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Living Lab Radio: Black Panther As A Science Movie, Edible Electronics, And More

"Black Panther" is set in a world where science and technology allow the society to flourish.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios

"Black Panther" is making headlines as a box office hit that is also a superhero movie starring black actors. But it could also be the biggest science movie of the year.

Not only is King T’Challa (Black Panther) a scientist himself, “his whole culture is based on accomplished black people doing scientific breakthroughs to make their world work so well,” said Clifford Johnson, a professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Southern California. Johnson is also the author of the graphic book, The Dialogues: Conversations About the Nature of the Universe."

“It shows that being an accomplished scientist isn’t a singular thing that can happen to one or two extraordinary people,” he said. “It can be a way of life.”

Another highlight: the king’s 16-year-old sister Shuri is the genius behind the kingdom’s most amazing technological advancements.

“I think it’s a tremendous opportunity in popular culture,” Johnson said.

When we think about the impacts of climate change in New England, our minds often go to the ocean and coasts. But a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture finds that New England’s forests are vulnerable, as well.

In New England, average yearly temperature has already increased by 2.4 °F, with even greater warming during winter.

“The longer growing season is, of course, potentially a good thing for our native species, but it also benefits invasive species as well, so that’s one downside,” said Jennifer Hushaw, an Applied Forest Scientist with the Climate Services Program at Manomet in Plymouth and a contributor to the report. 

While some species will enjoy the longer growing season and hotter weather, other trees will suffer. Those include New England’s sugar maples and balsam firs — trees with economic importance.

“Some of the forest types that are expected to have the greatest vulnerability are those dominated by spruce and fir,” she said. “The kind of forests you see when you go up to the White Mountains, the Adirondacks, or northern Maine.”

If you’ve ever been annoyed by those little stickers on your apples or wished for a sensor that would tell you whether that cantaloupe is actually ripe, we have news for you. Researchers at Rice University have developed a technique that they say could solve both of those problems. The key is using lasers to print tiny tags made of graphene, a substance that is stable even in a single-molecule layer. 

“It conducts electricity and it has very high mobility, allowing information to move very rapidly through the structure,” explained James Tour, the T. T. and W. F. Chao Professor of Chemistry, and Professor of Computer Science and Materials Science and NanoEngineering at Rice University.

“It can allow the passage of information much faster than silicon, so it has these enormous properties that are attractive to people. It’s extremely strong even though it’s only one atom thick," said Tour. 

Using graphene, one could mark each piece of fruit with an RFID tag that can record where the fruit was grown and the places it traveled on its way to the table. With the inclusion of a tiny sensor, the fruit could tell you whether it sat in a hot truck or has E. coli on the surface.

Living Lab Radio spoke to Judson Brewer in March 2017. We’re repeating that conversation because his book is now out in paperback.

Are you addicted to your smartphone? Many of us certainly feel drawn to our electronic devices — and the array of information and activities they offer — in a way we feel uncomfortable admitting. And, while there's some controversy about whether or not the term "addiction" is appropriate, there is growing evidence that things like posting on Facebook can elicit the same brain response as an addictive substance.

"When you scan someone's brain when they're self-disclosing, they activate the same reward-based learning processes as heroin, alcohol, cocaine and cigarettes," explained Dr. Judson Brewer, author of The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love – Why We Get hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits.

Those reward-based learning circuits may have evolved to help us find food.

"If we fast forward to modern day, where food is plentiful, we don't necessarily need this all the time because there's a McDonald's on every corner," said Brewer. "Yet, this process is still at play, and still at play quite a bit. So, our brains start co-opting this and say 'Why don't you use this to cope with stress?'"

That can be a good thing, or it can lead to harmful behaviors like emotional eating, smoking and social media overuse.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot of research out there showing what kinds of strategies are most effective. But Brewer says mindfulness can be a way to interrupt a negative cycle, become aware of what drives cravings, and gain some perspective on the impacts of our behavior.


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