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The Technology Today Podcast is celebrating one year of giving listeners an inside perspective on world-changing science, engineering, research and technology through informative conversations with institute scientists and engineers. On this episode, we highlight some of our memorable “listen and learn” moments and introduce two new segments, Breakthroughs, personal stories of discovery told by the people who lived them and Ask Us Anything, our SwRI experts answer your questions.
Listen now to this special anniversary episode of Technology Today.
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for clarity.
Happy anniversary Technology Today! We’re celebrating one year of enlightening conversations, informative views, and in-depth details about the science, engineering, research and technology changing our world. Today, we’ll revisit some of our best “listen and learn” moments.
Plus introducing Breakthroughs, personal stories of discovery told by the people who lived them. Today, the moment a space scientist discovered treasures from the sun.
And the all-new Ask Us Anything. You ask, our experts answer. Coming up, why is the mythical yeti the unofficial mascot of SwRI? That’s ahead on this anniversary episode of Technology Today.
We live with technology, science, engineering, and the results of innovative research every day. Now, let's understand it better. You're listening to the Technology Today podcast, presented by Southwest Research Institute. Hello, and welcome to Technology Today. I'm your host, Lisa Peña. One year ago, we started our journey, from deep sea to deep space, listening and learning about impactful, innovative science, engineering, and technology.
Today, we’ll hear our first breakthrough story featuring Dr. Craig DeForest. He tells us what he unexpectedly found as he analyzed images from the sun.
And don’t miss the all-new Ask Us Anything — what’s up with the yeti at our front entrance? We’ll get to that. But first, year one highlights.
We are 12 episodes in and we have learned so much this first year. We’re revisiting a few memorable listen and learn moments right now.
We start with our first guest ever, SwRI space scientist Dr. Alan Stern. He leads NASA’s New Horizons mission that brought us pictures of Pluto in 2015. On New Year’s Day 2019, New Horizons flew by Ultima Thule in the Kuiper Belt. It’s the farthest object ever explored by humankind. When we spoke to Alan last year, he was anticipating the history-making journey to Ultima, and he recalled the spectacular Pluto flyby.
Dr. Alan Stern (AS): We knew exactly when the spacecraft would fly by to the moment. And we did a 10, 9, 8 countdown. And then there was a big celebration. And within a matter of hours, we had the first high-resolution images that had been transmitted back over all these billions of miles of space coming back by radio signal at the speed of light. So whereas, it took our spacecraft nine and half years at this amazing high velocity to get out there, the radio signals can travel back in just the space of a morning. And we built up those images and displayed them and it went completely viral.
Lisa Peña (LP): Amazing is a little word to describe what you and your team have done for all of us to be able to see that and experience that. That's beyond amazing. So maybe we'll recreate this New Year's Eve, New Year's Day.
AS: It is. It's larger than life. This is the farthest exploration that's ever been done in history. No world at any distance, we are a billion miles past Pluto. And Pluto itself is hundreds of millions of miles further than any planet that had ever been explored before it. These are just unimaginable distances. And to think that this is why so many really talented people wanted to be on this project, is to be a part of something that you really feel like is not only larger than life, but that creates a legacy for all mankind, for knowledge. And it sets an example of what people can do when they have a dream and they work very hard.
Since the flyby, the New Horizons team has learned the object is reddish in color and is actually a contact binary, which is two objects that are joined. And just last week, NASA announced the name Ultima Thule, chosen as a temporary nickname by the public through an online contest, has been retired. In accordance with International Astronomical Union naming conventions, the discovery team earned the privilege of selecting a permanent name for the celestial body. They chose Arrokoth, the Powhatan/Algonquian word for "sky".
Continuing our year in review. We chatted with SwRI Robotics expert and engineer Matt Robinson about the role of robots in our world today.
Matt Robinson (MR): They're about in everything. Everything we're making is, in some context, depending where it's made, is being touched by a robot, conceivably. We're seeing a lot of activity and movements of materials within factories, order fulfillment, obviously, discrete manufacturing processes, welding, moving parts around, and now in other markets as well. So you're seeing maybe a lot of literature and uptake into home care--
Lisa Peña (LP): A-ha.
MR: --right, and different types of service industries, you know, bringing an extra toothbrush to your hotel room. So we are seeing a much, let's just say...
LP: A wide range of uses.
MR: Yes. It's definitely seen significant growth, particularly in the last five years.
LP: Wait a sec...so a robot can bring an extra toothbrush to my hotel room?
MR: Yeah, yeah. So there's actually a company Savioke. They actually released, I believe the first instance was in Singapore, basically, this service robot in the hotel application. Correct, yeah.
LP: Pretty neat, wouldn't mind staying in the hotel.
MR: Yeah, very popular.
LP: So some of the more popular industries then would be automotive maybe--
LP: And maybe flight or aerospace?
MR: Yeah, yeah, the manufacturing applications in those sectors. Automotive, obviously, is well-publicized, right-- the pictures of the automotive factory with essentially, like, thousands of discrete robot arms producing automobiles.
But, you know, when we think about the frontier or the edge, there's still a lot of progress and opportunity even in automotive, particularly in the final assembly spaces, things where people are still doing a lot of touching and that's where you hear about emerging trends around on collaborative robotics. So there's still a lot of opportunities, but our world is impacted quite a bit today and a lot is being done via robotics technologies.
Matt also discussed open source software which could help you build your own robot. Definitely a cool opportunity to speak to him!
Marching through our podcasting year…we learned helpful tips from SwRI food chemistry expert Lorraine Scheller who tests food for nutritional values and contaminants. She gave us insight on organic vs. non-organic produce.
Lisa Peña (LP): A lot of people are interested in organic food and organic products. So in your lab have you tested organic food versus standard food? And is there a difference?
Lorraine Scheller (LS): We have tested organic produce versus just the regular produce that most of us buy, and there are small differences. You will find less pesticides on organic produce. For the most part, they are pesticide free. But that label kind of comes with an asterisk because they're free at the government assigned tolerances.
The tolerances for regular produce are a little bit higher. But in the 30 years I've spent testing produce, we find very little pesticide residues in our produce, which is great.
LP: Well, that's good news.
LP: And that's just in standard produce?
LS: That's just in standard produce.
LP: So the organic produce is less, but since it's so minimal in standard produce, you're seeing less to none.
LP: And you mentioned earlier, as we kind of talked about this off the mic. But that some of the pesticides that are part of organic fruits and vegetables just come from the soil.
LS: Yes. Unfortunately, some of these older pesticides have a very long half-life in the soil. And it's rare, but occasionally, we may see a low level of an older pesticide like a DDT or DDE.
LP: And that's just because of the soil --
LS: That's because of the soil.
LP: -- it was grown in.
LS: Yeah. The growers are adhering to all of the regulations, as they should. It's just a fact of the soil.
LP: And you mentioned a really good study about how to wash produce.
LS: Yes. We did a study years ago trying to see what consumers do in their home that can lessen their exposure to these residues. And one of the biggest factors was just a little bit of dishwashing liquid diluted in water and wash your produce. And it pretty much removed about 90% of those residues.
LP: That's great news.
LS: That's an easy way to get rid of that.
A drop of dishwashing liquid for cleaner produce. Great tip, Lorraine!
Onto our next topic, SwRI automated driving expert Dr. Steve Dellenback spoke to us about the road to self-driving cars and some of the speed bumps along the way.
Lisa Peña (LP): I'm thinking about what it must have been like, those beginning days of the internet before there was this World Wide Web. And I'm hearing you talk, and I'm kind of feeling like you're on the ground floor of something really huge. Do you do you feel that way? Do you feel that decades from now this may be mainstream, but right now, you're really having to work out the kinks?
Dr. Steve Dellenback (SD): Yeah, I really do. And I think that's what makes it so exciting to work in this field. I think that right now we have a lot of media hype in this field.
There's been a lot of discussion how automated vehicles are here. You're going to see them next year, you're going to see him in two years, you're going to see them in three years. If you go out and you search the internet, you'll be astounded the number of articles that were hypothesizing are prophesizing that in 2020 there would be all types of automated vehicles out on the road.
And that's not going to happen in 2020. And the real issue, I think, that we're struggling with is, how do you put them in mixed traffic? And what I mean by that is, if you could overnight wiggle your nose and say, all manned vehicles go away and everything becomes unmanned, the problem is solvable much sooner.
The problem is, how do you put a computer-based car into the randomness of man-driving cars? And my favorite analogy is, go drive on [Interstate Loop] 410 at 8:00 in the morning or at 5:00 at night and there is not much order out there.
It's more of it's a law of the jungle. How many times can you change lanes? How fast can you go? How can you squeeze in?
An automated car has to be very orderly. It has to think logically. And it's not going to drive like a human driver. It's not going to weave and bob in and out of traffic.
And so that is one of, I think, the most significant challenges left in front of this industry from a technology perspective. There's a number of social issues we could talk about. But from a technology perspective of how are we going to handle mixing automated cars and unmanned cars?
Steve gave us some great insight on automated driving. If you haven’t already heard Episode 5, make sure to check it out!
This year also took us below the surface for a deep dive with SwRI engineer Joe Crouch. We learned about testing underwater equipment and the Institute’s connection to the Titanic.
Lisa Peña (LP): What is the Alvin submersible?
Joe Crouch (JC): The Alvin submersible is operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. It's owned by the U.S. Navy, and it is a three-person research sub that was built back in the '60s. The Alvin comes from one of the Woods Hole scientists named Allyn Vine. And so he was one of the instrumental personnel that really pushed to get this thing built, and so it was named after him, and Allyn Vine became "Alvin."
The Alvin has been around for a number of years. It was one of the two submersibles that found a hydrogen bomb that had been dropped in the Mediterranean inadvertently due to an air collision. It found the, well, it didn't actually find, but the first to allow people to lay eyes on the mid-Atlantic Ridge. And then, also, Bob Ballard was in it when he found the Titanic.
LP: And that's its claim to fame.
JC: That's its primary claim to fame, which is an interesting story, if I may.
LP: Yeah, please.
JC: The original plan that Bob Ballard was operating under was a classified program, and it's been recently unclassified.
So Bob was not actually looking for the Titanic. He was looking for two submarines that had imploded. And when something implodes, as it sinks, it tends to leave a long debris trail. So he was using side scan sonar to look for this long debris trail to try to find these submarines. One was Russian. One was American.
And that was the covert project he was working on, not looking for the Titanic. Titanic was a cover story. Unfortunately for the Navy, he found the Titanic. But it was good for us, because we now know where the Titanic is, and we've been able to visit it numerous times.
LP: Yeah, and obviously, a huge deal to be able to find that treasure in the ocean. So what is our tie to the Alvin submersible?
JC: Well, we did some of the original testing on the hull back in the '60s, and then the new hull, we designed and built. It was a titanium hull to take it from 4,500 meter maximum water depth to 6,500 meter maximum water depth. Allows it cover about 98% of the ocean. And again, they wanted to use a lot of their old assets. So we were constrained by how large it could be, how heavy it could be, but it needed to go 50% deeper. So a lot of challenges, and we were successful in building that. And now we've got a vehicle that's capable of diving to 6,500 meters.
Our engineers and scientists are always up for a challenge. Thanks, Joe!
We ended the year with artificial intelligence that could help doctors better diagnose and treat cancer patients. SwRI engineer David Chambers and Dr. Bradley Brimhall from UT Health San Antonio discussed an algorithm they developed to detect and analyze cancer tumor cells.
Lisa Peña (LP): OK, so being able to quickly identify and analyze these cells means faster treatment and better treatment options for patients.
Dr. Bradley Brimhall (BB): Yeah, absolutely.
LP: OK, and you started with breast cancer tumor cells. But does this extend to other types of cancer? Is this all cancers?
BB: Potentially all kinds, yeah. I mean, even cancers that you would think of as not being in tissue. For example, leukemias, they're still in the peripheral blood. The peripheral blood could be analyzed, anything where we can get a pathology image, which is basically any kind of cancer. Yes.
LP: So one to two years, we could see this happening. That's the reality?
BB: Yeah, I think we could have some of the earlier forms. Like I said, I think it will grow after that because we're going to find numerous things. Like, I see it not just as a single algorithm, but as potentially hundreds of them. But as David can tell you, these things really seem to run pretty fast. They don't take a lot of time to run.
LP: And David, you've used this algorithm in other applications. So what had it been used for before?
David Chambers (DC): Well, I think if you look at the particular method that we used, this is just, it's everywhere in computervision, essentially. Our method is a fully convolutional neural network. The general application is doing segmentation. So for driving, for example, this algorithm had been used for identifying lanes and lane markings, keeping your car exactly where it needs to be on the road.
This has been used for off-road terrain segmentation, meaning, identify the grass that you can drive through, versus the water or the bushes that you shouldn't drive through. This really spans a giant list of potential applications. And we made some very heavy modifications to it, but underneath, the technology really remains the same. And it's a really fascinating technology, actually.
The algorithm itself, or the method itself, relies on a network of learned parameters that's based on looking at examples and creating the desired output, and making a complex mapping between the two of them.
And when you do this, you're actually solving for millions of parameters. I want to say, and I wish I had written it down so that I wasn't off. But you're talking about things that are on the order of 10 million different solvable, tunable little knobs that you have to figure out in order to make your algorithm work the way you want it to work.
LP: So you could tune those knobs for many applications. And in this particular instance, you tuned it to identify cancer cells.
DC: Yeah, tuned it just right, I'd say.
Brilliant work, Brad and David!
Those were just a few of our year one listen and learn highlights. You can explore all of our episodes at podcast.swri.org.
We begin our second podcasting year with a new segment: Breakthroughs, stories of discovery from the people who lived them.
Our first breakthrough story: unclear images of space weather lead to something unexpected and beautiful.
Dr. Craig DeForest: Hi. I’m Craig DeForest. I am a program director for solar astrophysics in Boulder, Colorado, at the Southwest Research Institute.
So in science, you know, breakthrough moments are great. You get a few of them in a career. Most of the time we’re looking at data and getting more or less what we expect or finding things that aren’t really new. Every once in a while there’s a shining moment and you know something before anyone else does.
I’ve had several of those over the course of my career. I’ll describe the one that lead to our current mission, the Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere (PUNCH). PUNCH is a NASA mission. It’s an explorer that’s being built here at Southwest Research San Antonio. PUNCH is setting forth to measure and image, to photograph the solar wind itself as it's forming on the periphery of the solar corona. So the sun is surrounded by a mantle if you will or a corona of hot gas that you can see during an eclipse. Well, that mantle spreads out to form the entire solar system. We call it the heliosphere. It’s a large bubble in interstellar space that surrounds our star. We’ve known since the beginning of the space age that the heliosphere exists. It’s full of something called the solar wind, which streams out from the sun at hypersonic speeds all the time day and night.
So this was about 8 years ago, 2011, a colleague and I, fellow's name was Tim Howard, were looking at images from the STEREO mission. STEREO is a mission that NASA launched in 2007 to look at the connections between the inner solar corona and the solar wind. It had an experimental wide field imager on it that was designed to track coronal mass ejections, these large storms that cross the solar system. We were able to see easily in those data, the progress of the CMEs, coronal mass ejections, as they crossed the solar system. STEREO was unique in that it wasn’t in Earth orbit. It went out into solar orbit so it could look back at the Earth-Sun line from far away. Very exciting.
We had a project where we were trying to understand how CMEs change as they leave the sun and so we would model the CME, a real one. Well, we got as far as modeling our first CME, developed some images of it, and I turned to Tim who was responsible for the data and said well what did the data look like? And he showed me and you couldn’t see anything. You could see there was a CME, but you couldn’t see the structure at all I said, ‘no, show me the real data.’ He said ‘this is it.’ So the two of us got together and spent about three or four months learning about all the different effects that had to be peeled away from those images. There’s stray light in the instrument. There’s light reflected off the dust that surrounds the sun. There’s the star field itself. These imagers see the night sky just like your eyes do and that’s much brighter than the things we’re looking at. Well we hammered on this for a while and there came a day when I was looking at a movie on my monitor, and we could see the CME crossing, and it was beautiful. We could see the structure. We were able to address that particular research project, but then we noticed we could see all manner of other things that weren’t the CME that were just drifting through the field of view and some of them had really bizarre shapes. There were various blobs of material that come out of the sun, and they evolve and change their shape as they cross and they don’t all have rounded shapes. Some of them have little v shapes and y shapes because they’re interacting with the magnetic field of the solar system as they move out. It’s absolutely beautiful, completely unexpected by me, and that was our breakthrough – we were able to image the solar wind itself and based on that, we’ve gone through now and developed a mission that is designed for that particular application, which is PUNCH.
So, Science is an endeavor that’s mostly, I almost hate to say it, is a grind. You have to have a certain type of personality that loves a puzzle and will grind away at a puzzle forever in order to get to the answer. And so most of what scientists do professionally is reduce data, hypothesize, basically every day, you call it grunt work. But it has to be self-motivated, you have to keep in your head, I’m aiming at a particular objective and time after time, you’ll get to the objective and find, oh there’s nothing really new here. But every once in a while, there’s a little gleam. It’s like imagine being a prospector right and you dig into the ground and there’s a gleam and you know that there’s a load down there. Right? You struck it rich. But at first all you see is just a little flash. It’s not necessarily brilliant at first. It’s just that first indication ahhh – it’s the best feeling ever. I did it! Got something new! But that moment of recognition sometimes comes slowly. The most common thing you hear in a laboratory when a breakthrough has happened isn’t eureka! This is great! What you hear is hmm..that’s funny. The “this is great” comes later when you realize what you really found.
Wow, great discovery! Thanks for sharing your breakthrough story, Craig!
And now, Ask Us Anything. You ask, our experts answer.
Ask Us Anything
We are kicking off this new segment with some fun SwRI history. We’re often asked why the yeti has become our unofficial mascot. There’s even a metal yeti cutout greeting visitors at our front gate. So, this goes back to SwRI founder, businessman, inventor, and adventurer-Tom Slick. @doctornerd asked on Twitter, what is Slick’s connection to the mythical yeti? That's a great question. Thank you @doctornerd. Anissa Garcia is our SwRI archives manager and Tom Slick expert, she's here with the answer. Hi, Anissa.
Anissa Garcia: Hi Lisa. Thank you for having me. What I like to say is Tom Slick was the original Indiana Jones. He lived a fascinating life focused on scientific discovery and exploration. For example, in 1947, Tom Slick along with a couple of scientists, they take his private plane and they fly across Eagle Pass, Texas, and drop dry ice into the clouds making it rain. Tom was a world-traveler. He was an art collector. He was a businessman. He was an inventor. He also invented the lift-slab method of construction that was used all over south Texas. The Institute actually has a couple of original buildings that still have that original method of construction. Trinity University some of their early dormitories were using that method of construction as well along with a lot of other businesses here in south Texas. So Tom did it all. I think part of that scientific curiosity came from Tom's interest in crytozoology. Cryptozoology is the study of animals whose existence is disputed. That interest first started when Tom was attending Yale University, and eventually he goes on to fund expeditions in search of the yeti. So I think the yeti is definitely a cool mascot. It's a great mascot. And I think it reminds us to stay curious about science just like Tom Slick was.
Thank you Anissa! To submit a question about SwRI, or science, engineering, or technology to Ask Us Anything, visit podcast.swri.org and scroll to the bottom, or post your question on social media with #askSwRI. You can also share your question by commenting on one of our Ask Us Anything posts. Your question may be featured on an upcoming podcast episode.
And that wraps up this anniversary episode of Technology Today. Thanks for celebrating with us!
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Ian McKinney and Bryan Ortiz are the podcast audio engineers and editors. I am producer and host, Lisa Peña.
Thanks for listening.