TV host serves as guinea pig in the name of science
From bomb-sniffing plants to manmade weather, David Pogue once again explores the science of innovation in 4 new episodes of the PBS 'Nova' show 'Making Stuff.'
Mon, Oct 14, 2013 at 02:37 PM
Photo: David Pogue
Two years ago, PBS’ “Nova” premiered “Making Stuff,” a four-part series presenting the most innovative, cutting-edge inventions and ideas that science had to offer. Hosted by New York Times technology columnist, author and perennial “Nova” host David Pogue, the series drew big ratings, and that plus the speed at which technology moves warranted a follow up series on new developments, airing this month. It kicks off with “Making Stuff: Faster” on Oct. 16, followed by “Making Stuff: Wilder” on Oct. 23, “... Colder” on Oct. 30 and “… Safer” on Nov. 6.
“We had so many more stories. And I think in general the stories are far more exciting,” says Pogue, who eagerly played the guinea pig in the science experiments conducted in each episode. In “Making Stuff: Faster,” he got to test the fastest electric vehicle on Earth and learned how hitting the track with greater force could shave two seconds from his finish time in a footrace. But he got the biggest kick of all sailing aboard the Oracle, the catamaran that won the America's Cup this year.
The carbon fiber racing boat moves three times faster than the wind, thanks to a 100-foot wing replacing the fabric sails and an underwater foil that lifts its twin hulls out of the water. “It's very magic‑carpet‑like,” says Pogue. Back on solid ground, he got to drive the Zombie, a 1972 Datsun refitted with 12 lithium batteries that enable it to go from zero to 60 in 1.8 seconds, faster than a Bugatti Veyron.
Since time is money, “… Faster” finds Pogue exploring new developments in efficiency as well as speed. He competes with a UPS messenger using a route optimization program to deliver packages — and loses. He tries out the lightning-fast download speed available in Kansas City, where connections are 200 times faster than average, thanks to fiber optic connections that have replaced copper wire. And, using a real 737 and volunteers, he tests two airplane-boarding theories to find out which plan is more efficient. “The results are surprising, deeply satisfying, and one thing I can promise you is that both methods whooped the butts of the current back‑of‑the‑plane‑to‑the‑front method,” he says.
The “… Wilder” episode shows how nature is inspiring innovations in technology, from animal-inspired robots to fibers from hagfish slime to a nonstick substance based on the carnivorous pitcher plant. “We saw robots that can walk on two feet, balance on one foot like a pogo stick. A company called Boston Dynamics created the LS3 for the military, a robotic ox that can carry 400 pounds of gear and go 20 miles on a tank of gas,” on challenging terrain impassable by vehicles. Other roboticists are developing a robotic arm based on an elephant’s trunk, swarms of tiny robots that work together, inspired by flocks of birds and schools of fish, and a robot that can run as fast as a cheetah.
The eel-like hagfish releases a slime when attacked that contains threads that are 10 times stronger than nylon, but since they don’t breed in captivity, scientists are trying to replicate the material in the lab. The pitcher plant’s surface traps its insect victims when wet, which inspired SLIPS, a nonstick coating that could have practical applications in graffiti prevention, aircraft deicing and scores of other uses.
In “Making Stuff: Colder,” Pogue investigates how lowering temperatures can save the lives of trauma patients (and their organs), improve efficiency, and combat global warming. As grueling as it sounds, the immersive experiment in this episode was one of his favorites in the series. “The Army runs an environmental chamber in Natick, Mass., a huge room where they can simulate any kind of weather. They can control the altitude, humidity, wind, rain, temperature, and they use it to test soldiers and their equipment. They chilled it to 29 degrees, gave me a cold rain shower so I was cold and shivering and made me walk on a treadmill for two hours. Every time I started to get dry I had to go back in the cold shower with a 15 mph wind blowing on me.”
“Making Stuff: Safer” covers everything from self-driving vehicles, cyber-security, and muon scanners to bomb-sniffing plants and fighting fires with cornstarch. “Water just drips off walls so you have to stand there for 10 minutes blasting the same spot. And foam is toxic, kills aquatic life. You can spray cornstarch like foam,” explains Pogue. “It sticks to the walls and ceiling and puts the fire out immediately.”
Although inspection of cargo containers has become more of a priority since 9/11, less than 1 percent of the containers shipped to the U.S. are inspected, and the current laser-based detection system can be fooled easily. “You can put a piece of lead in front of a bomb, and no one can see it,” points out Pogue. Scientists have devised a new system based on muons, subatomic particles that are really dense and move at the speed of light. “They go through lead, concrete, steel and they’re completely harmless,” says Pogue, adding that the 3-D images produced can be used to detect explosives and smuggled humans. “It’s cheap and totally reliable. They’re going to stop terrorists with this.”
Pogue was particularly fascinated by another terrorism-foiling innovation from nature: the plant that turns from green to white in the presence of explosives. “You can plant them along airport corridors, and you've got instant bomb‑sniffing 24/7, for pennies,” he says. The episode also raises the question, “Is there such a thing as too safe? We talked to a scientist who is studying children and how they are growing up with helicopter parents. They are growing up in a cocoon. They never learn to take risks. They never learn to skin their knee, to run and play — that’s the price to be paid for over-protectiveness.”
Pogue and his team covered more stories than the series had room for, such as packing insulation made from mushrooms, a biodegradable alternative to Styrofoam peanuts. These “will end up on the Web” as extras, he says, expecting that there will be no shortage of remarkable innovations by the time “Making Stuff” returns for a third season, possibly as early as next year.
Harvard Professor Joanna Aizenberg shows David Pogue the Nepenthes pitcher plant, a carnivorous plant whose slippery surface inspired a nonstick material invented by her lab. (Photo: WGBH)