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Amaryllis Fox
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Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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Hey Bill Nye! Why does the Earth have earthquakes?

The clash of tectonic plates beneath us is just part of life on Earth—unless, of course, there is human interference like in the American Midwest.

Riley: Bill, this is Riley. How does the Earth have earthquakes?

Bill Nye: Riley. This is a fabulous question. How does the Earth have earthquakes? Well nominally, or just thinking about it the first way, the Earth is made of these big slabs of land that move around on the lava or “magma,” which is what geologists call that molten rock when it’s underground—magma. And they move around and they just bump into each other.
Four and a half billion years ago, when these objects formed out of dust—it is interesting to notice, Riley, that not only is the dust on a bookshelf being pulled down by the Earth, but the dust is ever so slightly pulling the Earth up. They are attracting each other. It’s quite a thing to get your head around, as we say. So the Earth was formed from dust. It came like this and it started spinning. Then that compressing it, it got hot, and now these pieces of land are bouncing off each other. So the ocean sits on top of plates of land. The ocean is on top of solid stuff. You may not have thought about that but the ocean is relatively shallow compared to how deep the Earth is, how big the Earth is.

So along this line, that’s one way we get earthquakes. Right now humans are causing earthquakes in the North American Midwest. A friend of mine lives in Oklahoma and what we’ve done is drilled so many holes into the crust, into the Earth, to get to oil and gas that we’re actually allowing these much smaller pieces of the Earth’s crust, the outer layer, to shift around a little bit. And that’s also causing what are just like earthquakes. It’s really a remarkable thing.
And I remind you, Riley: earthquakes don’t kill people. Buildings kill people.

So what we do now is we design buildings that can stand an earthquake. And if you’re in an earthquake—I’ve been in several earthquakes. I’m fine. If you’re in a building and there’s a big earthquake, try to get outside. This is what we recommend. And so I hope that in your lifetime here, for example, in the United States, all our buildings are made strong enough for earthquakes. All our bridges. Everything. I hope we can pull that off because we understand it now. When I was a kid, Riley, when I was your age this idea of tectonic plates—'tectonic' is a Greek word for builder, for build. The Earth is built of these tectonic plates. That was still controversial. The people didn’t altogether agree on it.

And it started in the 1800s with Alfred Wegener, who saw where South America seemed to fit into Africa, and it sort of does. And there's really compelling evidence: he found the same fossils in South America that you find in Africa at the same level, the same layers, of rock exist on both continents. And he went, “Hey man, check it out.” I paraphrase because it was German.
But that led to a whole bunch of discoveries that proved that the main idea in all geology is tectonic plates. And some of them, by the way, some of the evidence I mean, was done by submarines in World War II, trying to sneak across the North Atlantic like between the underwater mountains. It’s very cool.

So tectonic plates allow the shifting of the Earth’s surface which causes earthquakes. On a much shallower level if you drill enough holes in the ground and set off and pressurize enough places you can also get earthquakes.

They’re just part of life, Riley. It’s part of living on the Earth. It’s cool.

Earthquakes are usually pretty scary, but they are a natural part of life on Earth. The reason they are devastating to humans is because we have built buildings and cities on top of ground that is often not as stable as we'd like it to be. And here's an important perspective: "Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do," says Bill Nye, as he explains what causes this geological phenomenon. Beneath the oceans' water, our planet has big slabs of land called tectonic plates that sit atop the earth's lava (a layer of molten rock that scientist call magma). There are gaps between these tectonic plates, so they slide and move over the magma and at times collide, causing a natural earthquake. But there are also manmade earthquakes, like the ones in the American Midwest. Bill Nye explains what's going on with these quakes, the basics of what to do if you're ever in an earthquake, and how science and smarter architecture can help humans survive the clashing of these tectonic plates beneath us. Bill Nye is the author of Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.


A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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How often do vaccine trials hit paydirt?

Vaccines find more success in development than any other kind of drug, but have been relatively neglected in recent decades.

Pedro Vilela/Getty Images
Surprising Science

Vaccines are more likely to get through clinical trials than any other type of drug — but have been given relatively little pharmaceutical industry support during the last two decades, according to a new study by MIT scholars.

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