01/20/2023

Scientists Deflect A Lightning Strike… With A Laser?

11:49 minutes

a four pronged lightning strike
Credit: Shutterstock

This week, scientists announced a flashy development in how lightning strikes are directed. Lightning strikes are responsible for thousands of deaths each year and result in billions of dollars worth of damages. But by beaming a high-powered laser beam into the sky, a team of researchers successfully controlled where lightning strikes.

Ira talks with Regina G. Barber, Scientist in Residence at NPR’s Short Wave, about this electric development and other science news of the week. They chat about the first rocky exoplanet confirmed by JWST, how our understanding of galaxies is changing, how our mood affects how we process information, how squirrels are great gamblers, and why snot helps keep echidnas cool.


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Segment Guests

Regina G. Barber

Regina G. Barber is a scientist in residence at Short Wave, from NPR. Her Twitter is @ScienceRegina.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll learn what bats have in common with death metal vocalists. Yes. And Alan Lightman talks about his search for meaning among the cosmos.

But first, a flashy development in how we handle lightning strikes. You know they’re responsible for thousands of deaths each year and billions of dollars worth of damages. But a team of researchers has a plan to redirect those lightning bolts by beaming lasers, yes, beaming lasers into the sky. Here to fill us in on this and other cool science news of the week is Regina G. Barber, a Scientist in Residence at NPR’S Short Wave podcast. Regina, welcome to Science Friday.

REGINA G. BARBER: Thanks for having me. I’m super excited. And I get to talk about lasers, so let’s do this.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, let’s go right into this, this plan to use lasers to guide lightning strikes. You know, it almost sounds too sci-fi to be true.

REGINA G. BARBER: Yeah, it’s really interesting. This has been an idea for the last 20 years. But just recently, they’ve gotten lasers that can pulse fast enough to basically make a conductive column of air like a lightning rod. And it actually brings lightning to the lightning rod. And it secures larger areas of land so that you can protect airports or wind farms.

IRA FLATOW: Right. Ben Franklin would have loved this, right?

REGINA G. BARBER: I think so.

IRA FLATOW: So tell us how it works. You shine this very powerful laser beam up into the sky, and what does it do?

REGINA G. BARBER: Yeah. So like I said earlier, it has this pulse. So this is a pulse laser. It actually pulses 1,000 times a second. And that’s why it’s working now because we actually have lasers that can be that fast. And it’s pulsing into the air, and it’s basically ionizing very tall, long air columns. And it’s basically making the air conductive.

And we only have very– I say short lightning rods, so 10 meters. But these lasers will make them much taller. This experiment was up to 60 meters. And the higher the lightning rod, the bigger the area you can protect from lightning strikes.

IRA FLATOW: So you switch these on and off, then, when a storm comes by?

REGINA G. BARBER: Right, right. So they did this experiment in the mountains of Switzerland. And this airport tower had been struck many, many times a year, roughly 100 times a year. So during a lightning storm, they turned it on, and they saw if it worked.

IRA FLATOW: And this is something, as we said, that would really be helpful.

REGINA G. BARBER: Yes. I mean, lightning storms can delay planes. They can injure people on the tarmac. It’s really important to be able to divert those lightning strikes.

IRA FLATOW: OK, very, very cool. Regina, I know you’re an astrophysicist, so let’s talk about lots of space news this week.

REGINA G. BARBER: Yes, please.

IRA FLATOW: Starting with exoplanets.

REGINA G. BARBER: Yes.

IRA FLATOW: We just confirmed a rocky exoplanet?

REGINA G. BARBER: Yeah. So we actually know of over 5,000 exoplanets, but most of them aren’t rocky. Most of them are gas giants. And this one specifically was actually not found by JWST. It was confirmed by James Webb telescope.

But it was found by something called the TESS telescope or TESS satellite. So TESS is Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. And it’s a small telescope. Its sole goal is to find exoplanets. And JWST basically confirmed this rocky planet that’s about the size of Earth.

IRA FLATOW: Why is this important that we found a rocky planet?

REGINA G. BARBER: We would really like to find planets that are rocky, that have atmospheres. And we don’t know if this one has an atmosphere yet. But once we confirm that it’s there, then powerful telescopes like JWST can actually study it, see if it has an atmosphere. And you know us humans. We’re egocentric. We want to find something just like Earth.

IRA FLATOW: And why is this the first? Why are there not more of them?

REGINA G. BARBER: There are just fewer rocky planets. That’s actually true. But this one specifically, this rocky planet, is orbiting a red dwarf star. And I think that we’re actually going to be able to find more of them using JWST.

So JWST is an infrared telescope. And these red dwarf stars, these smaller, cooler stars than our sun, are much easier to find in the infrared. So if there are these smaller rocky planets closer to a star– this one is actually very close, two-day orbit– I think we’ll be able to actually find or confirm more of these using JWST.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, OK. In other galactic news, I know there’s a new study that’s challenging what we think we know about the formation of galaxies. Tell us more about that.

REGINA G. BARBER: So we actually live in the Milky Way. It’s a spiral galaxy. It’s a disk like a pancake. There’s another spiral galaxy right next to us called the Andromeda Galaxy. And, one day, they will actually merge and most likely form a spherical, bright galaxy called an elliptical galaxy. So these are kind of the shapes that are out there.

Well, we think that these disk galaxies are the ones that form first– disk galaxies like Milky Way and Andromeda. But there’s a couple studies that came out that show that these disk galaxies actually formed way earlier than we thought.

IRA FLATOW: And why is that important?

REGINA G. BARBER: Because we have this model of how the universe was created– that there are these stages where there’s the Big Bang. There’s a lot of chaos and energy in the very beginning. And we didn’t think that galaxies formed until maybe 1 billion years after the Big Bang.

But one of these studies is– and it still needs to be confirmed with spectra. But one of these studies thinks that they’re seeing these structures at 200 and 400 million years after the Big Bang. That might seem like a long time, but the age of the universe is like 13.7 billion years. So it’s really soon. And if that was true, once it’s confirmed with spectra, that would change our whole idea of how the universe formed.

IRA FLATOW: Don’t you just love it when we get new data that throws into doubt everything we thought we knew?

REGINA G. BARBER: Yeah, it’s just exciting. It’s like when you have your whole idea changed. It’s like a whole new life of astronomy. I love it.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So JWST is already helping us figure out the formation of our universe.

REGINA G. BARBER: Yes, absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: And how can it see so far back in time? How can you tell how young it is, I guess, is what I’m asking?

REGINA G. BARBER: Like I said earlier, JWST is an infrared telescope. And because the universe is expanding– it’s actually stretching– some of the light from the beginning of the universe also stretches. And because JWST is looking in the infrared, that’s looking at wavelengths that are stretchier, that are longer, that Hubble couldn’t really look at. So, as we are looking at longer and longer wavelengths of light, we can look further in time.

And it’s also a very big mirror. So it’s a very big telescope. So the bigger the mirror, the more light you can collect.

IRA FLATOW: That’s really cool. Our next story takes us back to earth and how our attitude affects how we process information. What’s the connection there?

REGINA G. BARBER: Yeah, I saw this study, and I was like, oh, your bad mood is the reason you can’t communicate. That was the title. So I just assumed it was like, I’m grumpy. I won’t be able to do anything. I’ll be confused.

But it’s the opposite. Apparently, when people are in a bad mood, when they are grumpy, they’re actually more analytical. They can find errors. They’re more critical.

IRA FLATOW: Really?

REGINA G. BARBER: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: So we should stay in a grumpy mood all the time if we want to be more analytic?

REGINA G. BARBER: Right. This study did a couple of experiments where they gave a couple of people sentences that were actually true, but they were worded kind of funky. And then they changed that wording and saw if they could actually see the errors. And people that were in a more negative mood actually could catch the errors.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Now, I understand that this study has some limitations because it was done only on women subjects.

REGINA G. BARBER: Yeah, it was very strange. Apparently, past studies that dealt with mood were mostly done on women. So they decided to do this study on only women. But they did suggest that in the future, it should be more gender diverse.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. Our next story has to do with squirrels. And this is perfect timing because tomorrow is National Squirrel Appreciation Day, something I have mixed feelings about since the squirrels in my backyard love to dig up my flowers and my veggies. So I will give them credit. They are scrappy survivors, and a new study shows exactly that.

REGINA G. BARBER: Right. It shows that these red squirrels, they bet on the future year– if it’s going to be a good year or a bad year for food. I was interested in the study because I didn’t know what fitness meant or Darwinian fitness in biology. Apparently, that just means how many young a mom has. So more babies mean more chances to pass on your genes. So the more babies you have, the more fit you are.

But these mamas, they bet on what the future is going to be. And they have more babies because they’re like, this year is going to be good. Let’s say that that’s their bet. And what they found, what the studies found, is that they actually are, overall, making good bets. Sometimes they’re short-term losses. But, overall, these squirrels are having more babies and passing on more of their genes.

IRA FLATOW: I’m taking them to Vegas with me. I mean, they’re not only scrappy, but they’re pretty good gamblers.

REGINA G. BARBER: Yeah. It’s very surprising. Apparently, when you have overall good bets, that was a very big thing for these scientists. They didn’t think that– they think it would be more evened out, but it wasn’t.

IRA FLATOW: OK, your last story is another really cool one. And this is one about how echidnas stay cool and alert. It involves snot. Regina, this needs some explanation.

REGINA G. BARBER: Well, I love snot, and I love heat transfer as a physicist. So I really loved this story. Basically, you have these echidnas, which are these big hedgehog-looking things with dark bluish armadillo noses. They’re super cute. They live in Australia.

And they have this shape and structure where you wouldn’t understand why they live in Australia and stay successful. How do they not overheat? They spit snot out of their long, armadillo-like nose, and that snot evaporates, like how we sweat. They can’t sweat. They don’t pant. So this is how they lose heat.

IRA FLATOW: So if you have an echidna, and it has a wet nose, don’t think it’s sick or has a cold or something like that.

REGINA G. BARBER: Right. Or it’s not blowing bubbles at you to be rude. It’s just losing heat.

IRA FLATOW: I hear their spines also help.

REGINA G. BARBER: Yeah, so their spines are basically like hollowed-out hair follicles. And they’re really good insulators. So at night– they’re mostly nocturnal actually, but at night, they can keep the heat in. And they can ball up like a hedgehog. Or, if they’re hot, they can spread out. And the spines can spread out, and that will allow heat to dissipate out of them.

IRA FLATOW: Well, there you have it. Snot can help critters stay cool. We always want to leave our listeners with something unique to talk about on the weekend, Regina.

REGINA G. BARBER: Yes. And they’re super cute. You got to look up the videos.

IRA FLATOW: And they are. They win the cuteness thing also. Yeah. Regina, thanks for joining us today.

REGINA G. BARBER: Thank you for inviting me.

IRA FLATOW: Regina G. Barber is the Scientist in Residence at Short Wave from NPR.

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Rasha Aridi is a producer for Science Friday. She loves stories about weird critters, science adventures, and the intersection of science and history.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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