Science &amp; Medicine https://mag.uchicago.edu/topics/science-medicine en Organic growth https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/organic-growth <div class="field field--name-field-letter-box-story-image field--type-image field--label-hidden field--item"> <img src="/sites/default/files/Olinto%20header.jpg" width="2000" height="1000" alt="Dean Angela V. Olinto" typeof="foaf:Image" class="img-responsive" /> </div> <span><span lang="" about="/profile/mrsearcy" typeof="schema:Person" property="schema:name" datatype="">mrsearcy</span></span> <span>Thu, 09/19/2019 - 19:45</span> <div class="field field--name-field-caption field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>(Photography by John Zich)</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refauthors field--type-entity-reference field--label-visually_hidden"> <div class="field--label sr-only">Author</div> <div class="field__items"> <div class="field--item"> <div about="/author/angela-v-olinto"> <a href="/author/angela-v-olinto"> <div class="field field--name-name field--type-string field--label-hidden field--item">Angela V. Olinto</div> </a> </div> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refsource field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/publication-sources/inquiry" hreflang="en">Inquiry</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-issue field--type-text field--label-hidden field--item">Fall/19</div> <div class="field field--name-field-subhead field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>A note from the dean of the Physical Sciences Division.</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-body field--type-text-with-summary field--label-hidden field--item"><p>At the University of Chicago, interdisciplinary research between physical, biological, and medical sciences is leading to life-changing scientific and technological breakthroughs. In the Physical Sciences Division we have a physicist “squishing” cells to study force (“<a href="https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/living-matter">Living Matter</a>”). We have a geophysical scientist taking to the seas and lakes to plumb microbial diversity and evolution (“<a href="https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/small-bugs-large-ponds">Small Bugs in Large Ponds</a>”). And we have a computer scientist using electrical muscle stimulation—the kind employed for physical therapy—to build musical skills and empathy (“<a href="https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/instrumental">Instrumental</a>”).</p> <p>Scientists, physicians, and engineers at the University are working together to improve the way we live, approaching research from all directions. Many people view scientific fields as part of a pipeline leading from fundamental research to practical application: math to physics, physics to chemistry, chemistry to biology, biology to medicine. But science isn’t so linear.</p> <p>For the physical and mathematical sciences, adding life to the equation isn’t simply the next step. It can create new “<a href="https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/living-matter">building blocks that don’t exist in physics</a>,” says biophysicist <strong>Margaret Gardel</strong>, inspiring novel scientific fields and technologies. Science is a feedback loop, with discoveries framing brand-new questions and catalyzing work in other fields.</p> <p>Seeing where projects intersect, how breakthroughs might seed new subfields, often happens serendipitously. This is why PSD spaces are designed with exchange and dynamics in mind. Chemists and biophysicists commingle in the Gordon Center for Integrative Science. Astrophysicists and molecular engineers brush shoulders in the Eckhardt Research Center—perhaps sharing a cup of coffee in the Quantum Café. And any scientist visiting the John Crerar Library can’t help but notice the new Center for Data and Computing, an incubator for multidisciplinary data science and artificial intelligence inquiry that fuses fundamental and applied research.</p> <p>Perhaps an incubator is an apt descriptor for UChicago’s science sphere: a safe environment at the ideal temperature with abundant resources to nurture growth.</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-reftopic field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/topics/science-medicine" hreflang="en">Science &amp; Medicine</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-refuchicago field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--items"> <div class="field--item"><a href="/physical-sciences-division" hreflang="en">Physical Sciences Division</a></div> </div> <span class="a2a_kit a2a_kit_size_32 addtoany_list" data-a2a-url="https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/organic-growth" data-a2a-title="Organic growth"><a class="a2a_button_facebook"></a><a class="a2a_button_twitter"></a><a class="a2a_button_google_plus"></a><a class="a2a_button_print"></a><a class="a2a_dd addtoany_share_save" href="https://www.addtoany.com/share#url=https%3A%2F%2Fmag.uchicago.edu%2Fscience-medicine%2Forganic-growth&amp;title=Organic%20growth"></a></span> Fri, 20 Sep 2019 00:45:03 +0000 mrsearcy 7170 at https://mag.uchicago.edu Light hearted https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/light-hearted <div class="field field--name-field-letter-box-story-image field--type-image field--label-hidden field--item"> <img src="/sites/default/files/1908_Searcy_Lighthearted_header_0.jpg" width="2000" height="1000" alt="Illuminated heart illustration." typeof="foaf:Image" class="img-responsive" /> </div> <span><span lang="" about="/profile/mrsearcy" typeof="schema:Person" property="schema:name" datatype="">mrsearcy</span></span> <span>Wed, 08/21/2019 - 13:59</span> <div class="field field--name-field-caption field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>(iStock.com/magicmine)</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refauthors field--type-entity-reference field--label-visually_hidden"> <div class="field--label sr-only">Author</div> <div class="field__items"> <div class="field--item"> <div about="/author/maureen-searcy"> <a href="/author/maureen-searcy"> <div class="field field--name-name field--type-string field--label-hidden field--item">Maureen Searcy</div> </a> </div> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refsource field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/publication-sources/inquiry" hreflang="en">Inquiry</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-issue field--type-text field--label-hidden field--item">09.03.2019</div> <div class="field field--name-field-subhead field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>Chemist Bozhi Tian illuminates pacemaker technology.</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-body field--type-text-with-summary field--label-hidden field--item"><p>Sometimes the heart needs a hand, like when it beats too quickly, too slowly, or out of sync.</p> <p>Our hearts have an innate electrical system that controls their rhythm, and when that system malfunctions, physicians may opt for a pacemaker. This matchbox-sized device consists of a battery, a computerized generator, and electrodes that attach to the heart. When the pacemaker detects an abnormality, it sends a little burst of electricity to get the heartbeat back on track.</p> <p>Traditional pacemakers, first used in humans in 1958, come with inherent risks. They’re “not freestanding,” explains associate professor of chemistry <a href="http://tianlab.uchicago.edu" target="_blank"><strong>Bozhi Tian</strong></a>. The need for a battery pack increases the device’s size, “making implantation a more invasive procedure.”</p> <p>The size also causes irritation, which can lead to an inflammatory response. The device can get coated with immune cells and fibrous material from the extracellular matrix—the network of proteins and carbohydrates found in the space between cells. This type of biofouling, Tian says, “reduces the pacemaker’s electrical signal transduction efficiency because signals will get lost.”</p> <p>His team has developed a potential solution: a wireless pacemaker powered by light. The device is based on existing solar cell technology, but shrunk down to the nanoscale—a mesh of silicon nanowires embedded in polymer for support.</p> <div class="story-inline-img"> <figure role="group"><img alt="Close up of pacemaker mesh." data-entity-type="file" data-entity-uuid="ecf8057f-e274-442b-8f77-336223c6a443" src="/sites/default/files/inline-images/1908_Searcy_Lighthearted_A.jpg" /><figcaption>An optical microscopy image of the silicon nanowire mesh shows high-density random nanowires supported over a polymer framework. (The density increases contact area between the wires and the heart muscle cells; the random configuration is easier to manufacture.) (Image courtesy Bozhi Tian)</figcaption></figure></div> <p>Silicon, a semiconductor that serves as a building block for computer chips, is an ideal material because it has “a lot of electronic and optical functions you can play with,” says Tian. “You can convert light energy into electricity.”</p> <p>Working with both cultured cells in a dish and isolated rat hearts, Tian’s team attached the mesh to heart muscle tissue and then scanned the mesh-coated area with a laser, delivering pulses of light. The mesh in turn produced electricity, activating the heart cells to beat at the same frequency as the flashes. Scanning, rather than the direct application of light, is more efficient and safer for the cells, which can be damaged by too much energy.</p> <p>While traditional pacemaker surgery is considered minimally invasive, with the device implanted through a small incision in the chest, Tian’s mesh could be delivered even less invasively, via needle injection. The surgeon would even target areas of the heart with pacemaker cells, mostly found in the sinoatrial node close to the right atrium wall. These cells naturally generate electrical impulses, and that energy flows throughout the heart, causing it to pump.</p> <p>Light could be delivered in a few different ways, including through an optical fiber. After injecting the mesh, a fiber about the diameter of a human hair could be plugged into the same hole, with one end touching the mesh and the other exposed to the outside world, able to guide light to the pacemaker.</p> <p>Traditional pacemakers can be permanent or temporary. If an irregular heartbeat is caused by something acute and reversible, such as drug toxicity or infection, a pacemaker may be needed only until the underlying problem is solved, and this is the type Tian’s light-powered mesh is aimed at replacing.</p> <p>Nanostructure silicon can dissolve inside a human body within a few weeks, making it optimal for transient applications. (Silicon degrades into silicic acid, which can be filtered by the kidneys, so in small enough doses, it’s safe for humans. The polymer support for the silicon can be biodegradable as well.) “You would inject one dosage, apply the light pulses, and then treat the patient for a short window, perhaps a few days,” says Tian. “Then there’s no need for additional surgery” to remove the device.</p> <p>Much of the work in Tian’s lab has the potential to directly improve medical care. This project builds on technology originally developed to stimulate neurons, a concept pioneered by <a href="https://biophysics.uchicago.edu/the-students/ramya_parameswaran/" target="_blank"><strong>Ramya Parameswaran</strong></a>, PhD’18, an MD/PhD student who completed her biophysics degree in Tian’s lab and is now finishing her medical training at the Pritzker School of Medicine.</p> <p>“At this stage we certainly hope to work with medical doctors because that’s how we make real impact,” says Tian, “but we must first optimize the technology,” improving the device’s optical pacing, efficiency, and power demands. Tian predicts they might be ready to approach clinicians in a couple of years—if they keep up this pace.</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-reftopic field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/topics/science-medicine" hreflang="en">Science &amp; Medicine</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-tags field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--items"> <div class="field--item"><a href="/tags/chemistry" hreflang="en">Chemistry</a></div> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refuchicago field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--items"> <div class="field--item"><a href="/physical-sciences-division" hreflang="en">Physical Sciences Division</a></div> </div> <span class="a2a_kit a2a_kit_size_32 addtoany_list" data-a2a-url="https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/light-hearted" data-a2a-title="Light hearted"><a class="a2a_button_facebook"></a><a class="a2a_button_twitter"></a><a class="a2a_button_google_plus"></a><a class="a2a_button_print"></a><a class="a2a_dd addtoany_share_save" href="https://www.addtoany.com/share#url=https%3A%2F%2Fmag.uchicago.edu%2Fscience-medicine%2Flight-hearted&amp;title=Light%20hearted"></a></span> Wed, 21 Aug 2019 18:59:44 +0000 mrsearcy 7169 at https://mag.uchicago.edu Instrumental https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/instrumental <div class="field field--name-field-letter-box-story-image field--type-image field--label-hidden field--item"> <img src="/sites/default/files/1908_Searcy_Instrumental_header.jpg" width="2000" height="1000" alt="3D printer with robot sticker" typeof="foaf:Image" class="img-responsive" /> </div> <span><span lang="" about="/profile/mrsearcy" typeof="schema:Person" property="schema:name" datatype="">mrsearcy</span></span> <span>Sat, 08/17/2019 - 14:53</span> <div class="field field--name-field-caption field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>(Photography by Anne Ryan)</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refauthors field--type-entity-reference field--label-visually_hidden"> <div class="field--label sr-only">Author</div> <div class="field__items"> <div class="field--item"> <div about="/author/maureen-searcy"> <a href="/author/maureen-searcy"> <div class="field field--name-name field--type-string field--label-hidden field--item">Maureen Searcy</div> </a> </div> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refsource field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/publication-sources/inquiry" hreflang="en">Inquiry</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-issue field--type-text field--label-hidden field--item">08.29.2019</div> <div class="field field--name-field-subhead field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>Computer scientist Pedro Lopes integrates technology with anatomy to reimagine the role of “human” in human-computer interaction.</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-body field--type-text-with-summary field--label-hidden field--item"><p>The sparse room is almost blindingly bright: white floors, white walls, white exposed ductwork, and a primary-yellow door. Articulated fume extraction pipes (think robot arms with suction cup hands) extend from the ceiling and a Styrofoam human head sits on the bench. Above the white noise of fans and beeping electronics plays the otherworldly whine/hum/squeal of a theremin—the classic B-movie <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wQsWL-lMJw" target="_blank">UFO sound effect</a>. If Stanley Kubrick and Ed Wood had teamed up to imagine the year 2019, it might have looked something like <strong>Pedro Lopes</strong>’s lab in the recently renovated John Crerar Library.</p> <div class="story-inline-img"> <figure role="group"><img alt="Pedro Lopes" data-entity-type="file" data-entity-uuid="c504d306-5d19-4ee9-8317-118856d61352" src="/sites/default/files/inline-images/1908_Searcy_Instrumental_A.jpg" /><figcaption>Pedro Lopes stands outside one of his labs in the John Crerar Library. (Photography by Anne Ryan)</figcaption></figure></div> <p>In the center of this futuristic space stands <strong>Marco Kaisth</strong>, Class of 2021, himself a study in retro styling in a Western yoke shirt, plaid cropped pants, and mod boots. Kaisth waves his arm through the air, his fingers fluttering as if playing invisible strings—and the music fluctuates. That’s how you play a theremin, moving your body through the instrument’s electromagnetic field to produce sound. But it’s what you can’t see that’s most interesting: the theremin, in a sense, is playing Marco. He can <em>feel</em> the music. His fingers are moving involuntarily.</p> <p>The details of this work aren’t yet published and must remain under wraps for now, but the crux of the project represents a theme in Lopes’s research—reversing the flow of control within human-computer interaction and reimagining the nature of the relationship between humans and technology. In Lopes’s office one floor up, relocated from the lab to give his students “acoustic space,” Lopes writes H-C-I vertically on a scrap of paper, like a ladder with the H on top. “In HCI, a human controls the computer.” What if you put the computer on top? And how would that affect our sense of control? (Some may dread a <em>Matrix</em>-like future, but Lopes qualifies that the computer must still be programmed by a human. Whether that’s a more comforting thought than being controlled by AI is debatable.)</p> <div class="story-inline-img"> <figure role="group"><img alt="Marco Kaisth" data-entity-type="file" data-entity-uuid="835e4fe5-da99-4b8f-b737-759d177a388b" src="/sites/default/files/inline-images/Theremin_0.gif" /><figcaption>Marco Kaisth, Class of 2021, plays a theremin. (Photography by Anne Ryan)</figcaption></figure></div> <p>The field of human-computer interaction (HCI) is difficult to define, even by experts, except in the most redundant way: it’s how humans interact with computers. Before Lopes joined the Computer Science Department as an assistant professor in January, UChicago had no dedicated professors in HCI, though Neubauer Family Assistant Professor <strong>Blase Ur</strong> and Neubauer Professors <strong>Ben Zhao</strong> and <strong>Heather Zheng</strong> all count HCI projects among their work.</p> <p>Ur, who takes a human-centered approach to studying computer security and privacy, says the field looks at how to design computer systems to better meet users’ needs and habits. Researchers adopt techniques from sociology and psychology to understand how people use computers and other technology in practice, which is often distinct from what the designers intended.</p> <p>Zhao and Zheng, a married team who operate a joint lab, study human behavior as illuminated by data. Zhao conducts empirical research with a slant toward security, trying to model and predict human behavior, while Zheng focuses on mobile computing and sensor data, gathering information from wearables to better understand the behavior of, for instance, patients and caregivers, which could help make health care more efficient and predictable.</p> <p>In this vein, some of Lopes’s work follows the conventional HCI venture of developing technology to record, facilitate, or enhance human action. Wearable tech—a booming subset of HCI research—features prominently in Lopes’s lab, including stretchy electronics, ideal for biometric sensors of the type Zheng might use to gather hospital data.</p> <p>Take, for example, visiting PhD student Steven Nagels, who brought his work on stretchable circuitry when he joined the Lopes Lab in January. The material combines comfort and flexibility for a variety of wearable applications. (Nagels, one of several lab members whose expertise lies outside of computer science, specializes in electrical engineering and materials science. Lopes intentionally devised his team to include diverse specialties to best suit the many facets of HCI.)</p> <p>In a lab filled with computers and electronics components, Nagels pulls out a floppy square of silicone with an embedded circuit. He alligator-clips the circuit to a power source, and a green LED lights up inside the patch. He then twists, folds, and stretches the square, and it returns to its original shape, still illuminated. A normal circuit board has rigid electrical connections; such treatment would break the wires. Nagels solved this problem by creating chambers within the silicone and pouring in metal that remains liquid at room temperature. A constant liquid state makes for flexible conductivity.</p> <div class="story-inline-img"> <figure role="group"><img alt="Flexible circuit" data-entity-type="file" data-entity-uuid="14585188-212e-4996-8a61-f6ccf1dcbe83" src="/sites/default/files/inline-images/1908_Searcy_Instrumental_C.jpg" /><figcaption>Steven Nagels demonstrates a stretchable circuit. (Photography by Anne Ryan)</figcaption></figure></div> <p>“Such resilience means engineers could put electronics in places normal circuit boards can’t go,” says Nagels, and makes the technology extremely promising for wearables, particularly those meant for skin contact. Stretchy electronics could sit on the body for extended periods without hindering your movement. They could be incorporated into any kind of material, even a sweatshirt that can be easily removed. (Laundry involves water, heat, and mechanical force—all enemies to electronics—but Lopes and Nagels, now back at his home institution, Hasselt University in Belgium, seem confident that this material will eventually be washable.)</p> <p>Wearable tech is a broad field: it includes the ubiquitous fitness tracker, as well as experimental equipment that scrambles surveillance, like the microphone-jamming bracelet that Lopes, Zheng, and Zhao are developing. But what if the technology—skin-adhered electrodes, for instance—was used to deliver information instead of gather it, to control the human rather than the human’s environment? This is how some of Lopes’s work differs from that of his HCI colleagues.</p> <p>Beginning this line of inquiry as a graduate student at the University of Potsdam in Germany, Lopes looked at the ways technology interfaces with anatomy. For biosensors, the human body is the input, transmitting information to a computer. Perhaps he could make the body the output, reacting to computer processing.</p> <p>In the realm of movement, which is of particular interest to Lopes, there are a couple of ways to flip the flow: devices based on mechanical actuation and those that use electrical muscle stimulation (EMS). Mechanical actuation for wearable technology involves motorized equipment, like robotic exoskeletons—your body is simply along for the ride. In contrast, EMS sends signals to your muscles, making your body a computer peripheral device. You, the human, are the printer, the monitor, the speaker, receiving information and acting on it. This is the technology Kaisth’s theremin project relies on.</p> <p>Electrical muscle stimulation uses a pair of electrodes stuck to the skin to deliver small jolts of electricity to muscles, making them involuntarily contract. (The concept traces back to 1791, when Luigi Galvani discovered that electric current made an inanimate frog leg twitch, partially inspiring Mary Shelley’s <em>Frankenstein</em>.)</p> <p>“When a burst of electricity enters the first electrode, it wants to come out of the second,” Lopes explains. “As it travels through the medium that is your body, it crosses your skin, and most people say it tingles because it’s a form of vibration.” The electrical impulses then encounter nerve cells connected to muscles, or the muscles themselves. When the muscles feel current, “they do what they always do, which is to contract.”</p> <p>Lopes first started experimenting with EMS at the University of Potsdam’s Hasso Plattner Institute, exploring eyes-free interaction for wearables. He focused on proprioception—the ability to sense the orientation and movement of your body within its environment. (Close your eyes, stretch out your arms, and then touch your index finger to your nose. That ability comes from proprioception.)</p> <p>One of his applications dealt with gesture recognition: Lopes wondered if your smartphone, connected to you by electrodes, could deliver information by moving your body. Perhaps the phone compels a person’s finger to move in the shape of a “5,” as an alert for five unread messages, or in a heart shape to indicate a message from a close friend, he explains on his <a href="http://plopes.org/" target="_blank">website</a>.</p> <p>Lopes also realized that EMS could be used for more than notification; it could be used to train or teach the muscles directly, similar to its use in physical therapy for rehabilitating muscle function. For instance, a wholly unfamiliar object could itself teach a person how to use it.</p> <p>To demonstrate the concept, Lopes developed a prototype that uses an EMS-wired device worn on the hand and forearm and a multicamera setup to track the user’s hand proximity to an object. A <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gz4dphzBb6I" target="_blank">video</a> shows people wearing the contraption trying to pick up a white cube. When one woman nearly grasps the cube, her fingers jerk away. “It doesn’t want to be grabbed,” she laughs. The instrument had been programmed to “tell” the user of its unwillingness to be held by stimulating the muscles to back off. Other participants try to spray paint a design on cardboard, but the spray can “instructs” them to shake it first.</p> <p>The participants are then given a specialty tool, a magnetic nail sweeper, whose function is not intuitive. The wearable device instructs them how to grasp the tool and gather scattered nails and then how to pull a release bar to drop them into a bin. “In a wild future, you could wire up and learn by doing rather than reading an instruction manual,” says Lopes. He notes that the same could be achieved with an exoskeleton, but “I wanted to see if we could do it without being so instrumented,” with a more seamless human-technology interface.</p> <p>The learning could skip the brain entirely and go straight to muscle memory, but whether your body actually retains the lesson remains to be seen. Lopes is collaborating with Shinya Fujii, a neuroscientist at Japan’s Keio University, to investigate whether EMS could build drumming skills. (Fujii is a drummer while Lopes is a <a href="http://plopesmusic.org/" target="_blank">turntablist</a>, playing turntables as if they were full-fledged instruments.) After training beginner drummers through “passive action,” or electrical stimulation of the arm muscles, they found that the drummers did improve, but not much more than had they spent time practicing.</p> <p>What was notable was the striking improvement in the nondominant hand and the speeds the drummers were able to reach while wired up. “We’re making people drum as fast as the world’s fastest drummer,” says Lopes. Maybe such conditioning will lead to unfair competition advantages—electrical doping of sorts. “Shinya said that if this changes the rules, he’ll be happy. And I agree.”</p> <p>Lopes emphasizes that he and his collaborators use medically compliant devices in their research that are carefully calibrated for human use and have fail-safes to prevent injury. Still, a small amount of current can be dangerous. “You can kill yourself with a 9-volt battery,” he says, so any projects that involve human subjects go through an institutional review board. Lopes also believes in the value of open source; in 2015, he and a colleague in Hannover, Max Pfeiffer, designed a device that <a href="http://plopes.org/ems/" target="_blank">safely leverages</a> standard EMS generators and made the source code and schematics public to help researchers begin exploring EMS.</p> <p>In a UChicago lab that is relatively new, Lopes and his team still experiment with EMS, the work that was his baby for so long, which he “could talk about till dinner.” But he wants the lab to grow from that technique to explore other ways humans can bond with technology. “We’re trying to see if we can do that with more human capabilities, human skills, human senses.”</p> <p> </p> <p><strong>The reversed directionality</strong> of Lopes’s work raises questions of agency—both physical and philosophical. First the easier scenario: what it feels like to resist EMS impulses. If you insist on grabbing the “unwilling” white cube, “it feels literally like you’re resisting a force,” explains Lopes. “In other projects, we’ve used that as a trick to create the feeling of weight” in virtual reality. (See “<a href="#similitude">Similitude</a>” below.)</p> <p>The system is designed to recognize when the user is resisting the muscle stimulation and disconnect. And because EMS-instructed action can only be as strong as the human’s own muscles, it can also be overcome by the strength of their own muscles, unlike a mechanized exoskeleton. When asked if someone could hack such a device to compel you to act against your will, Lopes stresses that any technology can be vulnerable to infiltration, but the strength limitation offers protection.</p> <p>Willingness poses a different set of issues. If technology inspires action (or aids function through nerve-integrated prostheses, for instance), it can “feel like this alien force,” says Lopes—you think and something else acts. This is particularly troublesome with exoskeletons because of the external nature of the hardware. For such technology to feel natural, it needs to “synchronize or harmonize with your intention,” actuating at a speed faster than possible without the device (in the scientists’ terms, achieving “preemption”) but slowly enough that the person feels they initiated the action.</p> <p>Lopes and <strong>Jun Nishida</strong>, a postdoc in his lab, collaborated with Shunichi Kasahara, an associate researcher at Sony, to explore how fast they could accelerate human reaction <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BT8REEJibM" target="_blank">without compromising people’s sense of agency</a>. With their ring fingers wired to receive EMS, subjects were asked to tap a touch screen when a target appears. The researchers programmed stimuli to be delivered at different speeds, measured reaction time, and asked the subjects to record their sense of agency.</p> <p>The paper, published in May in the <em>2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems</em>, showed that stimulating the subjects 160 milliseconds after the target appears sped up reaction time by 80 milliseconds while preserving the strongest sense of agency. That is an incredibly short window, where the subject feels just a shadow of external impulse, barely distinguishable from their own intention. This finding might help optimize wearable technology for the most natural experience.</p> <p>While research based on self-reported sense of agency involves metaphysical elements, the experimental design can be quantified. Time frames can be measured; data patterns can be analyzed; conclusions can be formed. But not all of Lopes’s work revolves around an answer. Sometimes the question is what matters, and “art seems to be a good way to not just ask the question but also inject it into people’s minds. It’s like an <em>Inception</em> thing.”</p> <p> </p> <p><strong>In 2015 four musicians</strong>—one on bass, one on guitar, one on vibraphone, and Lopes on turntable percussion—play in front of 80 people in the now-shuttered media space <a href="http://plopes.org/project/conductive-ensemble-art-piece/" target="_blank">Spektrum Berlin</a>. In a video posted on Lopes’s website, the music is a din of discordant sounds, and the players jerk and lurch like marionettes, which in a way they are. The audience is full of puppeteers controlling the quartet through a web app. They can make the musicians play or stop playing by tapping the performer’s name on their smartphone screen, which sends a stream of electrical muscle stimulation.</p> <p>(The instruments, even the guitar and bass, are treated mostly as percussion tools. EMS isn’t yet precise enough for sophisticated, targeted movement because of the layered nature of muscles. Using EMS to teach writing or violin is quite a ways off. Dancing is probably not as distant because it requires coarser motion, says Lopes—a welcome prediction for the pathologically unrhythmic.)</p> <p>At the end of the roughly 12-minute performance, the audience members’ screens appear to glitch and they see a closing message posing the question: Were the audience members in control or were they being “played?”</p> <p>The “conductive ensemble,” as Lopes calls it, was an art piece designed to provoke thought about the notion of control in relation to social networks and their pervasiveness.</p> <p>Between 2016 and 2018, one of Lopes’s art installations, called <em><a href="http://plopes.org/project/ad-infinitum/" target="_blank">Ad Infinitum</a></em>, was staged at five exhibition spaces around the world, including Austria’s Ars Electronica. The piece, created with Patrick Baudisch (Lopes’s PhD adviser at the time) and several fellow graduate students, comprises a box into which visitors insert their arm. Cuffs close down on their forearm and deliver mild electric shocks that cause their wrists to involuntarily pivot, forcing them to turn a crank; the device is harvesting kinetic energy to power itself. The only way to be released is to convince someone to insert their arm at the other end to take your place. The installation likely hosted 200,000 arms over its exhibition life.</p> <p>The creators call the installation a parasite that lives off human energy. It “reverses the dominant role that mankind has with respect to technologies: the parasite shifts humans from ‘users’ to ‘used’.” As described on its website, <em>Ad Infinitum</em> is a “critical take on the canonical HCI configuration, in which a human is always in control.”</p> <p>Lopes’s art doesn’t always provide an answer to the question; that’s not the point, after all. But he “started valuing art as a mechanism to do research.” Sometimes art works better than empirical methodology to explore an idea, so he takes “that route rather than the hypothesis-testing approach.” When his team brainstorms, often there’s an outlier that they realize would make a great art project. (Several lab members are also artists.) “It’s such an interesting space to probe people’s imaginations.”</p> <p>Questions of flow and directionality and control only matter so long as there’s a disconnect—no matter how minuscule—between humans and computers, but Lopes’s grand, overarching goal is to achieve complete fluidity between technology and us. In fact, his research group is called the Human Computer <em>Integration</em> Lab, emphasizing the expanded scope beyond simple interaction.</p> <p>“A good interface matches your expectations,” says Lopes. It feels natural and does exactly “what it afforded you to do.” By moving certain interfaces to the body itself, he’s removing instrumentation, making for a more organic experience. You shouldn’t know where you end and the tech begins.</p> <p>“Good HCI has no <em>I</em>—it just happens,” says Lopes. “So my secret objective for the field is to destroy it.”</p> <hr /><h3 id="similitude">Similitude</h3> <p><strong>Pedro Lopes</strong>’s research concerns our experiences interacting with technology. His team is also exploring whether HCI (human computer interaction) can be used to strengthen empathy by placing us into other people’s experiences through technology.</p> <p>Virtual and augmented reality offer one such path. Virtual reality (VR) has come a long way since the 1980s, when it first emerged in the form most closely related to current technology. Today VR visuals are more refined; programs can run on phones and “look incredible now. People in graphics would be horrified with what I just said,” Lopes notes, asserting that virtual displays can always be improved, “but the visual clarity of VR has certainly stabilized.”</p> <p>A convincing virtual world must take into account more senses than vision, though. When what you see in VR doesn’t sync with what you feel—for instance, if you bump into a virtual table but feel no thud, or feel something not represented in your headset—it’s a reminder that you’re in a simulation. One of Lopes’s graduate projects was to develop electrical muscle stimulation (EMS)-based haptic feedback for virtual objects. Inside the simulation, you could pick up a book and feel its weight or feel physically impeded by doors and walls.</p> <p>Lopes is also interested in exploring tactile feedback, such as the feeling of liquid, but the complexity of human anatomy and physiology makes imitating certain sensations complicated. Stimulating a muscle to contract, mimicking the force required to lift a weight, is fairly simple because motor neurons are relatively easy to isolate and activate. Pressure, pain, temperature, olfaction—these senses rely on a combination of sensory neurons and exist on a spectrum.</p> <p>Graduate student <strong>Jas Brooks</strong>, LAB’12, SB’16, is exploiting that complexity to create “thermal illusions for virtual reality,” developing technology that will make someone in a VR simulation perceive a change in temperature without actually changing the ambient temperature of the space. Both a computer scientist and an artist, Brooks is testing ways to manipulate the trigeminal nerve, found in the nose and mouth, which responds to both smell and thermal changes.</p> <div class="story-inline-img"> <figure role="group"><img alt="Jas Brooks" data-entity-type="file" data-entity-uuid="a4a4780d-44b3-4c56-98a7-791902b2112a" src="/sites/default/files/inline-images/1908_Searcy_Instrumental_D.jpg" /><figcaption>Jas Brooks, LAB’12, SB’16, wears a virtual reality headset. (Photography by Anne Ryan)</figcaption></figure></div> <p>A full-sensory VR experience will improve immersion and make gaming more thrilling, but Lopes is “not so excited about the infinite mimicry of VR because we already have this beautiful reality. I don’t want to create an escaping method.” Rather, he wants to create opportunities for solving problems that can’t easily be solved physically, such as overcoming social anxiety or treating body dysmorphia and related eating disorders.</p> <p>Postdoctoral fellow <strong>Jun Nishida</strong>, who specializes in designing experiences and technologies that allow people to “maximize and share their physical and cognitive capabilities to support each other,” began working with empathy building as a grad student at the University of Tsukuba, Japan. One of his projects was engineered to help people better understand the <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=30&amp;v=ZkZjfqo6h3I" target="_blank">visual perception of children</a> and smaller people by affixing a camera to the wearer’s waist, allowing them to see at that level through a headset. Getting that perspective can be useful for teachers and caregivers as well as industrial and interior designers who might realize that counters or doorknobs are positioned too high for some people. The experiment also revealed that from that point of view, participants felt more vulnerable, requiring a larger amount of personal space for a comfortable, nonthreatening interaction.</p> <p>Nishida has also developed ways to replicate others’ experiences using EMS to simulate medical conditions. As part of his master of engineering thesis, he stimulated the muscles of spoon designers to feel the tremors experienced by patients with Parkinson’s disease. Compared to a control group, the designers then created spoons that are easier to pick up and hold with minimal tension and vibrations.</p> <p>This type of technology could transform the medical industry as well. Physicians could experience a specific type of pain or impairment, possibly altering their treatment. Male doctors could experience female conditions, ultimately leading to reduced gender disparity in medicine. And of course, bedside manner—which has received renewed attention in medical schools—would benefit from a strong dose of empathy.</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-reftopic field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/topics/science-medicine" hreflang="en">Science &amp; Medicine</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-tags field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--items"> <div class="field--item"><a href="/tags/computer-science" hreflang="en">Computer science</a></div> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refuchicago field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--items"> <div class="field--item"><a href="/physical-sciences-division" hreflang="en">Physical Sciences Division</a></div> </div> <span class="a2a_kit a2a_kit_size_32 addtoany_list" data-a2a-url="https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/instrumental" data-a2a-title="Instrumental"><a class="a2a_button_facebook"></a><a class="a2a_button_twitter"></a><a class="a2a_button_google_plus"></a><a class="a2a_button_print"></a><a class="a2a_dd addtoany_share_save" href="https://www.addtoany.com/share#url=https%3A%2F%2Fmag.uchicago.edu%2Fscience-medicine%2Finstrumental&amp;title=Instrumental"></a></span> Sat, 17 Aug 2019 19:53:39 +0000 mrsearcy 7167 at https://mag.uchicago.edu An expanding universe of discovery https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/expanding-universe-discovery <div class="field field--name-field-letter-box-story-image field--type-image field--label-hidden field--item"> <img src="/sites/default/files/19_Summer_Olinto_Expanding-Universe-Discovery.jpg" width="2000" height="1000" alt="Angela Olinto" title="Angela Olinto" typeof="foaf:Image" class="img-responsive" /> </div> <span><span lang="" about="/profile/admin" typeof="schema:Person" property="schema:name" datatype="">admin</span></span> <span>Fri, 08/09/2019 - 17:17</span> <div class="field field--name-field-caption field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>Angela Olinto, dean, Physical Sciences Division, and Albert A. Michelson Distinguished Service Professor, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Enrico Fermi Institute, and the College. (Photography by John Zich)</p></div> <div class="field field--name-field-refauthors field--type-entity-reference field--label-visually_hidden"> <div class="field--label sr-only">Author</div> <div class="field__items"> <div class="field--item"> <div about="/author/angela-olinto"> <a href="/author/angela-olinto"> <div class="field field--name-name field--type-string field--label-hidden field--item">Angela Olinto</div> </a> </div> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refsource field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/publication-sources/university-chicago-magazine" hreflang="en">The University of Chicago Magazine</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-issue field--type-text field--label-hidden field--item">Summer/19</div> <div class="field field--name-field-subhead field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>The dean of the physical sciences shares a future vision anchored in the divisionʼs illustrious history.</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-body field--type-text-with-summary field--label-hidden field--item"><p>When I started as dean of the <a href="https://physicalsciences.uchicago.edu/">Physical Sciences Division</a> (PSD) in July 2018, <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/parker-solar-probe">NASA</a> was preparing to launch the <a href="https://news.uchicago.edu/tag/parker-solar-probe">Parker Solar Probe</a>, a spacecraft designed to make critical observations of the sun. <a href="https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/hot-pursuit">The probe is the first NASA spacecraft to be named after a living person</a>, my colleague and a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, <a href="https://astro.uchicago.edu/people/eugene-n-parker.php"><strong>Eugene Parker</strong></a>. Parker developed the theory of the solar wind in 1958 and helped define the field of heliophysics.</p> <p>The timing of this NASA mission seemed especially significant as I took the helm of a division with a rich history of shaping and defining fields. There are countless University of Chicago physical scientists and mathematicians who have paved the way for researchers across the globe, including <a href="https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1907/michelson/biographical/">Albert A. Michelson</a>, whom my title honors. Michelson founded the Department of Physics at UChicago and helped measure the speed of light, becoming the first American scientist to win a Nobel Prize. Chemist <a href="https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1960/libby/biographical/">Willard Libby</a> developed the technique for dating organic compounds using carbon-14 here. Former faculty member <a href="https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1963/mayer/biographical/">Maria Goeppert Mayer</a> proposed the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus and became the second woman to win a Nobel Prize in physics. And Leonard E. Dickson, PhD 1896, who earned the first doctorate in mathematics from UChicago, was one of the earliest American researchers in the field of abstract algebra.</p> <p>As dean of the PSD, I have the unique opportunity to support the next generation of field-defining scientists who are following in these esteemed footsteps. PSD is expanding our computer science program and attracting new faculty members and students to lead advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, internet security, and more. This past fall, the <a href="https://computerscience.uchicago.edu/">Department of Computer Science</a> moved into the <a href="https://facilities.uchicago.edu/construction/john_crerar_library_renovation/">John Crerar Library</a>, a newly renovated state-of-the-art academic building with space for experimental research and exploration. We are also spearheading a campus-wide data science initiative, which will bring together faculty and students from computer science, statistics, and the social sciences.</p> <p>Interdisciplinary connections not only facilitate research in our fields, but they also help us address the most important problems facing our world. Our chemists partner with researchers in the <a href="https://biologicalsciences.uchicago.edu/">Biological Sciences Division</a> and clinicians at <a href="https://www.uchicagomedicine.org/">UChicago Medicine</a> to develop new therapies to prevent and cure human diseases. Our geophysical scientists collaborate with statisticians, computer scientists, and policy researchers to address climate change. Our mathematicians and statisticians develop fundamental structures and concepts that inform new areas of science. Our physicists and astrophysicists work together to research new forms of matter and energy. And chemists, physicists, computer scientists, and researchers from the newly created <a href="https://pme.uchicago.edu/">Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering</a> collaborate to design new materials and advance the science of quantum information.</p> <p>This fruitful intellectual environment would not be possible without attention to <a href="https://physicalsciences.uchicago.edu/about/diversity-inclusion/">equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) </a>throughout the PSD. This fall we hired a director of EDI to build on the foundation established by our departments, institutes, and centers. We will continue to grow our mentorship and pipeline programs for students from underrepresented backgrounds and to promote a climate where our diverse community feels supported and valued.</p> <p>As we look to the future, we plan to expand our master’s and continuing education programs so that more students have the opportunity to study the physical sciences at UChicago and to influence our world through business and industry.I’m excited and proud to serve a preeminent division at UChicago that is driving innovation and discovery, fostering an inclusive and creative intellectual environment, and helping shape the next generation of physical scientists and mathematicians.</p></div> <div class="field field--name-field-reftopic field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/topics/science-medicine" hreflang="en">Science &amp; Medicine</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-refuchicago field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--items"> <div class="field--item"><a href="/physical-sciences-division" hreflang="en">Physical Sciences Division</a></div> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refformats field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/formats/agenda" hreflang="en">On the Agenda</a></div> <span class="a2a_kit a2a_kit_size_32 addtoany_list" data-a2a-url="https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/expanding-universe-discovery" data-a2a-title="An expanding universe of discovery"><a class="a2a_button_facebook"></a><a class="a2a_button_twitter"></a><a class="a2a_button_google_plus"></a><a class="a2a_button_print"></a><a class="a2a_dd addtoany_share_save" href="https://www.addtoany.com/share#url=https%3A%2F%2Fmag.uchicago.edu%2Fscience-medicine%2Fexpanding-universe-discovery&amp;title=An%20expanding%20universe%20of%20discovery"></a></span> Fri, 09 Aug 2019 22:17:25 +0000 admin 7160 at https://mag.uchicago.edu The sloth family tree looks different than we thought https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/sloth-family-tree-looks-different-we-thought <div class="field field--name-field-letter-box-story-image field--type-image field--label-hidden field--item"> <img src="/sites/default/files/19_Summer_Lerner_All-in-the-family.jpg" width="2000" height="1000" alt="" typeof="foaf:Image" class="img-responsive" /> </div> <span><span lang="" about="/profile/admin" typeof="schema:Person" property="schema:name" datatype="">admin</span></span> <span>Fri, 08/09/2019 - 17:17</span> <div class="field field--name-field-caption field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>You wouldn’t guess it, but this tree dweller is related to extinct elephant-sized sloths. (Photography by <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/henryalien/2830722126/">henryalien</a> (CC BY-NC 2.0))</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refauthors field--type-entity-reference field--label-visually_hidden"> <div class="field--label sr-only">Author</div> <div class="field__items"> <div class="field--item"> <div about="/author/louise-lerner-ab09"> <a href="/author/louise-lerner-ab09"> <div class="field field--name-name field--type-string field--label-hidden field--item">Louise Lerner, ABʼ09</div> </a> </div> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refsource field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/publication-sources/university-chicago-magazine" hreflang="en">The University of Chicago Magazine</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-issue field--type-text field--label-hidden field--item">Summer/19</div> <div class="field field--name-field-subhead field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>New fossil analyses upend the old story about sloth evolution.</p></div> <div class="field field--name-body field--type-text-with-summary field--label-hidden field--item"><p>Sloths once roamed the Americas. Some were cat-sized tree dwellers, while others may have weighed up to six tons. The surviving species we know and love today are the two-toed and three-toed sloths—and paleontologists have been arguing about how to classify them, and their ancestors, for decades.</p> <p>A pair of studies published June 6 in <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-019-0909-z"><em>Nature Ecology &amp; Evolution</em> </a>and <a href="https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(19)30613-X"><em>Current Biology</em></a> have shaken up the sloth family tree, overturning a long-standing consensus on how the major groups of sloths are related. Not only does the new research shed light on sloth evolution, it also provides evidence that about 30 million years ago a short-lived land bridge connected South America and what would become the West Indies—something scientists had suspected but been unable to prove with existing fossil evidence.</p> <p>“The results are surprising on many levels,” says <a href="https://geosci.uchicago.edu/people/graham-slater/"><strong>Graham Slater</strong></a>, an assistant professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago who coauthored the <em>Nature Ecology &amp; Evolution</em> paper with Ross MacPhee of the American Museum of Natural History and Samantha Presslee at the University of York. “Not only do they rewrite sloth classification, they suggest much of what we thought we knew about how sloths evolved may be wrong.”</p> <p>Until now, the family tree was based on how physically similar sloth fossils looked to one another. But Slater’s study draws on a pioneering approach called paleoproteomics that uses proteins in fossils to discover evolutionary relationships—marking the first time an entire lineage has been mapped with the method.</p> <p>As an alternative to DNA, which needs specific conditions to survive inside fossils (“getting ancient DNA is a bit of a lottery,” Slater says), scientists have been looking to proteins to understand species’ evolutionary trajectories. Protein molecules are sturdier and hold much of the same information as DNA.</p> <div class="story-inline-img"> <figure role="group"><img alt="Sloth " data-entity-type="file" data-entity-uuid="d0529c68-4d10-438f-a574-1cdeae352cf7" src="/sites/default/files/inline-images/19_Summer_Lerner_All-in-the-family_SpotA.jpg" /><figcaption>New studies reveal that sloths have much different family trees than once thought. (Photography by <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/florencethecat/8442670320/">suendgraeme</a> (CC BY-NC 2.0))</figcaption></figure></div> <p>The scientists extracted collagen samples from multiple sloth fossils, analyzed them to reconstruct the sequences of amino acids, and compared the sequences to piece together relationships between the species.</p> <p>According to the results, three-toed sloths (recognizable for the cute black lines around their eyes) are not, as previously thought, outliers that diverged early in sloth evolution. Instead, they are related to gigantic elephant-sized sloths that died off about 15,000 years ago. Meanwhile, two-toed sloths are the last survivors of another branch of ground sloths previously thought to be extinct.</p> <p>“What came out was just remarkable. It blew our minds—it’s so different from anything that’s ever been suggested,” Slater said.</p> <p>The protein analysis also revealed that the multiple extinct sloth species living in the Caribbean were all descendants of a common ancestor that split from other sloths about 30 million years ago—a discovery that provides support for the South American–West Indies land bridge theory. It seems possible that wanderlust brought a group of sloths across the bridge, and they became geographically isolated after it disappeared.</p> <p>Though revolutionary, the results square with a DNA analysis published the same day by a group from the French National Centre for Scientific Research and other institutions. That team was able to pull mitochondrial DNA from several critical fossils, and the two independent analyses align very closely. “Exceptional results demand exceptional verification,” explains MacPhee, so the two groups agreed to publish simultaneously.</p> <p>Slater and his colleagues are excited about pushing the boundaries of the field of paleoproteomics. Evolutionary paleobiology is hungry for more and older data, and proteins could provide it.</p> <p>“The very oldest DNA you can get is 800,000 years old, but in theory we should be able to get protein data from specimens that are millions of years old,” Slater said. “A whole bunch of questions suddenly come into reach. It opens doors that we were only dreaming of.”</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-reftopic field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/topics/science-medicine" hreflang="en">Science &amp; Medicine</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-tags field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--items"> <div class="field--item"><a href="/tags/dna" hreflang="en">DNA</a></div> <div class="field--item"><a href="/tags/evolution" hreflang="en">Evolution</a></div> </div> <span class="a2a_kit a2a_kit_size_32 addtoany_list" data-a2a-url="https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/sloth-family-tree-looks-different-we-thought" data-a2a-title="The sloth family tree looks different than we thought"><a class="a2a_button_facebook"></a><a class="a2a_button_twitter"></a><a class="a2a_button_google_plus"></a><a class="a2a_button_print"></a><a class="a2a_dd addtoany_share_save" href="https://www.addtoany.com/share#url=https%3A%2F%2Fmag.uchicago.edu%2Fscience-medicine%2Fsloth-family-tree-looks-different-we-thought&amp;title=The%20sloth%20family%20tree%20looks%20different%20than%20we%20thought"></a></span> Fri, 09 Aug 2019 22:17:25 +0000 admin 7139 at https://mag.uchicago.edu The homemade breeder reactor https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/homemade-breeder-reactor <div class="field field--name-field-letter-box-story-image field--type-image field--label-hidden field--item"> <img src="/sites/default/files/19Summer_Golus_Reactor.jpg" width="2000" height="929" alt="" typeof="foaf:Image" class="img-responsive" /> </div> <span><span lang="" about="/profile/admin" typeof="schema:Person" property="schema:name" datatype="">admin</span></span> <span>Fri, 08/09/2019 - 07:01</span> <div class="field field--name-field-caption field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>Fred Niell, AB’99 (left), and Justin Kasper, AB’99, in front of the nuclear reactor they built for Scav. The radiation bunny suits were “just theater,” Niell says. (Photography by Buffy Wajvoda, SB’01)</p></div> <div class="field field--name-field-refauthors field--type-entity-reference field--label-visually_hidden"> <div class="field--label sr-only">Author</div> <div class="field__items"> <div class="field--item"> <div about="/author/fred-niell-ab99"> <a href="/author/fred-niell-ab99"> <div class="field field--name-name field--type-string field--label-hidden field--item">Fred Niell, AB’99</div> </a> </div> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refsource field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/publication-sources/core" hreflang="en">The Core</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-issue field--type-text field--label-hidden field--item">Summer/19</div> <div class="field field--name-field-subhead field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>An excerpt from <em>We Made Uranium! And Other True Stories from the University of Chicago’s Extraordinary Scavenger Hunt</em></p></div> <div class="field field--name-body field--type-text-with-summary field--label-hidden field--item"><p><em><strong>Item 240. </strong>A breeder reactor built in a shed, and the boy scout badge to prove credit was given where boy scout credit was due. [500 points]</em></p> <p>It was spring quarter 1999. <strong>Justin Kasper </strong>[AB’99] and I were roommates and physics majors, and we had just sent our acceptances to graduate school. We were looking forward to coasting for the last three months of college and we weren’t really concentrating on our studies. We were too busy ... “accessing” the physics department after hours for our assorted nefarious purposes. Once I assembled a 1.2GW (that’s right, gigawatt) pulse power system for—well, let’s be honest. It was for blowing stuff up. Justin (J for short) and I had stolen some parts and bought others, used the machine shop at all hours, and basically hewn this thing from the primordial forces of nature herself. It was amazing, and in the following weeks we blew up whatever we could get our hands on. We vaporized apples and made water explode like dynamite. We were gods in the lab from eleven at night until six in the morning. We cleared out before any of the staff arrived to open up.</p> <p>We were misbehaving, but not in a malevolent way. We were applying what we had learned in our advanced lab classes in a practical setting. In essence, we were being good experimentalists. The faculty may even have known this, but plausible deniability, in the words of one of my favorite physicists, goes a long way.</p> <p>This paradise, this Eden of partying and blowing stuff up for class credit while breaking as many university rules as possible, lasted for a few months. Then the 1999 Scav Hunt came along.</p> <p>Initially, I wasn’t interested in putting much time or effort into Scav that year. I was by then working full time at the Fermilab, a Department of Energy national lab near Chicago specializing in high-energy particle physics, while also taking a full load of those core classes I was supposed to have already finished. Every night I brought home cheap beer, and J and I blasted techno from our embarrassingly large and complex stereo system and threw parties in our dorm room. Cocktail parties and Tuesday parties and “day-of-the-week-ending-in-Y” parties. Why would I plug into the frenetic energy required by the Hunt when I was already burning the candle at both ends and dousing it with gasoline? On the night of List Release, I skipped the midnight reading. I went downtown instead and had some fun with my friends.</p> <p>The next morning, in the dining hall, I was minding my own business (working the newspaper Jumble) when <strong>Connor Coyne</strong> [AB’01] ran up to me and threw down his tray. He nearly spilled his breakfast on me, grinning like an idiot and saying something about “the reactor.”</p> <p>“What?” I said.</p> <p>“There’s a nuclear reactor on the List!” he said. “There’s an article about him—the Nuclear Boy Scout. You have to go look it up! You know how to make a nuclear reactor, right?”</p> <p>I figured that Connor had slept maybe thirty minutes in the last seventy-two hours, and it was only Thursday morning. His tone bounced somewhere between desperate and manic. I explained that a nuclear reactor is a complex device, and that the physics involved is too complicated for a Scav Hunt item. He answered that the item was worth, like, infinity points and that if we (Justin and I) built something, Mathews would totally win. Back then, Mathews House was its own team, and all forty-five or so of us faced the barbarian hordes alone. I told Connor that I would look into it, but I still didn’t believe that there could be something as insane as a nuclear reactor on the List. I mean, really, how irresponsible were the Judges, and how lame were the “reactors” that other teams put together going to be?</p> <p>After work I stopped at the library and found an article in <em>Harper’s</em> about David Hahn, “<a href="https://harpers.org/archive/1998/11/the-radioactive-boy-scout/">the Nuclear Boy Scout</a>,” who had built a modest but plausibly functioning nuclear reactor in a shed in his backyard. Much has been written about David (RIP) in the intervening twenty-plus years, but in the end he did accomplish something in his garden shed. He had assembled a neutron source of some impressive strength for a total amateur, and when unleashed, it met the loosest definition of a nuclear reactor one can imagine. Then the Environmental Protection Agency got involved—but that’s another story. An idea was seeded in my brain. On the way home, I ran into <strong>Geoff Fischer</strong> [AB’00], a friend and a Judge. No hello or anything. “Are you guys really going to build a nuclear reactor?” he asked. The rumor mill was already in full swing.</p> <p>I told him I’d need a little clarification on what they meant by “nuclear reactor,” and Geoff put me on the phone with <strong>Tom Howe</strong> [AB’00, SM’07], the Head Judge. “A net-power-positive nuclear reactor that could power a city or even a hair dryer is incredibly dangerous and insane,” I told Tom. “It’s certainly not in the spirit of the item.” Item 240 said that the Judges would give credit where Boy Scout credit was due. It clearly referenced Hahn’s experiment and not the type of multimegawatt fuel-recycling reactor that Connor and Geoff seemed to be envisioning.</p> <p>The breeder cycle, for those of you who don’t know, creates a larger amount of fissionable fuel material than it uses. By recycling this product, it is able to efficiently generate a large amount of nuclear power, which is why these reactors were popular in the first place. “We can demonstrate the breeder cycle,” I told Tom. “We can turn thorium into uranium and uranium into plutonium.”</p> <p>“That’s all we want,” said Tom, “but we’ll have experts there to make sure you’re not jerking us around. So be prepared.” And he hung up.</p> <p>By now it was Thursday night. J came home from work and we talked about the idea over a few beers. We agreed that we could use a simple, highly active alpha source to create a weak neutron howitzer that could, in turn, create thermal neutrons. Just like what we used in our physics lab experiments. From there we could make small quantities of whatever isotopes we wanted.</p> <p>With thorium*, it’s only a double capture up to uranium with a big cross section.</p> <p>From there it’s another capture up to plutonium, but whatever. We had all weekend, man.</p> <div class="story-inline-img"> <figure role="group"><img alt="Fred Niell, AB'99, and Leila Sales, AB'06" data-entity-type="file" data-entity-uuid="245c7eff-c7f0-44c9-9c14-65f0ee740a83" src="/sites/default/files/inline-images/19Summer_Golus_Reactor_SpotB.jpg" /><figcaption>Niell and Lelia Sales, AB’06, editor of <em>We Made Uranium!</em>, after a book launch event at the Seminary Co-op, held during Scav weekend 2019. (Photography by Nathan Keay)</figcaption></figure></div> <p>All we needed was a proportional tube and a pulse height analyzer, a NIM crate with preamps and high-voltage power supply, and a few check sources to do a rock-solid calibration. I already had a good alpha source (a few microcuries of radium from World War II–surplus aircraft gauges) and thorium dioxide (from the inside of junk vacuum tubes from old TVs that we had salvaged). All we really needed was analytical equipment to verify that it all worked.</p> <p>The next day, Justin and I visited our favorite lab coordinator, Van Bistro, and asked him ever so nicely if we could borrow a pulse height analyzer, proportional tube, and all the other stuff we needed “for an experiment.” Plausible deniability in full effect, Van even loaned us some check sources so we could do an appropriate calibration. All told, we probably signed out on the order of $20,000 worth of highly sensitive equipment. Van basically told us that if anyone so much as sniffed in his direction, he’d claim it was all stolen. And that he had photos of the thieves. We thanked him and carted the junk off to our dorm room.</p> <p>That night, Justin and I went out to Fermilab to pick up some radiation bunny suits before disappearing into the machine shop. We soldered together some pieces of scrap metal to make an appropriate holder for the radium and thermalizing carbon sheets. It was mostly built of aluminum scrap pieces, but you know—even a boring piece of aluminum I-beam looks impressive with a bit of ingenuity and some face milling. We assembled the main reactor around eight or nine on Saturday night.</p> <p>By midnight we had finished the energy calibration of the detector. Since our neutron source (the thing driving the nuclear reactions) was laughably weak, we needed to be able to detect down to a single atom whether or not we had indeed created the reactions associated with a breeder reaction. This is where the $20,000 worth of sensitive equipment and our calibrations came into play. By two or three in the morning we had detected the characteristic radiation from neutron capture of thorium, and from there we knew that it was just a waiting game.</p> <p>At six in the morning we had a solid 3-sigma signal (&gt; 99.7 percent likelihood) demonstrating the production of 235U. You may have heard of 235U as “weapons-grade uranium.” That’s right. We had created the highly fissile isotope of uranium from garbage found under our dorm room workbench. It was an amazing, Promethean moment. We ran down the hallway screaming “We did it! We made uranium!” at the top of our lungs—but this was the Sunday morning of Scav Hunt. Nobody was asleep. As the sun came up on Judgment Day, J and I acquired the same statistical evidence for the production of 239Pu. Weapons-grade plutonium.</p> <p>Mind you, this might all sound scary, but we detected something like 8,000 individual atoms of uranium, and 2,000 atoms of plutonium, or something like 1×10-18 grams, or way, way less than can be detected by typical chemical tests. This is below the threshold of what might be considered detectable, even in good lab conditions. Our experiment detected the radiation emitted when these elements are created instead of detecting them directly. To detect them directly, given the mind-bogglingly small quantities, would have required a considerable investment of time and effort—two things scarce on Scav Hunt budgets.</p> <p>Realizing that we would need to show the results to the Judges at some point, we decided to jot down some numbers and essentially write up the experiment like we would in any undergrad physics lab. At 8:45 a.m. Tom called to say that he was at the front desk of the dorm and that he had brought some guests. Next thing we knew, our hallway was filled with four Judges and a jovial but somewhat skeptical guy in his forties. He identified himself as a nuclear engineer from the Kansas City nuclear reactor facility, and he would be passing judgment on our apparatus.</p> <p>We all piled into Justin’s room, some of us tripping over the empty cans. Clothes lay strewn everywhere, over and under crumpled beer cans, and piles of cigarette butts and physics textbooks littered the floor. The nuclear engineer, doubtless accustomed to hyper-clean safety gear and class-10-plus cleanrooms, was less than impressed.</p> <p>But then Justin and I went into full-on thesis defense mode. J presented some numbers on the capture cross sections and explained the entire capture-decay-capture chain, and I showed him our equipment and explained the design of the reactor and the energy calibration that proved the system’s functionality. Five minutes into our argument, the engineer’s look turned from mild amusement into complete shell shock. After ten minutes, he had a grin on his face. He wanted to hear all the details of the capture cross sections and the energy calibration. Needless to say, he vouched for us with Tom and the other Judges.</p> <p>Tom told us to show up at Judgment with our apparatus and a shed to get the points. We piled the reactor in my car and headed over. We threw up a six-cubic-foot drywall shed and spent the rest of the day in radiation suits, dancing to techno music. We kept a cooler in the shed for VIPs. Included among them was a writer covering the Hunt for the AP Wire and another for the <em>New York Times</em>. The AP guy seemed afraid of us and, frankly, more interested in the keg toss. The <em>New York Times</em> guy, on the other hand, was happy to share our bottle of Veuve Clicquot, as was the winner of <em>College Jeopardy!</em> from that year.</p> <p>Mathews House placed second in the Hunt that year, which was quite an accomplishment for a team of that size. The reactor and all of its baby isotopes were disposed of in accordance with all applicable regulations the following week. A few days later, the editor-in-chief of <em>Scientific American</em> contacted us but eventually decided that it wasn’t a good idea to publish detailed plans for the production of isotopes in an internationally known magazine, no matter how safe the experiment.</p> <p>The fallout on campus was pretty mild, all told, although the Resident Heads of the neighboring house evidently asked college housing for our expulsion. Fortunately, the head of housing was familiar with our escapades. As far as I know, any university-level complaints ended at her desk. J and I defended ourselves on several online bulletin boards and communities for the first several months, and then the whole thing more or less faded from the zeitgeist. But the nuclear reactor lives on as a Scav Hunt legend, the prime example of just how far Scavvies will go.</p> <hr /><p>* Thorium (atomic number 90) has 90 protons in the nucleus. Transmuting an atom of thorium into uranium (atomic number 92) requires adding two protons. This is accomplished by bombarding a sample of thorium with slow neutrons from a device called a neutron gun. These neutrons can interact with the thorium nucleus and become “captured” there. After a single successful “capture,” the atom of thorium becomes a “heavy” isotope, 233Th. This isotope quickly decays into an isotope of protactinium (atomic number 91). A similar capture and decay process brings the atomic number to 92: uranium.</p> <hr /><p><em>Fred Niell graduated from U of C in 1999 with a degree in physics. He lived all four years in Mathews House and Scavved for that team in 1996 and 1997. After Mathews House’s dismal outing in 1997, Niell took a year off from Scav in 1998 (save for a spud gun and small item support). Niell went on to graduate school at the University of Michigan and then a string of start-up companies in Boston. He now runs an electrical engineering design consulting company in Tampa, Florida, specializing in high-power and pulsed applications. <a href="https://mag.uchicago.edu/niell">Read a Q&amp;A with Niell. </a></em></p> <p><em>Essay by Fred Niell. Reprinted with permission from </em>We Made Uranium!<em> edited by Leila Sales and published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2019 Leila Sales All rights reserved.</em></p> <hr /><p><strong>Read more in the web exclusive “<a href="https://mag.uchicago.edu/niell">Physicist with a Wrench</a>.”</strong></p> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-reftopic field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/topics/science-medicine" hreflang="en">Science &amp; Medicine</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-refuchicago field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--items"> <div class="field--item"><a href="/scav-hunt" hreflang="en">Scav Hunt</a></div> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refformats field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/formats/excerpt" hreflang="en">Excerpt</a></div> <span class="a2a_kit a2a_kit_size_32 addtoany_list" data-a2a-url="https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/homemade-breeder-reactor" data-a2a-title="The homemade breeder reactor"><a class="a2a_button_facebook"></a><a class="a2a_button_twitter"></a><a class="a2a_button_google_plus"></a><a class="a2a_button_print"></a><a class="a2a_dd addtoany_share_save" href="https://www.addtoany.com/share#url=https%3A%2F%2Fmag.uchicago.edu%2Fscience-medicine%2Fhomemade-breeder-reactor&amp;title=The%20homemade%20breeder%20reactor"></a></span> Fri, 09 Aug 2019 12:01:50 +0000 admin 7126 at https://mag.uchicago.edu There’s a plane in my hair https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/theres-plane-my-hair <div class="field field--name-field-letter-box-story-image field--type-image field--label-hidden field--item"> <img src="/sites/default/files/19Summer_Golus_Sciencepalooza.jpg" width="2000" height="951" alt="" typeof="foaf:Image" class="img-responsive" /> </div> <span><span lang="" about="/profile/admin" typeof="schema:Person" property="schema:name" datatype="">admin</span></span> <span>Fri, 08/09/2019 - 07:01</span> <div class="field field--name-field-caption field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>Passing students stop to fold planes with the Engineering Club. (Photography by Anne Ryan)</p></div> <div class="field field--name-field-refauthors field--type-entity-reference field--label-visually_hidden"> <div class="field--label sr-only">Author</div> <div class="field__items"> <div class="field--item"> <div about="/author/carrie-golus-ab91-am93"> <a href="/author/carrie-golus-ab91-am93"> <div class="field field--name-name field--type-string field--label-hidden field--item">Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93</div> </a> </div> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refsource field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/publication-sources/core" hreflang="en">The Core</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-issue field--type-text field--label-hidden field--item">Summer/19</div> <div class="field field--name-field-subhead field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>Sciencepalooza brings science and engineering to the quads. </p></div> <div class="field field--name-body field--type-text-with-summary field--label-hidden field--item"><p>It’s the ninth week of spring quarter. Phoenix Biology and 10 other science clubs have gathered on the main quad for Sciencepalooza, a celebration of science and engineering.</p> <div class="story-inline-img"> <figure role="group"><img alt="Students a Sciencepalooza" data-entity-type="file" data-entity-uuid="153ec35f-32d6-4e07-9661-4591613fc5a3" src="/sites/default/files/inline-images/19Summer_Golus_Sciencepalooza_SpotA.jpg" /><figcaption>Alex Feistritzer, Class of 2020, (in black) stirring ice cream moments before a stray airplane settled among his locks. (Photography by Anne Ryan)</figcaption></figure></div> <p><strong>Pau Oliveres</strong>, SB’19 (above, in white T-shirt) of chemistry club Benzene is making dairy-free coconut ice cream with a canister of liquid nitrogen, which has a temperature of 77 Kelvin, or negative 200 Celsius. “It will cause deep tissue damage if you stick your hand in it,” <strong>Naomi Yamamoto</strong>, SB’19, explains nonchalantly.</p> <p>“It’s only dangerous if you dunk your hand in,” Oliveres reassures a student waiting for ice cream. “See, it just got on my hand. It’s fine.”</p> <p>There’s also regular chocolate ice cream. As <strong>Alex Feistritzer</strong>, Class of 2020, (above, in black) is pouring it out, a paper airplane from the Engineering Club circles through the treetops and wedges itself in his hair. The propeller, driven by a tiny motor, buzzes softly. “I thought it was a cicada,” Feistritzer says.</p> <div class="story-inline-img"> <figure role="group"><img alt="Students at Sciencepalooza" data-entity-type="file" data-entity-uuid="b0fe3c62-2837-4646-98e7-d84cdc328cf1" src="/sites/default/files/inline-images/19Summer_Golus_Sciencepalooza_SpotB.jpg" /><figcaption>Marianna Karagiannis, Class of 2021, and velociraptor skull. (Photography by Anne Ryan)</figcaption></figure></div> <p>At the Paleo Club table, <strong>Marianna Karagiannis</strong>, Class of 2021 (above), shows off a cast of a velociraptor skull. Casts are often more useful than the original specimens, she explains, because you can take a cast apart and study the morphology.</p> <p>Asked about her <em>T. rex</em> jewelry, Karagiannis notes that <em>T. rex</em> skeletons had traditionally been put together incorrectly, with the ulna and the radius reversed. <em>T. rex</em>’s tiny arms didn’t stick up uselessly in the front; they stuck out (still a little uselessly) to the side.</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-reftopic field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/topics/science-medicine" hreflang="en">Science &amp; Medicine</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-tags field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--items"> <div class="field--item"><a href="/tags/science" hreflang="en">Science</a></div> <div class="field--item"><a href="/tags/engineering" hreflang="en">Engineering</a></div> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refuchicago field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--items"> <div class="field--item"><a href="/college-students" hreflang="en">College students</a></div> <div class="field--item"><a href="/college" hreflang="en">The College</a></div> </div> <span class="a2a_kit a2a_kit_size_32 addtoany_list" data-a2a-url="https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/theres-plane-my-hair" data-a2a-title="There’s a plane in my hair"><a class="a2a_button_facebook"></a><a class="a2a_button_twitter"></a><a class="a2a_button_google_plus"></a><a class="a2a_button_print"></a><a class="a2a_dd addtoany_share_save" href="https://www.addtoany.com/share#url=https%3A%2F%2Fmag.uchicago.edu%2Fscience-medicine%2Ftheres-plane-my-hair&amp;title=There%E2%80%99s%20a%20plane%20in%20my%20hair"></a></span> Fri, 09 Aug 2019 12:01:50 +0000 admin 7116 at https://mag.uchicago.edu Physicist with a wrench https://mag.uchicago.edu/niell <div class="field field--name-field-letter-box-story-image field--type-image field--label-hidden field--item"> <img src="/sites/default/files/19Summer-Golus-PhysicsWrench.jpg" width="2000" height="1128" alt="" typeof="foaf:Image" class="img-responsive" /> </div> <span><span lang="" about="/profile/rsmith" typeof="schema:Person" property="schema:name" datatype="">rsmith</span></span> <span>Wed, 07/31/2019 - 08:21</span> <div class="field field--name-field-caption field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>Fred Niell, AB’99, at the Seminary Co-Op in May 2019 for the launch of <em>We Made Uranium! And Other True Stories from the University of Chicago’s Extraordinary Scavenger Hunt </em>(University of Chicago Press, 2019), to which he contributed an essay. (Photography by Nathan Keay)</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refauthors field--type-entity-reference field--label-visually_hidden"> <div class="field--label sr-only">Author</div> <div class="field__items"> <div class="field--item"> <div about="/author/carrie-golus-ab91-am93"> <a href="/author/carrie-golus-ab91-am93"> <div class="field field--name-name field--type-string field--label-hidden field--item">Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93</div> </a> </div> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refsource field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/publication-sources/web-exclusives" hreflang="en">Web exclusives</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-issue field--type-text field--label-hidden field--item">08.09.2019</div> <div class="field field--name-field-subhead field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>Fred Niell, AB’99, helped build a nuclear reactor in a dorm room. Did he ever make anything else?</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-body field--type-text-with-summary field--label-hidden field--item"><p>Twenty years ago, physics majors <strong>Fred Niell</strong>, AB’99, and <strong>Justin Kasper</strong>, AB’99, became campus legends when they built a working breeder nuclear reactor for the 1999 Scav Hunt. (The Scav item was inspired by a 1998 <em>Harper’s</em> article, “<a href="https://harpers.org/archive/1998/11/the-radioactive-boy-scout/">The Radioactive Boy Scout</a>,” about a Michigan teenager who tried the same thing with less happy results.) </p> <p>Niell and Kasper created the reactor from junk they found in their physics labs and dorm rooms. “It’s kind of scary how easy it was to do,” Niell <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/1999/05/19/us/campus-it-s-that-season-chicago-phd-s-have-taken-back-seat-degree-silliness.html">told the <em>New York Times</em> at the time</a>. Kasper, a University of Michigan professor, now <a href="https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/something-new-under-sun">makes parts for NASA</a>, while Niell runs consulting firm <a href="http://nielltronix.com/">Nielltronix</a>.</p> <p>During Scav 2019, Niell was in Hyde Park for a launch event for the book <a href="https://mag.uchicago.edu/university-news/scav-files-truth-out-there"><em>We Made Uranium! And Other True Stories from the University of Chicago’s Extraordinary Scavenger Hunt </em></a>(University of Chicago Press, 2019), edited by <strong>Leila Sales</strong>, AB’06. Afterward Niell told the <em>Core</em> about other projects he’s worked on—including a cyclotron, a “bridge” across the Midway, and an update to the Navy’s extremely low frequency radio system.</p> <p><em>This interview has been edited and condensed. </em></p> <p><a href="https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/homemade-breeder-reactor"><em>Read an excerpt from </em>We Made Uranium!</a></p> <hr /><h2>First of all, how dangerous was this breeder reactor?</h2> <p>Not dangerous at all. Less dangerous than what we did in our advanced physics lab. What we did in our dorm room was pathetically small in comparison.</p> <h2>Why are you wearing radiation suits?</h2> <p>That was just theater. </p> <div class="story-inline-img"> <figure role="group"><img alt="Fred Niell and Justin Kasper, both AB'99" data-entity-type="file" data-entity-uuid="f150a53f-af18-4b0e-bfae-52f33115e30c" src="/sites/default/files/inline-images/19Summer-Golus-PhysicsWrench_SpotA.jpg" /><figcaption>Fred Niell, AB’99, and Justin Kasper, AB’99, stand outside their “not dangerous at all” breeder nuclear reactor at Scav 1999. (Photography by Buffy Wajvoda, SB’01)</figcaption></figure></div> <h2>When you were a junior in high school, you built a cyclotron.</h2> <p>I was always the kid doing science fair projects. In eighth or ninth grade, they started edging into dangerous. Each year I would win some money, which became seed money for next year’s project.</p> <p>I did actually build a working cyclotron out of parts from scrapyards. It was about 2,000 pounds and the size of a bookcase, three by four by two feet, roughly. It required a lot of electricity. It sounds scary, but the levels of radiation involved were less than a dental X-ray. I ended up winning the International Science and Engineering Fair in 1994.</p> <h2>Why go to UChicago, rather than a school that offered engineering?</h2> <p>I like to say I play an engineer on TV. The math is all the same. </p> <p>The type of engineering that I do—high power, esoteric electrical engineering—is just physics with a wrench. </p> <h2>Did your Scav teammates know you’d made a cyclotron?</h2> <p>They did not. I write about this in the book: Justin and I had commandeered a lab where we built a pulse power system, which was basically a destructotron. Its only practical use was blowing stuff up.</p> <p>Justin had delayed his art requirement until the final quarter of his fourth year. We used that as an excuse. When things blow up, light comes from the explosion, and if you’re doing it in full darkness, you can get a really beautiful photograph. I believe he got an A. </p> <p>So our reputation got around as people who could get stuff done that was impossible and crazy and involved physics. </p> <div class="story-inline-img"> <figure role="group"><img alt="A photograph of an apple in the &quot;destructotron&quot;" data-entity-type="file" data-entity-uuid="296f8def-3e59-4fb2-a090-22214db6cbb4" src="/sites/default/files/inline-images/19Summer-Golus-PhysicsWrench_SpotB.jpg" /><figcaption>An apple at low energy (1,000 Joules) in the “destructotron.” (Photography by Justin Kasper, AB’99)</figcaption></figure></div> <h2>It sounds like the nuclear reactor laid the groundwork for your entire career. </h2> <p>You have no idea. </p> <p>I finally broke down and stuck it on my résumé in 2009. Before that, <em>Popular Science</em> magazine had it as the No. 3 college prank in history. That one article ended up getting me so many jobs.</p> <h2>In an earlier Scav, you built a bridge across the Midway.</h2> <p>We took “bridge” in the loosest possible sense. I do a lot of mountain climbing, and my dad and I ran a climbing gym at my high school, so we had a lot of rope. I called him up and asked him to please FedEx some rope. </p> <p>The Midway is 350 feet from one side to the other and has some pretty stout trees. We strung a rope from one stout tree to another. You need a lot of tension on the rope to support a person’s weight at the center of 350 feet. So we set up a pulley on one side and attached it to the bumper of my car. </p> <p>I had a guy attach himself to the middle of the rope, and I drove forward until he lifted up off the ground. That was our bridge. And it worked. We went hand over hand across the Midway without touching the ground.</p> <h2>More recently, you were selling Nixie clocks on eBay and Amazon.</h2> <p>During graduate school [at the University of Michigan], around 2002, I read an article in <em>IEEE Spectrum</em> magazine—the industry rag for electrical engineers—about how <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nixie_tube">Nixie tubes</a> were coming back. Nixie tubes came about in the ’50s, and were used in computers and lab equipment until the early ’70s in the US, when they were fully displaced by newer technologies like light-emitting diodes. In the USSR they did not have LEDs. </p> <p>I found some shady source in Ukraine for some Nixie tubes, bought them, and made 24 clocks. They sold out in about a month.</p> <p>In 2009 they were still really popular. I thought, ok, now’s the time. I bought 1,000 tubes from a manufacturer in Czechoslovakia, designed the circuit boards, did the programming, built them, and put together a very Web 1.0 web page. A friend suggested that I send it to <em>Boing Boing</em>. </p> <p><em>Boing Boing</em> said cool, but not really our thing. Then at 9 a.m. the next day one of the guys said, “Dude, you’re on the front page of <a href="https://www.engadget.com/2009/06/04/indicator-6-nixie-clock-is-handsome-functional-khruschev-appro/"><em>Engadget</em></a>.” Within eight hours, I sold out.</p> <div class="story-inline-img"> <figure role="group"><img alt="clock" data-entity-type="file" data-entity-uuid="68d082bc-696f-4df0-8c93-707caa359d86" src="/sites/default/files/inline-images/19Summer-Golus-PhysicsWrench_SpotC.jpg" /><figcaption>Nixie tubes make a comeback in Niellʼs clocks. (Photo courtesy Fred Niell, AB’99)</figcaption></figure></div> <h2>Have you made other projects like that?</h2> <p>I’ve been doing small projects like that professionally for a long time. Since 2009, when I first started my company, I’ve been doing short-run custom electronics, usually prototypes for various industries—defense, semiconductors. Most of that work is not commercial. It’s stuff you see in a lab or bolted to a tank.</p> <h2>Give me an example.</h2> <p>I helped upgrade the extremely low frequency radio transmitters that the Navy uses to communicate with submarines. </p> <p>Communicating with submarines is tough, because radio doesn’t really transmit through sea water, and submarines don’t want to give away their location by putting an antenna up. In the 1950s, the Navy developed a technology based on something that the Germans were working on in WWII: extremely low frequency radio, like 20 kilohertz. Broadcast is in megahertz—hundreds of megahertz.</p> <p>And it’s enormously, grotesquely high power. Two megawatts is typical. That’s two or three orders of magnitude more than a radio station. </p> <p>These are fully one-way communication. It is the doomsday method of communicating to submarines, “It’s time to launch.” A submarine doesn’t have any way to say, “What?”</p> <p>But these transmitters have a fundamental limitation in their performance that we’ve known about since the ’50s but haven’t had the technology to get around. I wrote a proposal to the Navy a few years ago and it got funded. </p> <h2>What’s the weakness? Can you explain it simply?</h2> <p>I can. Let me think. </p> <p>The communication rate—the number of characters you can send per minute—is very low. If you want to send anything faster, you can’t really do that with the antennas they have. So you have to do some magic in the transmitter, which drives the antenna. </p> <p>That magic requires some very tricky stuff. It boils down to creating an electronic switch that’s capable of switching tens of megawatts of power in submicrosecond speeds. That technology didn’t exist in the ’50s, but it exists now, and is bolted to some transmitters because of the work I did. </p> <h2>Any future projects? Are you going to save us from climate change?</h2> <p>I have clients right now that are working on clean water technology—point-of-use water systems to purify and sanitize water for developing countries. </p> <p>There’s a company in Israel that’s well known for irrigation systems, and they’re looking to add sanitation through an advanced oxidation process. It’s basically using lightning in a glass tube to sterilize water. That’s oversimplifying.</p> <p>I’ve worked for the military for a lot of my career because they pay well and have crazy projects. But building better guns is a moral gray area. I’m glad that I did it, but I’m also glad that I’m helping build irrigation systems in developing countries.</p> <hr /><p><strong>Read more in “<a href="https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/homemade-breeder-reactor">The Homemade Breeder Reactor</a>” from the Summer/19 <em>Core.</em></strong></p> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-reftopic field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/topics/science-medicine" hreflang="en">Science &amp; Medicine</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-tags field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--items"> <div class="field--item"><a href="/tags/engineering" hreflang="en">Engineering</a></div> <div class="field--item"><a href="/tags/physics" hreflang="en">Physics</a></div> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refuchicago field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--items"> <div class="field--item"><a href="/scav-hunt" hreflang="en">Scav Hunt</a></div> <div class="field--item"><a href="/college-alumni" hreflang="en">College alumni</a></div> </div> <span class="a2a_kit a2a_kit_size_32 addtoany_list" data-a2a-url="https://mag.uchicago.edu/niell" data-a2a-title="Physicist with a wrench"><a class="a2a_button_facebook"></a><a class="a2a_button_twitter"></a><a class="a2a_button_google_plus"></a><a class="a2a_button_print"></a><a class="a2a_dd addtoany_share_save" href="https://www.addtoany.com/share#url=https%3A%2F%2Fmag.uchicago.edu%2Fniell&amp;title=Physicist%20with%20a%20wrench"></a></span> Wed, 31 Jul 2019 13:21:58 +0000 rsmith 7114 at https://mag.uchicago.edu Small bugs in large ponds https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/small-bugs-large-ponds <div class="field field--name-field-letter-box-story-image field--type-image field--label-hidden field--item"> <img src="/sites/default/files/Guardian%20header.jpg" width="2000" height="1000" alt="Lake Guardian" title="R/V Lake Guardian" typeof="foaf:Image" class="img-responsive" /> </div> <span><span lang="" about="/profile/mrsearcy" typeof="schema:Person" property="schema:name" datatype="">mrsearcy</span></span> <span>Mon, 07/22/2019 - 13:45</span> <div class="field field--name-field-caption field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>The research vessel <em>Lake Guardian</em> sails on behalf of the US Environmental Protection Agencyʼs Great Lakes National Program Office, gathering environmental data to gauge the health of the Great Lakes. Maureen Coleman and her team were aboard the ship for their spring 2019 fieldwork. (Photography by Courtney Winter)</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refauthors field--type-entity-reference field--label-visually_hidden"> <div class="field--label sr-only">Author</div> <div class="field__items"> <div class="field--item"> <div about="/author/lucas-mcgranahan"> <a href="/author/lucas-mcgranahan"> <div class="field field--name-name field--type-string field--label-hidden field--item">Lucas McGranahan</div> </a> </div> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refsource field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/publication-sources/inquiry" hreflang="en">Inquiry</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-issue field--type-text field--label-hidden field--item">07.22.2019</div> <div class="field field--name-field-subhead field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>Maureen Coleman’s lab samples the teeming microbiome of the Great Lakes.</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-body field--type-text-with-summary field--label-hidden field--item"><p>“There’s a lot of interest lately in the human microbiome,” says <a href="http://biogeolabs.uchicago.edu/colemanlab/" target="_blank"><strong>Maureen Coleman</strong></a>, an assistant professor in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences. “But lakes also have a microbiome.”</p> <p>If you swallow a drop of water from Lake Michigan, she explains, it will contain roughly a million bacterial cells and 10 million bacteriophages—tiny viruses that infect bacteria and may outnumber every other organism (micro and macro) on Earth. Coleman’s lab studies how such communities of microbes adapt, interact, and coevolve.</p> <p>UChicago researchers are fortunate to have an excellent model system for studying bacteria and their hangers-on right in their backyard. This system is not just Lake Michigan but the Great Lakes as a whole. “It was shocking to me when I arrived here in 2012 that no one had yet systematically characterized the microbiome of the Great Lakes,” Coleman says. Her lab is now doing just that, in collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency. (The EPA has tracked water quality and some multicellular organisms in the lakes since 1983, but its research had not included the systematic sampling of bacteria, archaea, and viruses.) A forthcoming paper in the journal <i>Environmental Microbiology</i> details some results of the lab’s work completing the first microbial time series—a comparison of populations in water samples drawn from the same sites over time—that covers all five Great Lakes. They completed their spring 2019 sampling in May and are gearing up for their eighth summer on the water.</p> <div class="story-inline-img"> <figure role="group"><img alt="Maureen Coleman aboard the Heron." data-entity-type="file" data-entity-uuid="7ff35c87-686f-4d32-aca3-b2abbcd2162d" src="/sites/default/files/inline-images/MColeman%20on%20Heron.jpg" /><figcaption>Maureen Coleman prepares for work aboard the R/V <em>Blue Heron</em>, the research vessel her team sailed on to sample Lakes Michigan and Superior, from Milwaukee to Duluth, for their eighth summer on the water. (Photo courtesy Maureen Coleman)</figcaption></figure></div> <p>Why dip your toes into such an ambitious research program? Because microbes perform a number of vital ecological functions. For one, Coleman says, they process all of the runoff from land, including “all of the fertilizer, all of the pesticides, all of the pollution from Chicago—although not our sewage because we send that down the river.” They are also fundamental to the food web. “If you’re interested in fisheries, for instance, you need to care about what’s happening at the very bottom of the food web as well.”</p> <p>Moreover, microbes serve as “sentinels for change” by indicating shifts in environmental conditions. Coleman cites a 2014 incident in which drinking water in Toledo, Ohio, was tainted by a toxin produced by a bloom of cyanobacteria in Lake Erie. Detecting shifts like these and understanding how they occur can help scientists predict and mitigate some of the harmful effects of climate change or changes in land use.</p> <p>The Great Lakes “each have their own unique character—Lake Erie is really, really different from Lake Superior—and yet at the same time, they’re connected,” Coleman says. While this makes them a theoretically interesting system, the lakes are also inherently valuable, supplying a staggering 20 percent of the world’s liquid fresh water. Keeping this precious, sought-after resource in good shape is, in large part, a matter of following the microbial signals.</p> <p>Real-world challenges such as these are what motivate Coleman, whose PhD from MIT is in civil and environmental engineering. “I am in no way qualified to build a bridge or anything,” she says, laughing. “But I do still carry with me that desire to solve problems, as opposed to just studying basic science for the pure love of theory and fundamentals.”</p> <p>Coleman describes fieldwork and lab work as complementary: discoveries in the wild can inspire hypotheses that you test back home. In the lab, Coleman’s team uses a technique called <i>transposon sequencing</i> to knock out genes from microbes and observe the resulting functional differences. “With this approach you can do global-scale gene deletions and then test the functions of all of these genes essentially in parallel.” Such experiments are in demand: scientists have gotten so good at discovering microbial genes that thousands more have been identified than are well understood.</p> <p>The scope of the unknown in microbiology is a familiar and humbling fact to Coleman. Her PhD research was on the photosynthetic cyanobacterium <i>Prochlorococcus</i>—an organism that, despite being among the most abundant bacteria on Earth, was not discovered until 1986, by a team including Coleman’s adviser Sallie “Penny” W. Chisholm. Today’s sequencing technology, Coleman says, “gives us a new tool to figure out how much we don’t know.”</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-reftopic field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/topics/science-medicine" hreflang="en">Science &amp; Medicine</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-tags field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--items"> <div class="field--item"><a href="/tags/microbiome" hreflang="en">microbiome</a></div> <div class="field--item"><a href="/tags/water" hreflang="en">Water</a></div> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refuchicago field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--items"> <div class="field--item"><a href="/physical-sciences-division" hreflang="en">Physical Sciences Division</a></div> </div> <span class="a2a_kit a2a_kit_size_32 addtoany_list" data-a2a-url="https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/small-bugs-large-ponds" data-a2a-title="Small bugs in large ponds"><a class="a2a_button_facebook"></a><a class="a2a_button_twitter"></a><a class="a2a_button_google_plus"></a><a class="a2a_button_print"></a><a class="a2a_dd addtoany_share_save" href="https://www.addtoany.com/share#url=https%3A%2F%2Fmag.uchicago.edu%2Fscience-medicine%2Fsmall-bugs-large-ponds&amp;title=Small%20bugs%20in%20large%20ponds"></a></span> Mon, 22 Jul 2019 18:45:31 +0000 mrsearcy 7112 at https://mag.uchicago.edu Living matter https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/living-matter <div class="field field--name-field-letter-box-story-image field--type-image field--label-hidden field--item"> <img src="/sites/default/files/Composite%20header.jpg" width="2000" height="1250" alt="Migrating fibroblast." title="migrating fibroblast" typeof="foaf:Image" class="img-responsive" /> </div> <span><span lang="" about="/profile/mrsearcy" typeof="schema:Person" property="schema:name" datatype="">mrsearcy</span></span> <span>Mon, 07/22/2019 - 12:44</span> <div class="field field--name-field-caption field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>Image of a migrating fibroblast shows myosin in purple and actin in blue. (Image courtesy Patrick Oakes)</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refauthors field--type-entity-reference field--label-visually_hidden"> <div class="field--label sr-only">Author</div> <div class="field__items"> <div class="field--item"> <div about="/author/jeanie-chung"> <a href="/author/jeanie-chung"> <div class="field field--name-name field--type-string field--label-hidden field--item">Jeanie Chung</div> </a> </div> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refsource field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/publication-sources/inquiry" hreflang="en">Inquiry</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-issue field--type-text field--label-hidden field--item">07.22.2019</div> <div class="field field--name-field-subhead field--type-text-long field--label-hidden field--item"><p>How Margaret Gardel accidentally became a biophysicist.</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-body field--type-text-with-summary field--label-hidden field--item"><p><strong>Margaret Gardel</strong>, the Horace B. Horton Professor in the Department of Physics and the College, found her area of study through a series of serendipitous events. Her graduate research at Harvard focused on filamentous actin, a polymer found within cells in multicellular organisms.</p> <p>In living cells actin drives cell motion and is essential in building multicellular tissue. Gardel was interested in the ways actin (as part of a polymer network inside cells) deforms in response to external mechanical stress, but in a physics lab the approaches used to study those types of properties had been developed for traditional polymeric materials—think of Jell-O or Silly Putty. Those materials don’t spontaneously move or build complex multicellular organisms.</p> <p>Near the end of graduate school, Gardel was increasingly bothered by this gap. How can we make measurements to understand the materials that living cells use to support their physiology?</p> <p>Through a chance exchange with a collaborator, Gardel attended a physiology course at the <a href="https://www.mbl.edu/" target="_blank">Marine Biological Laboratory</a> after she finished her PhD. There she met cell biologists willing to teach a physicist about the inner workings of cells. She also met Clare Waterman, who convinced her to leave her postdoc position and move across the country to join her cell biology lab at the Scripps Research Institute, where she learned how to image the polymer networks inside cells while they crawled and built adhesions with the external matrix and each other.</p> <p>Since Gardel had taken only one biology course as an undergraduate, her time with Waterman proved critical. She was used to thinking of material building blocks as passive structural elements. But proteins and other building blocks used by living organisms are mechanochemical enzymes—that is, they can convert chemical energy to do local mechanical work. Likewise, local mechanical forces also impact their chemical reactivity. Thus, living materials provide building blocks that don’t exist in physics, inspiring new types of research.</p> <p>For example, Hooke’s law of elasticity, which addresses force on objects, doesn’t always work the same way on living materials—which move spontaneously, change shape, react, and change their chemistry. “There’s lots of more-intricate properties happening,” she says.</p> <p>Gardel’s lab—its URL is <a href="http://squishycell.uchicago.edu/" target="_blank">squishycell.uchicago.edu</a>—seeks to understand how physical forces such as pressure and deformation act on individual cells. The lab’s two main areas of inquiry complement each other: One seeks to understand the physics of how living cells adhere and move. The other, she says, seeks to build cell-like material “from scratch.”</p> <div class="story-inline-img"> <figure role="group"><img alt="Cell force mosaic." data-entity-type="file" data-entity-uuid="56c71915-827b-4656-a407-a79e26e133ea" src="/sites/default/files/inline-images/mosaic%20700px.jpg" /><figcaption>Mosaic shows force transmission across a cell. (Image courtesy Patrick Oakes)</figcaption></figure></div> <p>To address these challenges, Gardel collaborates with labs across the Physical Sciences Division, as well as in the Biological Sciences Division. For example, UChicago cell biologist <strong>Michael Glotzer</strong> developed a genetically encoded tool to control the localization of proteins within living cells using light. With this tool, Gardel’s lab has studied how cells respond to local changes in force either internally or at points where they connect with other cells. In the second research area, Gardel is working on a materials project with UChicago biochemist <strong>David Kovar</strong> building active materials: gels and fluids that contract the way muscles do.</p> <p>If scientists can understand how biological materials adapt, they'll learn new types of design principles. There are undoubtedly dozens of applications for these design principles in medicine alone, but Gardel is most interested in figuring out how things work. Scientists have wanted to understand cells since first seeing them under a microscope, and unlocking the biochemistry and genetics of cells has answered a lot of questions.</p> <p>“What 20th-century biology has given us is knowledge of what’s under the hood,” she says. However, she adds: “We still don’t know how each of the components work together to facilitate the complex cell physiology.”</p> <hr /><h3>Force amplifier</h3> <p>As Margaret Gardel leads the scientists in her lab toward discoveries in “living matter,” she hopes they learn from each other as well as from her. She recalls her graduate adviser at Harvard, David Weitz, saying, “If I’m the only person you’ve learned from in graduate school, you’ve wasted your time.” She gives her lab members the same advice.</p> <p>Fostering a collaborative environment is an important part of scientific research today, she says. So is acknowledging—and then trying to reduce or eliminate—unspoken or unconscious biases. Gardel considers herself one of many women in science of her generation who “really felt like gender was not an issue—until we got to the higher stages and realized it is.”</p> <p>Gardel says she has always felt well supported at UChicago. However, as she’s progressed in academia, serving on grant review committees, participating in speaker selection for conferences, and interacting with journal editors, she has become “more aware of all these interactions that occur that are not necessarily based on the quality of the science.”</p> <p>She now feels more strongly about calling out these biases—even just talking about them in stories like this one—and being a “more vocal advocate for people who aren’t in a position to advocate for themselves.”</p> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-reftopic field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--item"><a href="/topics/science-medicine" hreflang="en">Science &amp; Medicine</a></div> <div class="field field--name-field-tags field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--items"> <div class="field--item"><a href="/tags/biological-sciences" hreflang="en">Biological sciences</a></div> <div class="field--item"><a href="/tags/physics" hreflang="en">Physics</a></div> </div> <div class="field field--name-field-refuchicago field--type-entity-reference field--label-hidden field--items"> <div class="field--item"><a href="/division-biological-sciences" hreflang="en">Division of Biological Sciences</a></div> <div class="field--item"><a href="/physical-sciences-division" hreflang="en">Physical Sciences Division</a></div> </div> <span class="a2a_kit a2a_kit_size_32 addtoany_list" data-a2a-url="https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/living-matter" data-a2a-title="Living matter"><a class="a2a_button_facebook"></a><a class="a2a_button_twitter"></a><a class="a2a_button_google_plus"></a><a class="a2a_button_print"></a><a class="a2a_dd addtoany_share_save" href="https://www.addtoany.com/share#url=https%3A%2F%2Fmag.uchicago.edu%2Fscience-medicine%2Fliving-matter&amp;title=Living%20matter"></a></span> Mon, 22 Jul 2019 17:44:36 +0000 mrsearcy 7111 at https://mag.uchicago.edu