How Drones Change Everything

Over the next week, Missy Cummings, an associate professor at MIT and drone expert, will be discussing unmanned aerial vehicles with Jason Margolis, a reporter for The World, and Arun Rath, a reporter for Frontline. If you have a question or comment, be sure to post it below. We'll forward the most thought-provoking and well-reasoned responses to our panel.

For more about unmanned aerial vehicles, watch NOVA's Rise of the Drones.

The coverage of the Sandy Hook massacre has produced a lot of news coverage, some of it accurate and some of it not. In the course of researching the segment "Can Science Stop Mass Murder?" for the PBS special "After Newtown," the team at NOVA compiled a comprehensive list of articles and links about the tragic event and mass shootings more generally. Below is that list. Some provide context specific to Sandy Hook, others delve into the scientific research that seeks to understand what might transform these people into killers, while still others ask the question, is it right to blame these events solely on mental illness? We hope you find these links helpful and informative.

Deadliest U.S. Mass Shootings
A look back at some of the most notable mass shootings in recent U.S. history: from Killeen, Texas, in 1991 to recent rampages at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

"Exploring the Mind of James Holmes and the Tragedy in Colorado"
by Jerome Elam. The Washington Times, August 1, 2012.

"In Gun Debate, a Misguided Focus on Mental Illness"
by Richard A. Friedman, M.D. The New York Times, December 17, 2012.

"Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?"
by Jennifer Kahn. The New York Times Magazine, May 11, 2012.

"'I Am Adam Lanza's Mother': A Mom's Perspective on the Mental Illness Conversation in America"
by Liza Long. The Huffington Post (republished from The Blue Review), December 16, 2012.

"'I Am Adam Lanza's Psychiatrist': A Response from the Mental Health Trenches to 'I Am Adam Lanza's Mother'"
by Anonymous., December 17, 2012.

"The Violent Brain: Ingredients of a Mass Murderer"
by Lauren Migliore. Brain World magazine, December 15, 2012.

"EXPERT: What Makes a Mass Killer?"
by Michael Welner, M.D., February 13, 2007.

"Mass shootings: Why it's so hard to predict who will snap"
by Stephanie Pappas., July 25, 2012.

"The Pain of Being Linked By Asperger Dx to a Mass Shooter"
by Lucy Berrington. Psychology Today, December 16, 2012.

"Mass Murders, Unlike Serial Killers, Are Hard to Profile"
by Lizzie Crocker. The Daily Beast, July 20, 2012.

"Can This Man Predict Whether or Not Your Child Will Become a Criminal?"
by Josh Fischman. The Chronicle Review, June 12, 2011.

"Good News and Bad News About Gun Laws, Mental Illness and Violence"
by Jeffrey Swanson, Ph. D. "Bill of Health" Harvard Law blog, October 5, 2012.

"Adam Lanza: Newtown Massacre Suspect a Puzzle to Authorities"
by Michael Daly. The Daily Beast, December 17, 2012

"Psychiatrist: Showing Video is 'Social Catastrophe'", April 19, 2007.

"Notoriety Drives Mass Shooters"
by Mary Papenfuss., February 10, 2008.

"What Pushes Shooters Over the Edge?"
by Bill Weir., February 9, 2008.

"A Guide to Mass Shootings in America"
by Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen, and Deanna Pan. Mother Jones, July 20, 2012.

"Current Directions in Violence Risk Assessment"
by Jennifer L. Skeem and John Monahan. Current Directions in Psychological Science, March 23, 2011.

"A Jurisprudence of Risk Assessment: Forecasting Harm among Prisoners, Predators, and Patients"
by John Monhan. Virginia Law Review, May 2006.

"Don't Blame Autism for Newtown"
by Priscilla Gilman. The New York Times, December 17, 2012.

"What Drives Suicidal Mass Killers"
by Adam Lankford. The New York Times, December 17, 2012.

A couple of weeks ago, word leaked out from the Curiosity team that one of the rover's instruments had found something "earthshaking." Immediately people began speculating that the NASA mission had discovered organic compounds, which would be pretty good proof of life on Mars. The news spread quickly, and NASA began backpedalling, hoping to manage expectations, instead saying the results were "interesting."

Fast forward to earlier today, when Curiosity's main scientists held a press conference about their findings so far. The rover had scooped some soil, they reported, which turned out to be completely normal Martian soil. Sort of. This batch also contained chloromethanes of various types (one, two, and three chlorine atoms). The chlorine part wasn't exciting—Phoenix, a previous rover, also discovered perchlorates—but the methyl part was. Compounds with methyl groups often indicate the presence of methane, which can be a telltale byproduct of living things.

Does this mean we finally found life on Mars? Maybe, or maybe not. The rover "has made detection of organic compounds, we just don't know if they're indigenous to Mars," said John Grotzinger, project scientist at the Mars Science Laboratory. In other words, the finding is "interesting" and definitely not "earthshaking."

Underwhelmed? Welcome to science in real time. Tests must be painstakingly run and rerun. Results must be compiled, questioned, and interpreted. All of that takes a long time, which Grotzinger emphasized at the press conference.

"Curiosity's middle name is patience, and we all have to have a healthy dose of that," he added. (Maybe someone should have reminded them of that a few weeks ago.)

There are still a bevy of tests that scientists must perform before they can determine whether the detected organic compounds are indeed from Mars and were not deposited there by an asteroid, for example. Once that is confirmed, then they have to determine whether those compounds were created by a living thing and are not just the byproduct of a more prosaic chemical reaction. The good news is that Curiosity is only a few months into its two-year mission. There's still plenty of time.

Today's announcement is slightly more intriguing than a standard early mission update. The results are exciting, but not that exciting because there's still lots more work to be done. Stiill, Curiosity scientists are hopeful. After this first round of tests are complete, the rover will start its trek up Mount Sharp, which may have more tantalizing, or perhaps more definitive, secrets locked within its ancient rocks.

"We've been at the gas station, gassed it up, checked the oil," Grotzinger said. "We're going to kick the tires around a little bit, but then we're ready for our trip. And that's when our science mission of exploration really gets into full gear."

Joe Palca, writing for NPR:

Scientists working on NASA's six-wheeled rover on Mars have a problem. But it's a good problem.

They have some exciting new results from one of the rover's instruments. On the one hand, they'd like to tell everybody what they found, but on the other, they have to wait because they want to make sure their results are not just some fluke or error in their instrument.

Curiosity's scientists aren't alone—the Higg's folks went through the same thing, double- and triple-checking their data (and probably more) before they were confident what they were seeing was a real result. That's just science. It pays to be careful. But given the leak, it's a good bet that the Curiosity scientists believe the result is bonafide and not just a fluke.

The NASA team has a lot on the line. The launch, transit, and landing were so flawless that expectations are high for the remainder of the mission. There's also a human dimension to the suspense—many scientists on the team have been dreaming of a day like this since they were kids.

Here's to hoping they really have found something amazing.


Poring Over Einstein's Brain

Einstein playing the violin

Albert Einstein died in 1955, but not before leaving science one more gift—his brain. Pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey removed and preserved Einstein's after conducting an autopsy, and researchers have been studying it ever since, hoping to discover anything that may have lead to the physicist's genius.

Unfortunately for neuroscientists, Einstein's brain hasn't been in one piece since shortly after the autopsy. Harvey sectioned it into 240 pieces, many of which are missing. Luckily, before dicing up the organ, he also photographed it, though like the brain sections, many of those photos have been lost. But now a cache of Harvey's personal affects has been unearthed, including a number of photographs that are new to science. From the images, researchers have produced the most thorough description to date of Einstein's brain.

"Thrilling, in a word." says Dean Falk, a senior scholar at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe and a professor of anthropology at Florida State University, of studying the newly discovered images. Falk authored a paper detailing the findings, which will appear in the journal Brain, along with Fred Lepore, a neuro-ophthalmologist at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, and Adrianne Noe, director of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, the institution that now has the photographs.

"It's a very comprehensive description of the outward appearance of Einstein's brain," says Sandra Witelson, a professor at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University in Canada who has also published research on photographs of Einstein's brain. "On [Harvey's] return to New Jersey in the 1990's, he had hoped to compile an atlas of all the photographs and slides of Einstein's brain. The current report by Dr. Dean Falk and colleagues partly fulfills this plan."

Falk and Lepore had inklings that these photographs existed, but hadn't been able to get their hands on them until they were donated by the Harvey family to the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Noe made the photographs and other materials from the Harvey cache available to the two scientists for eight hours one day in the middle of September. "That was the breakthrough," Lepore says. "We got a lot of photographs."

After Falk and Lepore photographed the originals, they pored over the two-dimensional images for months, tracing every gyrus in an attempt to coax new information from the folds of Einstein's brain. Falk was well-suited to the task of analyzing a brain in such an abstract state—as an anthropologist, she frequently analyzes skulls for clues about the organs they once contained.

"Because they are two-dimensional photographs, I had to do a lot of mental rotation to be sure a feature that I saw in one view, when I saw that feature in another view, did that identification still make sense?" she recounts. Perhaps ironically, the spatial reasoning skills Falk relied on so heavily in her study were the very same at which Einstein excelled, a fact which may have been influenced by his unusual parietal lobes. "He would have been much better at studying his brain than I was," Falk jokes.

Falk and Lepore compared Einstein's brain to 85 other brains well-known in scientific circles. They mapped every portion they could, identifying characteristics which stood out in comparison to the other specimens. The primary somatosensory and motor cortices in his left hemisphere—which are responsible for the sense of touch and the planning and execution of motion, respectively—were much bigger than was expected.

But that wasn't all that was unusual. "Einstein's brain has an extraordinary prefrontal cortex, which may have contributed to the neurological substrates for some of his remarkable cognitive abilities," they wrote. In particular, he had four gyri in that region where most of us only have three.

The prefrontal cortex is involved in higher cognitive functions, "including remembering things, keeping them online, and my favorite, daydreaming and planning the future," Falk says in an interview with NOVA scienceNOW. "It's perhaps appropriate because Einstein was famous for his thought experiments." But as to whether the presence of a fourth gyrus had any affect on that, she says, "We can only speculate."

This isn't the first discovery Falk has made regarding Einstein's brain. In 2009, she published a paper showing the physicist also shared a feature common among certain musicians—a knob-shaped fold in the part of the motor cortex, or the region that controls motion. Specifically, people who learn to play stringed instruments in childhood tend to develop a knob in that area, which controls the finger movements. Einstein, as it turns out, was a lifelong violinist.

Still, there is only so much that can be gleaned from photographs of the brain's surface. "When we look at photos, we are literally just scratching the surface because that is all we're seeing," Falk says. But that's not to say such studies are fruitless. "There's been this revolution in the contemporary neurosciences where now we have more information about what's going on underneath that surface, which enables us to perhaps better interpret what functional correlates of that surface may be."

Falk, Lepore, and Noe hope this paper represents more than just another scholarly publication. They hope it represents the start of a new chapter in the study of Einstein's brain. "As far we know, that set of photographs had not been viewed by the scientific community since the mid-50s," Lepore says. Both Lepore and Falk credit the Harvey family, Noe, and the museum for making the photographs available to scientists and the public. "That should have been done in 1955," Falk says. "It's turning things around."


Falk, Dean. Frederick E. Lepore, and Adrianne Noe. 2012. "The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: a description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs." Brain. DOI: 10.1093/brain/aws295

When Hurricane Sandy ripped through the Eastern United States, it took down power lines, sent sea water gushing into substations, and knocked out connections to power plants. Millions of people were without electricity, but more important, dozens of hospitals lost power from both the grid and their secondary and tertiary backup systems. Cleaning up the mess is the first priority, but a close second will be evaluating how the grid could better cope with disasters of this magnitude.

That question comes at an opportune time. We're in the midst of a lengthy and expensive overhaul of our nation's electrical grid, one that heralds a new, "smarter" future. Power generation and delivery haven't changed much since the days of Edison and Tesla, but a new wave of technologies, known collectively as the smart grid, will modernize the industry. Some utility companies have already started down this road, installing smart meters that communicate demand with operators. But could smart grid technologies have helped during Hurricane Sandy, or any other large natural disaster, for that matter? The answer is yes and no, and which part of that answer is right depends on how you define the smart grid.

The smart grid isn't just one technology, but a whole host of new systems which, hopefully, will combine to make our electrical distribution system more robust and efficient. It involves everything from intelligent washing machines, which run only when electricity demand is low, to dynamic power plants, which can quickly spool up in response to spikes in demand.

Much of the smart grid, though, still relies on the same grid we have today. The distribution system may become more responsive, but physically, it won't be much different than it is today. That means when a substation is flooded or a tree knocks down a power line, the juice will stop flowing, just as it does today. And when that happens on a large scale, as it did during Hurricane Sandy, millions of people will still lose power. There's not a lot an intelligent system can do to guard against physical damage.

And when there is widespread physical destruction of the grid, "There's a limited amount the smart grid can do," says Mark McGranaghan, vice president of power delivery and utilization at the Electric Power Research Institute. During smaller disasters, a smart grid could more deftly reroute power around downed lines than a traditional grid, ensuring customers who needn't lose power don't. But that would only work if the alternate routes are still functioning. If they are damaged, you're still out of luck and out of power. The smart grid, McGranaghan says, is no substitute for system hardening.

System hardening is where infrastructure is beefed up to prevent damage from weather or other disasters. It can include things like using cement for telephone poles instead of wood, burying cables underground, or raising substation equipment above the level of flood waters. System hardening is not entirely distinct from smart grid approaches--information relayed by smart technologies can guide hardening efforts--but it can be done independently of "smart" updates.

That's not to say the smart grid won't be useful in the case of disasters. Vermont, for example, has widely deployed smart grid technologies, including smart meters and grid sensors. "When that last hurricane went through the Northeast, they had an easier time getting power restored in Vermont because they could spot the shortages more easily," says Maggie Koerth-Baker, author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. "They were able to actually spot the downed wires through the system." That allowed crews to focus on repairing downed lines rather than searching for them. The same happened after storms swept through the Southeast earlier this year, McGranaghan says. Crews in Chattanooga were able to repair the system in much less time thanks to smart grid technologies.

Many smart grid technologies are better suited to helping a system recover from disaster, but to keep the power flowing during an event, experts are bullish on microgrids. Also considered a member of the smart grid pantheon, microgrids can function autonomously if the larger grid fails, says Alexis Kwasinski, a professor at the University of Texas. They derive their power from a variety of sources, including diesel generators, natural gas-powered microturbines, photovoltaics, and small wind turbines. Microgrids are expensive, though, so they are most commonly used where a continuous power supply is deemed worth the added cost, such as hospitals, telecommunications equipment, and computer server farms, Kwasinski says. (Incidentally, Thomas Edison's first power plant in Manhattan, Pearl Street Station, is considered a microgrid, since it served electricity to only a small section of the city.)

While many smart grid technologies are still being rolled out, microgrids already have a good track record when disasters strike. The continuity of cell phone service is perhaps the most conspicuous example. After the earthquake off the coast of Sendai, Japan, Kwasinski says a microgrid operated by NTT kept power flowing long after the main grid had failed, allowing people to stay in touch. Another in Garden City, New York, operated well after Hurricane Irene in 2011, he adds. And during Sandy, widely deployed microgrids may have helped cell service remain operational long after the grid went down.

Still, even microgrids may not survive powerful or widespread disasters. "We have to look at the capability of the infrastructure to withstand these events," McGranaghan says. During disasters, the smart grid's virtues may not be advantageous because the system is built atop the same, fragile grid as before. System hardening would change that, but like smart grid enhancements, it is not an inexpensive proposition. Fortunately, the smart grid can inform where engineers should focus on hardening the grid. "If we know we can use the smart grid to respond better, maybe that will influence those decisions," he says.

Note: We will be launching a new NOVA Lab on energy, renewables, and the smart grid in the coming weeks. Check the NOVA Labs site soon.


Teaching Robots How to Walk and Dance

Over the weekend, a new video on the internet took the world by storm. Not exactly news in itself, but who—or rather what—starred in the video makes it noteworthy.

Like most viral diversions, this latest video was a riff on another campy sensation—Gangnam Style, the K-pop music video featuring a slick-haired, doughy rapper who rides an imaginary horse across all manner of over-saturated backdrops. The new video starts with Gangnam Style's familiar bass beat, but instead of the Korean sensation Psy bouncing around the screen, there's a white clad, black-visored robot waving its arms and banging its head.

CHARLI, the robot in the video, isn't nearly as fluid as Psy, and his leg lifts are restrained compared with Psy's manic prancing. But amongst robots, CHARLI is a bona fide Michael Jackson.

Dennis Hong and his Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa) at Virginia Tech built CHARLI to study bipedalism in robots. "CHARLI's groovy dance moves were just done for fun in the lab during our 'free time,' " Hong says. In addition to dancing, the robot competes in the vaunted RoboCup, a soccer league where roboticists test the speed and agility of their creations.

To get the robot to move to the beat, Hong and his team scripted the entire dance. It was programmed frame by frame on a computer, not constructed by recording the captured motion of a human dancer. "If you simply do a 'motion capture' of a person dancing and 'playing that motion back' on a robot—which is often done in generating the motions for characters in video games or movies using computer graphics—it does not work. The robot will fall," Hong points out. That's because a robot's center of gravity, and the center of mass in each of its body parts, is different from a human being's, he says. A human moving his head, for example, will compensate differently from a robot doing the same thing.

CHARLI isn't dancing on its own yet, but the performance is still a tour de force of flexibility and dynamism. At five feet tall, CHARLI is not a small robot. Such size complicates matters greatly. For example, to flail its arms, CHARLI's actuators must be sufficiently powerful to quickly overcome the inertia. Balance is another challenge—all that mass moving around so rapidly could easily upset a less sophisticated robot, even one that's not following a motion captured human dancer.

"Balance is difficult, especially if it is moving its limbs around in high speed," Hong says. "Normally the inertial forces created by the upper body motion is considered as disturbances by the lower body, and without coordination, the robot will fall. The lower body needs to compensate for the forces created by the upper body, and vice versa." Compensating for such upper body motions is state of the art, meaning CHARLI won't be jumping around like Psy—a hallmark of the Gangnam Style video—anytime soon. But don't count out future generations of robots.

Ultimately, Hong would love to have a robot that could not only jump around, but learn to dance on its own. "For the robot to really dance—besides its capability to be able to 'enjoy' it—requires many things besides the hardware design," Hong says. He lists the challenges: It must listen to the music, track the beat, and "understand" the musical style enough to construct an appropriate dance (something even many humans can't do). Then the robot must remain balanced throughout all the motions. Finally, Hong says, "trying to create a robot that can actually 'enjoy' the dance itself, that would be the most challenging of all."

Hong, CHARLI, and some of RoMeLa's other robots will be featured in the November 14 episode of NOVA scienceNOW. Watch a sneak peek of the episode in which CHARLI scores a goal in robot soccer, another challenging feat roboticists are striving to perfect.