The Autobahn Co-Pilot
Go, Trabi, Go
Emperors of the Air
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) Hi, I'm
ALAN ALDA Alda. This edition of Scientific American Frontiers is
in Germany, where the cars come from. We'll test drive the
latest fully automatic model. No hands. And we'll experience
this fine design from former East Germany.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) We'll take to the skies - then try to find
the way home. We'll journey into the brain to cure a patient
with epilepsy. And we'll witness death-defying aerial stunts.
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) Join me now for our special edition of Scientific
American Frontiers, from Germany.
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) Germany has a scientific tradition that's
one of the oldest in the western world. And since we've been
here, we've been impressed by how much that tradition really
means to German scientists who are working today. A man you'll
meet a little bit later told us very proudly how his field,
the study of birds, began with Emperor Frederic 800 years
ago. We've got a story on the very latest in medical imaging,
and of course it was a German scientist who discovered x-rays
150 years ago. But first we'll take a look at the highest
of high tech applied to a very familiar part of our lives.
The modem highway. And, of course, the modem highway was invented
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The first divided highway for fast, long
distance travel was built in Germany in the early 1920's.
Today packed with traffic, the Autobahn is at the center of
Germany's obsession with all things automotive. There's no
speed limit on most Autobahns - just traffic jams - and the
freedom to drive fast is a cherished personal liberty. But
the price is high. Fatal accidents are common - with human
error the usual cause. Which is why Daimler-Benz, maker of
Mercedes cars and trucks, has set out to teach basic driving
skills to a new generation of drivers. Piloting this van is
the first of these student drivers - not the man behind the
wheel, but a system of video cameras and computers in back
- the prototype of a system able to drive on the Autobahn
KUHNLE Would you like to drive?
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) Yes.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Andreas Kuhnle is the chief engineer here
at the Mercedes Stuttgart research center which features a
2-mile long section of test track doubling as a typical stretch
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) O.K. So, what happened?
KUHNLE Now you're all set. If you just put it in four, and
start to drive, and when you feel comfortable, then just hit
the green button up here, and the system will drive for you.
ALAN ALDA Will it start driving at the speed I'm at?
KUHNLE Yes it will, it goes exactly the same speed that you...
ALAN ALDA So suppose I get a little speed going then.
ALAN ALDA Yeah. O.K., now I can take my hand off?
KUHNLE We are not quite in the center of the lane.
ALAN ALDA I see. Why are we veering here?
KUHNLE And then we adjusted to the center of the lane. We
are going to speed up now.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) At this point, all I knew about how the system
works is that video cameras are checking the lane markings
in the road ahead, and looking for obstacles.
ALAN ALDA (On-Camera) Now see all this dirt in the road here?
ALAN ALDA It doesn't seem to mind that. Andreas Kuhnle No it doesn't,
that didn't look like a car or a truck to it.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It was oddly exhilarating to be zipping along
at 40 mph with my hands in the air. But what I wanted to know,
of course, was what's going on in the back of the van that
makes it possible.
KUHNLE So back here is the control area for the system.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) In case you're wondering - we are stopped
KUHNLE These are a set of windows, they are looking for marks
here on the road, and you can see that they've actually marked
them. And with these 10 windows here, we can actually follow
the road. We know the radius of the road, where we are in
the lane, and that lets us drive automatically.
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) Do I understand this right? The information
that the computer is processing is only information found
within these windows?
KUHNLE That's right
ALAN ALDA All the rest of the picture is just not even getting
communicated to the computer.
KUHNLE That's right. The rest of the picture is irrelevant
right now. We have to do that right now because there is so
much information in one of these video pictures, we have to
ignore a lot of it.
ALAN ALDA Right
KUHNLE Why don't we demonstrate this actually.
ALAN ALDA Sure. Great. Great.
KUHNLE So we are going to get up to speed now, about 30 mph
and we'll switch to automatic mode when we are up at speed.
ALAN ALDA I feel like we're doing one of those submarine movies.
ALAN ALDA I think they've spotted us.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Behind the wheel again, I soon discovered
the system's limits.
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) Now, there's a truck up ahead with workmen.
ALAN ALDA What's going to happen now? The truck is standing dead
KUHNLE Right. I'm not sure what's going to happen.
ALAN ALDA You're not sure what's going to happen.
KUHNLE We may have to in fact, we do in fact have to, could
you please brake.
ALAN ALDA Brake, Yes.
KUHNLE Yeah, he's actually not in the lane.
ALAN ALDA He's not in the lane. He was sort of like only about
a foot over the center of the lane. Now what happened there,
what did the computer do?
KUHNLE The computer, I'm not quite sure, I think started to
slow down, I didn't want to take a chance.
ALAN ALDA Right
KUHNLE And so I had you re-take control
ALAN ALDA O.K.
KUHNLE Normally what would happen is...
ALAN ALDA I'm going .....
KUHNLE You can go back to green.
ALAN ALDA ...back to green
KUHNLE Okay now. We are now speeding up.
ALAN ALDA Okay.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The truck incident was a reminder that the
real challenge for self-driving vehicles is spotting and reacting
to obstacles. While the lower camera tracks the lanes, that's
the job of the upper camera.
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) How does it recognize, for instance, the
back of a car.
KUHNLE It's looking for, for example, the lower edge, the
bumper, it's a horizontal line on the road. There's gotta
be some vertical edges nearby, they have to be a certain distance
apart. And also cars are symmetrical in the back, and you
can look for symmetry in the picture ahead of you. And then
with a reasonable accuracy say yes, that's a car.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) These characteristic features are now being
used to literally teach a parallel processing computer how
to recognize the backs of cars. It was time to try out the
van's skills when it no longer had the test track to itself.
KUHNLE I'll activate the system now, by hitting the green
button here. Once we're up to speed I'll have Christof pass
us. He will enter the road ahead of us here, the lane. We'll
detect him. slows down, we'll slow down. If he speeds up,
we'll speed up.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) But of course the true response to a car
ahead on the German Autobahn isn't to follow passively behind
KUHNLE We'll now overtake.
KUHNLE We've now passed Christof, and we'll move back to the
right hand lane.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Right now, the van has to be told when to
move into the passing lane. Later, a camera will check the
lane and give the order automatically. But in driving, it's
the unexpected that can be deadly.
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) What if there was an accident, that we turned
this comer and suddenly came upon an accident, there was a
truck across both lanes?
KUHNLE At the moment we would probably not stop, we have work
going on now... If you could re-take control, the yellow...
ALAN ALDA The yellow, Okay.
KUHNLE ... we have work going on where we look for more general
obstacles, not only the back of vehicles, but also the sides.
I see, so you're really going step by step with this, aren't
you? And as you get, as you solve those problems, then you'll
get onto more complicated issues.
KUHNLE Exactly. We are working our way up in complexity here.
and we really have to be able to find all the obstacles on
the road, and there's an awful lot of them that could be out
there, so it'll take a while.
ALAN ALDA Somebody walking across the road at this point, would
not necessarily be picked up by your present equipment, will
KUHNLE We expect to have pedestrian detection, not at highway
speeds yet though, next year. People have a certain way that
they move, and we can actually look for objects that are moving
in that way and find them.
ALAN ALDA And what about an animal, a deer crossing the road?
KUHNLE We haven't looked for deer yet, only humans.
ALAN ALDA If you have a deer that walks like a person, he's O.K.
KUHNLE Then we're in luck.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The goal of the research isn't to replace
the human behind the wheel, but to share the burden of watching
for and reacting to hazards.
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) I would think it would be really important
to have a fully automatic operation here to know what's happening
in these other lanes and maybe even what's happening on the
other side of the divider. If something is coming at you,
in an accident over there, and spinning out of control over
here, wouldn't you need to know that?
KUHNLE We would like to actually have information 360 degrees
around the car. And then given all that information, we can
maneuver to be safe number one, and secondarily to get where
you want to go. That's another thing we'd like to do, is to
basically have a vehicle where you can get in and say I want
to go from Boston to Minneapolis, and it will do that completely
automatically for you. Read the traffic signs. And so our
activities are seeing more what's around us, and then understanding
and reacting to that, in a complete sense so the driver can
really be safe, number one, and relaxed, number two.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Now, you should know that ! wasn't in the
van for this next trip.
KUHNLE This is the big test for us. We are now entering a
public road O.K., and I'll turn on the system now.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) And as it turned out, that was the right
decision! Every time Andreas switched on the system, the van
veered to the left - into the path of overtaking traffic.
KUHNLE Come on baby, come on. We're having a technical problem
again, this drift to the left.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) After resetting the steering system, the
van settled down in its lane - but now it became tempted by
KUHNLE Oops, we were just about to leave the road there.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The Mercedes engineers are the first to admit
that their co-pilot has a lot to learn. But they also anticipate
the day when the Autobahn's safest drivers will be the easiest
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Dawn in Bavaria - and 6000 pigeons begin
a high-stakes race. Every weekend, in hundreds of clubhouses
across the country, pigeon breeders meet to register their
birds in one of the most popular sports in Germany - the racing
of homing Pigeons. Not just pride but big money rests on which
pigeon makes it back to its home loft first. For researcher
WILTSCHKO, these races pose a fascinating question. How do
the birds find their way?
WILTSCHKO You release this bird about eight hundred or a thousand
miles away from home and it flies straight back to its home.
Isn't that fascinating and worth to have an answer to this
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The birds are taken to the release site in
a closed truck in the middle of the night, so they can't simply
watch where they're going. Yet as soon as they're released,
they set off unerringly in the direction of home. Of all the
navigational tools they could be using, one of the more obvious
is the sun. Wolfgang has performed a classic series of experiments
to find out if pigeons do indeed use the sun as a compass.
The experiment involves giving the birds a kind of "jet lag".
Housed in this windowless room for a week, the birds' daytime
- when the lights are on - is shifted 6 hours behind the real
day time outside. So by the end of the week, when the birds
think it's dawn, its actually 12 noon. Now comes the test.
Rosie Wiltschko is Wolfgang's wife and collaborator. The yellow
band is for a control bird - one whose internal clock hasn't
been shifted, so he knows it's now noon.
WILTSCHKO He is a control bird and home is in this general
direction. I would expect him to go in approximately that
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The bird sets off confidently. If it is using
the sun as a direction finder, it must be taking its homeward
bearing from where it expects the sun to be at noon - in the
south. The researchers note the bird's "vanishing point" -
the compass bearing it was following when it disappeared from
#1 It flew off near that power line over there, by those highway
signs. Take a bearing off the power line poles.
#2 I see them. I've got a reading on the power line. 80 degrees.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) And for all the control birds, the vanishing
point is to the east - in the direction of the home loft.
Now for the birds whose internal clock has been shifted -
and who are under the impression that it's 6 am.
WILTSCHKO He is a clock-shifted bird. His internal clock has
been shifted six hours slow, so he misjudges the time of day
and for him it is early morning.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) This bird's loft is to the east, like the
controls. But unlike them, he thinks its dawn, and since the
sun rises in the east, off into the sun he flies. But since
it's really noon, the sun is to the south ... and so it's
not east but south that the clock-shifted birds fly. Experiments
like this confirm that pigeons do indeed navigate by the sun.
But they also show something else. Because while the control
birds start arriving home 12 miles away after about 20 minutes..,
only an hour or so later, the clock-shifted birds start showing
up suggesting they had some other way to find home. In another
classic experiment, Wolfgang discovered what that back-up
navigational system employs.
WILTSCHKO I have here a magnet which disrupts the magnetic
field of the earth.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Any internal magnetic compass a bird possesses
would also be confused when the magnet is glued to its back
feathers. The pigeons in the experiment have been raised without
ever seeing the morning sun, so in this early morning release
they can't use the sun to steer by. With both sun compass
and any magnetic compass disabled, the bird indeed seems totally
WILTSCHKO I think that he doesn't know where to go under these
conditions. He will fly just in a random direction.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The control birds in this experiment have
small non-magnetic brass weights glued to their feathers.
With their magnetic compass unaffected, they set off to the
home loft without hesitation. The experiment confirms that
pigeons use the earth's magnetic field as well as the sun
to find their way. But their direction-finding skills don't
WILTSCHKO Birds are really amazing and much more sensitive
to their surrounding world than we are, so they can sense
the magnetic field. They also can see ultraviolet light. They
are also very sensitive to minute pressure changes. They can
hear infrasound and so their sensory world is much more extended
then our sensory world is. And for orientation they are very
opportunistic and make probably use of all these cues.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) So far we've only been talking about orientation
- about how birds tell direction. But to navigate, you need
to know what direction to go in. So we came to a 14th Century
castle in southern Germany to visit with one of the true champions
of long distance navigation, the stork. This is the research
station of another bird navigation expert, Dr. Peter Berthold.
His work involves tracking storks - but to do that he has
to capture them. I was invited to help - but then he described
how our stork might react.
PETER BERTHOLD He can peck you to the eyes and to the neck.
What they normally do...
ALAN ALDA The eyes and the neck?
PETER BERTHOLD Oh, yes, especially very often to the neck.
That's what they normally do when they attack each other at
nesting sites. You see, white storks can easily kill each
other. If there is a pair that has started breeding, and a
single male is coming, they may fight terribly around the
nesting site, the two males and also the female. And in some
cases you may at the final end, you may have 3 dead storks.
Because the bill has destroyed the blood vessels, may even
have penetrated the neck. Fortunately our neck is fairly sized
though, I think we'll not have that problem here.
ALAN ALDA But maybe we should just let them fly wherever they want
PETER BERTHOLD Yes
ALAN ALDA Maybe it doesn't really matter where they're going.
PETER BERTHOLD And if you'll be really sure, you may put your
neck like this
ALAN ALDA Ah, right, good advice.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) And it turned out there are a few other tricks
a stork stalker should know.
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) You grab him by the wings and then you grab
him by the neck.
PETER BERTHOLD If it's close to the fence or so then and it's
standing more or less, then its best that you first go to
the neck and then to the wing and then you take the whole
bird. If it's flying against you, the best is you take it
as you normally take your woman in the early morning and then
you have it so.... no problem.
ALAN ALDA I don't grab her by the beak though, I'm sorry.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Luckily, when the big moment came, the stork
chose Peter as his target.
PETER BERTHOLD This was a big catch.
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) Doesn't it fit kind of loosely?
PETER BERTHOLD No, no, no, that's O.K.
ALAN ALDA I mean if he closes his mouth and dips his head doesn't
it come off, and then he has a pretty good shot at your eye?
PETER BERTHOLD No, normally not. No
ALAN ALDA See, that's sort of what I sort of anticipated, I'm not
that dumb, I can... Do you want me to hold the beak?
PETER BERTHOLD Well, if you'd like.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The point of all this was to strap a small
radio transmitter on the stork - a transponder that can be
tracked by satellite.
PETER BERTHOLD We'll release the bird. O.K. Very good. So
will you please come in.
ALAN ALDA Thank you
PETER BERTHOLD Be careful with these steps here
ALAN ALDA Now, once you release these storks...
PETER BERTHOLD Yeah
ALAN ALDA ...you can track where they are at any given moment.
PETER BERTHOLD Oh yes.
ALAN ALDA Wherever they are?
PETER BERTHOLD At least every day we are able to have several
locations. So I think this one is especially interesting...
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The satellite tracking system can pinpoint
each stork exactly as it makes its immense migration from
Europe to Africa.
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) And where is this bird right now?
PETER BERTHOLD And this bird is right now, we can just see
it here on the map. The bird is presently exactly in the area
of the Bosporus. This really critical area where they have
to cross here, and not to go too far to have to cross the
Black Sea, or in other parts of the Mediterranean.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The stork's extraordinary journey dramatically
illustrates the importance of a bird's having some sort of
map in its head - that it knows where it is and where it's
going. And while researchers now have plenty of ideas about
how birds steer, they are much less certain about what they
use for a map. That's why Wolfgang Wiltschko's student Peko
Kalpit is setting up a new experiment in this aviary back
in Frankfurt. First, Peko puts 48 cups of sand in holes. Then
she sets out a number of glass bottles and jars alongside
some of the cups. Most of the cups don't have these landmarks
nearby. Now she hides three seeds in each of just three cups
- all near the glass landmarks.
KALPIT The first pigeon that's going to come in here has been
trained to dig in this certain sector, in this, this and this
cup. So I'm now hiding these seeds in there and the bird that
comes in has forty-eight choices but hopefully will only dig
in these three cups.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Remember, the bird has been here many times
before, and the seeds have always been in the same cups.
KALPIT OK, heading for the right cup. This is the first right
probe right there and he's eating. He cannot see the seeds
unless he probes and he found the first cup. Now he has two
more to go .... OK, that's the second one. That's two out
of three .... Kind of indecisive. Ok, this would be a wrong
probe, because it's in the wrong sector. This also. Now he's
obviously going random because he couldn't find the right
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Now 2 out of 3 is pretty good - and it seems
likely that the bird has used the glass landmarks to help
find the corn. To test this hypothesis, Wolfgang and Peko
move the glass bottles from the sector where the corn is hidden
to another sector. But while the bottles move to new cups,
the corn stays where it was. Now another bird enters the arena.
Like the first, he's always found the corn near the bottles.
But this time...
WILTSCHKO So the first choice was an original sector.., the
second one is right.., and the third one is right and the
experiment is over!
KALPIT Not one single mistake! It went in there and probed
three times, three correct choices. I'm speechless.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) If I were a pigeon, I might be using those
nice shiny bottles as landmarks. But the pigeons obviously
aren't. What they are using as maps remains a mystery - it
could be other landmarks outside the cage - and it's Peko
Kalpit's challenging task to learn to look at the world strictly
from a pigeon's point of view.
KALPIT We as humans would say we have this kind of bottle,
this shape, and if I only head for this one bottle I will
always get my food, my reward. But the bird obviously doesn't
think that way. That's what the whole idea is about - we trying
to get into what the bird is thinking, how the bird is reacting
to our environment, and how it sees it. And this is one first
back to top
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It was the fall of 1989 - and the Berlin
Wall, the most powerful symbol of the Cold War, was coming
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) All through that summer of '89, people from
eastern Europe had been streaming across the newly opened
borders into the west. Well, when I say streaming actually
I mean driving, because almost everybody who came drove in
one of these. It's called a Trabant. So many people made their
trip to freedom in a "Trabi" that it's earned its place in
history here on a section of the Wall. Even today this odd
little car inspires feelings of love, hate, frustration and
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Television news footage of the exodus to
the west made the Trabi famous throughout the world. It had
been a well known - and highly desirable - car throughout
Eastern Europe for over 30 years. But now nobody wants a Trabi.
I got a chance to find out why, when longtime owner Vanessa
Rorger introduced me to the unique driving experience that
is the Trabant.
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) So, what's first?
RORGER First is up.
ALAN ALDA And what about second?
RORGER Second is here ... three ... fourth.
ALAN ALDA Not so easy, huh?
RORGER Rorger No!
ALAN ALDA Ok, this is first, right?
RORGER No, that is reverse!
ALAN ALDA Oh, oh, oh. Excuse me ... no horn, there's no horn.
RORGER Oh, here is the horn.
ALAN ALDA Danke. Which way should we go here?
ALAN ALDA There's no signal! I have to put my arm out the window.
RORGER Here is the signal.
ALAN ALDA Oh, that's the signal? Oh, I see.
RORGER You have to make it for yourself back. It's not automatic.
ALAN ALDA It takes the bumps nicely.
RORGER Very not quiet.
ALAN ALDA No, it's a little noisier than a Rolls Royce, but not
much. I like the way it has this kind of seaside motion. So
I'll go right here? Oh, I still have the signal on from the
last turn so that's good, it saves you a lot of trouble.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) While its easy to make fun of the Trabant
today.., in the East Germany of the 1960's it was Communism's
answer to the Volkswagen Beetle - a cheap, economical "peoples
car". When the first Trabant was designed in 1952, its engineers
faced a unique challenge. Werner Reichelt.
WERNER REICHELT In the early days of East Germany we didn't
have any steel, so we had to find a substitute. What we did
have in abundance was cotton waste and phenol resins. From
those two waste products we came up with a very durable material.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The cotton waste came from Russia - the phenol
resins from the East German dye industry. Combined into a
sandwich, they made a plastic called Duroplast. The Trabant's
body was the world's first made entirely from recycled materials.
It was strong and so durable that the average Trabant's life
was 28 years! Over 3 million rolled off the production line
in Zwickau - and there are still more than a million on the
road .... much to most people's distress. The car's two-stroke
engine sounds like a noisy lawn mower and spews out 10 times
more pollution than a modem car. So today, there's not only
no market for new Trabi's, but they're trying to get rid of
the old ones. In a neat twist of fate, that job has fallen
to the Trabi's designer, Werner Reichelt.
WERNER REICHELT In this factory the plastic bodies for three
million Trabants were made between 1955 and 1991. We employed
11,000 people here.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) And today, the Zwickau plant where the cars
were made is the site of an ambitious program to destroy them.
The usual way of getting rid of an old car is to crush it.
But with the Trabi, that's more easily said than done. That
Duroplast body that was once such a neat solution to East
Germany's metal shortage, just won't go away. Burning it would
release harmful chemicals into the air - and the same chemicals
might leach into the groundwater if the bodies were buried
in a landfill. So here where the world's first recycled car
was made... Werner Reichelt is figuring out how to recycle
them once again. First come the easy parts. The glass... and
the little 2 stroke engine - mostly useful only as scrap metal.
But then there's that 1400 lbs. of plastic body...
WERNER REICHELT Here's a piece of a Trabant. This is all that's
left after we recycle the car. You can see the Duroplast.
These cotton fibers reinforce the layers of phenol resin.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) This chemical sandwich is the real challenge.
But Herr Reichelt is experimenting with an ingenious scheme.
First, the Duroplast is shredded into small pieces. These
are then mixed with cement. And in a process Herr Reichelt
claims is completely effective - but also a trade secret -
the material is then treated to render the potentially dangerous
phenol residues safe and inert. The result - bricks. So the
little car that helped destroy the Wall may soon become the
building blocks of new walls - a process that for the German
environment, as well as German sanity, can't come a moment
ALAN ALDA Thank you.
RORGER You're welcome.
ALAN ALDA Now I can't get out. This is unbelievable, I can't get
out! The thing wouldn't close before, now I can't get out.
Thank you very much. That's good, that's nice, somebody gets
out and opens it for you. Look at that, now it works!
RORGER Well, sometimes it works, sometimes no. That is spedal
ALAN ALDA That was great, thank you.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Epilepsy has destroyed Manfred Pelz life.
His increasingly frequent seizures prevent him from working.
He's been waiting for this moment for years.
PELZ I feel pretty nervous right now, but I'm not sure whether
it is the operation or the camera crew that's making me that
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Epilepsy affects one in 100 people. Most
can have their seizures controlled by drugs. But for Manfred,
as for many other epileptics, the only hope of a normal life
lies in the hands of surgeons like Dr. Michael Buchfelder.
MICHAEL BUCHFELDER He has taken all the drugs which were available
and they have not been able to stop his epilepsy. And this
kind of surgery is his last chance to get rid of his epilepsy.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) But today, the surgical treatment of epilepsy
is rare - because as you're about to see, it requires a complex
and nerve-wracking procedure before the surgery can even begin.
The goal of that surgery is to remove from deep within Manfred's
brain the tiny speck of tissue that's the source of his disease.
But right now, his surgeons have only a very rough idea of
where that epileptic focus lies. So first they must find it.
And that means opening his skull. The next step is to reveal
the brain itself by cutting through and peeling back the membrane
protecting it. This array of electrodes is what will locate
the epileptic focus - by placing it directly onto the surface
of Manfred's brain.
MICHAEL BUCHFELDER Emotionally we think don't let others touch
our brain. But in terms of actual figures, arithmetically,
it's pretty safe, as compared to gall bladder surgery. Isn't
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The electrode array in place, Manfred's skull
is closed up again - temporarily. The next day, he's resting
comfortably, with the electrodes on his brain connected to
a monitoring system. He's also being observed by video cameras.
Now the medical team watches and waits - for Manfred to have
a seizure. Here's what happens during an epileptic seizure.
It begins when the nerve cells at the epileptic focus suddenly
start firing off abnormal bursts of electricity. These set
off nearby cells.., and soon the whole brain is caught up
in an electrical storm. By this time, the electrodes on Manfred's
brain are all picking up this furious activity.., and Manfred
himself is unconscious, in the full throes of an epileptic
seizure. But now look again at what happened - this time at
the moment the seizure was triggered. At this point, the only
electrodes picking up abnormal signals are those nearest the
epileptic focus. These signals are displayed on the screen
even before the seizure itself begins. And because the position
of each electrode is known, this information allows the epileptic
focus itself to be located. In Manfred's case, the focus is
deep within his temporal lobe - and close to the center that
generates speech. So before the surgeons can destroy the epileptic
focus, they have to be sure they won't also damage his speech
center - which means that too must be precisely mapped. To
do that, the electrodes on Manfred's brain are used again
- this time not to record its electrical activity, but to
stimulate it. Neurologist Hermann Stefan.
STEFAN We stimulate one channel and if the patient has stops
talking then we have found his speech area.
PELZ (Counting in German)
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Manfred is asked to count. One by one the
electrodes are activated.
PELZ Counting in German
STEFAN The electrode ....
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) This time it's electrode number 19. It will
be switched on as Manfred gets to 10 in his counting. There's
a slight hesitation, suggesting electrode 19 is close to the
speech center. Now it's electrode number 20. And this one
is even closer.
STEFAN We stimulated this electrode here, and there was an
arrest of speech.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It turns out that Manfred's epileptic focus
and his speech center are about 3 cm apart - dose, but cutting
out one without damaging the other should be possible. Manfred's
surgery is scheduled for 3 days from now. But for some epileptic
patients, even the elaborate brain mapping that will permit
Manfred's surgery just isn't accurate enough. Felicitas Kaiser
is an apprentice furniture restorer.
KAISER If I was talking with someone, suddenly I could see
their lips move but I could not hear them, and I could not
speak. When I came to I had no idea where I was. I was disoriented.
Sometimes it took half an hour until I regained consciousness.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) When Felicitas' brain was mapped electrically,
her epileptic focus appeared to be right on top of her speech
center - meaning surgery couldn't even be attempted. But at
that time, 2 years ago, a revolutionary new brain mapping
machine was first being tested. In a room shielding it from
the earth's magnetic field, this machine - called the Krenikon
- maps the electrical activity of the brain by picking up
the faint traces of magnetism it produces - signals a billion
times weaker than the earth's magnetic field. The Krenikon
is the German entry in an international race to produce scanners
based on detecting biomagnetic fields using super sensitive
microchips. Cooled by liquid helium in a giant thermos, the
detectors can map the electrical activity of nerves, the heart
and - in Felicitas Kaiser's case - the brain.
HUMMEL We can clearly identify three spike events on the screen.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) So sensitive is the machine that it can pick
up the abnormal spikes produced by an epileptic focus even
when they're not strong enough to trigger a seizure. What's
more, it can locate the focus much more accurately than any
previous method could. In Felicitas' case to a spot that could
be clearly distinguished from her speech center. DR.
STEFAN The red spot shows the center of the focal epileptic
activity localized by MEG. And the speech center is above,
let's say, one centimeter.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) That one centimeter was enough to allow Felicitas
to get the same surgery Manfred is about to undergo. It's
3 days since the electrodes mapped his brain - and now Dr.
Buchfelder and his team are using that map to find and cut
out the focus of his epilepsy. First, Buchfelder identifies
some landmarks that will lead him toward the focus.
BUCHFELDER We will look for the optic nerve and the carotid
artery. This whitish structure here, that's the optic nerve,
and that's the carotid artery, and we'll follow the carotid
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Probing down between nerve and artery - damage
to either could be catastrophic for Manfred - the surgical
team gets to the right region of the brain. After an hour
of painstaking progress, they are close enough for some last
minute, on-the-spot mapping with an array of electrodes that
probe directly into the brain.
BUCHFELDER This is the part of the work which makes me feel
uneasy. Really, it takes so much patience.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Buchfelder plans to destroy and remove a
piece of Manfred's brain - so he can't afford even the tiniest
error. The electrodes he's put in place are now picking up
the brain's electrical activity directly, confirming the exact
position of the epileptic focus. DR.
STEFAN These are the positions of the electrodes, on the brain,
and this is a map, the field of the electric activity. And
this is the maximum of the epileptic activity in the hippocampus.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Now everything is ready for the critical
BUCHFELDER We know where to go and what to take out, namely
the focus. We found it. That's it. And we are going to resect
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It's these tiny white scraps of brain tissue
that have ruined Manfred's life. This sort of surgery is still
uncommon - despite its effectiveness - because its so hard
to find the epileptic focus. But with new mapping methods
- especially those using biomagnetism - that's about to change.
BUCHFELDER Brain surgery is more and more an appropriate treatment
for otherwise untreatable epilepsy, because due to the modem
imaging methods and the information which we get about the
source of epilepsy, we can localize it more precisely, so
that it's much safer than in the past, and much more effective.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) A week after Manfred's surgery, he's doing
fine. - His head still hurts, but he can talk and so far he
hasn't had a seizure. As for Felicitas Kaiser - she's now
been seizure free for 2 years following her surgery. She's
back at work, at last able to be just like everyone else.
KAISER A lot of things have changed. I'm not afraid to be
around people, so I can make friends now. I can ride my bike
without worrying. At work I can operate the machines. It's
a totally new life for me.
back to top
OF THE AIR
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) On a hunting preserve near the north German
town of Braunschweig, George Ruppell is after his favorite
quarry - one he's hunted all over the world. More elusive
than the deer or game birds most hunters track here, George's
goal is nature's most versatile - and ancient - flying machine,
one that's been around for over 200 million years.
RUPPELL Here we have caught a large dragonfly. One of the
best fliers we have.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Its large thorax filled with flight muscles,
this species is strong...
RUPPELL Ouch! It will bite me. Ouch!
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) ...and aggressive. What fascinates George
about dragonflies is that they have to pack so much action
into so little time. They spend up to four years as larvae
underwater. But once they emerge as adults, they have just
a few weeks to reproduce and ensure the species' survival..,
and for that their flying skills are critical. George Ruppell
is well known not only for what he's discovered about dragonfly
flight, but how he's learned it.
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) How do you look for them? Do you scan with
RUPPELL Yes. I scan with my eyes and then I detect little
blue and black bodies.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Dragonflies can reach speeds of up to 30
mph - and they can stop, start and reverse direction apparently
instantaneously. For capturing high speeds events like this,
the slow motion camera is the scientist's standard tool -
but unlike his colleagues, George shoots in the field.
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) So what's the idea? Why come out to the pond
and shoot? Why don't you take the dragonflies into the laboratory,
where the conditions are controlled?
RUPPELL Yes controlled, but the dragonflies don't behave normally.
They only show here in natural conditions their full behavior
and even their full flight behavior and therefore we have
to go out. Please let us have a look. There is a dragonfly
sitting on a stem ... I hope I can film it.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The technique here is to plunge in and go
where the dragonfly takes you.
RUPPELL Yes, I got it. Did you see it?
ALAN ALDA No, I'd have come closer but my foot is stuck in the
mud. Thank you. ... now I've got both feet stuck.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) George Ruppell's slow motion footage reveals
the extraordinary aerobatics allowed by two sets of independently
operated wings. Hovering like a helicopter. Backward flight
using all four wings together. But the real advantage of filming
in the field is the insight into dragonfly behavior. Here
a male is beating all four wings at once in an attempt to
persuade a female to go off with him to mate. She's testing
his strength - and he doesn't measure up. Here, a more successful
male is flying lead in a tandem flight after mating. There's
a reason for his being so solicitous. The female needs to
dip her tail into the water to lay the eggs he's fertilized
- and by riding shotgun he's providing cover against both
predators and other males. Much of the male's behavior is
driven by the need to get his own genes passed on. Here, another
male appears, and switching from hovering flight to full forward
thrust, he tries to ram the first male away. A third male
joins the brawl. In the melee, the first male gets dunked
- and the attacker, going into high powered backward flight,
pulls away with the female. Then something very strange occurs.
The male throws the pair of them into a somersault - and tiny
drops of liquid fly from the female. The first to capture
this on film, Ruppell believes that the male is emptying the
female of any fertilized eggs so that he can be the father
her offspring. Tandem flight has another advantage. Sometimes
four pairs of wings can be better than two. Sometimes... but
not always. There are some 2000 species of dragonflies, so
George Ruppell is never going to be at a loss for new behaviors
RUPPELL Here there are a lot of such small damselfly species.
They fly even in cool weather. Because their body is not so
thick. They can warm it up by muscle contractions. If I warm
it up ... it will fly.
ALAN ALDA You're lucky it didn't fly into your mouth!
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) George Ruppell does what all good scientists
do - open the eyes of the rest of us to the endless astonishment
of our world. Till the next Scientific American Frontiers