SciTechNow Episode 428

In this episode of SciTech Now we explore how science and technology can influence human performance; a look at how life on Mars is a possibility; a program that focuses on the intersection of computer and natural sciences; and NASA’s Eclipse Ballooning Project capturing the astronomical Solar Eclipse.



Coming up, a wearable device that reads your brain waves.

We've developed wearable and easy-to-use EEG devices, which measure voltage fluctuations from the brain.

Tires made from lettuce.

Inside the lettuce, it has enzymes and proteins that are fitted in a certain way, and from that, it can generate natural rubber.

Controlling the noise.

The frequency is the important thing.

Something that they haven't experienced before, something they couldn't confuse.

Something you might find surprising about the world of science.

We're looking at the types of fish that we're seeing on the marsh.

We're looking at how good the habitat is.

It's all ahead.

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.

In this segment, we learn about a new headset that's known as a brain wearable device.

This device reads brain waves in real time, providing feedback that enables the user to improve creativity, reduce stress, and increase focus.

It could be the next big leap in digital technology, with applications for gaming, the disabled, the military, and medicine.

Here's the story.

Devices to measure brain activity have been around for decades, but they've been really confined to medical and research context because they're really expensive and hard to use and really take experts to analyze the data.

So, we've developed wearable and easy-to-use EEG devices, which measure voltage fluctuations from the brain.

And, so, because they're, you know, easy to use but also provide really professional-grade data, it opens up all these different applications that were not possible before.

So not just, you know, limiting brain data to these medical and research contexts, but opening up for applications in gaming and applications for the disabled community and even helping us to better understand brain disease and disorders.

This is our 14-channel EPOC device.

So, it's an EEG, electroencephalography, and it measures voltage fluctuations from the brain using these sensors on the scalp.

And it has many fewer sensors than the ones you may see in a hospital, but the important thing is that it covers all major cortical lobes of the brain, as opposed to, say, just the front part of the brain.

And this is really important, because different parts of the brain do different things, and so we really want to get a good understanding of what's going on across the different areas.

And this device uses saline, as opposed to a gel solution, which a lot of the medical devices use.

So it's quite easy.

You don't have to wash your hair right afterwards.

And we actually have an even-easier-to-use device, our five-channel Insight, which is a dry sensor.

It actually sucks moisture from the air and from your scalp in order to get a good contact.

This system has been used quite a lot in gaming applications, for example, so as a new user interface in the way of interacting with machines, and also by the disabled community.

You know, we've heard a lot today about, you know, people that still have a lot going on in their brain but has lost the ability to really respond and act in the world.

Well, how can we use these devices to actually bridge that gap there?

Here, three disabled musicians use this technology to create a song -- not by using their hands, but their brains.

[ Techno music playing ]

Where do you think this all goes?

I mean, this is a relatively new technology with a ton of applications, but, as we know technology is ever-evolving.

Where do you think this technology goes in 10 or 20 years?

Yeah, well, I think within the next 10 years, we're gonna see a lot of activity.

This last year, particularly, has been really exciting for the space.

You know, Facebook has announced they're working on brain media to telepathy, and Bryan Johnson of Braintree and Elon Musk are each working on neural implantable devices.

So there's a lot of interest and movement in this space.

We're certainly gonna see the form factor of these devices becoming more and more discreet, right?

So, this is, you know, a really quite easy-to-put-on, easy-to-use headset, but I look really weird wearing it and I'm not necessarily gonna go walk down the street with this on, right?

And that's where a lot of the real value will come is when these devices can be worn ubiquitously throughout someone's day.

And so there's that kind of technological step, in terms of for more consumer use, to short of shrink the form factor down, which will require advances on both the hardware and the algorithm-development side.

You know, putting aside what we kind of traditionally think of as brain diseases and disorders, like, psychological stress is such a huge health crisis.

The World Health Organization actually has named it the health epidemic of the 21st century.

So even using, you know, a device that you can wear to track your stress and better handle your own stress could have huge implications.

So, you know, at what date will we see everyone wear that?

I feel like the question mark there is more around, 'What are these kind of applications, like, perhaps social, that are really gonna inspire broad usage?'

That is more unknown and I think will require some really great design and thinking and creativity.

But we're not far away, you know?

Think of, you know, all the people wearing things like Fitbit and tracking their steps and learning more about themselves and adjusting their behavior accordingly.

Well, what would happen if we can track what's going on in our minds.

[ Techno music playing ]

Speed's 42-27.

Checklist is complete.

You are cleared to land.


So, here we are in Thule Air Base, and this was put here, originally, in the '50s as a Cold War, you know, forward outpost -- bombers and all that stuff.

And since then, it's come back to being a scientific base -- for us, anyway, for NASA at least, and a few other military applications, as well.

It's a huge collaborative effort.

We do very little without the work with each other.

Because we have an airfield and we have a lot of facilities here, we have a lot of infrastructure, and it's fairly unique this far north, anywhere in the world.

And so, as a result of that, we allow NASA, the National Science Foundation, as well as researchers from around the world to get access to the High Arctic.

So, on the aircraft-operations side, having a hangar is really important, and the Air Force has been able to provide us with that hangar space.

It's important for both the aircraft that it stays warm and will start up from a cold state, and also for the scientific instruments.

We don't want them to get cold to possibly cause any damage to them.

For air traffic control, there's significant -- some challenges, some new experiences we get when we get different type of aircraft outside of our typical C-17, C-130 military aircraft.

The simple part of it is pretty much making sure that the targets on our scope don't touch.

We separate you guys.

We have quite a few rules that we have to kind of abide by.

Once you get into the habit of it, it gets fairly simple.

My job here is to keep the NASA mission going, keep you guys safe by providing air-traffic-control services.

[ Beeping ]

Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist, author, and self-proclaimed science Evangelist.

She's the creator of a podcast series called 'Science Underground.'

She joins me now to discuss how rubber can be made from an unlikely source.

The source is sitting on the table.

It looks like --

Very sad.

It is very sad.

It looks like it shouldn't be eaten but, really, should be turned into tires.

But how do we turn lettuce into tires?

Well, scientists are working on that, converting this sad salad into tires.

It ends up that a tire is made out of rubber.

There's two sources -- natural rubber, which actually comes from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, and then synthetic rubber, which is a by-product of oil manufacturing.

Neither one are really sustainable.

One travels long distances.

Another one is coming from oil, which is wreaking havoc on the environment.

So, it ends up that plants actually generate natural rubber, and lettuce is actually one of the best at them.

They generate natural rubber.

Generates natural rubber.

How? In their --

Natural rubber is a molecule that kind of looks like a spring.

It looks like a -- It's very elastic.


And the longer it is, the more elastic, the better the quality.

And it ends up that lettuce knows how to do that.

And, so, what scientists are trying to do is -- they're trying to cultivate lettuce to make more of this natural rubber.

And, ultimately, they'd like to figure out how it does that, identify the molecules, identify the process, and then replicate that in the laboratory so that they can make lots of natural rubber.

So, is there a process that would turn this in-- I mean, do we add something to the lettuce to dissolve it and get the rubber in this out of it?

I'm trying to --

No, no.

I know what you're saying.

No, inside the lettuce, it has enzymes and proteins that are fitted in a certain way, and, from that, it can generate natural rubber.

So, there's only a small amount of natural rubber, and what they want to do is be able to increase the amount.

So that's what scientists are looking for.

So, no, you don't have to add anything to it.

All you need is sunshine and water to let lettuce do its thing.

And then what they want to do is enhance lettuce's ability to create this natural rubber.

You know, this is gonna be the reason that lots of 7-year-old boys and possibly girls say, 'Yeah, you know, I'm just going to try to make rubber, mom.

I'd rather not have this part of the meal.'

What are the implications, though, of this kind of a process, if it was to work?

Well, the thing is that rub-- Excuse me.

The thing about lettuce is that it can grow in cold climates, so it can grow in North America.

So we don't have to have it travel from parts of Asia to come to us.

That's the first thing.

It also grows very quickly.

So you can get 2 to 3 harvests of lettuce in a year.

So that's the other implication.

So that's what's positive about that.

And lettuce is not the only plant that does it.

There's actually 2,000 other plants that generate natural rubber.

It's just that it's the best.

And people have already started companies based on using plant technology to create natural rubber.

Wow. I had no idea 2,000 other plants had this.

So, if there are -- I mean, it becomes more sustainable.

That's right.

We don't necessarily have to rely on the by-products from the fossil fuels.


And we don't have to have it coming across Asia, again, using more fossil fuels to get here.

Right. Exactly. Exactly.

And it's an idea that's actually really old.

Thomas Edison had this idea.

He found a plant, a wild flower, called Canadian goldenrod, which creates natural rubber.

And he wanted to do that.

He worked with Henry Ford, because the cars had just started, and they wanted to find another source for natural rubber.

But in the 1930s, they discovered oil and they discovered how to make rubber synthetically.

So what we're doing now is -- we're going back to what Thomas Edison started.

And, so, he had -- Had he actually made -- Had Thomas Edison taken the goldenrod flowers and turned it into a rubber?

That's right. That's right.


But then they stopped, because you can make so much more with synthetic.

And, plus, oil was exciting, organic chemistry was exciting, so there was this huge rush to make things from -- You know, make things massively from this by-product.

Is there any difference in the kind of rubber that would come out, whether it's from synthetic, from a lettuce or from a flower, versus the stuff that we see today?

There's a slight difference.

I don't know it fully, but there is some difference.

But, overall, natural rubber and synthetic rubber operate about the same.

Okay. And rubber bands wouldn't be any less flimsy or --

No, no, no, no.


No, no.

That wouldn't be an issue, yeah.

And, actually, rubber is used in so many different places.

As you said, rubber bands, balloons, boats.

It's every-- Gloves.

There's so many different products.

It's not just tires that this sad bowl of lettuce would affect.

[ Laughing ] All right.

Ainissa Ramirez, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.

Human noise pollution disrupts wildlife ecosystems around the globe.

For example, the disruption of bird communication has led to collisions into aircraft and buildings, the destruction of crops, and the spread of disease.

Joining us to discuss the situation is Professor John Swaddle from the College of William & Mary.

Thanks for joining us.

So, what kind of impacts are we talking about when we say 'noise pollution'? It's something that -- Right now, I'm on a busy street in New York City, and there's a fire truck going by.

[ Siren wails ] That, to me, is noise pollution.

But what is the context in which you look at it when you're looking at entire ecosystems?

Sure. So, many people have studied the effects of noise on birds, and birds are particularly affected because they're very vocal.

They're always talking to each other.

And so if there's a bit of degradation of that information, it matters to birds.

And what we've been finding is that birds will leave areas that are too noisy for them.

And so that limits their habitat.

So, when they are moving into different areas, you can see that they've become a nuisance to farmers as they ravage through some of their crops, right?

Or even there was the kind of the Miracle on the Hudson, the plane landing.

That was caused from a bird strike, right?

Sure. Yes.

Many people, you know, like birds, and we want to preserve them, but we have to admit, in some cases, birds cause problems.

So, at farms, agricultural places, they can destroy the crops, and that causes billions of dollars of damage worldwide.

And in some countries, it's life-threatening, because people are reliant on those crops.

And then birds and aircraft are never a good combination -- for the aircraft or for the birds.

And bird strikes happen pretty much every single day across North America and are increasing, because the amount of air travel people are doing is increasing.

And we're also trying to preserve bird populations in different areas.

So, what we're trying to do now with noise pollution is try to use our understanding of how birds respond to noise to try and minimize that conflict between bird society and human society.

So, in particular, we're using speakers to try and put sound only where we want it that interferes with the way the birds communicate with each other, and they don't like it.

And they will go elsewhere.

So, for example, at the end of a runway, if you put in sound that then masks the way the birds can, say, listen out for predators, then the birds will choose to go elsewhere.

So, this is almost what you're describing is a sonic scarecrow 2.0, where instead of having something like an inanimate object just standing in a field, you're actually projecting sound into their ears, and they don't like it.

Exactly right.

So, we're projecting into a specific area where we don't want the birds to enter.

And because if they can't hear each other, they find that area very scary.

And then it's not something that they get used to.

Habituation has been the bugbear of all scarecrow industries for decades.

But in this situation, we're fundamentally changing the way the birds can get information from their environment.

It's like me giving you an option of, in a big city, at night, where you know there are issues, are you gonna walk down a darkly lit, narrow alleyway or a well-lit street?

And, essentially, we're doing that for birds, but in an acoustic sense.

And they choose the well-lit street, like most people would.

Is there any long-term damage to the birds if they're hearing these sounds or if the communication is disrupted?

Not that we've found so far, because the birds will leave and go elsewhere, and that's a key part of it.

As you manage it at a landscape level, you're moving birds off to another area.

So, for example, an airport manager who wants to reduce their risk -- they specifically don't want the birds around where the planes are taking off and landing, but on other parts of the airfield, it may be okay to push the birds into that area.

Well, what about birds striking into buildings?

Can you modify this tool in a way to keep them from -- I mean, it seems like their problem is that they're not looking and they don't see the building coming at them, 'cause they're probably looking down at the ground, right?

Exactly right.

So, the problem of bird striking buildings is slightly different.

When birds are flying, you might think that they're looking straight ahead of them, but they're actually not.

In lots of cases, they're looking at the ground, because that's what they've evolved to do is to use cues on the ground to navigate by.

Well, they might be foraging, too, as well.

And when a bird is in level flight, like this, its head is angled down, and in the vast majority of bird species, their eyes are more placed on the side of their skull, rather than right out in front, like us.

So that then means they're looking down and to the side.

And there are even some birds who actually have a blind spot right in front when they're in that flying position.

So that means they're really not looking where they're going.

It's not like someone texting while they're driving.

Their attention is not where it should be.

But what we've found is that if you play a really obvious, conspicuous, novel sound out in front of something that they could fly into, birds then start to pay more attention, and the risks of them colliding with that object decrease.

But what is this sound like?

I mean, is it just about playing loud music or is it about playing it at a frequency that birds get it?

Frequency is the important thing.

From what we've done so far, what we think is important is for it to be novel, something that they haven't experienced before or something they couldn't confuse with, say, just traffic noise or any other noises they would hear.

It's got to be something that grabs their attention, and so then they look up.

They slow down, have more chance of avoiding the collision.

Where have you been demonstrating it so far?

Where is it working?

So far, we've demonstrated it in captivity with trained birds that are going up and down a long hallway.

The next step we need to take is to go, then, put this in front of a real structure in the environment with free-living, wild birds.

That will be the real test of whether this idea works.

And how long until that happens?

Oh, that depends on funding.

So, hopefully, hopefully, this fall and in the spring.

Bird migration is a big time when birds are moving across the continent, and so that's when the risk of them flying into objects, like tall buildings, wind turbines, cellphone towers, increases.

So we're hoping to work with either the fall or the spring migration this year.

All right.

John Swaddle, professor of biology at the College of William & Mary, thanks so much.

You're welcome. Thank you.

Take a look at our next segment.

We can get it off the boat.

Yeah, we can.


So, Rich, the last one's, like, out of the water.

The last minnow trap.

That one's good.


That's fine.

Let's do this salinity at least.

To shed light onto what's really happening in a marsh...

34. have to wade through the dark waters in the dead of night.

So, we are trying to understand how different marshes can actually affect fish populations.

So we're looking at the types of fish that we're seeing on the marsh.

We're looking at how good the habitat is.

The marsh comes alive at night, as creatures move into and out of the wetlands.

So, researchers from the University of North Carolina Institute of Marine Sciences are setting three different types of nets in the marsh.

The idea is to catch as many fish and crustaceans as possible.

What's captured will be identified, counted, measured, and weighed.

So, we have minnow traps, which are smaller traps that we're using on the marsh surface to try to catch smaller animals that might be using the marsh when it's flooded.

We then have a gill net, and that's trying to catch larger predatory fish.

And then we have our fyke nets, which are really good at capturing what is using the marsh surface when it's flooded.

Yeah, the sunrises definitely make the night sampling worth it.

Tiny shrimp.

The one pinfish is the lowest we've gotten in any of the gill nets today.

Sunrise brings discovery.

Yeah, absolutely.

Every time, it's a new mystery.

You never know what's gonna come up.

Every season, all the species are changing.

I mean, you have new predators, new juveniles.

Researchers return to the nets that were set overnight to record what was caught.

Speckled trout -- pretty small size, juvenile.

And then we have some pinfish, silver perch, silversides, some brown shrimp, and blue crabs, and then quite a bit of algae.

18 marsh sites are being studied -- 3 large mainland marshes, 3 thin, fringe marshes, and 12 marsh islands.

That's because not all marshes are the same.

Part of our project is looking at how different-sized marshes are affecting fish diversity or how those are tied together.

We have to make sure that we are protecting species that we need recreationally.

What are we consuming?

What are we fishing for fun?

So we need to make sure that the species stay around.

In order to do that, they have to have their habitat.

And salt marshes are valuable nursery habitats for fish and crustaceans.

Without this habitat, we probably wouldn't have a lot of these species and probably wouldn't have them to grow up to become food for us or food for other animals.

The problem is that coastal habitats are being degraded.

We see lots of commercially and recreationally important fish using these habitats as juveniles, and so they're growing up here.

But we also see larger, legal-sized commercial and recreational fish that are foraging at the edge of these marshes.

And so if we're losing that edge, they're losing the ability to prey upon the smaller organisms.


And then a menhaden.


Researchers hope this unique project will help them understand how different marsh configurations act as nursery habitat, whether the size and shape of a marsh is important for habitat, and which marsh nursery habitats are the most valuable for fish and crustaceans.

Yeah, that's a stone crab.

And the rest are brown shrimp.

We're looking at the types of fish that we're seeing on the marsh.

We're looking at how good the habitat is, so how fatty the fish are.

So, the fatter the fish, the healthier they are, the better habitat quality.

We're doing that because marshes have been lost over the past few hundred years, and as the marshes become lost, they become more fragmented and they become these smaller islands of marsh, compared to a larger, continuous habitat.

Silverside. 68.

Silverside. 50.

The findings should also help guide plans for marsh conservation and restoration.

And, so, this research is really trying to understand, 'How is that going to affect our fish?

And how is that going to affect the fish that we like for seafood in particular?'

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 next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.