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Granite Geek: The Tech That Makes Trains Stop

May 19, 2015
jppi / Morguefile

Last week’s deadly Amtrak derailment outside of Philadelphia has prompted serious scientific inquiry into the nature, effectiveness, and cost of the safety mechanisms in use in some of these trains.

For more on a braking system that could have slowed the train down is David Brooks. He writes about science in his weekly Granite Geek column for the Nashua Telegraph and Granitegeek.org. He spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello.

What is this breaking system called and how does it work?

Researchers from MIT will present a paper on a breakthrough in a dynamic new approach to useful robotics. Here with a preview of the material they call “Smart-Sand” is Daniela Rus - a professor at MIT and a member of the computer science and artificial intelligence laboratory there, also known as C-SAIL, along with her PHD student Kyle Gilpin.

Green People

Apr 10, 2012

Many climate scientists argue we’ve passed the point of being able to slow down Co2 emissions that contribute to greenhouse gasses. A few advocates for mammoth scale geo-engineering to alter the earth’s climate.

What decides the trajectory of our lives, our successes or failures, our steps and stumbles? Do we achieve what we achieve through force of will, or does fate have us by the throat? This hour, Radiolab explores the tug of war between will and fate from birth to death - from a kid reaching for a marshmallow to hints of dementia in the words of a 20-year-old.

For more information, visit http://www.radiolab.org/.

Episode 804: Cities

Apr 6, 2012

Over 50% of the planet now lives in cities. This hour, Radiolab looks at what makes them tick. We talk to a couple physicists who think they can fit every city into a tidy mathematical formula, and we take to the streets to test their idea. We explore the water tunnels 700 feet below Manhattan and question whether cities are the source of, or the solution for, our growing global appetite.

For more information, visit http://www.radiolab.org/.

Episode 803: Falling

Apr 5, 2012

There are so many ways to fall - falling in love, falling asleep, even falling flat on your face. In an episode full of falling music, Radiolab plunges into a black hole, takes a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel, and debunks some myths about falling cats.

For more information, visit http://www.radiolab.org/.

(Photo by Adam Kuban via Flickr Creative Commons)

Bet you can’t eat just one. The Lays potato chip campaign plays on the idea of snacking out of control. From Oprah to "The Biggest Loser," people describe themselves like addicts, needing one more bite of fatty, salty, sugary foods, knowing full well that remorse will follow their mouthful of pleasure.

Everybody knows that there's just one moon orbiting the Earth. But a new study by an international team of astronomers concludes that everybody is dead wrong about that.

"At any time, there are one or two 1-meter diameter asteroids in orbit around the Earth," says Robert Jedicke, an astronomer at the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii.

Filmmaker James Cameron recently reminded us of the wonders of the sea by diving solo in a submarine to the deepest spot in the ocean. Next year, if all goes as planned, a rather different expedition will take place 1,000 miles south of that dive: An Australian company will start mining for copper, gold, silver and zinc on the seafloor off the shore of Papua New Guinea.

The late astronomer Carl Sagan presented this paradox to his colleagues: We know the sun was a lot fainter two billion years ago. So why wasn't the Earth frozen solid?

We know it wasn't because there's plenty of evidence for warm seas and flowing water way back then. The question is still puzzling scientists.

But new clues to that paradox come from an unlikely source: fossilized raindrops, from 2.7 billion years ago. Back then, the Earth had no trees or flowers or animals birds or fish. But it did have volcanoes. And it did rain.

There's a small spacecraft called Messenger that's been orbiting the planet Mercury for a year. Today, at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, astronomers revealed what they've learned about the innermost planet in our solar system, and some of the new knowledge is puzzling.

Maria Zuber, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studied a large crater 900 miles across called Caloris.

More than 80,000 of Albert Einstein's papers, including his most famous formula — E=mc² — and letters to and from his former mistresses, are going online at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

As NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro says on All Things Considered, "what the trove uncovers is a picture of complex man who was concerned about the human condition" as well as the mysteries of science.

For many, the only way they learn a tornado is approaching are sirens. In the spring and summer, tornado sirens go off a lot more when twisters roar across Alabama, which has been hit by 900 since 2000, accounting for a quarter of all U.S. tornado deaths.

"I am still surprised that so many people rely on just one source of getting warned, and that has to change," said Jim Stefkovich, meteorologist in charge of the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service.

The man who warned us that aerosol spray-cans could destroy the earth's protective ozone layer has died.

F. Sherwood Rowland, better known as Sherry Rowland, was a Nobel-prize winning chemist at the University of California, Irvine. And he didn't just keep to the laboratory: He successfully advocated for a ban on ozone-destroying chemicals called CFCs.

Photo by laimagendelmundo, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Forget garage bands. It’s all about garage science. DIY tinkerers working on shoe-string budgets are producing some mind-blowing advancements:  think mud-generated power and home-made lightening. Indie-science isn’t just about impressing us, though we are impressed. Serious work like finding a cure for cancer is also happening in basements across America.  

Judy Dutton wrote about the topic for Mental Floss magazine. She joins us with more about the latest in garage science.

Photo by Bloke_with_camera, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Superheroes are heavy on the summer blockbuster schedule. A reunion of Marvel Comics “The Avengers” hits theaters in May, followed by the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series. In July, we get a reboot of the Spiderman epic. The new film adaptations promise new gadgets and CGI effects to stir moviegoers fantasies of and aspirations of superpowers. 

Every so often, pieces of heaven crash into Earth.

They can come from our own solar system, or millions of light years away. Few of us are lucky enough to get our hands on one of these space rocks. But for meteorite hunters and dealers such as Ruben Garcia, touching a piece of outer space is a daily routine.

The Best Hunting Grounds

One of Garcia's favorite spots to go meteorite hunting is an enormous dry lake bed in southern Arizona.

Two controversial studies on bird flu will once again be reviewed by an expert committee that advises the government on what to do with biological research that could pose potential dangers.

The move is just the latest development in a fierce ongoing debate about genetically altered flu viruses created in laboratories at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

After decades of global dominance, America's space shuttle program ended last summer while countries like Russia, China and India continue to advance their programs. But astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, author of the new book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, says America's space program is at a critical moment. He thinks it's time for America to invest heavily in space exploration and research.

Amid stories of horrific atrocities like the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing that took place in the Balkans in the 1990’s, occasional tales of courage emerge: the stories of individuals who fly in the face of convention – or even the law – to stand up for what they know is right.

Scientists working with bird flu recently called a 60-day halt on some controversial experiments, and the unusual move has been compared to a famous moratorium on genetic engineering in the 1970s.

But key scientists involved in that event disagree on whether history is repeating itself.

"I see an amazing similarity," says Nobel Prize winner Paul Berg, of Stanford University.

 For some perspective, the Mariana Trench, a 2500 kilometer-long gash along the floor of the South Pacific, is as deep as Mount Everest is tall.  Recently, oceanographers from the University of New Hampshire discovered some new architecture lining the floor of the planet. With great precision, they’ve mapped vast bridges spanning the immense gap…and detected significant shifts in the walls of the trench.

We’ve spoken on the program before about the tendency in science to connect today’s  traits and ailments to evolutionary adaptations for survival from which they presumably developed.  Not every aspect of humanity derives from Darwinian roots, argues Dr.

(Photo by maybeemily via Flickr Creative Commons)

Rap mogul Jay-Z and his pop star wife Beyonce welcomed a baby girl at Lenox Hill hospital two weeks ago. The news quickly outpaced other top stories on Twitter, helped along by the announcement of her name: Blue Ivy Carter, just the latest celebrity moniker to inspire a collective groan and the Twitter hashtag #NamesBetterThanBlueIvy.

Photo by, Reigh LeBlanc, courtesy of Flickr creative commons

Character is the currency of political ads and attacks. It makes business deals attractive or unsavory. Character is described in court trials and novels as what makes a person tick. We’re going to introduce you to the proposition that human behavior is not driven by character, but context.

(Photo by Johan Wieland via Flickr Creative Commons)

In 1948, a plane crash in a remote Alaskan mountain range killed everyone on board …twenty-four merchant mariners returning to the US from Shanghai, and six Northwest Airlines crew members. The crash site was quickly covered by snow and eventually entombed in ice…where it remained until 1999. It was then that a pair of former US Airforce pilots turned their hobby of solving forgotten aviation mysteries into an investigation.

Photo by: pareeerica

 

Space! The final frontier, an immense void populated by our imaginations and as far as we know, not much else.  Since the NASA shuttle program topped headlines for one last nostalgic time this summer, there have been few newsworthy developments in  space exploration… until now. Here to share some big news is freelance science journalist Lee Billings, who’s working on a book about the inter-galactic search for earth-like planets.

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(Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/marsdd/2986989396/" target="_blank">mars discovery district</a> via Flickr Creative Commons)

Word of Mouth keeps its eye out for stories that are interesting, counterintuitive, many of which come from the world of science. It’s part of our mission to find the under-reported, simmering, surprising ideas that make us go “what?”

Throughout the year, we’ve been featuring a series we call 11 for 11… conversations with innovative thinkers who challenge and provoke new ways of thinking about the issues of our time. Dr. Raymond Tallis is a former clinical neuroscientist turned author.

Is time real, or is change just a kind of optical illusion resting on a deeper unchanging reality?

As finite creatures, with death hovering just out of our sight, the true nature of time haunts all our endeavors. Tomorrow, physicist Brian Greene tackles time's illusion in his Fabric of Reality PBS series. Science, however, is just one way we ask about the reality of time.

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