SciTech Now Episode 609

In this episode, an emoji for everything; underwater drones explore the secrets of the arctic; protecting our water and combating algae blooms in the Great Lakes.



Coming up.

Should we have an emoji for everything?

They want to see, like, digital prominence of this.

Is it sort of a meme?

Is it something that exists in the Internet consciousness?

Underwater drones explore the secrets of the Arctic.

These are our deep gliders, so they go to 1,000 meters.

Protecting our water.

When a spill like this occurs, it's devastating to the communities that view it as a sacred being.

Combating algae blooms in the Great Lakes.

If we can give people advance notice about these blooms, they're going to be much more prepared to deal with them.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

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

Let's get started.

Smiley face, frowny face, Thumbs up, thumbs down, horses, goats, shoes, suns, moons, pizza slices -- what do they have in common?

They're all emojis.

But there is no radish, no rye bread, and to the dismay of white-wine drinkers, only a glass of red wine.


Freelance writer Sophie Haigney explored the world of emojis and the organization tasked with deciding what is worthy of emoji status in an article for magazine.

She joins us now.

I didn't even know people decide what is and what isn't an emoji.

It's a very involved process, actually.

Yeah, so there's a body called the Unicode Consortium that is actually tasked with sort of policing all scripts.

And they've taken on emoji.

And now there's a subcommittee that sort of reviews proposals.

Anyone can submit a proposal for an emoji, and they review those proposals and decide what 60 or 70 are gonna be approved every year.

There are 60 or 70 that can be added.

So it's very competitive, jockeying for those particular spots.

So how many emojis exist now?

2,800, maybe a little more now after the most recent update.

I mean, that's a lot.

It is a lot.

And it used to be just thumbs up, thumbs down.

But that's -- now you can see almost entire sentences written with emoji.

Yeah, there are emoji spelling bees now.

You can -- [ Both laugh ] The most creative sentence wins.

I mean, it makes it a little bit hard to use them now, sometimes.

That's one of the big technical concerns, why you can't just keep adding on.


There's also sort of a more theoretical concern, which is that emoji are not -- they're supposed to represent sort of a general concept, like happy or sad.

But the more specific you get, the more you sort of have to add, which is why you have people agitating for white wine, rather than just the concept of wine.

Let's say we both propose an emoji.

What are the kind of characteristics to win the support of the people who say, 'yeah, this is worthy of emoji status'?

Well, there are a couple of things it cannot be.

So no living or dead people, nothing associated with a brand, and it can't be sort of a fad.

So there's like a big push for, like, a dab emoji.

But, you know, we haven't decided whether that's a timeless dance move or not yet.

So, really maybe in 10 years, the dab could --

So maybe in 10 years.

They added the peace sign very late in the game.


But, so, the things that they want to see are basically metrics that show that it would be used.

So that's, like, Google searches.

So are people searching for hippos frequently?

And if they are, you're much more likely to get a hippo emoji approved.

They want to see, like, digital prominence of this.

Is it sort of a meme?

Is it something that exists in the Internet consciousness already that could be used for a variety of symbolic connotations and to represent itself?

And is there a serious conversation that happens when it comes down to figuring out those 60?

I mean, is it a heated...?

My sense is it's pretty heated, yeah.

So Unicode is is a volunteer organization.

You have people like linguists.

But you also have representatives from all the major tech companies who are there.

And so, you know, they have their own sets of interests, and, you know, they want things that people are going to be clicking on and using on their products and on their platforms.

So, yeah, it's competitive and it can be really heated, especially when it comes to more, you know, a dog is one thing.

Flags are like a whole area of conflict because --

Should we include every flag?

And is this flag for a dictatorship, and this is...?


I mean, it's really -- It's like, you know, people want -- in the -- in -- I think it was two updates ago, they added England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, but not Northern Ireland because there isn't really a Northern Irish flag.

But there are flags that people use in Northern Ireland.

And that's -- you know, I was talking to to somebody who sits on the Unicode Technical Committee, and he says, like, the most hate mail that he gets is from Northern Ireland people who want what's used in the loyalist community as a flag to be on the keyboard.

But, no, none of the major tech vendors want that because it's sort of a statement.

How do you decide on a dog?

I mean, it's not -- that's also not simple there.

The sort of generic dog in Apple's design sort of looks like a Cocker Spaniel.

But you know there's no such thing as a general dog.

Right, there's so many different breeds.

Like, why not a poodle?

Why not a Golden Retriever?

And there is actually a poodle, a separate poodle emoji.

But you know it's fraught, because those designs sort of means something, and it's no longer just a general smiley face when you get into the world of objects and animals.


And one of the things that was interesting is -- I don't know which generation I caught up to it on -- but, like, skin tones were introduced, and all of a sudden I was like, 'oh, yeah, if I could have a brown thumbs up, why not?'

Right. Yeah.

So that was -- I think it was 2015, and it was Apple that really took the lead on that.

They said, you know, 'we want people not to just be represented in this yellow, in this yellow palette.'

And it's been -- I mean, I think people are generally happy, but it is a little bit -- You know, you now sort of have to identify yourself or identify other people in your conversations, and some people don't like that.

Some people are like, 'you know, I would prefer just for everyone to be yellow so that I don't have to make this semi-political choice.

So that's another that's another issue where the real world is.

Is there a top end on how many emojis there can be?

There is, because there are only so many code points.

But it's nowhere near where emoji are now.

I think it's -- you know, it's in the high -- high mid-ten-thousands or something.

Oh, okay,.

But they're gonna try to keep it a lot lower than that.

Although, I don't know how because they're just going to keep adding every year or so.

Alright, Sophie Haigney, thanks so much for joining us.

Yeah, Thanks so much for having me.

♪♪ ♪♪

Researchers in San Diego, California, are deploying new tools to study the Arctic's underwater food web.

For the first time, scientists plan to use autonomous drones to help with their research.

We journey underwater for the story.

Krill are tiny crustaceans that got a moment in the spotlight during the 2011 animated film 'Happy Feet Two.'

Will, we are krill.

We are meant to look the same.

Not me, Bill.

There is only one of me in all the world.

I am one in a krillion.

Krill are an important part of the Antarctic food web that feeds whales, seals, penguins, and people.

The tiny animals are known for their large underwater swarms.

So this is all we are -- lunch.

To think we spent our whole lives not knowing the truth.

Goodbye, krill world.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists have tracked fluctuating krill populations for years.

NOAA's Christian Reiss says it's part of an international effort.

So we study krill so that we understand whether its trends in abundance are likely to be influenced by how much fishing effort we do, but also whether that fishing effort will then impact the upper trophic levels like penguins and seals.

But packing up a research vessel and traveling to the bottom of the world takes time and money.

Both are in short supply at a federal agency with an eye on shrinking budgets.

So Reiss says his team hopes to do much of that work with autonomous drones.

We can collect data on water conditions.

We can collect data on how much food is out there for krill.

And then literally we can collect data on how much biomass of krill there is.

Anthony Cossio handles one of two Teledyne-manufactured undersea gliders.


We'll go up a little bit.

Hold the outside.

He's inside a unique lab at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla.

Alright, let it go.

Yeah, looks good.

You got the tail?


Alright, let's take it up.

The 66-foot-long tank here holds more than 520,000 gallons of seawater.

Let's go south.

That makes it large enough to put one of the gliders through its paces.

Alright, let's put it down.

You got it, Stephanie?


Once in the water... the glider software takes over.

At the surface, it'll connect with a satellite.

And then it'll go get its GPS coordinates, make sure it knows where it's at, figure out where it's going based off of the directions we told it, and then it starts to dive.

Like, right now, it's starting to dive.

Today the mission is a couple of routine dives inside the large tank.

The water-tight drone is slow but deliberate.

These are our deep gliders.

So they go to 1,000 meters, and these are also the biggest gliders that Teledyne has manufactured.

Jen Walsh is one of three pilots that will watch over the drones on their long winter mission in the Antarctic.

She says the machines will do most of the work when they're in the field.

They'll dive and surface as they go back and forth over a preplanned survey area.

Piloting is mostly a hands-off operation.

If the glider is in an area of not-very-complex bathymetry, we're not worried about ice where it is, maybe it's pretty far offshore at this point, sometimes that just means keeping an eye on it, making sure it's surfacing when we anticipate that it's going to surface, and sometimes I won't have to get it or give it any direction at all.

The vessels will have to navigate very cold and possibly rough seas.

A lot can go wrong.

Walsh says the drones do surface and check in regularly, and she can monitor the gliders in San Diego on any Internet-connected computer.

[ Bell dings ]

There's the connection.

When the glider surfaces and connects to satellite, it has a very specific 'ding ding' sound that it makes, and it is like a Pavlovian response.

My husband at home will hear it.

'Oh, your glider's up.'

[ Chuckles ] And it just means it's connected, which is good because if it's doing 1,000-meter dives, which it's going to do in the Antarctic, that can take up to four hours.

Research biologist Anthony Cossio dropped the drones into the water off of the coast of San Diego.

The vessel spent two weeks at sea practicing maneuvers over and around the San Diego Trough, which is just off the coast of La Jolla.

NOAA officials say the vessels will head south this fall for their first research mission in the Antarctic.


Hi, I'm Chandler Scheuemann.

We're inside NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility here in New Orleans where the Space Launch System's core stage is being built.

This is 'Rocket Science in 60 Seconds.'


The core stage is the backbone of the propulsion system that helps launch the rocket to the moon.

Stages for the first and second Artemis missions are being built right here at Michoud in New Orleans.

Green Run is a series of tests during which test conductors will bring the core stage to life for the first time.

Propellant will flow through the cryogenic tanks, flight computers and avionics will operate all the systems, and four RS-25 engines will fire all at the same time.

Green Run testing formally validates the core stage's design, certifying it ready for launch.

The next time the core-stage hardware comes together will be on the launch pad at Kennedy.


For Navajo hydrologist, Karletta Chief, water is sacred.

When a mine spill contaminated a vital river in the Navajo Nation, she decided to investigate the potential environmental and health impacts it had on her community.

Our partner 'Science Friday' has the story.

My name is Karletta Chief, and I'm a hydrologist.

And I study how water moves through the environment.

Water, it's a real part of my identity.

The Navajo people, or Dine people, have this deep connection to the environment.

I'm From the Bitter Water Clan, one of the four originating clans of the Navajo people.

Growing up on the reservation with no running water, no electricity, and with a very strong cultural upbringing, where my family lived off the land raising livestock, we just lived a simple life.

We live within an area leased to a coal company.

One of the big memories I had was how my grandfather's sheep drank from a contaminated wash, and a hundred of their sheep died.

It was traumatic because we realized how much of an impact the mine could have on our livelihoods.

I was very motivated by my desire to help my family and help my community understand the impacts of the mine and minimize those impacts.

My grandmother told me to work hard and pursue learning.

But she always told me... And so I came to the University of Arizona with that motivation.

The Navajo Nation is rich in natural resources.

There are over 2,000 mines, including uranium, coal, oil, and gas.

Extracting and mining -- land surface mining -- can contaminate water.

And so my goal was to reach out to tribes and address these impacts and the environmental challenges.

Many of my elders, though they're not miners, they passed away from black lung disease and cancer.

So I really relate to the impacts of mining on communities and families.

August 5th, 2015 -- that was the day the Gold King Mine spill had occurred near Silverton, Colorado.

Three million gallons of acid mine drainage was released into the Animas River.

People were going to the river and just watching in the horror.

The geology of southwestern Colorado has rock that's rich in iron, as well as other metals.

And, so, when that water and oxygen come into contact with metals in the rock, sulfuric acid is generated, and that starts to dissolve the metals, such as arsenic and lead, into the water, creating the acid mine drainage.

And we know that arsenic and lead have a health impact at low concentrations for long periods of time.

The risk assessment that was conducted was only addressing the recreational risk.

However, the Navajo people use the river in much more ways than recreational.

They use the water for spiritual, cultural, ranching.

When a spill like this occurs, it's devastating to the communities that view it as a sacred being.

The Navajo living along this river were very concerned about using the water, and they had a lot of unanswered questions.

So within the year, we surveyed Navajo households living along the river to ask them, 'how do you use the river?'

And what we found from that is that the Navajo community members use the river in over 400 different ways.

They'll use reeds for baskets.

They'll put the clay on their face for prayers and for sunscreen.

They'll even put water in their mouth for prayers, and many more.

And, so, we needed to understand where are these metals in the environment?

Where did they go?

In order to do that, we needed to take water samples, as well as sediment core samples.

And, so, we brought the samples back to the laboratory.

The water samples are filtered.

And for the sediment samples, the sample has to be taken out of this PVC pipe and then categorized according to the depth.

Then finally, we can take that sediment and the water sample to an analytical lab to detect arsenic and lead.

For the short term, it was good news in the results that we had.

We found from this one-year study low levels of arsenic and lead that are not of concern to the human health.

However, we did find some spikes in manganese in concentrated pools, and this is something that should be looked at because we do know that manganese leads to some neurological impacts.

During the snow melt, the river will increase in the flow, and so the metals that are deposited on the sediment will be re-suspended.

And we know that the spikes do occur.

It's important to make sure the farmers and the committee members know that they shouldn't be using the river during these these high-flow periods.

There's actually a lot more that needs to be done long term, because acid mine drainage is continually going into the river.

Our long-term study actually tries to capture the whole exposure pathways that the Dine people may have as a result of using this river.

♪♪ What motivates me in my work is how I can use my science to come back to my community and help my people, and also try to understand the potential exposure pathways that people have, which can be very diverse.

My grandmother charged me with this responsibility.

'You must come back and help our people and help our family.'

It may not be exactly what she envisioned for me, but it's an honor to bring science to my community.

All waves transfer energy, but the way they do it varies.

A transverse wave is a wave where the medium moves back and forth as the energy transfers at a right angle.

In this movement, the wave can be measured in different ways.

The highest upward point of the disturbance is called the crest, and the lowest downward point is called the trough.

Amplitude is the measurement of how far the particles are pushed from their resting state.

And the wavelength is the length of one wave cycle measured crest-to-crest or trough-to-trough.

Because transverse waves move the medium up and down, they can move through solids but not liquids or gases.

They aren't rigid enough.

In the case of electromagnetic waves, like light, radio, and x-ray, they make their own magnetic and electric fields that oscillate to move the energy forward.

So next time you see the light, you can think the transverse wave.

♪♪ ♪♪

The team at the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory is responsible for monitoring one of the greatest threats to the Blue economy -- harmful algae blooms.

Detroit Public Television's Great Lakes Bureau takes a look at how the research team is refining their monitoring techniques and developing new technologies to prepare for the next algae season.

The team at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory is responsible for monitoring one of the greatest threats to the blue economy -- harmful algal blooms, or HABs.

During the summer, the team diligently keeps an eye on the bloom.

Kind of an environmental intelligence of what's going on out there and what do we expect over the next few days.

The goal is to protect the most important part of the blue economy -- the water we drink.

And HAB poisoned the drinking water for nearly half a million people in and around Toledo, Ohio in 2014, and it cost the local economy as much as $60 million.

The team has spent their winters perfecting how they track and monitor HABs.

Tracking an HAB begins with remote sensing, led by Steve Ruberg and Andrea Vander Woude.

Remote sensing starts with images of the bloom taken by satellites high above the Earth.

But satellites can't show the whole picture.

One of the limitations that we're trying to overcome, the satellite is, of course, out in space, and it has to deal with cloud cover.

In the hyperspectral system, we can fly under the clouds and we can pick up areas that are closer to shore.

The hyperspectral system is a new technology for tracking HABs.

It's a highly specialized camera that is mounted on an airplane.

It could fly under the clouds where satellites can't see.

Andrea is responsible for interpreting those images.

The wealth and information that you can draw from one image is amazing.

You can try not only geology but biology.

The hyperspectral system uses bands of color to determine if a harmful algae bloom is present.

The system can also detect HABs near the lake shore where satellites often can't spot them.

If we can give people advance notice about these blooms, they're going to be much more prepared to deal with them and not have a situation where you have to shut down a water intake.

Advance notice is provided by Mark Rowe and Eric Anderson.

It starts with predicting how the water is moving in the lake.

In a similar way as the weather is forecasted through observations and modeling, we do the same thing for the water.

And we call this hydrodynamics.

Hydrodynamic modeling is combined with information from the remote sensing team to produce the HAB tracker

And it provides a real-time now cast which would be like the best estimate of the present distribution of the bloom, and then it also provides a forecast five to 10 days into the future where the bloom is predicted to move.

There is one crucial piece of information missing from remote sensing and modeling.

That's provided by Timothy Davis and Thomas Johengen on the monitoring team.

We measure toxicity.

And we collect samples for toxicity, and that's something that, at this point, we can not estimate using remote-sensing techniques.

For the monitoring team, looking forward means looking back.

We still are evaluating our data in terms of understanding how the lake is responding to water-quality changes.

We're also improving our instrumentation, adding new sensors and trying to better calibrate those sensors so that we understand the response so that that we can interpret those results better.

The bloom in the lake may be dormant in the winter.

But the team that watches it isn't.

Just because the blooms in Lake Erie and the rest the Great Lakes slow down, doesn't mean we do.

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... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪