NOVA scienceNOW: July 16, 2008

PBS Airdate: July 16, 2008
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NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON (Astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History): On this episode of NOVA scienceNOW: what if somebody called you a birdbrain? Wouldn't that be an insult?

OFER TCHERNICHOVSKI (The City College of New York): Oh, great compliment! The bird brain is a very good brain.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: So good, a birdbrain came up with this.

CHAD COHEN (Correspondent): That's Beethoven's Fifth out of the mouth of a wood wren.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Now, these clever creatures are helping us solve the mystery of how humans learn to talk.

JUAN URIAGEREKA (University of Maryland): For an organism that is so different from us, that's quite remarkable. Nature is playing a very slick trick, right there.

EINSTEIN (Parrot): Ooh-ooh-ooh, ah-ah-ah.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: And the northern lights: one of nature's most impressive lightshows, but behind this dazzling display is a dangerous surge of energy that could kill astronauts and turn the lights off here on Earth.

I guess this is mission control.

KEN: ...sonar terrestrial indices...

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Now, a new space mission is under way to find out what triggers the spectacle and how we can avoid disaster.

Three, two, one...

Also, in our profile: she wanted to be a tennis star until injuries...

YOKY MATSUOKA (University of Washington): I broke my ankle three times, I snapped my Achilles tendon.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: ...forced her to change her game. Now, she's on the cutting edge of bionics.

YOKY MATSUOKA: One day, people are going to be walking around with a prosthetic hand, which...nobody can tell it's prosthetic. It moves like it, it looks like it, it's controlled naturally from the brain. That's how it's going to be.


EINSTEIN (Parrot): ...and more...

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: ...on this episode of NOVA scienceNOW.

Funding for NOVA scienceNOW is provided by...

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And by the National Science Foundation, where discoveries begin. And...

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And the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, to portray the lives of men and women engaged in scientific and technological pursuit.

And the George D. Smith Fund.

And by PBS viewers like you. Thank you.


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Hello, I'm Neil deGrasse Tyson, your host of NOVA scienceNOW. You know, the ability to speak is one of those things that makes us humans think we're special.

EINSTEIN Parrot): Special.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: But researchers have struggled to figure out exactly how we got this talent.


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Because learning to speak a language takes a lot more than just mindlessly parroting what someone else says.

EINSTEIN: Mindless.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Now, as correspondent Chad Cohen reports, we're finding new clues in the brains of some animals, who have the language ability to even rival our own.

EINSTEIN: Split infinitive!

CHAD COHEN: It's a skill that comes naturally to even the tiniest among us. We take in sounds, repeat them and learn to talk. We're so good at it, we can even do it in more than one language, like these little New Yorkers, who are learning French even before they've mastered English. And yet we still don't understand how.

It's a mystery scientists are starting to unravel by studying a brain about 1,000 times smaller than our own, a brain that's gotten a really bad rap.

If someone calls you a birdbrain how would you feel?

OFER TCHERNICHOVSKI: Oh, a great compliment! The bird brain is a very good brain.

CHAD COHEN: Ofer Tchernichovski, one of the world's leading experts in birdsong, thinks the term "birdbrain" is a real misnomer. In fact he believes the key to solving the mystery of speech lies in the notes of a bird's song.

OFER TCHERNICHOVSKI: By looking at the song and see how the song develop, you can understand, sometimes, very basic principles of how our brain works and how our mind works.

CHAD COHEN: In his lab, Ofer studies an Australian songbird called a zebra finch.

OFER TCHERNICHOVSKI: Now you can actually see them side by side.

CHAD COHEN: It turns out, this tiny bird learns to sing much like we learn to speak.

OFER TCHERNICHOVSKI: In the beginning, the bird will start singing a very faint, unstructured song, similar to babbling in human infants.

CHAD COHEN: It then starts to mimic the sounds it hears from the adults around it, a lot like we do.

MOM Can you say ham? See the ham?

BABY: Ham.

OFER TCHERNICHOVSKI: So birds are vocal learners, and vocal learning is very rare in nature.

CHAD COHEN: While zebra finches learn only one song, other songbirds, like canaries, can learn new songs seasonally. Some hummingbirds learn songs more bug-like then bird-like. And parrots, like this one named Einstein...


CHAD COHEN: ...can even mimic other species...

EINTSTEIN'S TRAINER: Can you do a pig?

EINSTEIN: Oink, oink, oink, oink.

CHAD COHEN: ...adding new words to their repertoire all the time.

TRAINER: What does everyone say in Tennessee?


CHAD COHEN: Einstein seems content to receive a treat for displaying his vocal talents. In the wild though, male songbirds use their song to defend territory or to woo a mate. The guy with the best song gets the girl, but to get her, he's got to be creative...

OFER TCHERNICHOVSKI: Every individual bird has his own song, has his own performance, so they imitate, but they also diverge and vary.

CHAD COHEN: ..and in the process, create rather sophisticated melodies.

OFER TCHERNICHOVSKI: So here is a song of a veery. Let's listen to it a little. Does it sound musical to you?

CHAD COHEN: It sounds like a bird.

OFER TCHERNICHOVSKI: Now I'll slow it down for you.

CHAD COHEN: That's incredible. That's incredible. That's the same bird?

Birdsong is so elegant it's inspired the great masters. Mozart borrowed these notes from his beloved starling. When his muse died, the distraught maestro even gave it a formal funeral and wrote a poem in its honor.

OFER TCHERNICHOVSKI: Let me play you something and see if it reminds you of a piece of music. So here is a wood wren song.

CHAD COHEN: So, that's Beethoven's Fifth out of the mouth of a wood wren. That's just crazy. That's just crazy.

OFER TCHERNICHOVSKI: Beethoven was really a fraud, uh?

CHAD COHEN: Yeah. So which came first, though?

OFER TCHERNICHOVSKI: He came first, I can tell you that, at least a few thousand years earlier.

CHAD COHEN: Duke University neurologist Erich Jarvis thinks we have a lot more in common with songbirds than first meets the ear. He's been studying bird brains and comparing them with ours.

ERICH JARVIS (Neurobiologist, Duke University): The basic similarity between songbirds and humans is that we both have cerebral brain areas that control learned vocal behavior.

CHAD COHEN: So, if you look at the cerebral areas of my brain, for example, this area back here helps me understand the words I hear. Whereas, a little bit further up, this area helps me produce the actual words. It's taking no less then 100 muscles, by the way, just for me to be telling you this. And before I can utter a single word, that word-understanding area and that word-producing area need to talk to each other through some sophisticated circuitry.

A songbird's brain also has areas that process and produce sound, and these areas are also connected through sophisticated circuitry.

JUAN URIAGEREKA: For an organism that is so distant from us, that's quite remarkable. Nature is playing a very slick trick, right there.

CHAD COHEN: A trick that Dr. Santosh Helekar is using to help unravel the mystery of speech. He's exploring a troubling speech disorder...

DENNIS: I love to, to, to, to, to, to...

CHAD COHEN: ...stuttering, a condition that causes patients, like Dennis, to get stuck on syllables. Believe it or not, Santosh thinks that some of his zebra finches have a similar problem. Yep, it appears songbirds stutter, too.

SANTOSH HELEKAR (Baylor College of Medicine): A normal birdsong of a zebra finch consists of a sequence of syllables that are repeated over and over again.

CHAD COHEN: This is the sonogram of a normal zebra finch song. A simple melody, consisting of several syllables repeated over and over again. But Santosh's stuttering birds sing like this.

They get stuck on one syllable and keep repeating it over and over again, not unlike what's happening to Dennis.

HENNING VOSS: Hi, Santosh. How are you?

SANTOSH HELEKAR: Hi, Henning. How are you? I brought some birds.

CHAD COHEN: To find out why, Santosh, along with colleague Henning Voss of the Weill Medical College of Cornell, decide to scan the brains of these pint-size stutterers.

To do it, they have to adapt an fMRI machine, designed for a human brain, to scan one a lot smaller. Henning creates this coil to do the job.

Once the tiny patient is mildly sedated, it's put inside the coil and into a soundproof box, equipped with headphones. Then bird, box and all, are placed into the fMRI and the scanning begins.

HENNING VOSS: We will see the brain from the side.

CHAD COHEN: They soon pick up a signal.

HENNING VOSS: This is the forebrain, the cerebellum. Here, one can see midbrain and spinal cord coming out, and the beak.

CHAD COHEN: Now it's time for the entertainment portion of our program.

The tiny patient is played a familiar melody, the song of its father, who first taught him how to sing.

As it listens, the scanner picks up increased blood flow in the part of the brain used to process sound.

HENNING VOSS: Okay, we have very nice activations...

SANTOSH HELEKAR: ...smack in the middle of the hearing center of the brain.

CHAD COHEN: The scans show nice activation, but when they compare the results of these stuttering birds with scans of normal birds, they find a difference.

SANTOSH HELEKAR: A stuttering bird's brain doesn't have the same pronounced activation as a normal bird has.

CHAD COHEN: And here's where it gets really interesting. It turns out, similar activation patterns are found in human stutterers. Stutterers have less activity in an area of the brain used to process sound than normal speakers do.

This connection between human brains and bird brains poses yet another question for researchers: how did two distinctly different species end up with, not only intriguingly similar vocal learning systems, but similar speech disorders? The answer may lie in our genes.

Back in the 1990s, researchers found a genetic link to language, when they discovered an English family suffering from a rare speech disorder.

INTERVIEWER: Where do you live Laura?

LAURA: (inaudible)

ROBERT C. BERWICK (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): This family had extreme difficulty with vocalization, moving their mouths around the right way, with putting the sounds in the right order.

CHAD COHEN: Genetic studies revealed a single gene mutation was the cause. The faulty gene, called FOXP2, was christened "the language gene."

ERICH JARVIS: That discovery prompted myself and Constance Scharff, a long time collaborator of mine, to examine whether or not something was similar in songbirds.

CONSTANCE SCHARFF (Free University of Berlin): Do birds have the FOXP2 gene? Because that wasn't clear at the time.

CHAD COHEN: Well, they not only found the FOXP2 gene in birds, they discovered how it influences the way a bird learns to sing.

ERICH JARVIS: When the young birds are learning how to imitate songs, the FOXP2 gene was going up.

CHAD COHEN: This enabled cells to produce more protein.

ERICH JARVIS: And after learning was complete, it went down. Not only that, we found that in canaries, who can continue to learn song throughout life, at the time of the year they're learning to imitate new songs, the FOXP2 gene goes up again.

CHAD COHEN: An amazing discovery that brings with it a whole other set of questions. FOXP2 is found in just about everything from fish to yeast.

CONSTANCE SCHARFF: Even in flies and bees. So it's not the gene that makes us speak. It's a gene that is being used in many neighborhoods.

CHAD COHEN: Erich Jarvis, for one, is committed to figuring this out. He's set his sights on identifying other genes that may hold the key to why we can speak, birds can sing and others, even our closest relatives, cannot.

It's not for lack of communication skills. Since the 1970s, researchers have demonstrated that chimps understand our words and can even answer back.

ERICH JARVIS: Chimps have this ability of sign language. They already have language with the hands, they just can't do it with the voice.

CHAD COHEN: Jarvis theorizes that a few unknown genes give us something the chimps don't have, that neural circuitry connecting the word-understanding area of our brain to the word-producing area. Without this circuitry, he surmises, chimps can't speak.

ERICH JARVIS: It's not such a crazy idea to think that a few genes have to be mutated to get such a system in the brain.

CHAD COHEN: A system that gives us the gift of gab and our feathered friends inspiring melodies.

JUAN URIAGEREKA: I love these little guys, but now doubly so, because they're a model organism. We can seriously study them.

CHAD COHEN: Whether it's through words or song, one thing's for certain. We aren't the only ones with something to say.

TRAINER: How about a chimpanzee.

EINSTEIN: Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ah, ah.


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Welcome back. A breaking story tonight: big storm brewing. We've got a meteorologist in the field.

Can you hear me?

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON (As Meteorologist): Yes. As you can see, I'm in the thick of it out here!

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Excuse me, but where are you?

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON (As Meteorologist): I'm out in space, orbiting Earth. And believe it or not, there's some serious storms up here. And they can cause all kinds of problems down there, especially with communications systems.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: ...seem to be having technical difficulties.

In the meantime, check this out.

Anyone who has seen the aurora borealis, or northern lights, will tell you they're one of nature's most spectacular performances, a celestial ballet of light, dancing across the night sky.

But it turns out there's much more to this dazzling display than meets the eye, because the same thing that powers the dance of the northern lights can also wreak havoc, exposing astronauts to deadly amounts of radiation, frying electrical systems in satellites and overwhelming power grids, causing widespread blackouts.

Problem is no one has ever been able to agree on the exact choreography of events that gives rise to both this beauty and danger.

JOHN BONNELL (University of California, Berkeley): This has been one of the persistent and difficult questions to solve in space physics.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: But now, an unusual space mission is aiming to solve this mystery once and for all because figuring out what makes the northern lights dance may also hold the key to predicting these kinds of events and avoiding disaster.

The northern lights take place more than 60 miles above the Earth's surface. But they're not caused by weather on Earth. They're caused something much less familiar, called "space weather."

Now, some of you may be thinking, "Space weather? It can't possibly rain or snow in space. I mean, you don't see astronauts shoveling out the Space Station, do you?" Well, turns out space has its own special kind of weather, thanks to that big ball of glowing gas we call the Sun.

Every day, the sun spews out a million tons of electrically charged particles, which race away, at up to 300 miles per second, forming what's known as the solar wind.

Most of these particles are deflected by Earth's magnetic field, the protective shield that envelopes our planet. But some sneak through and eventually collide with air molecules. When they hit oxygen, you get a red or a green glow; nitrogen, a blue glow, creating a steady ring of lights around the north and south magnetic poles.

But sometimes the whole process goes berserk. Huge amounts of energy from the solar wind build up in Earth's magnetic field and then are released in a sudden explosion called a substorm. And you can tell when that happens because the northern lights start to dance.

VASSILIS ANGELOPOULOS (U.C.L.A.): So the eruption of the aurora really corresponds to an eruption of a substorm, an energy release out in space.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: But where do these violent space storms begin?

To find out, a team has launched a mission, called Themis, consisting of five identical satellites.

Wait a minute. Five satellites? Isn't that overkill?

Well, to see why they needed that many, think of a tsunami. A single buoy in the ocean can tell you if a tsunami has taken place. But if you want to figure out which way that wave is moving and how fast, you need multiple buoys, and it's the same with substorms. Except instead of buoys in the ocean, the Themis mission is using satellites.

The goal of the mission is to figure out where substorms start. And once every four days, the satellites enter the region of space where substorms occur to detect if they erupt near Earth or farther out in the magnetic field.

The Themis mission is operated at the University of California at Berkeley.

What am I looking at?

STAFF MEMBER: Now you can see...

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: I see Earth in the middle.

UCLA STAFF MEMBER: That's right, and the five satellite orbits off to the right discovers four days worth of orbit tracks.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: And it's very clear when they all line up.


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Themis is named for the Greek goddess of justice, that blindfolded lady holding the scales on courthouses. And just as the goddess weighed competing explanations to determine the truth, the Themis mission will try to discover the truth about substorms.

The evidence will be gathered by huge antennas on each satellite. And to see how they packed five of these into just one rocket, I paid a visit to one of the guys who designed them.

So where have you brought me? What is this place?

JOHN BONNELL: Well, so this is the mechanical engineering lab.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: One antenna was designed like a high-tech jack-in-the-box. It was nicknamed "the death spike" for reasons that would soon become obvious.

JOHN BONNELL: And when I pull this string, it's going to release.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Can I give you a countdown?

JOHN BONNELL: Yes, go ahead.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Okay, ready? Five, four, three, two, one...

JOHN BONNELL: So, as you can see, about ten-foot up.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: And with these antennas deployed, the team hopes the satellites will be in the right place at the right time, to catch a substorm in action.

JOHN BONNELL: It's like we've laid this trap, we've gone to the jungle, and we're waiting for the tiger.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: And missions like Themis come not a moment too soon.

The sun works on an 11-year cycle, its activity level rising and falling with the number of magnetic disturbances, called sunspots, visible on the surface. Over the years, people have tried to link the sunspot cycle to everything from skirt lengths to stock prices. But the one thing we know it does relate to is space weather. And right now, we're entering a new solar cycle which will peak between 2011 and 2012.

When that happens, the first to know about it will be the nation's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado. Here, a special breed of weathermen keeps their eyes on the Sun, 24/7.

KEN: ...sonar terrestrial indices for 29...

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Drawing on observations, data from satellites, experience and a strong dose of intuition, they issue alerts and warnings, as well as a daily space weather forecast.

KEN: No space weather storms are expected for the next 24 hours.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: So who needs a space weather forecast? Well, NASA for one; and everyone from utility companies to satellite operators would like even longer-range forecasts, like we have for weather on Earth. But that's a tall order.

TOM BOGDAN (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Space Weather Prediction Center): Space weather is much more difficult to predict than terrestrial weather. First of all, the volume of space between us and the Sun is 93 million miles cubed, in size. It's huge.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: To get a handle on such an enormous volume, space physicists just up the road from the Prediction Center are trying to build computer models to forecast space weather.

The results look like this: a simulation predicting how hard the solar wind's blowing, the direction of the magnetic field and the appearance of the northern lights.

But today, these models can only make forecasts about an hour in advance.

MIKE WILTBERGER (National Center for Atmospheric Research): We are, in essence, back at where weather forecasting was in the 1950s. We're just, kind of, getting started into this system and making progress. But it's a kind of exciting time to be in this, because you're at the beginning of a new capability in providing these tools.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Meanwhile, to gather information to improve those tools, the Themis satellites continue lining up, every four days, in Earth's magnetic field, lying in wait for substorms.

It would be fun to be on one of these satellites, as you sort of come into alignment.

VASSILIS ANGELOPOULOS: And watch one of these auroras break up at the same time.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: No, I don't want to be there for that.

It takes two days for data from the outermost satellite to download to Earth. And it will take months or even years to analyze. But in previous alignments, the team's already been lucky, snaring several substorms.

VASSILIS ANGELOPOULOS: This is where the three substorms took place. One took place here, the next one about an hour later, and the next one about...yet another hour later.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: That's these peaks?


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: That's the bleeding edge of the frontier of science?

VASSILIS ANGELOPOULOS: That is exactly right.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: And if their luck holds, they'll catch enough substorms in this two-year mission to figure out the physics needed to improve space weather prediction and to solve the mystery of what makes the aurora dance.


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Here at NOVA scienceNOW, we've always considered it the epitome of cool to be smart and into science, but sometimes kids think they have to choose between being smart and being popular.

Well, in this episode's profile, you'll meet a popular kid who finally decided to embrace her inner geek, and now she's reaping the rewards.

At age 37, Yoky Matsuoka is finally not afraid to stand out.

At the University of Washington, Yoky is a pioneer in neurobotics, an emerging field that combines neuroscience with building robots. Yoky won the MacArthur "genius" award for this visionary work.

YOKY MATSUOKA: It's easy to describe Star Wars and say, "Remember the scene where Luke goes...and then moves the hand around, and it looks like a real hand, but there's a little door that opens on the arm, and there are all mechanical pieces moving around?" And that's what I make.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Thanks to her, people who need them will someday have prosthetic hands that will look and move like real human hands. And what makes Yoky's hand so remarkable is that it will be controlled directly by the human brain.

RODNEY BROOKS (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): I don't think Yoky's ever just one of the crowd. She's doing stuff that's very different from what other people are doing, and I think she enjoys being out there on the edge.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Growing up in Tokyo, Japan, Yoky always knew somewhere, deep down, she was not like other kids.

YOKY MATSUOKA: I knew that I wasn't the same as everybody else. Somehow, something was different.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Then she found the most unlikely of soul mates.

YOKY MATSUOKA: When I first saw John McEnroe? I bet I was about five or eight. He had a personality that was different from other people. He really stood out. I think that's why he was called the "bad boy" of tennis.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: At age 11, Yoky started playing tennis, too. But as a girl in Japan, she knew she could never be like John McEnroe.

YOKY MATSUOKA: Oh yeah, it's not acceptable to be bold; it's not acceptable to really express your opinions, especially as a girl. I think I was afraid to show that I was different, and I admired people who could show that they are different and not be afraid of it.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Tennis became Yoky's obsession and her identity. And she was good.

When Yoky was 16, her parents, both former athletes, sent Yoky to the United States, with the hope of her becoming a professional tennis player.

YOKY MATSUOKA: I was really pushing and playing a lot of tennis—maybe three and a half hours of tennis and one hour conditioning every day.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: And at her new high school, in Palm Bay, Florida, she tried hard to fit in. She studied the show Friends for hours on end, to learn English and how to act like the perfect American girl. She even changed the spelling of her name.

YOKY MATSUOKA: My real name was Yoko. And I often got expressions saying, "Oh you're Yoko, just like Yoko Ono." And I changed my last letter from o to y, to "Yoky."

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Yoky was fitting in, but when she began to do well in math and science, she started to stand out in a way she didn't like.

YOKY MATSUOKA: Whenever I received an award, whether it's a science award or a math award, my friends would come over and say, "You got an award, so you are smart?" And then I would say, "No, no. That's just a mistake. I don't know anything about it. I don't know what they're thinking, but since they're going to give me an award, I'll just take it."

It sounded like a geek or a nerd. And I just didn't want to be that. As girls, we all wanted to be accepted as pretty girls or athletic girls, not the science girls or math girls. If people perceived me as an airhead, then that gained my popularity; I get to have cool friends.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Yoky was so afraid of looking like a nerd that she wouldn't be seen carrying a book.

YOKY MATSUOKA: I even got to the point where I pretended that I was never studying and then just hid in the library for two days before the test, and then I studied. I had to live a double life. I never tried to just stop learning math and science. I just secretly did it.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: On the tennis court, Yoky was on the fast track to becoming a pro. She even reached the qualifying rounds for Wimbledon. But Yoky's body could not withstand the stress.

YOKY MATSUOKA: The first tennis injury, I sprained my ankle so bad that, basically, the bone came off with it. Since then, almost every year I had a pretty severe injury.

I broke my ankle three times, I snapped my Achilles tendon, I snapped my patella tendon, I hurt my back, I had split quad muscles.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: She secretly dreamt of creating a robotic tennis partner to help her strengthen her body and keep training through her injuries.

YOKY MATSUOKA: And I thought, well you know, "I know some science and I know some robotics. Wouldn't that be great, if I can build a robot that, you know, has multiple knobs, and said, ‘Oh today, this person should have this kind of spin on the serve?' Or somebody else, who just would just not miss any balls but would not hit really hard, you know, push me just the right amount every day."

So that's really the first time I started thinking a robotic tennis player would be great.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Due to injuries, Yoky never played professional tennis. But she did get to build robots. At M.I.T., she studied under the world-famous roboticist, Rodney Brooks.

RODNEY BROOKS: So, in principle, I see no reason that we can't build a robot, eventually, that is as capable as a human being.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Like John McEnroe, Rodney was known as the bad boy in his world.

YOKY MATSUOKA: Rod is called "bad boy" of robotics because he also has an attitude. He thinks wild ideas that other people won't think of and won't accept.

RODNEY BROOKS: I went around reveling in being different and reveling in telling everyone else they were wrong.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Rodney was working on Cog, a cutting edge humanoid robot.

YOKY MATSUOKA: Different body parts were up for grab.

"Which body part would you like to work on?" And I said, "Well, you know, I'm a tennis player. I'd really like to understand more about arms and hands. So I think I'm going to work on hands."

RODNEY BROOKS: So this is the hand that Yoky built for her master's thesis. It fit along the end of an arm for Cog.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: It was the first robotic hand that Yoky ever built.

RODNEY BROOKS: Yoky used to always surprise me, because she would go into a field where she knew nothing, really, and within three or four weeks, she'd be knowing everything about it and making contributions there.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: She thrived in this new field, but Yoky was still hiding. She wouldn't even buy books because she was afraid of seeming smart.

YOKY MATSUOKA: Second year of graduate school at M.I.T., I had to put a nametag and it says "Hello my name is," and I was supposed to put "Yoky" on it. But I thought it would be really cool if I put "Airhead." I looked around at everybody's faces, and I didn't see all positive like, "Yeah, girl. Go girl!"

My advisor, Rod Brooks, came and, basically, pulled me on the side and said, "Look, Yoky. This is not going well. Stop acting like an airhead. It's not going to take you far, as long as you're acting this way." And that's the day that it really hit me hard and I thought, "Wow. Now I understand. Okay, I'm going to stop doing this. Acting airhead is not the right dual life that I should be living in anymore." That was one of the few turning points in my life.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Now, 10 years later, Yoky has her own lab at the University of Washington and is working on a new robotic hand. Except this time, it's a robotic hand for humans.

YOKY MATSUOKA: The hand is really amazing. Hands set us apart from other species. You know we built this society because we can use tools. So that means that people who are disabled and can't use their hands, they're not given back this full human capability. I really want to give that function back to those people.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Yoky is building a prosthetic hand that will look and move exactly like a real human hand.

BRIAN DELLON (University of Washington): The index finger, for example, has seven muscles. That means we need seven motors to control and make it work exactly like a human finger would. When the motor moves, it pulls these strings, just like a puppet, and the finger will then move in the correct way.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: They use infrared cameras to track exactly how the muscles in the hand move.

BRIAN DELLON: We put reflective markers on an object, say, your finger.

YOKY MATSUOKA: As I move my finger and record the motion itself, I can play that back using my robotic finger.

So if I curl my knuckle joint, then I can make the robot to curl the knuckle joint the same way.

BRIAN DELLON: As you tense and release your muscles, they actually generate electrical activity, and so we're trying to tease out the some of different ways the brain controls our fingers and our muscles, as we're trying to do a certain task.

YOKY MATSUOKA: One day, people are going to be walking around with a prosthetic hand, which...nobody can tell it's prosthetic. It moves like it, it looks like it, it's controlled naturally from the brain. That's how it's going to be.

I really wanted to be somebody who sticks out, be different, have an attitude. If people say, "Hey, you have an attitude," I think, to me, that's a compliment.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: And with her mathematician husband, Simon, Yoky lives this attitude both inside and outside her lab.

YOKY MATSUOKA: I am the first generation who is openly having this dual life and saying, "You know what? I'm not going to wait 'til tenure. I'm going to start having my kids." And it's really exciting, but it's really, really hard.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Using her MacArthur "genius" award money, Yoky's on a mission to pave the way for the next generation of women in science.

YOKY MATSUOKA: What I really would like to do is to change the image of math and science. And if I could really change that image, then it's okay to be smart. And it's okay to be a girl and then still be able to pursue math and science, and it's accepted.

I'd like to be role model, and I want them to see that that's what I'm doing, and to achieve that and then do better than me.


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: As we travel around by car, we expect the bridges we have to cross to be safe and secure. But many of them are very old, and a few have already collapsed. Wouldn't it be great if engineers could create a technology so that bridges could tell us what's wrong and how to fix it, before it's too late?

Correspondent Peter Standring reports on efforts to prevent another tragedy like the one that happened in Minneapolis not long ago.

911 OPERATOR (female): Minneapolis 911.

911 CALLER (female): The bridge collapsed! People are stacked up on 35! The whole bridge fell into the river!

PETER STANDRING (Correspondent): At the end of rush hour, on a hot summer day, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a major bridge over the Mississippi River suddenly collapsed.

911 CALLER (male): I think there are people trapped in cars is what I'm really worried about.

911 CALLER (female) the river, there are cars sinking and people in their cars.

911 OPERATOR (male): We know, ma'am. Everyone's on the way.

PETER STANDRING: Over 100 cars fell with the bridge, among them, a community center school bus carrying 54 children.

SASHA BOUYE (Waite House Neighborhood Center): ...and then, all of a sudden out of nowhere, it was just this big drop.

JULIE GRAVES (Waite House Neighborhood Center): It all...hit our heads, come back down, hit our heads, come back down. You just heard kids screaming.

SASHA BOUYE: Oh my god, oh my god! What happened, what happened?

PETER STANDRING: The disaster killed 13 people and seriously injured over 100 more. And if this bridge collapsed, what about all the others like it across the country?

JIM OBERSTAR (D-Minnesota, U.S. House of Representatives): We have 76,000 structurally-deficient bridges in the United States. That's almost two and a half times as many as we had 20 years ago. And we need more modern non-destructive technologies to inspect those bridges today, to make them safer for the future.

PETER STANDRING: The cause of the Minneapolis collapse is still under a federal investigation, but here's what we know: the Minneapolis bridge was an under-deck truss-arch design made up of twin trusses of steel beams arranged in triangles and connected with steel plates, called gussets. The trusses distribute the weight of the traffic throughout the structure, all the parts working together. But the design has no backup against failure. If one major part fails, the whole bridge can come crashing down.

Investigators found that 16 of those connecting gusset plates failed, resulting in the catastrophic collapse.

The tragedy was seen as a wake-up call, highlighting the need for technology that warns us before a bridge fails, technology appearing on bridges, even today.

About an hour's drive east of Minneapolis, along Interstate 94, you'll find this bridge, spanning the Red Cedar River, in Wisconsin. It has an under-deck truss-arch design that's almost identical to the bridge that collapsed.

In fact, this one is 10 years older. So down below, on its aging steel structure, crews from the Wisconsin department of transportation are installing sensors to give it a kind of high tech physical.

This will keep me in the basket?

FINN HUBBARD (Bridge Engineer): This will keep you attached to the basket.

PETER STANDRING: I'm not crazy about heights, but the only way to see for myself was to climb into the basket, as bridge engineer Finn Hubbard took me up, over the edge and under the bridge.

FINN HUBBARD: We're coming back now, and taking a look at it with our sensors, today, to find out how the bridge is doing inside, if you will, looking at the stress and the strain, the forces inside the members themselves.

PETER STANDRING: The sensors, called strain gauges, are welded onto critical spots on the bridge.

FINN HUBBARD: What that does is it actually measures the strain, which is that actual stretching of the metal, sort of like stretching a rubber band.

PETER STANDRING: The gauge is attached to the bridge, so that when the steel stretches, the gauge stretches, changing its electrical resistance. By comparing the gauges' readings to the way the bridge is supposed to perform, Finn can tell if the metal is overly stressed.

Do you think that, ultimately, this is making for a safer bridge, or at least is going to give you the information that you need to keep it safe?

FINN HUBBARD: I think what it's going to do is give us that added measure of insurance that the bridge is behaving the way the computer model back in the office is saying it is.

PETER STANDRING: But strain gauges have serious limitations. They can only give you one type of information at one spot on the bridge. And they can't warn you of an imminent collapse.

If we could only probe deep inside an old bridge's inner structure to find out which are in danger and which are sound...Well, turns out we can, the same way that submarines detect other boats, using the echoes of sound waves, or sonar.

At the University of California, San Diego, they're using a kind of sonar technology to find cracks in bridges. They're called piezoelectric sensors, and they can both send and receive high frequency tones right through a bridge.

ERIC FLYNN (Structural Engineer): So this one will launch a wave into the structure, while this white one, here, will then detect the signal at the other end.

PETER STANDRING: The wave is ultrasonic, so Eric's computer converts the signal so that we can hear it.

ERIC FLYNN: All right. So what we have here is our signal that we received on the healthy structure plate. And if we downshift that ultrasonic signal into the audible range, this is what we hear...very nice clear tone.

PETER STANDRING: But if you fracture that steel plate, the crack forces the ultrasonic waves to take different paths.

ERIC FLYNN: Now we replace that healthy beam with a damaged beam. Put the same sensors on it and apply the same signal again. This is what we get out. You can both see the difference and hear the difference: these extra tones that are now present in that damaged plate.

PETER STANDRING: So how would that work on a bridge? You can place a bunch of these devices around trouble spots like gusset plates, and then have them ping each other in different combinations, probing for problems, such as cracks in the structure.

MICHAEL TODD (Structural Engineer): What we do is we deploy arrays of these, many of these, on a structure, and then we launch waves, and we listen. And the idea then becomes, if you keep doing that test, and a crack has developed, maybe corrosion has occurred, a bolt is coming loose, or...the signature that we're detecting is going to fundamentally change.

PETER STANDRING: But the ideal technology would not only probe for damage and signal its location, it would literally show you where it's broken.

At the University of Michigan, researchers have developed a nanotech skin that could one day cover and monitor bridge, 24/7. Here they've successfully tested a coating that, when stimulated with an electric current, senses damage beneath its surface. And the secret of the sensing skin is the new wonder material of nanotechnology, carbon nanotubes.

Carbon nanotubes are microscopic tubes of carbon atoms that join up under extreme temperatures. Many times stronger and lighter than steel, carbon nanotubes are also amazing conductors of electricity, and it's the electrical properties of these tiny tubes that make the sensing skin possible.

JEROME LYNCH (University of Michigan): The honor is all yours, Peter.

PETER STANDRING: Breaking the skin, here we go.

JEROME LYNCH: Excellent.

PETER STANDRING: To test the system, Professor Jerry Lynch let me punch holes through a steel plate covered with nanotech skin.

JEROME LYNCH: So, with your incredible strength, you can see that you punctured all the way through the plate.

PETER STANDRING: The electricity passing through the skin creates a high resolution map on a computer, providing a visual representation of the puncture holes.

JEROME LYNCH: So the magnitude of damage would be correlated to the color-coding that we have here on our images.

PETER STANDRING: The skin could be sprayed or glued over critical bridge components. When damage starts to form, the skin's electrical current is forced to flow in different directions, change that a computer reads and displays as damage. And by altering the chemistry, different layers of the skin can be made to detect different types of damage—deformation, cracks, corrosion—all at the same time, catching threats before they become dangerous.

Could you envision, you know, a bridge engineer, sitting in his office, monitoring the wellbeing of a structure through a system like this?

JEROME LYNCH: Yes, that's one of the beauties of this particular how self-evident damage appears in these images.

PETER STANDRING: Within months of the Minneapolis collapse, construction on a replacement bridge is already underway.

LINDA FIGG (FIGG Bridge Engineers): This bridge is a big responsibility for restoring confidence. We expect our bridges to be safe and to get us where we need to be every day.

PETER STANDRING: The new bridge is being built of high density concrete, and its design includes multiple backups against failure and what is promised to be a state-of-the-art sensor system.

LINDA FIGG: The main concept is to have many different technologies working in concert. And, collectively, these will all work together to bring us the best data for the bridge.

PETER STANDRING: But even as the bridge takes shape, the scene evokes mixed feelings for Julie and Sasha.

SASHA BOUYE: I think this might be the only bridge that I may feel comfortable going across, because it is a new structure.

JULIE GRAVES: The new bridge, no matter how many times I cross it, for me, I'll just...I'm never going to get the sounds and the sight out of my head from the actual bridge collapse.


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: And now for some final thoughts on the northern lights.

Who would have guessed, long ago, what causes the aurora? Countless atomic and sub-atomic particles, released by the Sun, in resonance with its 11-year cycle, stream among the planets at speeds up to a million miles an hour. These charged particles see and respond to Earth's magnetic field: the positive and negative charges split north and south. They then gather and pulse, in ways still mysterious, as they collide with molecules of Earth's upper atmosphere.

The collisions render the air aglow, creating one of the most colorful and striking sights of the arctic night, as the sky fills with dancing curtains of light.

No doubt about it, the aurora is complex. To understand it requires a branch of advanced physics called magnetohydrodynamics, a field that's been known to make strong men weep.

Meanwhile, the aurora has been, and continues to serve as a fertile source of art, mythology and legend among Arctic peoples and their visitors, as it leaves viewers in silent awe of its majesty and beauty.

It's a curious thing about the universe: behind the most stunning phenomena to behold, lie some of the most challenging problems in astrophysics, from the colorful turbulence within planetary atmospheres, to stars in the throes of death, to the majestic patterns of spiral galaxies, to the large-scale structure of the universe itself. What distinguishes the aurora among them, is that you don't need a telescope to see it, just your eyes and a ticket to the arctic.

And that's the cosmic perspective.

And now we'd like to hear your perspective on this episode of NOVA scienceNOW. Log on to our Web site and tell us what you think. You can watch any of these stories again, download audio and video podcasts, hear from experts and much more. Find us at

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Bird Brains

Edited by
Jedd Ehrmann

Produced and Directed by
Terri Randall

Northern Lights

Edited by
Harlan Reiniger

Written, Produced and Directed by
Joseph McMaster

Yoky Matsuoka Profile

Edited by
Cherry Enoki

Produced by
Joshua Seftel & Ann S. Kim

Directed by
Joshua Seftel

Smart Bridges

Edited by
Ezra Gold & Robert Hutchings

Produced and Directed by
Kristian Berg

Executive Producer
Samuel Fine

Executive Editor
Neil deGrasse Tyson

Senior Series Producer
Vincent Liota

Supervising Producers
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NOVA scienceNOW series animation

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Special Thanks
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Libby Lewis Photography
The Methodist Neurological Institute
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New York Presbyterian Hospital, the University Hospital of Columbia and Cornell and Citigroup Biomedical Imaging Center
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is director of the Hayden Planetarium in the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0638931. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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