SciTech Now: Episode 613



Coming up, seeing a black hole for the very first time

A small black hole will spaghettify you.

It will turn you into a string of atoms and then a string of subatomic particles and a string of whatever comes next.

The role of technology in schools.

They are going to be adapting to different technologies so they need to get used to that.

The secret life of gulls.

We want gulls to be an indicator of ecosystem health.

Hands-on learning in tech.

There are a lot of opportunities and not a lot of talent here, so it's a really good place to get started.

It's all ahead.

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.

Black holes -- they are one of the biggest mysteries of our universe.

Now, for the very first time, scientists have captured an image of one.

It was years in the making, international effort, and here to tell us about it is Dave Mosher, senior correspondent for space, science, and technology at How did we get a picture of it?

With a whole lot of effort and a whole lot of telescopes and a whole lot of scientists.

I mean, that's the short of it.

But you need to turn Earth into a telescope.

That's the only way.

No one single telescope could have captured this image?

No, because if you try to do that, all you'd see is just the fuzzy, scattered light that is kind of hugged around the center of a galaxy.

There's so much stuff there, there's so much gas and dust, you need more resolution.

You need to really get in there, collect lots of data, and remove all the stuff that's in the way to see the point of no return, the edge of a black hole, the event horizon.

Okay. And how did we do that?

How did we get telescopes in different parts of the planet to work together?

So, since about 2009, there's this collaboration called the Event Horizon Telescope.

And at this point, it's been working with 20 different nations to establish radio telescopes all over the world and basically turn Earth into a giant radio telescope dish, and it's kind of like you take a big mirror and you scratch off the entire mirror but these little tiny dots, and that's where the telescopes are at.

But if you use advanced mathematics, you can take the light you're gathering from those little tiny dots, the telescopes sprinkled about Earth, and you can form an image from that.

You can also use those -- use those data-collection points to get all that scattery weirdness, all the gas and dust, all that stuff that's causing you problems, and get it out of the way.

So, all of these folks decided to point it, so to speak, at one point in the sky, and then they just scrubbed for everything else but that point?

That's correct.

This has been international effort.

This is really hard to do -- advanced mathematics, lots of observatories, and you also need to have good weather at all points on Earth at the same time for several days.

So it's just taken years to get everything into place.

And there are actually two black holes you can do this with.

There's M87 star.

That's the core of the M87 galaxy, which is 54 million light-years away, and there's also our own galaxy, which is the Milky Way, and that's about 100,000 light-years away, and that's called Sagittarius A-Star.

So they really wanted to do this with Sagittarius A-Star, but they just didn't have the right kind of setup, because what we're doing is by existing in this galaxy of our own is we're looking through it.

We're, like, looking through the Frisbee.

There's a lot of stuff in the way.


It's hard to move it all out of the way with mathematics, so it takes more time to get enough data to do that.

Versus looking out?

Versus looking out.

So, even though it's millions -- literally millions -- of times farther away or hundreds of thousands of times farther away than our own black hole, supermassive black hole, M87 star has a better, like, setup for us to look at the black hole.

There's less stuff in the way.

And that's why they chose that one first to produce an image.

And what do we see?

What we see is what Einstein predicted, and that's the very first time we've ever really seen it.

We are seeing the edge of a black hole, the point of no return.

One scientist said it's like looking at the gates of Hell.

You know, this is where light and matter and space and time end.

We are seeing matter circling this -- this point of no return and at relativistic speeds, and what that means is at some percentage of the speed of light.

And stuff gets really weird when you do that, which is why the image sort of looks blobby and lopsided, is because some of the matter that's orbiting this black hole and going behind it and you can see the shadow, the event horizon...


...sort of imprinted on it.

Some of it's moving half the speed of light away from us and half the speed of light toward us.

And so this creates this really funny beaming effect.

So that's why it looks so strange.

And if you were to actually go up to a black hole -- and God forbid you get close enough to do this, but you actually see it -- It would look even more incredible, and sort of depending on where you're at, like, because it's warping so much space and time -- this is 6.5 billion suns' worth of matter -- it's just going to look very strange and alien to us.

So, you're -- Obviously, everything gets crushed into nothingness, right?

So it's not like the closer we get, the more dead we are, so to speak, right?

But we're talking about -- When you say space and time itself are ending and bending, kind of explain that idea.

So the event horizon is this point where gravity becomes just enough to outdo the speed of light.

So if you're a photon, you cannot travel fast enough to escape gravity.

The thing about supermassive black holes is they give you a little more leeway.

A small black hole will spaghettify you.

It'll turn you into a string of atoms and then a string of subatomic particles and a string of whatever comes next until you fall into the event horizon and then into the singularity, where we don't really know what happens.


There could be a wormhole.

It could be another universe.

It could just be the end of everything.


But in a supermassive black hole, you have more cushion, so you could theoretically be alive... beyond the event horizon.

You'd probably be -- You'd have a good spaceship because you'd be cooked by radiation before you got there, but you could theoretically be alive before you hit the singularity.

You could see what no one else has seen before, but you wouldn't be able to tell anybody about it 'cause...

It'd be over.

...your screams of death would not escape the event horizon.

So, are we likely to see more pictures?

We are definitely going to see more pictures.

They're working hard on Sagittarius A-Star, which is the Milky Way's supermassive black hole.

They just have to get enough data.

If they get more telescopes, they can get more data.

They can kind of record all the problems that are in the way and get that stuff out of the way and get the clean radio waves that they're looking for that they know are there and reconstruct the image.

And so some people say, 'Well, it's not really an image,' but it is an image.

Like, these are radio waves.

They're photons that are just on a different wavelength and where we're giving them a color scheme.

That's what we're seeing.

We're not seeing optical, you know, light from, say, these studio lights or something.


We're seeing radio waves that are normally invisible.

But this happens all the time in astronomy.

A lot of really great pictures we see -- you know, they're just given a color palette so that it is an image, and it's an astounding one.

It's one that gave all these scientists the willies because we've been talking about black holes for 100 years or so but we've never actually seen one.

So this is a huge moment for the human race, and we're seeing M87 star.

That picture is gonna get better, and now we're going to start looking at Sagittarius A-Star, and that picture is going to come out, and it's going to get better, too, as we add more telescopes, possibly put some in space so we can get a telescope bigger than Earth because we can expand the size of that virtual telescope.


Dave Mosher, thanks so much.

Thanks for having me.

What does it take to make tech-driven education successful?

Next we continue our exploration of the impact of technology in schools.

That's what it looks like.

Very thin.

When Apple first released the iPad, there was no Instagram, Uber was still a fledgling startup trying to launch in San Francisco, and Postmates still hadn't made its first delivery.

So many things that are considered essential to our daily lives today didn't exist 10 years ago.

Technological evolution happens fast.

When I started doing this research 10 or 15 years ago, the idea that a 6-, 7-, or 8-year-old would have access to a smartphone, would be navigating the Internet, would be participating in sort of the social-media landscape, would have his or her own YouTube channel, all of that would have seemed absolutely ludicrous, but that's the world that we live in today.

And there is growing concerns about that in terms of, you know, helping kids develop, right, an understanding of what it means to live in a connected world.

Eanes Independent School District started its one-to-one program to prepare kids to live in this technologically driven world.

We may not know what other careers are going to be.

There is going to be technology.

I'm pretty confident of that.

And our students are going to live a long time, hopefully.

And they are going to be adapting to different technologies, so they need to get used to that.

If they don't learn good digital citizenship, you know, in school, when will they learn it?

So when parents asked for an opt-out program, it didn't make sense to the district.

There is no way we can provide the personalization, the differentiation, without having some type of a device.

And if teachers have 2/3 of their class with tools and 1/3 of their class without, it's hard for them to manage that, and, in some cases, they have to go to the lowest common denominator, which means the whole class loses out of that.

And Leonard believes adapting to new technology is just a part of the world we live in.

Every generation adapts to the technology that they're given.

I will tell you my mom was a 1st-grade teacher, and there was no technology in the world.

That's just the way it was.

We had overhead projectors, okay, and film strips, okay?

Could we go back to film strips?

I guess we could.

We could. Should we?

It's a lot harder for a teacher.

There have been some growing pains, but there are many reasons why the district landed on a one-to-one model.

We had difficulty with a shared model as far as who's logged in to which one, who's sending what's e-mailed.

Don't forget to log out.

How do you manage and move those to different classrooms?

Where are we getting what we need most out of the tool if we had to share it?

This is why school districts are embracing tech initiatives.

Austin ISD, Leander, Round Rock all have one-to-one programs, and it's not just in Central Texas.

Programs like these are popping up all across the country.

Not all of these programs look the same as Eanes', but schools continue to trend toward more tech.

One in five students in the U.S.

go to a school with some sort of one-to-one program.

And even if their school isn't one-to-one, 8 out of every 10 students uses a laptop or some other device in school every day.

Students like using these devices.

82% of students say tablets let them learn in the way that's best for them.

Westlake High School senior Jackson Coker agrees.

If definitely keeps me more connected with my teachers and also other students.

I'm able to work on projects more easily.

It also keeps me more organized so I'm able to plan out my tests and my quizzes and my homework and all that stuff.

And I'm also, you know -- It's just a lot easier to have everything right there on one device rather than in eight different folders and all that stuff.

Kim Fromberg says the iPad has allowed teachers to adapt to the unique needs of today's students.

We have so many different learners now even from when I started teaching nine years ago.

The dynamics of kids, the way we can diagnose certain things, the way we can pick out students that have higher I.Q.s at a younger age -- just as a society, as we become more advanced with that, having a device in the classroom that, with a couple clicks, I can put kids on different levels on the same thing makes my job a lot easier.

And middle-school teacher Cathy Yenca believes this technology makes for better teaching opportunities.

In the past and even in my own past teaching, the cycle might have looked like 'Teach a lesson.

Do some practice.

Give some homework. Go over it.'

Rinse and repeat for a few days and then give a test or quiz.

The downside of not having a device like iPad in that cycle is that, often, students didn't know what was going on, and it was almost too late now.

We've graded something, you know?

We've gone days before we realized this.

Now, with that minute-by-minute ability to look at student thinking, it makes them more metacognitive.

They're able to see and think about their own thinking.

And that's really powerful for learning.

For Eanes ISD, the benefits of their one-to-one program outweigh any of the potential risks.

I think when you take the majority of people, if it's done in a thoughtful way, if there are the right safeguards in place, if you do have some guidelines in terms of how much screen time, most people are going to land on the place, 'Yes, we need these devices there.'

The debate about screens in school is often oversimplified.

Should we have these devices in classrooms -- yes or no?

But life is more nuanced than that.

That's why Watkins says the conversation should really be about balance.

It doesn't have to be an either/or situation or an all-or-nothing situation.

There may be certain classes or certain moments when you want students interacting in a one-to-one environment.

But I also like to think that there will be opportunities where you want students in a more group-oriented environment, more collaborative-oriented environment.

But one or the other approach, I think, doesn't really do us much justice and afford real opportunity in the classroom.

10 years later, the iPad has certainly changed life in our schools.

But teachers, administrators, parents all are still grappling with one fundamental question.

What role do we want technology to play in children's lives?

Maybe 10 more years from now, we'll finally have the answer.

♪♪ ♪♪

Mysteries abound in our universe.

But bit by bit, we are unlocking its secrets.

We now know that our galaxy contains billions of other planets.

But how can we learn more about them?

What traits do these exoplanets have?

♪♪ What are they made of?

What are their environments like?

How have they evolved over time?

Are they habitable?

And can planets lose habitability over time?

Imagine we could study one of these planets up close.

We find one of similar size, mass, and composition as Earth.

By all accounts, this planet appears very similar to our own.

We discover evidence that this world may have once had liquid-water oceans and volcanoes, a setting that could have been favorable to life.

But over time, something drastic happened to this environment.

This planet's sun grew brighter and hotter, increasing the temperature here to the point that the oceans boiled away, and then, gradually, the volcanic gases created a thick atmosphere with clouds of sulfuric acid.

That once friendly environment was gone.

But all is not lost.

The remnants of such a world may hold the key to understanding planetary evolution and habitability.

The twist is that this isn't science fiction.

This planet does exist.

And if we want to learn more about the past, present, and possible future of our planet and the billions of similar exoplanets out there, this mysterious one needs more study.

And it doesn't reside in some distant solar system.

Truth be told, it sits right next door.

This planet is Venus, and the more mysteries we can unravel here, the more answers we can find out there.

Kristie Nelson, the Mono Lake Gull Project manager for Point Blue Conservation Science conducts research at Mono Lake in California, and inland salty lake that is home to one of the few massive colonies of gulls.

Our partner 'Science Friday' gives us a look at our research.

A lot of people really like birds.

Birdwatching is popular.

Not a lot of people are big fans of gulls.

They're annoying to a lot of people, particularly because they're really good at observing us and the food resources that are around humans.

But when you stop and observe and pay attention, there's so much intricacy in gulls.

California gulls in particular having to breed in these inland arid lakes, winter on the Pacific Coast, learning the best way to survive, and just that in itself is incredible.

My name is Kristie Nelson, and I work with Point Blue Conservation Science, and I monitor the California gull colony out here at Mono Lake.

California's gull is a bird unlike any other.

Anything that can survive this highly caustic salty lake water is an amazing animal.

So Point Blue's research on the California gulls is a really unique project and one that we have a 35-year data set and counting.

One of the major goals is to see what can we learn about the relationships of the gull colony and the health of the gull population and how that, in turn, is representing conditions within the lake.

We want gulls to be an indicator of ecosystem health.

Historically, the species of California gulls nested entirely in inland arid lakes like Great Salt Lake in Utah and Mono Lake, because of the food resources, primarily, and that there's predator-free nesting islands to nest on.

When the California gulls come here in the spring, there is not a lot of food out here.

Once the lake warms up, the alkali flies which are lining the shoreline right now by the millions -- they're one of the primary food sources for the California gull.

The technique the gulls mostly use is to open their mouth as wide as they can and run as quickly as they can, and it's pretty entertaining to watch.

The other major food resource that the gulls are eating out here are these brine shrimps.

So they're just taking the shrimp that happened to be on the surface.

Chicks are starting to hatch at the end of May, and so then these little young gulls, fairly soon after they fledged from the nesting islands, they actually migrate back to the coast.

And the California gulls can live to be 20 or even 30 years old.

Being colonial means that there's relatively few of these big colonies.

That makes each individual colony really crucially important for not just the local population but even the species as a whole.

So I've been working out on the Mono Lake gull colony since 2005, where we're counting the nests and monitoring the chick production.

The islands are just covered in gulls nesting in these incredibly dense colonies.

When we're out there working, you know, we've got to kind of yell to each other because of the din of the birds.

The population size varies quite a bit.

We've seen as few as 27,000 gulls nesting, as many as 65,000 gulls.

And even though it's a pretty simple ecosystem, we see a lot of complex relationships in bird populations.

We found that when the lake is highly stratified between freshwater and salty water, those were the conditions where the chick production was very low.

And what happens is when there's a really big snowpack and then it melts and it brings in lots of freshwater dumping into the lake, that's good because it raises the lake level of Mono Lake, which is helping to protect the nesting islands, but when a lot of freshwater comes in contact with the salty water, instead of mixing, it sits on top.

That interrupts the nutrient cycling within the lake, and I think the shrimp might literally be too small to be a good food source for the amount of energy that it takes to forage on all those little shrimp.

When this study began in 1983, the future of the gull colony was uncertain because, at that point, the city of Los Angeles was still diverting a lot of water.

Legislation was put in place to protect Mono Lake.

That resulted in certain caps on the amount of water that Los Angeles could safely take.

And those limits were created in 1994, where we didn't expect climate change.

And so what we're seeing now is that California is heating up and we're having these extreme droughts, and so as the volume of the lake shrinks, these islands become connected to the mainland, and because they're nesting on the ground, if a coyote were to get out onto these colonies, they could just decimate the population.

But today we see other issues with salinity not just from the lake declining to dangerously low levels.

Conditions are right where there's very high levels of runoff coming into the extra salty water where the freshwater sits on top.

Those salinity conditions depress the lake ecosystem, depress the nutrient cycling that ultimately have negative effects on the gulls and other birds.

I feel somewhat optimistic about the success in the future for the gulls, but I think that will take support in science from us humans.

Seeing them forage out on this lake that can be so incredibly inhospitable -- They're a part of a vibrant Mono Lake ecosystem, and Mono Lake wouldn't be the same without them.

At the Alaska Vocational Technical Center, students boost their career prospects with hands-on experience using real tech equipment.

We step into the tech lab to get the story as part of our American Graduate: Getting to Work initiative, made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I mean, I've always been interested in technology since I was a kid.

Of course, it kind of started with video games, to be honest, but, yeah, I've kind of always been into just, you know, messing around with computers, seeing what I could do.

Okay. And then connect it to the other adapter.

Something that Kenny, our instructor, always says is that for I.T., Alaska is the best place to start out because there are a lot of opportunities and not a lot of talent here, so it's a really good place to get started.

I was so nervous about the first day of class.

I wasn't really paying attention to anything.

I just kind of, like, went in and sat down and kind of had, like, the blinders on.

And then Kenny started telling us about, like, what we're gonna do during this program, and towards the middle of it, he was like, 'Yeah, we're gonna start working with things in the fishbowl,' that big room of hardware, and then I turned around and I noticed I was the only girl, and that was when I was kind of like, 'Whoa.'

[ Laughs ] But it has been a pretty positive experience.

We're at a point now where we're kind of like an actual team.

I guess you could say my ultimate goal is to just kind of dive headfirst into I.T.

like I've been doing since I got here.

Alaska @Work is part of American Graduate: Getting to Work, made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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.