NOVA scienceNOW

PBS Airdate: January 25, 2005
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ROBERT KRULWICH: Hi. I'm Robert Krulwich, and the show you are about to see is something new that we're adding to NOVA. This is an experiment. We cover breaking science, science that's right out of the lab, science that sometimes bumps up against politics, art, culture. You're going see several stories in each show, and we're going to do several shows each year.

And because we're new, we have a, well, sort of a new name. We call ourselves NOVA scienceNOW.

What explains this terror, this pain, this joy when people watch football on TV? Tonight we discover a circuit in our brains that suggests when we watch football or for that matter when we go to the movies...

HELEN HAYES: Oh, darling, I'm going to die!

ROBERT KRULWICH: ...or watch a dance, in part of our brain we're not just watching it, deep down, we're doing it.

DR. DANIEL GLASER (University College London): What we've found is the mechanism that underlies something which is absolutely fundamental to the way that we see other people in the world.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Also tonight—hurricanes: so dangerous, so extraordinarily complex, there is no way to predict their power.

MAN: This one looks like a monster.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But tonight we will show you a computer—and there's only one...

PETER STANDRING (scienceNOW Correspondent): We're going to dive on into the storm?

MARSHALL SHEPHERD (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center): We're going to fly into the storm.

ROBERT KRULWICH: ...that looks inside the clouds, and, like an x-ray, can see the internal structure of a hurricane—the storms inside the storm—so that one day, if you're about to get hit hard, you'll know.

PETER STANDRING: You're saying that this street, French Quarter, under 22 feet of water?

WALTER MAESTRI (Jefferson Parish Emergency Management): If Ivan made that direct hit, this is what we'd be looking at. We're swimming here. We're like fish, if we're alive.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And we tell the story of a young engineer with an ordinary problem.

JAMES MCLURKIN (Engineer and Roboticist): Time.



ROBERT KRULWICH: Time. He doesn't have enough of it. So with an engineer's precision he has designed his life, every minute of his life, for maximum efficiency. Right down to tying his shoes.

You don't do that at home.

JAMES MCLURKIN: There's always time at the red lights to tie your shoes.

ROBERT KRULWICH: He even designed an algorithm for efficient dating to reduce the incidence of unrequited love.

JAMES MCLURKIN: All that unrequited love, you don't want any of that. That's not efficient.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And does it work? Well...



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ROBERT KRULWICH: Hello again. Gaze into a mirror, and what do you see? Well, I see my face, of course. But in my face I see moods, I see shifts of feeling.

We humans are really good at reading faces and bodies. 'Cause if I can look at you and feel what you're feeling, I can learn from you, connect to you, I can love you. Empathy is one of our finer traits, and when it happens it happens so easily, perhaps because—and this is brand new science, this is just out of the lab—we may have some special circuitry in our brains that helps us whenever we look at each other.

Ask yourself, "Why do people get so involved, so deeply, deeply involved, with such anguish, such pain, such nail biting tension over football?"

COMMENTATOR: The Cleveland Browns are gambling on defense.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Why are we such suckers for sports? And it's not just sports. We can lose it completely at the movies, at video games, watching a dance. Is there something about humans, humans particularly, that allows us to connect so deeply when we watch other people—watch them moving, watch them playing, watch their faces?

Well, as it happens, scientists have an explanation for this strange ability to connect. It's new.

DANIEL GLASER: It had never been found on a cellular level before.

ROBERT KRULWICH: A set of brain cells, found on either side of the head, among all the billions of long branching cells in our brain, these so-called "mirror neurons," have surprising power.

DANIEL GLASER: What we've found is the mechanism that underlies something which is absolutely fundamental to the way that we see other people in the world.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And it began entirely by accident, at a laboratory in the lovely old city of Parma, Italy, where a group of brain researchers was working with monkeys, and they were testing a neuron—that's a brain cell—that always fired...made this sound...

(NEURON FIRING): Clack, clack, clack.

ROBERT KRULWICH: ...whenever the monkey would grab for a peanut. So the lab had all these peanuts around, and whenever the monkey made its move...

(NEURON FIRING): Clack, clack, clack.

ROBERT KRULWICH: ...the neuron would fire.

Scientists thought, "Now here's a neuron that's essential to motion. It's a motor neuron."

Then, one day, the monkey was just sitting around, not moving at all, just sitting, when a human scientist came into the lab. And when that scientist grasped the peanut? Yeah, the monkey's cell fired.

Now, the monkey hadn't moved, it was the human that had moved, suggesting that this neuron up here couldn't tell the difference between seeing something and doing something—seeing and doing were the same—or more intriguingly, that for this neuron, watching somebody do something is just like doing it yourself.

The head of the lab, Giacomo Rizzolatti, thought, "Wow!"

GIACOMO RIZZOLATTI (University of Parma): The same neurons, one neuron, fired, both when the monkey observed something, and when the monkey is doing something. It is almost unbelievable.

DANIEL GLASER: It was surprising, because this cell, which was involved with motor planning for the monkey, turned out to be interested in the movements of other people as well.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Some people call them "monkey see, monkey do" neurons, but the name that stuck is "mirror neurons," because with them, the brain seems to mirror the movements it sees.

This accidental discovery got scientists thinking, doing more tests, and soon it came pretty clear that this is not just a monkey thing, it's a people thing, too.

We all know that humans learn by looking and copying; that's what infants do.

First you look...

MOTHER: One, two, three, four.

ROBERT KRULWICH: ...then you do.

DONNA: Ready? Let's see your feet this way.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And once you've watched and copied and learned a set of moves, you not only have them in your head, if you see somebody else doing it you can share the experience. They know the moves, you know the moves, so you can move with them.

DANIEL GLASER: If you can use the years of training that you, yourself, have done—learning to crawl, then learning to walk, then learning to eat—this is an incredibly rich set of knowledge that you could apply to the problem of actually seeing what's going on.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So that's why, when I head down the street carrying all these packages, not only do people watch, look how they're watching.

They feel my predicament because they know what it's like to carry heavy packages. They know all about "carrying." So as they watch me moving they can feel themselves moving. Their neurons are "mirroring" the action.

These neurons may be the brain's way of translating what we see so we can relate to the world.

DANIEL GLASER: The mirror system is the way that you tap into...the way that you harness your own abilities and project them out into the world.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And people are really good at watching and translating what we see. Like, with just thirteen moving dots—that's all there are here—you'll have no trouble recognizing these very ordinary activities. What's more, tests have shown that when a person sees a movie like this of his own movement, he'll recognize it immediately as his own.

And that's why sports fans tense with the action, and wince, and leap. 'Cause if you know the game...

FOOTBALL FAN 1: Flag! Flag!

FOOTBALL FAN 2: No, no, no flag.


ROBERT KRULWICH: ...then your neurons are firing as if it's you playing, giving whole new meaning to the phrase "armchair quarterback." That's why it's so easy to be a sports fan.

But there is more, suggests U.C.L.A. professor Marco Iacoboni. He thinks mirror neurons tie us, not just to other people's actions, but to other people's feelings.

MARCO IACOBONI (University of California, Los Angeles): So the idea was to try to figure out how the emotional system and this motor system are connected together.

We're going to go in the scanner and what you're going to do is to...

ROBERT KRULWICH: To demonstrate, he put me into this very powerful f.M.R.I. brain scanner that can peer into the brain while it's working.

And he gave me some goggles so he could show me pictures when I was in there.

MARCO IACOBONI: So you can see here the eyeball of Robert.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And once he had a good view into my brain...

MARCO IACOBONI: Nice looking brain.


MARCO IACOBONI: Robert, you're not supposed to talk when we scan you, all right?


Then he said, "Okay, I'm going to show you a bunch of faces. And for each face, I want you to imitate it."

So I did that. Then he recorded my brain while I moved my facial muscles.

MARCO IACOBONI: We're going do, right away, another one.


Then he said "Okay, same faces, but this time, don't move a muscle, just look." So I looked.

When we checked the results...

Oh, there's my brain. I've never seen my brain before.

MARCO IACOBONI: This is your mirror area.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Iacoboni says that the part of my brain that's working when I make a face, the same part gets busy when I see the face.

Plus, when I was looking at these faces, I remember feeling extra uncomfortable, kind of bad. But when these faces came on, I felt, I don't know, I felt better, almost happy. And, in fact, at that moment I was looking at the happy face, my brain—and this is my brain at that instant—see that red area here, it shows activity in the "happy" emotional part of my brain.

And when I was imitating "happy" faces, look. I get an even bigger response.

This, says Iacoboni, is a consistent result. Mirror neurons, he believes, can send messages to the limbic, or emotional system in our brains. So it's possible these neurons help us tune in to each others' feelings. That's empathy.

MARCO IACOBONI: We strongly believe that that's a unifying mechanism that allows people to actually connect at a very simple level.

ROBERT KRULWICH: You are saying that there's a place in my brain, which...whose job it is to live in other people's minds, live in other people's bodies?

MARCO IACOBONI: That's right.

HELEN HAYES in A FAREWELL TO ARMS: Oh, darling, I'm going to die! Don't let me die!


ROBERT KRULWICH: And great actors instinctively know that if they put feeling and drama into their bodies,...

HELEN HAYES in A FAREWELL TO ARMS: Hold me tight! Don't let me go!

ROBERT KRULWICH: ...their faces, we will respond.

GARY COOPER in A FAREWELL TO ARMS: You can't die. You're too brave to die!

DANIEL GLASER: What actors are experts in is using their movements to inspire feelings in the people watching. These are the experts in the mirror system.

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN (University of California, San Diego): We are intensely social creatures. We literally read other people's minds. I don't mean anything psychic like telepathy, but you can adopt another person's point of view.

LINDSAY SCHENK (University of California, San Diego): When you put it together, what do you think it's going to be?

ROBERT KRULWICH: So if mirror neurons help us connect emotionally, what about people who have trouble with this? Kids like Christian, who has autism?

LINDSAY SCHENK: Why do you like LEGO®s?

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: It's been known for some time that children with autism could be quite intelligent, but have a profound deficit in social interaction.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Christian can speak and read and write, but like many kids with autism, he will avoid eye contact, he often misunderstands questions.

LINDSAY SCHENK: So, Christian, can you tell me what you did in school today?

CHRISTIAN: Doing well.

LINDSAY SCHENK: You're doing well?


ROBERT KRULWICH: Everybody wants to know what exactly causes this. So Dr. Ramachandran and his graduate student, Lindsay Schenk, designed an experiment...

LINDSAY SCHENK: So we're going be reading your brainwaves with this cap.

ROBERT KRULWICH: They recorded brainwaves while the kids opened and closed their hands and while they looked at a movie of somebody else's hands. For most people, the brainwave looks the same either way, whether they're doing or seeing. But for the kids with autism, the wave changes, suggesting, possibly, that autism might have something to do with broken mirror neurons.

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Their brains may indeed be different in that regard, and they may have deficits in their mirror neuron system. But we don't know this for sure yet. There needs to be...additional work needs to be done using brain imaging.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But what we do know, says Ramachandran, is that healthy human beings are intensely social. More than our cousins, the monkeys, we invent ways to connect. We invent dances, and handshakes, and games to play. We eat together. We meet and we talk. We talk a lot.

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Everybody's interested in this question: "What makes humans unique?" What makes us different from the great apes, for example? You can say humor—we're the laughing biped—language certainly, okay? But another thing is culture. And a lot of culture comes from imitation, watching your teachers do something.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And here V.S. Ramachandran makes a big leap. He has proposed that at a key moment in our evolution, this is his guess, our mirror neurons got better. And that made all the difference, he says, because once we humans got better at learning from each other—looking, copying, teaching—we could do things the other creatures couldn't.

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: In other words, if you are a bear, and suddenly the environment turns cold, you need a few million years to develop polar bear type layers of fat and fur.

ROBERT KRULWICH: It would take many, many, many bear generations to select for furrier bears. But, says Ramachandran...

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: If you're a human, you watch your father slaying another bear and putting on a fur coat, you know, skinning it, using that as a coat. You watch it, you learn it instantly. Your mirror neurons start firing away in your brain, and you've performed the same sequence, complicated sequence. Instead of going through millions of years of evolution, you've done it in one generation.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And while no one is claiming that mirror neurons are the key ingredient that makes us different from other creatures, what these neurons do suggest about us seems almost self-evident. You can see it any Sunday at a sports bar, that deep in our architecture, down in our cells, we are built to be together.

DANIEL GLASER: There'd be very little point in having a mirror system if you lived on your own. There'd be a lot of point in having a digestive system if you lived on your own. There'd be a good point in having a movement system if you lived on your own. There'd be a good point in having a visual system if you lived on your own. But there'd be no point in having a mirror system. The mirror system is probably the most basic social brain system. It's a brain system which there's no point in having if you don't want to interact or relate to other people.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But we do like to interact. And maybe now, as never before, we will understand why. Okay, now, before we leave this subject, we've designed a little mirror neuron exercise.

What we're going to do is take a wishbone, an ordinary wishbone, the kind you break for good luck, and we're going to take it—come on—and we're going to take it for a stroll. And, if your mirror neurons are working properly, when you see anything, even a wishbone walking, you know, along, you won't just watch that bone, you are going to be that bone.

The walking bone was created and designed by artist Arthur Ganson, and later in the program we will show you a host of Ganson gadgets in glorious motion.


But speaking of motion, I wonder if I could have a hurricane, just a small one please. Thank you.

Now, the thing about hurricanes is, if there's one in the neighborhood and you are, say, over here, the first thing you want to know is: "Is it coming at me?" Because, if you're in its path, you're going to want to leave.

Thank you.

But over the years, scientists have gotten pretty good at predicting the direction of a hurricanes but not so good at predicting a hurricane's intensity.

Hurricanes...I'll need one again.

Hurricanes, because of changes in terrain and in water temperature, and all kinds of things down below, can suddenly swell and then diminish and then swell again. And because scientists don't have the tools to read hurricanes that well, these changes are very, very hard to predict—until recently...

Thank you.

...'cause now there's a new development, a kind of CAT scan for hurricanes.

As our correspondent Peter Standring reports, predicting a hurricane's power may now get a little easier.

PETER STANDRING (scienceNOW Correspondent): When most people think of New Orleans, they think of the French Quarter, Mardi Gras, jazz, gumbo. But according to federal officials one of the most dire threats facing the nation would be a massive hurricane striking New Orleans. They say that if a major storm had a direct hit here, the effect would be devastating. They're talking perhaps as many as 50,000 dead, up to a million homeless and a city under water. And that disaster nearly happened this past hurricane season.

When hurricane Ivan barreled into the Gulf of Mexico, it was on a collision course with New Orleans, a city with a unique vulnerability to hurricanes.

RAY NAGIN (Mayor, New Orleans, Lousiana): This is a very dangerous storm. Hurricane Ivan is approaching us.

PETER STANDRING: Fearing the worst, the mayor called for an evacuation of the city.

MAN: I've been through a couple of hurricanes but this one looks like a monster. I'm hoping it doesn't hit us directly.

PETER STANDRING: Luckily for New Orleans, Ivan veered east at the eleventh hour, and the Big Easy dodged a bullet.

To get a sense of the damage a hurricane like Ivan would have caused if it made a direct hit on the city of New Orleans, I met with emergency manager, Walter Maestri.

What have we got here?

WALTER MAESTRI: Well, this is a surveyor's rod. And this can extend up to 25 feet, and it shows us just how deep the water would be here if Ivan came through.

PETER STANDRING: And you're getting pretty high there, Walter.

WALTER MAESTRI: Notice we're probably about the second level, right? There we go now. Watch. We're getting close. We're there.

PETER STANDRING: What are we at?

WALTER MAESTRI: Twenty two feet is what they tell us could be right here in the French Quarter.

PETER STANDRING: You're saying that this street, French Quarter, under 22 feet of water?

WALTER MAESTRI: If Ivan made that direct hit, this is what we'd be looking at. We're swimming here. We're like fish, if we're alive.



PETER STANDRING: Just 50 miles from Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans is at such great risk because most of the city lies below sea level. Settled in 1718, it's sandwiched between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.

IVOR VAN HEERDEN (Louisiana State University): New Orleans was built on a swamp. And in order to build it, they had to put a wall, a levee, around the swamp, and then pump all the water out. As you pump the water out, you allow oxygen to then get into the soils, the oxygen breaks down the organic matter in the soils and they lose bulk and they sink.

PETER STANDRING: To keep the river and lake from flooding this ever-deepening bowl, which is more than 12 feet below sea level in some places, hundreds of miles of giant levees like this one now surround New Orleans.

To get rid of rainwater that collects in the bowl, 22 pump stations were installed throughout the city. These pumps are so powerful that they can suck up 29 billion gallons of water a day from the city and push it all back into the lake. Now, that's enough water to fill the stadium here in New Orleans, the Superdome, in about 35 minutes.

But in a strong hurricane, these pumps would be overwhelmed and the very same levees that protect New Orleans from floods could be its demise.

Hurricanes are whirling dynamos, generating enormous winds. These winds create a gigantic swell of water called a storm surge. And in New Orleans, a storm surge could deliver a fatal one-two punch.

Approaching from the Gulf of Mexico, the storm surge would push water into Lake Pontchartrain and up the Mississippi River. As the water level rises, it would overflow the levees on the lake, inundating the city from the north. A strong enough hurricane would push water over the higher levees along the Mississippi River, flooding the city from the south.

In this doomsday scenario, levees intended to keep water out trap it inside New Orleans.

WALTER MAESTRI: If that bowl fills up, we have no way, necessarily, to get that water out of here; in essence, Lake Pontchartrain, which surrounds us, is transferred and becomes Lake New Orleans.

PETER STANDRING: If anything, the situation is getting even more dangerous. That's because wetlands that provide a natural defense against storm surges are disappearing.

To see how, University of New Orleans geologist Shea Penland takes me for a swamp buggy ride into the bayous just a few miles south of the city. Here, between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, is the largest area of coastal wetlands anywhere in the United States.

So, Shea, why did we stop here?

SHEA PENLAND (University of New Orleans): We stopped here because this is an area that was solid land 50 years ago and today is open water.

PETER STANDRING: Healthy wetlands weaken a hurricane by starving it of warm ocean water, its fuel. But in the last 70 years, nearly 2,000 square miles of this protective buffer have eroded due to manmade and natural causes.

What does all this land loss mean to the city of New Orleans?

SHEA PENLAND: The wetlands are our natural speed bump; they're our first line of defense. We have a slow disaster that's kind of eating its way towards the city, and all of a sudden, here comes the hurricane. And that major hurricane could be the one on the right track, the right trajectory that puts the storm right down in the city, people can't get out, and we have the ten thousand, twenty thousand, thirty thousand dead. And that's the worst case scenario; that's what we're gambling with right now.

PETER STANDRING: With so many lives at risk, accurately predicting these killer storms is a high stakes endeavor.

JEFFREY HALVERSON (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center): Forecasters do walk a tightrope when they make forecasts for landfall. You don't want to give people the wrong impression about every storm. You move them harmlessly out of the way and nothing hits, it is a cry wolf kind of syndrome.

PETER STANDRING: ...just what happened in the wake of hurricane Ivan. With Ivan closing in on New Orleans, more than 600,000 people evacuated the city. New Orleans shut down. The storm veered off course, but the question remains: when another storm threatens the Louisiana coast, will people evacuate a second time?

In recent years, forecasting the track of a hurricane has improved dramatically, but predicting its intensity, how strong it will be when it hits land, is still a difficult challenge.

MARSHALL SHEPHERD: If you just grab your glasses there and I'll give you a test drive.

PETER STANDRING: We're going to dive on into the storm?

MARSHALL SHEPHERD: We are going to fly into the storm.

PETER STANDRING: NASA is using satellites to understand hurricanes both inside and out.

MARSHALL SHEPHERD: Twenty, thirty years ago, when we used a conventional view of a storm, we could really only see the cloud top. We could see how big the storm was, we could see the white mass which represented the clouds, and that was valuable, but that's all we could see. We were just touching the hood of the car. Now we can pop the hood and look inside the storm.

PETER STANDRING: To do that, they're using a satellite equipped with weather radar, the only one of its kind.

Much the way a CAT scan provides a three-dimensional picture of internal organs, the satellite's radar is producing stunning pictures of a hurricane's internal structure. And these unique images reveal something unexpected: extremely violent thunderstorms, called hot towers—seen here in red. These storms-within-a-storm can reach more than 10 miles into the sky.

MARSHALL SHEPHERD: When we see these hot towers, we think that they are giving us a clue that the storm is releasing a lot of energy, and it's firing on all cylinders if you will. And that may be a sign that the storm is about to undergo intensification processes.

PETER STANDRING: So you do think, preliminarily, that there's a link between the abundance of hot towers, and how strong and intense a storm is going to be?

MARSHALL SHEPHERD: That's exactly where we are in the research. We don't have enough evidence to conclusively link the number of hot towers or how tall they are to intensity, but our hypothesis is that they might be a sign or a clue that this hurricane is about to enter an intensification phase.

PETER STANDRING: And if this work pays off, forecasters will be able to predict more accurately not just where a storm will hit, but whether it will weaken or intensify just before landfall.

WALTER MAESTRI: What really scares me to death is that we get a category 2 or 3 hurricane that rapidly intensifies to a category 4 or 5 storm. That's the one that could absolutely be catastrophic here because we wouldn't get people out. People wouldn't be moving early as they were for Ivan. They would all be here, in the community, and all of a sudden we'd get this wall, this massive wall of water, the double whammy.

IVOR VAN HEERDEN: Every year that goes by, the probability of this killer storm occurring increases.

JEFF HALVERSON: It's inevitable that at some point, probably in the next 10 to 15 years, there's going to be a tragedy somewhere along the U.S. coastline. It may not be New Orleans... some other high population center. Fairly likely scenario.

PETER STANDRING: Gaining a deeper understanding of hurricanes is the best answer, but it won't happen overnight.

Here on Bourbon Street, the good times continue to roll. But the party atmosphere masks a widespread concern about the threat of these killer storms. For this city, or any other place that's at risk, improvements in hurricane prediction can't come soon enough.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Correspondent Peter Standring.


Now I want you to meet somebody who is...well, he is what he is.

And what he is, is—and you'll see this in the way he plays, the way he works, the way he loves, even the way he does his laundry—the man is an engineer, and such an engineer that if you were to look deep into his cells, down to the DNA where the rest of us have AAs and CCs and TTs and GGs he has, I haven't seen this, but I'm sure it's true, he has E-N-G-I-N-E-E-R.

With him, it's genetic as you're about to see.

JAMES MCLURKIN: All right, let's, let's get this going.

ROBERT KRULWICH: James McLurkin does not waste time.

JAMES MCLURKIN: I want to sit next to you, Dara.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Just ask his girlfriend, Dara.

DARA BOURNE (James McLurkin's Girlfriend): James said to me, when we went out to dinner the first time, "I'm a geek."

JAMES MCLURKIN: It's very important to remember that I am a geek, that I build robots and I like it. I've got pet ants. I play video games.

ROBERT KRULWICH: At only 20, he built what was then one of the world's smallest self-contained autonomous robots. Later, he won the $30,000 Lemelson-M.I.T. prize for remarkable inventiveness. His work's been exhibited at the Smithsonian, and that's just for starters.

He was Senior Lead Research Scientist at a major robotics company. He's getting his Ph.D. at M.I.T.'s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. He teaches high school students, he's got the girlfriend. James is a very, very busy guy. But it's no sweat.

JAMES MCLURKIN: I am overheating.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Well, it's a little sweat.

JAMES MCLURKIN: I have four minutes before my next meeting.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But not to worry, he says he can do it all and have it all because he has a system.

JAMES MCLURKIN: Off we go. Time. Time.





ROBERT KRULWICH: Yeah, we got it.

He is an engineer. He loves planning and systems analysis, so he has analyzed and planned every minute of his life.

JAMES MCLURKIN: Time is a resource that is more precious than any other resource I've got.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And he's determined to use that time efficiently.

JAMES MCLURKIN: I need to account for all 168 hours in the week. Every minute needs to be spent either working, sleeping or playing.

ROBERT KRULWICH: For example, driving. His rule is to commute in off-hours, when traffic is light, to save time. And don't tie your shoes at home; that's what red lights are for.

JAMES MCLURKIN: There's always time at the red lights to tie your shoes.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Lunch? It saves time to eat during class, not before, not after.

Very admirable, but, says his girlfriend, it doesn't work, he's always late.

DARA BOURNE: James always thinks he has more time than he really does. Or he thinks that—I don't know what it is—he knows better. But the schedule, the schedule's going to work. But it doesn't. And before you know it, you know, you're two hours off. Oh, man. You don't schedule properly.

JAMES MCLURKIN: I mean, it's very well scheduled. It's just...

DARA BOURNE: No it's not.

JAMES MCLURKIN: No, no, very, it's very, very precise. It's a serious, intense schedule.

DARA BOURNE: And it's never...

JAMES MCLURKIN: Too much of it.

DARA BOURNE: And it doesn't ever go according to the times that are here.

JAMES MCLURKIN: It does, sometimes, except the events that...right before I see you.

DARA BOURNE: Those ones? Just those ones?

JAMES MCLURKIN: All those pre-Dara events.


ROBERT KRULWICH: If he's late, he says it's the system that needs adjusting. So he adjusts the system. Take laundry for example.

JAMES MCLURKIN: Laundry takes a lot of time to get the clothes into a pile, to get them in front of the machine. Moving the basket around costs 10, 15 seconds.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So James decided it was inefficient to do laundry many times a month. His solution...

JAMES MCLURKIN: What you want to do is you want to buy enough clothes that you can wait.

ROBERT KRULWICH: He calculated that he needed exactly six weeks of clothing and then on one big laundry night, he cleans everything. This is what you'd call a system adjustment.

There are always system adjustments, for example: his robots.

JAMES MCLURKIN: The most important thing to remember about robots is that they are profoundly stupid.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So he has a plan. If one robot's got almost no intelligence you add more robots, you get a little more intelligence. Lots of robots, you might even be smart.

JAMES MCLURKIN: I'm trying to figure out how you can program a thousand robots to work together to solve a common task.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So, in this case, he's given 24 robots a simple set of rules in computer code. They will start signaling each other, and without any further direction from him, they should spontaneously perform the theme song from Star Wars. But each of these robots can only play part of the song, only part. If this program works, robots here, who are Part A robots, will gather and play together.

Here we go.

That's our cameraman there on the left.

And now they are gathering in groups: Part A robots and Part B robots, and here we go. The prelude...and the theme...uh oh, it looks like they've gotten stuck.

JAMES MCLURKIN: Failure is key to any learning, creative process. Anything that you're doing, you must fail. If you do not fail, either you were lucky...Well, actually, no, that was it.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But if you're going to fail, you do need to bounce back, and James learned from early on that giving up is not a way to solve your problems.

JAMES MCLURKIN: Being black and intelligent in high school in America is a very difficult thing to do. You are, I, I was, I was a geek. I still am a geek, but I, I was even geekier back then. The Sears® pants, and the plaid shirts, the big 'fro, kind of was...So I was ostracized violently from the African American community in high school and didn't quite fit into the Honors community, because they were all white. So high school was very painful, socially, a very unpleasant time.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But then he got accepted to M.I.T. and, suddenly, being geeky was, well, kind of normal.

JAMES MCLURKIN: Being able to build things and work on things was all very highly valued, and that reassurance was tremendous at my age.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And more recently he's been keeping company with a bunch of females.

JAMES MCLURKIN: So, here are the ladies.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Small females.

JAMES MCLURKIN: It's awesome, the systems that nature has developed to live in the world. Insects are amazing.




ROBERT KRULWICH: On Saturdays, he teaches a class for urban high schoolers at the SEED Academy at M.I.T. His subject? Well, frequently, he finds himself talking about systems.

JAMES MCLURKIN: So, trees are something that you see in computer science all the time. But computer scientists are odd, so they always draw their trees upside down.

JAMES EDDY (SEED ACADEMY STUDENT): He's mad cool. He's like one of us. He's like an older, successful version of us.

ROBERT KRULWICH: He is successful, but James is still learning that there are some things in life, bad relationships, that create systemic problems.

JAMES MCLURKIN: All that unrequited love—you want, you want, you don't want any of that. That, that's not efficient.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Efficient love: that's a big topic with James. He even designed a do-I-date-this-girl algorithm.

JAMES MCLURKIN: It's hard, first of all. The goal, stated or unstated, is to stop dating. The goal of dating is to get married at some point in time. What are the odds of me finding a woman that I want to spend a lot of time with? And I can kind of it one out of 100? Is it one out of 50? Is it one out of 20? I know it's not one out of four. And I know it's probably less than one out of a million. So I can bracket the probabilities there.

So, okay, well, then, if I don't know what the number is, I need to then just try to meet as many women as I can. Now the goal became "let's get to the first date," and then you get down to the key, which is "I might be interested in them. Are they interested in me?"

DARA BOURNE: I think he babies the ants way too much. That was completely something that I was, I was sold on. Like, I'm feeling, this guy, he has ants just like I've got worms.

JAMES MCLURKIN: Hold on. Rewind. You've got worms?

So I've got ants and she's got worms. And it really seemed a match made in heaven.

ROBERT KRULWICH: "Worm-loving" did not appear on his flow chart, but they clicked. So his life now includes Dara and the worms, and the ants, the job, the classes, the robots, and he keeps constantly adjusting his system so he can keep doing it all.


So James collects ants and Dara collects worms, and we know a lot of people who collect sand.

Don't ask why, but, like all collectors, sand fanciers have stories they tell. And this one's a mystery, and it's an ancient mystery. For a long, long time, people have noticed that in certain places, under certain conditions, sand sings.

Well, no, no, no "sings" isn't quite right. There are beaches...

Can I go to the beach? Thanks.

...all over the world, where if you walk along, sand underfoot, like a frog, it croaks. It's a very distinctive sound. No one is quite sure what produces that sound. But far more mysterious and even rarer—there are only about 30 places on earth where this can happen—sand will...well you'll see.

Here's our report from correspondent Chad Cohen.

CHAD COHEN (scienceNOW Correspondent): Listen, you hear that sound? You might think it's the wind, but it's not. It sounds like a sustained musical note coming from the sand dunes themselves. This is the sound that has mystified generations. Marco Polo noticed it in the Gobi Desert. Ancient travelers have heard it in the Sahara. Even Charles Darwin puzzled over it in the Chilean desert.

So far no one has been able to explain what it is, or why it happens. That's why Cal Tech engineers Melany Hunt and Christopher Brennen are here at the Dumont Dunes in Death Valley, California.

MELANY HUNT (California Institute of Technology): This location is one of about 30 places around the world that have what are described as booming dunes.

CHAD COHEN: For the last two years the Cal Tech team has been trying to figure out just what makes these 30 locations so unique. What about them causes the sand to sing? Their theory is that the booming dunes are really like an enormous musical instrument.

Imagine the loose, moving sand particles on the surface are like the vibrating strings on a cello. And underneath the surface you'll find a damper, harder layer of sand which reflects and magnifies the vibrations, just like the body of a cello does.

CHRISTOPHER BRENNEN (California Institute of Technology): Better get your goggles on.

CHAD COHEN: To test their theory, the Cal Tech team has to trek up the 300-foot-plus dunes. When they reach the peak, they have to simulate an avalanche to put the loose sand in motion and make the surface particles vibrate, a task they've learned is best accomplished on the seat of their pants.

CHRISTOPHER BRENNEN: Ready, set, go. Wait a minute, don't go too fast.

CHAD COHEN: But on this, their first run of the day, the dunes are silent.

CHRISTOPHER BRENNEN: That's too bad, hardly booms at all.

CHAD COHEN: What could have gone wrong?

CHRISTOPHER BRENNEN: Today the wind is not blowing in the normal direction. Usually the wind blows from that direction over this way, leaving a load of loose sand on this side of the dune.

CHAD COHEN: That missing loose sand has an unusual characteristic, the sand grains are almost all the same size, so that they resonate together.

CHRISTOPHER BRENNEN: We believe that that's part of the explanation for this booming sound: that all the grains are more or less the same size, so when they flow over one another, they hit each other at roughly the same frequency, just as a bow rubbing over a string has a characteristic frequency.

CHAD COHEN: Fifty feet down the dune they find what they think they've been looking for. A patch of loose sand that looks promising.


CHAD COHEN: As they slide down the dune, at first, they hear nothing...

CHRISTOPHER BRENNEN: Come on, keep going guys. I got a little bit of a boom,...

CHAD COHEN: And then suddenly...

CHRISTOPHER BRENNEN: ...a little bit of a boom. You hear it there? We got it. Down here, Mel.

CHAD COHEN: It is the music of the dune.

MELANY HUNT: Not nearly as loud as it has been at other times, but we still did, we still certainly heard it down there.

CHAD COHEN: To record and measure this booming sound, a seismic device called a geophone is buried just below the surface.

Later, back at Cal Tech, this data gets fed into a computer.

CHRISTOPHER BRENNEN: And this shows you that the sound that we are hearing is predominantly a single frequency.

CHAD COHEN: A frequency equal to the musical note of G.

Over the last two years the Cal Tech team has observed and documented that the sound of the booming dunes actually changes from day to day and from dune to dune.

What ultimately determines the musical range, they think, is not just the size of the sand particles, but also how much space there is between the top where the sand is loose and that hard surface down below.

CHRISTOPHER BRENNEN: Another four inches, three inches...

CHAD COHEN: The greater the distance between the two, the lower the frequency and pitch of the booming dune.

CHRISTOPHER BRENNEN: It's got a good consistency to it, doesn't it?

CHAD COHEN: So after two years of research and frequent visits to three of 30 booming dune sites worldwide, here is what the Cal Tech data has shown: for a dune to boom it must be at least 150 feet high; there must be loose, dry sand of similar particle size at the top and a hard layer below; and the sounds recorded fall into the musical range of either an E, an F or a G.

So is the mystery solved? Not quite yet; there is much more documentation to be done, more readings needed to confirm their theories. But this resourceful team of scientists is hopeful that one day they will be able to prove their premise, and when they do they can proudly claim that they accomplished it by the seat of their pants.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Correspondent Chad Cohen.

Oh, I promised you, before we ended tonight, that we'd take a second look at Arthur Ganson's exquisite sculptures. Ganson is self-taught. He never took an engineering course but was always an artist, fascinated by things in motion. So here's our look at Arthur Ganson, kinetic sculptor.

ARTHUR GANSON: The scientist and the artist are both passionate about their exploration. What leads to my work is that I'm equally an artist and an engineer.

I guess I'm fascinated with motion because I find that whenever anything is moving, I have some feeling about it. It doesn't matter what kind of motion it is. A motion will always evoke some kind of reaction.

The impulse for me to want to make sculpture is because I want to make statements, really, on a purely emotional level. And it's also somewhat of a challenge to see how that can be done with materials and objects that really are not emotional, in and of themselves.

Initially, the piece can begin as just a feeling about motion and the way something moves. For example, what would it take to make a chair move back and forth? And how would that feel? And then I need to imagine how to manifest that in physical terms, in, "what kind of machine do I need to make?"

I happen to love engineering. I love figuring things out in a spatial sense, that whole realm of working with mechanical parts, and the relationship of the parts, and things like ratios and the speeds of particular objects. I've got to build the device in order to see the idea, to see how well the idea can be mirrored in the object.

My sculpture comes out of thinking as an artist and thinking as an engineer. Everything about the character of my art comes from the fact that I'm passionate about exploring the ideas and the mechanical solutions at the same time. As an engineer or as an artist every piece is its own investigation. Every piece has its own world and its own solutions, its own infinite possibilities, where someone can come to it and hopefully go in their own personal dreaming journey, in...wherever it may take them.

ROBERT KRULWICH: That's our show for tonight, but NOVA scienceNOW continues on the Web, where you can find out what we're working on for our next episode. You can send us your ideas. You can even watch this broadcast again online. But most importantly tell us what you think, I mean what you really think. You can find it all at

I'm Robert Krulwich. Goodnight.

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NOVA scienceNOW: January 25, 2005

Mirror Neurons

Edited by
Harlan Reiniger

Written, Produced, and Directed by
Julia Cort


Edited by
Jonathan Sahula

Written, Produced, and Directed by
Joseph McMaster

James McLurkin Profile

Edited by
Robe Imbraino

Written, Produced, and Directed by
Carla Denly

Booming Sands

Edited by
Michael Sheehan

Produced and Directed by
Peter Doyle

Arthur Ganson

Edited by
Dick Bartlett

Produced and Directed by
Marty Ostrow

TV Program Credits

Executive Producer
Samuel Fine

Executive Editor
Robert Krulwich

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Vincent Liota

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NOVA scienceNOW series animation


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Three-dimensional animation courtesy of LONI and the Center for Computational Biology in collaboration with the National Institutes of Mental Health. Principal Investigator: Arthur W. Toga, Animators: Ken Nakada, Tomokatsu Shoji, Hideo Kumagai, Amanda Hammond, Kim Hager, Andrew Lee & John Bacheller

Special Thanks
Ahmanson Lovelace Brain Mapping Center
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David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA
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National Primate Research Center at University of Wisconsin
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0229297. 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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