We'll meet three robots - including a future member of an astronaut team - that are trying to better understand us.
Alan catches up with Kelley Flynn, whom he saw three years ago as she was undergoing surgery for a cochlear implant. At the time, Kelley was seven, and desperately wanted to both hear and speak normally. Alan recalls the dramatic moment when Kelley's artificial hearing was first turned on. Since then Kelley has worked hard on her speech and now, as she tells Alan, she wants to become an actress. Inspired by the success of cochlear implants for the profoundly deaf, many researchers are now trying to develop artificial retinas for those who are blind due to retinal diseases. Alan visits the team at the Doheny Eye Institute of the USC Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he meets Terry Byland, one of only six patients testing an experimental retinal implant. Alan watches as Terry's artificial vision - "a white flickering fuzzy light" - is tested, and tries out for himself some simulations of how future retinal implants may one day allow the blind to read.
The best kept secret of American archeology is now revealed.
If you think you know why you do things, you're probably wrong. Exploring how our unconscious determines our behavior, Alan goes into a magnetic resonance scanner in the Caltech lab of Steven Quartz to find out how his brain reacts to products both "cool" and "un-cool." Quartz and his associate Anette Asp are trying to find out why humans are obsessed with the social status of objects, and so are scanning the brains of people as they look at a range of products. Both Alan and Anette have brains that react strongly to things they find un-cool, as if they are recoiling from them. Steve, on the other hand, shows "shop-aholic" tendencies, his brain responding to cool objects not only in the region where his sense of self resides, but also in those regions controlling movement, as if he is reaching out to grab them. In the Harvard lab of Mahzarin Banaji, Alan takes a test designed to ferret out our unconscious prejudices. Called the Implicit Association Test, it measures the strength of associations we make without being aware of them. Alan, despite many years of working in feminist causes, still harbors a slight prejudice against associating women with a career. But the real surprise is that Mahzarin herself, despite a very successful career as a Harvard professor, shows a strong implicit bias against women in the workplace. Alan is presented with a tough moral choice by researcher Joshua Greene of Princeton: under what circumstance might he sacrifice the life of one person to save many? Greene's research suggests the emotional weight of the decision is critical, pitting the emotional centers of the brain against the rational ones.
We've all heard of hydrogen as the fuel of the future, but what will it take to get there from here? How can we create hydrogen from renewable sources like the sun - and how do we store it safely once we've got it? Alan visits a multi-million dollar company, based on the wizardry with exotic metal alloys that soak up hydrogen like a sponge. The best-known of these metal hydrides is the nickel metal hydride rechargeable battery invented by Stan Ovshinsky and now used in millions of electronic devices - as well as the new generation of hybrid cars. Their company now produces flexible, durable solar panels literally by the mile, using a unique technology very different from that used to produce conventional silicon solar cells. Alan sees for himself how the Ovshinskys hope to use these solar panels to make hydrogen in unlimited quantities and without burning fossil fuels. Alan also visits Iceland, where he sees (and hears) for himself the astonishing power of Iceland's geothermal wells, which produce cheap and abundant electricity that can be converted to hydrogen. He visits the nation's first hydrogen fueling station, where electricity is turned into hydrogen. Then, he also visits the roof of MIT in Cambridge, Mass, where an extraordinary device made of large triangular glass tubes soaks up sunlight and uses it to grow algae - algae that can later be turned into hydrogen. But Isaac Berzin's invention not only converts sunshine (indirectly) to hydrogen; it also cleans up the smokestack gases from power plants.
So you think global warming won't affect you?
A visit with an engaging if unruly bunch of cousins that we formally broke up with about 6 or 7 million years ago.
A look back at the decades of effort that culminated in the deep sub Alvin reaching the ocean floor, and a look forward to what's next now that Alvin's retiring. In the summer of 1964, the first tentative dives into the shallow waters of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, were made by the new deep diving submarine, Alvin. The sub, built for the US Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), was to become arguably the most successful research submarine ever. We go on a typical Alvin science dive, accompanying a biologist as the WHOI pilot takes the sub down 8,000 feet into the pitch darkness of the Galapagos Rift, to collect samples. It was here in 1977 that people first saw, from the Alvin, a kind of life that we had never known existed on the planet - colonies of giant clams, tube worms, fish and crabs living not on sunlight but on bacteria that consume the gases dissolved in water gushing from warm, undersea volcanic water vents. Back at WHOI on Cape Cod, Alvin's successor is now taking shape - in computer models, and wood and fiberglass mockups. The new sub will retain the same time-tested basic components as Alvin - the massive spherical forged titanium pressure hull, the tough, pressure-resistant glass foam flotation material. But working conditions for scientists will be greatly improved - more room, faster dive and ascent speeds, access to almost the entire global ocean floor, and the ability to actually see the same outside view as the pilot.
Cars that do your thinking for you are just around the corner.
In spite of the risks, people are lining up to solve their weight problems in the operating room. And if the latest device -- an implantable stomach "pacer" -- works out, millions more will be taking the surgical way out. We follow two patients as they go through the life-transforming experience of gastric bypass surgery, causing dramatic weight loss. Both patients achieve major life goals, from the simple act of shopping in a regular - not plus-size - clothing store, to the substantial reduction of health risks like heart attack and diabetes. Alan Alda observes Amy's surgery at a Boston hospital, and visits Rodney as he recovers the day after his operation. Gastric bypass, in which a small, one-ounce, stomach "pouch" is created to replace the natural stomach, is the most common stomach surgery in the US, with 100,000 procedures performed a year - ten times the rate ten years ago. Nationally, 75% of those patients will achieve substantial permanent weight loss, although some will be able to "behaviorally" reverse their surgery. The "lap-band" procedure is an alternative weight-loss procedure to gastric bypass, involving the surgical placement of a restrictive plastic collar around the top of the stomach. "The bottom line is none of these surgeries are a cure for obesity in a vacuum. They all have to be part of a program that provides the behavior and the counseling." says Shikora. The obesity surgical group at the Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston is now beginning large scale clinical trials of the latest surgical approach to weight loss. A "pacer" - similar to a heart pacemaker - is implanted just under the skin of the abdomen and connected to electrodes attached to the stomach. Regular, imperceptible electric pulses create a feeling of fullness. With the pacer in place, patients are able to control their constant "grazing" eating behavior.
Who were the first people to populate the Americas, and when did they get here? A few years ago most experts would have agreed that the first Americans walked across the Bering land bridge from Asia, about 12,000 years ago during the last ice age, then found their way south through an ice-free corridor, and went on to populate north, central and south America, hunting big game as they went. This theory -- called the Clovis-first theory, named for the site in New Mexico where these people's finely worked stone tools were first uncovered -- has now been called into question. Depending on who you ask, people came from Asia, or Europe, or the south Pacific; they walked or they came by boat; and they came in different waves, with some surviving, some dying out. A wide variety of evidence, from linguistics to DNA analysis and climatology, is now being called upon to contribute to this newly-enlivened field. This program will sift through it all, and attempt to figure out who the first Americans were.
Alan Alda joins some of the world's leading astronomers as they wrestle with the startling implications of their latest discoveries: that everything we can see, from the world around us to the most distant galaxies, is only a tiny fraction of the entire cosmos. Most of what's out there is dark -- either dark matter or dark energy. And our universe is perhaps only one in an infinity of universes.
Alaska is warming up. It's now a few degrees warmer than it was a century and a half ago, and the trend seems to be accelerating. Already the landscape is changing dramatically -- permafrost is thawing, glaciers are melting, forests are succumbing to drought and insect attack. Alan Alda meets Alaskan scientists who are working to find out if these are the first signs of global warming and what the future may hold.
Alan Alda visits the research labs and testing tracks of the Big Three auto makers to find out what people will be driving 10-20 years from now. Fuel efficiency and alternative fuels are the future, and Alda test-drives a gasoline-electric hybrid that's already on the road, as well as several hydrogen-fueled cars still in development. The search for a quiet, fast, safe, exciting and non-polluting fuel-cell car takes Alda from Germany to California to Iceland, which is attempting to become the first nation to entirely replace imported petroleum with domestically produced hydrogen.
Alan Alda investigates how people create memories -- and how as they age, memories become slippery and elusive, sometimes vanishing forever. He visits two men who live entirely in the present or the distant past, unable to recall events that happened even a few minutes ago. Viewers peer inside Alda's own brain and find out what's at work as he memorizes names and faces. Alda discovers how ice water can boost memory (no, not drinking it) and how easy it is to have a false memory implanted. He also meets a volunteer in an experimental treatment for Alzheimer's disease, gets the latest on the search for an Alzheimer's vaccine and joins a group of baby boomers who are learning how to keep their brains young and their memories intact.
This episode tackles the basic problem that confronts those who are overweight; how to lose weight and keep it off over the long term. In a Frontiers sponsored experiment, the cameras follow a dozen subjects for several months as they adopt different strategies for weight loss, ranging from online diet systems to gastric bypass surgery. The program also looks at research that attempts to get to the bottom of the body's complex weight-regulation system, and to explain, among other things, why dieting is so difficult.
Produced in conjunction with Scientific American magazine and hosted by Alan Alda, the series investigates a spectrum of fascinating topics in the sciences and beyond.