09/02/2016

A Space-Launch Loss, Blood and the Brain, and Thought-Controlled Medical Nanobots

7:29 minutes

A Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: SpaceX
A Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: SpaceX

On Thursday, a SpaceX rocket preparing for a pre-flight test on a Cape Canaveral, Florida launch pad was destroyed in an explosion and fire. The explosion also demolished Amos-6, a communications satellite intended to bring Facebook’s Internet.org service to parts of Africa. Sophie Bushwick, a senior editor at Popular Science magazine, discusses the accident, as well as other science news on subjects including the evolution of blood flow to the brain, thought-controlled nanobots, and more.

Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is technology editor at Scientific American in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. Ira Flatow is away.

A little later this hour, we’ll be talking canine communication and cognition. How do dogs pick up on our gestures, our speech, even our moods? If you’ve got a question, you can give us a call at 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK. Or you can tweet us @SciFri.

Yesterday, there was a big explosion on launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, where a SpaceX rocket was being prepared for a test

[ROCKET LAUNCHING]

Oh, my. No one was injured, but the rocket and its payload were destroyed. Joining me now to talk about that, and some other stories from the week, is Sophie Bushwick. She’s the Senior Editor at Popular Science magazine here in New York. Welcome back to the show.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thanks.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So tell us more about this explosion. What happened?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, they were doing a static fire test, which is where they clamp the rocket to the launch pad, and then they fire each of its engines for a few seconds, just to make sure everything’s functioning properly. And the problem is that when they do this type of test, they already have the payload on the rocket. So when the rocket exploded, the payload, which was a satellite they were supposed to launch on Saturday, was destroyed.

And another thing about the payload is that Facebook was planning to use it to provide satellite internet access to certain areas of the African continent. And that’s down the drain now.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So not just a bad day for Elon Musk, but a bad day for Mark Zuckerberg. This is a big day for Facebook.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah. And it’s a problem for their goal. Facebook has stated it’s one of their goals to provide internet access to everyone. And they’re trying a lot of different avenues to do it, but it looks like this satellite method has definitely had a big setback, because of its destruction.

JOHN DANKOSKY: When I saw this explosion, I was worried, was anybody hurt? Was anybody killed? I didn’t realize how far away people have to be because of the possibility of just such a thing.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Absolutely. They have a lot of safety measures in place. And there’s a reason for those measures, because when you’re testing a rocket or actually launching the rocket, there are so many things that could go wrong.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Does it set back SpaceX at all? What do we think?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It could be. SpaceX is trying to launch a re-useable rocket, and this was not one of those tests. This was a rocket that hadn’t been launched before. But it is– every time they have an explosion, or there is a setback with one of the rockets, it’s not only damaging in terms of financial damage, but it’s also damaging in terms of credibility. You want to be able to trust them to eventually take humans to space. And that’s a big problem if you can’t trust that their rockets won’t explode.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, let’s move on. And you’ve got a story about the size of our brains.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. So human beings, over the course of our evolution, got a lot more intelligent. And researchers used to think that was just because our brains got bigger. But it turns out that while our brains increased by about 350%, the blood supply to our brains actually increased by 600%. And so it might be that the blood supply, our brains now use about 10 gallons of blood an hour. That could be the key to the evolution of human intelligence.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: 10 gallons of blood an hour? Really? That’s pretty fascinating.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: They’re blood thirsty.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. You got to explain this one to me. This next story sounds like science fiction. Brain controlled medical nanobots– OK, tell me about this.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This is pretty much science fiction. So when you put a drug into the bloodstream, you can’t really control its release. So researchers made these little nanobots out of a DNA shell, and they put the drugs in the shell. So they are not active when you put them into the body. But if you can open up that shell, which is done by exposing it to electromagnetic energy, then the drug is released.

And the way they control whether the energy goes on or off is through the brain. So a human wore an EEG cap that measured his brain activity, and they trained a computer algorithm to recognize when he was doing mathematical calculations in his head. And when he did those calculations, it turned on an electromagnetic coil around a cockroach.

The cockroach had been injected with these nanobots. So when the electromagnetic coil went on, the nanobots in the cockroach had this fluorescent molecule, so that they opened up. And the molecule became active in the cockroach. They could see that the experiment worked.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. Hold it. So this cockroach experiment– what does this tell us about how medicine is going to work, maybe not next year, but soon?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So let’s take, for example, someone who has schizophrenia. And when they’re going to have a violent episode, their brain goes into a certain state. You could train an EEG headset to recognize when they were about to have a violent episode, and that would activate in the electromagnetic coil, which would turn on the drugs in their bloodstream. But that would only happen if it was necessary. The rest of the times, the drugs wouldn’t be active, and so you wouldn’t have to worry about side effects.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So this sounds like a really great science fiction story. But how far away is something like this? When we see a test like this cockroach test, does it point to something that could be a field of research that will turn up a new type of medicine soon? Or is this really, way far out?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s a promising idea, but I’d say it’s still pretty far out. First of all, you’ve got to shrink down– an EEG cap isn’t something you want to go around wearing all the time. So you’ve got to be able to shrink down that technology, which researchers are working on.

But the other thing is that they had these nanobots in a cockroach, which is much smaller than a human. And they had the cockroach inside the electromagnetic coil that was being switched on and off. So with humans, we’re not walking around inside an electromagnetic coil. So you’re going have to find an alternative way of delivering this energy that will open up the nanobots.

JOHN DANKOSKY: But still promising and still cool to think about.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Oh, it’s super cool.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So we’re going to finish with a story that, it’s cool, but it’s kind of gross. And it has to do with maybe an alternative form of butter?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah. I do believe it’s not butter, but it is mealworms.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Mealworms?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. These Dutch researchers– this is reported by Ryan Mandelbaum. And he found that these Dutch researchers are finding ways to take fat extracted from mealworms and to get solids out of it– solid fat. They take the fat, and they cool it down by degrees. And solid and liquid fat forms.

And so you could use these as substitutes. The solid could be a substitute for margarine or butter. The liquid could be a substitute, maybe, for cooking oil. And it has about the makeup of nutrients that you would get in a mix of soybean and canola oil.

But mealworms are very sustainable to raise. They’re much more sustainable than cows, for example. And so the idea is this would be good for the environment. And then you’d also be having a product that’s no trans fats and low in saturated fats.

JOHN DANKOSKY: But here’s the thing. Will people eat mealworm butter?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, cultures all over the world eat bugs. And I, myself, have cooked with cricket flour before. I made pizza dough with cricket flour, and I served as dinner to my friends. And they were a little weirded out at first, but they got over it. And I think that we can get over it, too.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And I guess I just should ask– we might get over it maybe at a certain point. Is this going to happen any time soon?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: There’s already restaurants in New York that serve bugs, so I think that it’s already happening.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. Maybe it’s already happening. It’s not going on my toast anytime soon. Sophie Bushwick is the Senior Editor of Popular Science magazine here in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thanks for having me.

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