'll have regionally and globally.

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

A ghost forest is a very clever name for a kind of unfortunate new habitat type we're seeing growing on the coast, and it's a place where you have a lot of dead trees, large areas of contiguous forest that are just gone.

My emotional response is to mourn the loss of those trees, but scientifically I say, 'What was the combination of stresses that caused this particular stand of trees to bite the dust?'

We've been doing this now for close to a decade, and in that time, we've already been seeing changes.

If these things are changing on a time scale where I can see it, what's going to happen for this landscape, you know, by the time my kids grow up?

♪♪ My name is Marcelo Ardon, and I study ecosystem ecology and biogeochemistry of streams and wetlands.

And I'm Emily Bernhardt, and I am a biogeochemist and aquatic ecologist.

And I'm Ryan Emanuel, and I'm a hydrologist.

Believe it or not, back in 2004, this was a really large 440-acre farm that was purchased by a group of developers, who decided to turn it into a wetland.

Because we were studying this wetland restoration project, didn't even occur to us that saltwater would get here, and we recognized a year after the first intrusion event happened that we had gotten to near-brackish conditions in much of this wetland.

And that's what kind of led us into this research of saltwater intrusion and trying to understand if the patterns we had seen in this restored wetland were also happening in the broader area of the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula.

The Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula is a landscape that's dominated by water.

So we have the Pamlico Sound in the south and the Albemarle Sound in the north.

We have the big Alligator River sort of cutting down through the middle of this peninsula.

Ecologically speaking, this used to be all dominated by wetlands, tends to have very organic, rich, peaty soils, and it's a system that would sequester a lot of carbon in the soils.

The Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula has a history of large-scale commercial agriculture, vast tracts of land that are used for corn, soybean, crops like that.

No matter where you go on the peninsula, you can see some type of artificial drainage infrastructure.

You can even use Google Earth and Google Maps, and you can see some of these changes, you know, on your computer.

Even though they were made to drain water from the interior out to estuary, there's the potential for them to serve the opposite purpose.

You can have storms that push salt water deep into the interior, often through ditches and drains that may not have flow-control structures or other protective measures.

Now, when you have a drought, the sounds get saltier, in part because they're evaporating and in part because they're not getting fresh water off the landscape, so you start to see those salts mixing up.

You could actually have gradients of salt water that penetrate deep into the interior through these ditches and drains.

One of the impacts of climate change is a likely increase in the number and severity of droughts and the intensity of storms, and both of those cases were actually influencing different types of saltwater intrusions.

The thing that's actually happening is that salt is getting into a landscape and killing individual organisms, be they trees or microbes, so it's actually happening at a very granular scale, but what we want to know, and I think what most people want to know, is how the coast of North Carolina is going to change as a result of saltwater intrusion.

Our team is a hydrologist, two biogeochemists, a plant ecologist and a social scientist all trying to think about, how can we bring our expertise to bear in this really multilayered, difficult question?

We're collecting data from more than a dozen sites around the peninsula.

So we measure the water chemistry.

We measure the water level, nutrients are there, how much salt is in there.

We also monitor the soil, the chemistry of the soil.

We'll look at the greenhouse-gas emissions, and then we've also started measuring greenhouse gases from trees.

Is the tree functioning like a chimney?

So is it taking gases that are being produced by microbes in the soil and releasing them out into the atmosphere, or is it more like a cork, and is it actually helping to keep gases that the microbes are producing in the soil within the soil?

All of these things are monitored continuously at a handful of sites around the peninsula, but we also have handheld tools that we can use to make spot checks as we drive around broadly.

What we would really like to do is link what we're seeing with vegetation, areas where we know there's saltwater intrusion occurring, to what we're seeing in the soil, so, yes, there's salinization here.

This is what the trees do when that happens.

Using geospatial data, we can try to see if what we see in these small places are going to apply to much larger areas.

We're currently using digital elevation models to assess how vulnerable the landscape is to saltwater intrusion.

We're using these algorithms that tell us how water concentrates and flows across the surface and how connected or disconnected different parts of the landscape are to one another, combining those metrics in ways that allow us to come up with an estimate of vulnerability.

And when I look at those maps, I get a sense of the magnitude of this problem.

Some of those salts can stay behind in the soils, so you may see reduced yields in crops, and there are forests nearby.

That could be one of the factors that leads them to become ghost forests.

We think that ghost forests are spreading throughout the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula and throughout many parts of the eastern US.

The pace of sea-level rise and the intensity of human modification of the landscape have accelerated that process.

I've never worked on a project where the change is happening at such a rapid time scale.

It is possible that we might not fully understand this problem before it's too late, so this area is actually one of the highest sea-level-rise rates in the country.

You could be very fatalistic and say, 'Just let it go underwater,' and I think that would be unfortunate if that's the decision that we make.

There's the enormous standing stock of carbon in the trees and the soils of all these coastal wetlands that could be lost back to the atmosphere, and then there's the biodiversity loss.

If we lose these so fast, we're just going to lose this really important eco-region.

Where we can be hopeful is that there are a lot of things that we could do to manage this landscape differently than just abandoning it to the sea.

One of the things we hope to do with our research is to provide decision-makers with tools that they can use to potentially mitigate some of the effects of saltwater intrusion that are causes by ditches and drains.

Rather than it being an on or off switch where it has to be, either we build a ditch, or we plug it, can we find ways where we allow water to move in one direction but not maybe allow it to move in another direction or even maybe trying to figure out if there are maybe crops that would be more salt-tolerant that are growing out here?

And the same thing for these wetlands, so restoring it to what used to be here historically is probably not going to be the smartest idea, and starting to think about what species are going to do well, can we use those species for restoration?

If we do nothing and we continue to farm, we continue to build infrastructure as if these forests and these systems are not going to change, then we might be in for some really rotten surprises in a few decades.

I think humans can have a huge impact on both whether new ghost forests develop, whether current ghost forests expand and also what happens now once a ghost forest exists on the landscape.

Do we leave them?

Could we manage them in a way that we might actually move more rapidly into a sort of a salt-marsh ecosystem?

I think there's a lot of interesting decisions that we could begin to make.

They're not going to be forests in those places probably again, but they might be something equally interesting and beautiful.

♪♪ ♪

The blue economy is a phrase used to describe economic activity in, on and around water.

New Baltimore, Michigan, is an example of a community transitioning to a blue economy, and the citizens, policymakers and entrepreneurs in the area are focused on three areas -- recreation, manufacturing and business development.

In this segment, we take a look at the risks, rewards and opportunities of a blue economy.

The blue economy is a phrase used to describe economic activity centered in, on and around water.

New Baltimore, Michigan, on the shores of Lake St. Clair, is an example of a community transitioning into an economy based on water, and leading that new economic initiative is Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.

This is something that is a tremendous advantage, and we take it for granted.


Because we see it.

We see it.

It's in our backyard.

We don't really realize the importance that this really plays in other areas throughout the world, so the question becomes, how do we turn this into an advantage and a blue-economy initiative?

Bringing new people into the area is a start.

Since 2010, more than 25,000 people have moved to Macomb County, an increase of nearly three percent.

Bob and Mary Higgins are new arrivals.

I've always wanted to be by the water.

I've always told my wife, Mary, that, one day, we got to get a place by the water.

Bob and Mary own Fin's Eatery in New Baltimore.

They opened Fin's in 2015 after operating the Oxford Inn in Royal Oak for almost 30 years.

Bob and Mary felt it was time for a change.

We had a feel about this whole city after we got to meet some of the people and that this was where we wanted to make our home.

And the city is really involved.

They want to bring more businesses here.

Businesses that are attracted to the activity on nearby Lake St. Clair, just like Bob and Mary were.

Fifty percent of our clientele live on the water, or they have boats, so it's a big, big thing here.

Bob and Mary's new venture isn't without risk.

There are lots of empty storefronts, but the Higgins say they believe the commercial space in town will soon be filled.

They've added the new shops on the corner one block down, and there's a new shop two doors from us that's just opened this week.

I just want to see a good variety of things to bring people to this area.

Jobs also attract people, and specialized manufacturing plays an important role in the blue economy.

Offshore Spars in Chesterfield, Michigan, makes innovative carbon-fiber sailboat masts for the Great Lakes and beyond.

And this is after they come out of the paint booth.

Steven King is the president of Offshore Spars.

He's seen the company undergo rapid growth.

We kind of morphed from a company that was only making product for Michigan and the Great Lakes to this worldwide company overnight.

Within the elite world of boats and racing, people know that Michigan has the technology and manufacturing know-how to compete in a global economy.

When you get to a certain level in the boating industry and sailing industry, people realize what we're capable of.

Steven has some advice for companies that want to be innovative participants in the blue economy.

To take advantage of the lakes and realizing what we have here because it really is amazing.

Mark Hackel agrees.

We have such a freshwater advantage, 31 1/2 miles of coastline for the busiest freshwater lake anywhere in the country during the summer months.

Whether it's the marinas in and around the area, fisheries, eateries, people that really want to entertain themselves by buying a boat, being out on the lake itself, swimming by a beachfront is a tremendous advantage for us to start moving forward and saying, 'You know what?

This blue economy thing is something that's going to be vitally important to help us move the economy forward in so many aspects.'

For more on the Great Lakes and the blue economy, please visit

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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