Watch Scientific American Frontie... Season 15
aired: Wed, Jun 15, 2005
Alan meets Ripley — a robot that consists of an arm and a hand with eyes and that tries to understand the world around it. That world is pretty much constrained to a white tabletop, a few objects on the table and — at least while Alan is visiting — Alan's face. Ripley, like a human infant, is learning what things are, not just by giving them a name, but by experiencing them. The robot responds to Alan's request to "pick up the heavy one" by in effect weighing the two objects on the table in front of it. Two years ago Alan was present for the first public appearance of Leonardo, a robot co-designed by MIT's Cynthia Breazeal and the Hollywood special effects wizard Stan Winston. Leonardo's special talent is its cuteness, since it encourages the humans it encounters (including Alan) to want to interact with it. Since that first meeting, Leonardo has acquired the ability to learn from these interactions and, as it demonstrates, can now perform simple tasks on its own once it has been told how to do them. At NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston we meet Robonaut, a robot designed to become a fully-fledged member of an astronaut team, helping to build structures in space and exploring other planets, "just like another member of the team" says Rob Ambrose, Robonaut's chief designer. We see Robonaut -- remotely controlled by a human -- as it uses the tools it would employ in space, and as it tests out a new set of wheels for its earthbound practice sessions.
aired: Wed, Jun 8, 2005
Alan catches up with Kelley Flynn, whom he saw three years ago as she was undergoing surgery for a cochlear implant. At the time, Kelley was seven, and desperately wanted to both hear and speak normally. Alan recalls the dramatic moment when Kelley's artificial hearing was first turned on. Since then Kelley has worked hard on her speech and now, as she tells Alan, she wants to become an actress. Inspired by the success of cochlear implants for the profoundly deaf, many researchers are now trying to develop artificial retinas for those who are blind due to retinal diseases. Alan visits the team at the Doheny Eye Institute of the USC Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he meets Terry Byland, one of only six patients testing an experimental retinal implant. Alan watches as Terry's artificial vision - "a white flickering fuzzy light" - is tested, and tries out for himself some simulations of how future retinal implants may one day allow the blind to read.
The Secret Canyon
aired: Wed, Jun 1, 2005
The best kept secret of American archeology is now revealed - an entire canyon of perfectly preserved 1,000-year-old remains. Who were these people - and where did they come from? The segment introduces Utah’s Range Creek Canyon that was recently sold to the state and federal governments. The canyon held a secret that the owners had kept to themselves - the whole place is filled with the surprisingly well-preserved remains of the Fremont people, a Native American culture that flourished in the region for about a thousand years. The Fremont are among the most enigmatic of America's ancient peoples. For some reason they built houses and storage granaries in extremely precarious and hazardous places. They were prolific creators of often mysterious rock art. And their way of life appears to have come to a sudden end around 1300 AD. We accompany archeologists as they hike up the canyon sides, to some of the most remote remains of occupied caves and villages - some perched on the highest knife edges of rock. But the whole way of life came to and end 700 years ago, while at the same time, similar troubles affected other ancient peoples, like the Anasazi. The promise of Range Creek's thousands of undisturbed sites is that we can come to understand those momentous events. Waldo Wilcox, former owner of Range Creek Canyon, takes a helicopter ride to point out some of the favorite discoveries. He discovered what he calls the "fortress" while hunting mountain lion; it's a village on a high rock pinnacle, with what appear to be defensive fortifications and even piles of rocks ready to use to bombard intruders. Waldo issues a challenge to all of us to preserve for the future what he and his family protected in the past.
aired: Wed, May 25, 2005
If you think you know why you do things, you're probably wrong. Exploring how our unconscious determines our behavior, Alan goes into a magnetic resonance scanner in the Caltech lab of Steven Quartz to find out how his brain reacts to products both "cool" and "un-cool." Quartz and his associate Anette Asp are trying to find out why humans are obsessed with the social status of objects, and so are scanning the brains of people as they look at a range of products. Both Alan and Anette have brains that react strongly to things they find un-cool, as if they are recoiling from them. Steve, on the other hand, shows "shop-aholic" tendencies, his brain responding to cool objects not only in the region where his sense of self resides, but also in those regions controlling movement, as if he is reaching out to grab them. In the Harvard lab of Mahzarin Banaji, Alan takes a test designed to ferret out our unconscious prejudices. Called the Implicit Association Test, it measures the strength of associations we make without being aware of them. Alan, despite many years of working in feminist causes, still harbors a slight prejudice against associating women with a career. But the real surprise is that Mahzarin herself, despite a very successful career as a Harvard professor, shows a strong implicit bias against women in the workplace. Alan is presented with a tough moral choice by researcher Joshua Greene of Princeton: under what circumstance might he sacrifice the life of one person to save many? Greene's research suggests the emotional weight of the decision is critical, pitting the emotional centers of the brain against the rational ones.
aired: Sat, May 21, 2005
We've all heard of hydrogen as the fuel of the future, but what will it take to get there from here? How can we create hydrogen from renewable sources like the sun - and how do we store it safely once we've got it? Alan visits a multi-million dollar company, based on the wizardry with exotic metal alloys that soak up hydrogen like a sponge. The best-known of these metal hydrides is the nickel metal hydride rechargeable battery invented by Stan Ovshinsky and now used in millions of electronic devices - as well as the new generation of hybrid cars. Their company now produces flexible, durable solar panels literally by the mile, using a unique technology very different from that used to produce conventional silicon solar cells. Alan sees for himself how the Ovshinskys hope to use these solar panels to make hydrogen in unlimited quantities and without burning fossil fuels. Alan also visits Iceland, where he sees (and hears) for himself the astonishing power of Iceland's geothermal wells, which produce cheap and abundant electricity that can be converted to hydrogen. He visits the nation's first hydrogen fueling station, where electricity is turned into hydrogen. Then, he also visits the roof of MIT in Cambridge, Mass, where an extraordinary device made of large triangular glass tubes soaks up sunlight and uses it to grow algae - algae that can later be turned into hydrogen. But Isaac Berzin's invention not only converts sunshine (indirectly) to hydrogen; it also cleans up the smokestack gases from power plants.
Hot Planet, Cold Comfort
aired: Tue, Feb 15, 2005
So you think global warming won't affect you?
aired: Tue, Feb 8, 2005
A visit with an engaging if unruly bunch of cousins that we formally broke up with about 6 or 7 million years ago - with whom we share almost all of our genes but not a lot of our lifestyle. Why the difference? Maybe it's in how we learn. Alan visits a troupe of seven chimpanzees at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and learns from them how to go fishing in an artificial termite mound - not for termites, but for ketchup. Just how the chimps themselves learn to deftly insert sticks into the mound is what fascinates primatologist Elizabeth Lonsdorf, who first watched chimps termite fishing in Africa. Alan sees for himself what Elizabeth discovered in her studies of wild chimps: that there are big differences between how boy and girl chimps learn. The young females in the Lincoln Park Zoo quickly picked up the skills of fashioning appropriate tools and fishing out the ketchup from holes in the mound. One young female, Chuckie, is so good at making fishing sticks that they are regularly stolen from her by the other chimps. By contrast, the troupe's alpha male appears bored by the whole idea, while the youngest male, Kipper, prefers to swipe his mother's ketchup off her stick with his hand. The chimps' ketchup fishing is a big hit with the public at the zoo, and Elizabeth hopes that the intriguing parallels and differences between how humans and chimps learn will motivate zoo visitors to support one of her main goals: furthering the conservation of endangered chimpanzee populations in the wild. How chimps learn about the world around them is also the subject of research with chimps raised in a sanctuary in Florida. These chimpanzees, by contrast with those at the Lincoln Park Zoo, were raised in close contact with humans. We see a nine-year-old male, Grub, very quickly learn from a human demonstrator that he can make a lot of noise with washboards and trowels. And Grub also shines in an experiment to see if he can tell when something very odd is going on - like a blackbird being used as a screwdriver, or a rock treated like a pet.
aired: Tue, Feb 1, 2005
A look back at the decades of effort that culminated in the deep sub Alvin reaching the ocean floor, and a look forward to what's next now that Alvin's retiring. In the summer of 1964, the first tentative dives into the shallow waters of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, were made by the new deep diving submarine, Alvin. The sub, built for the US Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), was to become arguably the most successful research submarine ever. We go on a typical Alvin science dive, accompanying a biologist as the WHOI pilot takes the sub down 8,000 feet into the pitch darkness of the Galapagos Rift, to collect samples. It was here in 1977 that people first saw, from the Alvin, a kind of life that we had never known existed on the planet - colonies of giant clams, tube worms, fish and crabs living not on sunlight but on bacteria that consume the gases dissolved in water gushing from warm, undersea volcanic water vents. Back at WHOI on Cape Cod, Alvin's successor is now taking shape - in computer models, and wood and fiberglass mockups. The new sub will retain the same time-tested basic components as Alvin - the massive spherical forged titanium pressure hull, the tough, pressure-resistant glass foam flotation material. But working conditions for scientists will be greatly improved - more room, faster dive and ascent speeds, access to almost the entire global ocean floor, and the ability to actually see the same outside view as the pilot.
Cars That Think
aired: Tue, Jan 25, 2005
The fully automatic car may be down the road a ways, but cars that do your thinking for you are just around the corner -- they watch out for hazards, they listen to you, they read your lips, they even know when you're distracted. Alan travels to Germany to find out what happened to the research program originally intended to develop cars that would drive themselves. He finds the goal changed; DaimlerChrysler engineers now working on technology that will help the human driver by alerting him or her to potentially dangerous situations. Equipped with stereo cameras, the research cars are now able to recognize hazards that the driver may have overlooked - like bouncing balls or wayward pedestrians. In a strikingly realistic driving simulator called VIRTTEX at Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, Alan finds out for himself the distraction caused by using a cell phone in a car traveling at high speed on a highway. The VIRTTEX simulator is also being used to study how tiredness affects a driver, and is helping to develop ways to alert the driver to his or her potentially deadly inattention. At IBM's Industry Solutions Lab in Hawthorne, New York, Alan goes for a drive with a virtual smart passenger named Sally. Sally listens in to the driver all the time, picks up on what he or she is saying, and responds appropriately. Sally also knows the driver's likes and dislikes, so if Alan says he's hungry she directs him to the nearest Italian restaurant, not a German one! Sally also checks to see if the driver is showing signs of sleepiness, and offers to play a game - such as "Name the Tune" - to keep him entertained and alert.
aired: Tue, Jan 18, 2005
In spite of the risks, people are lining up to solve their weight problems in the operating room. And if the latest device -- an implantable stomach "pacer" -- works out, millions more will be taking the surgical way out. We follow two patients as they go through the life-transforming experience of gastric bypass surgery, causing dramatic weight loss. Both patients achieve major life goals, from the simple act of shopping in a regular - not plus-size - clothing store, to the substantial reduction of health risks like heart attack and diabetes. Alan Alda observes Amy's surgery at a Boston hospital, and visits Rodney as he recovers the day after his operation. Gastric bypass, in which a small, one-ounce, stomach "pouch" is created to replace the natural stomach, is the most common stomach surgery in the US, with 100,000 procedures performed a year - ten times the rate ten years ago. Nationally, 75% of those patients will achieve substantial permanent weight loss, although some will be able to "behaviorally" reverse their surgery. The "lap-band" procedure is an alternative weight-loss procedure to gastric bypass, involving the surgical placement of a restrictive plastic collar around the top of the stomach. "The bottom line is none of these surgeries are a cure for obesity in a vacuum. They all have to be part of a program that provides the behavior and the counseling." says Shikora. The obesity surgical group at the Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston is now beginning large scale clinical trials of the latest surgical approach to weight loss. A "pacer" - similar to a heart pacemaker - is implanted just under the skin of the abdomen and connected to electrodes attached to the stomach. Regular, imperceptible electric pulses create a feeling of fullness. With the pacer in place, patients are able to control their constant "grazing" eating behavior.
Watch Scientific American Frontie... Season 14
Coming to America
aired: Mon, Jul 19, 2004
Who were the first people to populate the Americas, and when did they get here?
The Dark Side of the Universe
aired: Mon, Jun 21, 2004
Alan Alda joins some of the world's leading astronomers as they wrestle with the startling implications of their latest discoveries: that everything we can see, from the world around us to the most distant galaxies, is only a tiny fraction of the entire cosmos. Most of what's out there is dark -- either dark matter or dark energy. And our universe is perhaps only one in an infinity of universes.
Hot Times in Alaska
aired: Mon, Jun 14, 2004
Alaska is warming up. It's now a few degrees warmer than it was a century and a half ago, and the trend seems to be accelerating. Already the landscape is changing dramatically -- permafrost is thawing, glaciers are melting, forests are succumbing to drought and insect attack. Alan Alda meets Alaskan scientists who are working to find out if these are the first signs of global warming and what the future may hold.
aired: Tue, May 18, 2004
Alan Alda visits the research labs and testing tracks of the Big Three auto makers to find out what people will be driving 10-20 years from now. Fuel efficiency and alternative fuels are the future, and Alda test-drives a gasoline-electric hybrid that's already on the road, as well as several hydrogen-fueled cars still in development. The search for a quiet, fast, safe, exciting and non-polluting fuel-cell car takes Alda from Germany to California to Iceland, which is attempting to become the first nation to entirely replace imported petroleum with domestically produced hydrogen.
aired: Mon, May 10, 2004
Alan Alda investigates how people create memories -- and how as they age, memories become slippery and elusive, sometimes vanishing forever. He visits two men who live entirely in the present or the distant past, unable to recall events that happened even a few minutes ago. Viewers peer inside Alda's own brain and find out what's at work as he memorizes names and faces. Alda discovers how ice water can boost memory (no, not drinking it) and how easy it is to have a false memory implanted. He also meets a volunteer in an experimental treatment for Alzheimer's disease, gets the latest on the search for an Alzheimer's vaccine and joins a group of baby boomers who are learning how to keep their brains young and their memories intact.
aired: Mon, Jan 19, 2004
This episode tackles the basic problem that confronts those who are overweight; how to lose weight and keep it off over the long term. In a Frontiers sponsored experiment, the cameras follow a dozen subjects for several months as they adopt different strategies for weight loss, ranging from online diet systems to gastric bypass surgery. The program also looks at research that attempts to get to the bottom of the body's complex weight-regulation system, and to explain, among other things, why dieting is so difficult.
Watch Scientific American Frontie... Season 13
Scientific American Frontiers: Make Up Your Mind
aired: Mon, Apr 2, 2012
We discover the "you" inside your head - the part of your mind, sitting right behind your forehead that decides what you do every waking second of the day. We reconstruct a 150-year-old accident that caused a railroad worker named Phineas Gage to lose his sense of self; see children's reasoning powers gradually come on line; and scan Alan Alda's brain as he struggles to make decisions while feeling cheated.
Scientific American Frontiers: Coming Into America
aired: Mon, Apr 2, 2012
Who were the first people to populate the Americas, and when did they get here? A few years ago most experts would have agreed that the first Americans walked across the Bering land bridge from Asia, about 12,000 years ago during the last ice age, then found their way south through an ice-free corridor, and went on to populate north, central and south America, hunting big game as they went. This theory -- called the Clovis-first theory, named for the site in New Mexico where these people's finely worked stone tools were first uncovered -- has now been called into question. Depending on who you ask, people came from Asia, or Europe, or the south Pacific; they walked or they came by boat; and they came in different waves, with some surviving, some dying out. A wide variety of evidence, from linguistics to DNA analysis and climatology, is now being called upon to contribute to this newly-enlivened field. This program will sift through it all, and attempt to figure out who the first Americans were.
Scientific American Frontiers: Unearthing Secret America
aired: Mon, Apr 2, 2012
The great arc of early American history is brought to life through three tremendous archeological finds. The Jamestown fort reveals the struggles of the colonists; slave quarters at Monticello and Williamsburg introduce us to a secret world for the first time.
Scientific American Frontiers: Hot Planet - Cold Comfort
aired: Mon, Apr 2, 2012
So you think global warming won't affect you? Wait until the great Atlantic Conveyor shuts down. And find out what's already happening in Alaska. In the last couple of decades, oceanographers have come to understand the central role the Gulf Stream plays in the enormous ocean currents that circle the globe. It brings a third of all the sun's heat that falls on the North Atlantic up to northern latitudes and, in the process, warms the northeast U.S., Europe and Scandinavia. Researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have found that in recent decades significant amounts of freshwater have been flowing into the Nordic Seas from the Arctic Ocean to the north that could potentially disrupt the operation of the Ocean Conveyor's recirculation pump, in turn reducing or even shutting down the flow of the Gulf Stream. Another group of researchers have found that the Russian Arctic rivers, which contribute two-thirds of all the freshwater that flows into the Ocean, have significantly increased their flow rates in recent decades -- the result of the higher precipitation that goes along with global warming. In Fairbanks, Alaska, the large glaciers in the mountain region that runs between southern Alaska and Canada have been melting and receding at an increasing pace, also in recent decades. Scientists have discovered several abrupt cooling events in the 12,000 years since the last Ice Age. One such event happened 8,200 years ago and may have been triggered when a huge lake of fresh water burst through the remains of ice sheets bordering Hudson Bay. The surge flooded down Hudson Strait and out into the path of the Gulf Stream. Ocean sediments show a cooling at the same time, all around the north Atlantic.