Scientific Chicago with Neil Shubin

Battery Advancements, Bio-bots and Political Polarity

How malleable are political views? And a robot made without any electronics? Our science guy, Neil Shubin, joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm to help answer these questions and more in tonight's Scientific Chicago.

Argonne National Laboratory Leads Team to Establish Batteries and Energy Storage Hub
A multi-partner team led by Argonne National Laboratory has been selected by the Department of Energy for an award of up to $120 million over five years to establish a new Batteries and Energy Storage Hub. The Hub will combine the efforts of national laboratories, universities and private firms to help make revolutionary breakthroughs in battery performance. Argonne’s advancements in battery technology helped power the Chevy Volt, the first mass-produced plug-in hybrid electric car. Increasing battery and energy storage technologies are crucial to lowering energy costs to consumers, reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil, and better harnessing intermittent energy sources like wind and solar.

These Bots Were Made For Walking
A breakthrough has been made in forward-engineering in the form of soft, biocompatible robots that are able to walk by themselves.

Developed at the University of Illinois, these functional machines, dubbed bio-bots, were made using only hydrogel, heart cells and a 3-D printer.

“The idea is that, by being able to design with biological structures, we can harness the power of cells and nature to address challenges facing society,” said Professor Rashid Bashir, who led the research team. “Yet there are a  lot of applications where nature solves a problem in such an elegant way. Can we replicate some of that if we can understand how to put things together with cells?”

Each bio-bot has a long, thin leg that is resting on a sturdy supporting leg. The thin leg is covered with rat cardiac cells, so when the heart cells beat, the long leg pulses, moving the bio-bot forward.

The team used a 3-D printing method to create the main body of the bot from hydrogel. This method is widely used for rapid prototyping and allowed the team to easily make adjustments.

Potential uses of the bio-bots could be drug screening, chemical analysis, and sensors.

“Our goal is to see if we can get this thing to move toward chemical gradients, so we could eventually design something that can look for a specific toxin and then try to neutralize it,” said Bashir.

Next, the team will experiment with the shape of the bio-bot and work to enhance control and function.

Partisan Intervention: Political Attitudes May Be Malleable
As it turns out, some stubborn political attitudes may be a little more flexible than you think. Researchers found that just by answering three “why” questions on an innocuous topic, people become more moderate in their views on polarizing political issues.

The researchers chose to explore attitudes around the ground zero mosque—an Islamic mosque and community center built two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center.

“We used the ground zero mosque as a particularly polarizing issue,” said University of Illinois psychology professor Jesse Preston. “People feel strongly about it generally one way or the other.”

The idea then was to create an intervention in a subject’s thinking pattern before they gave their views on the mosque and community center. The first experiment has subjects view an image of an airplane flying into one of the World Trade Center towers. After viewing this image, liberals and conservatives held opposing views toward the mosque and community center.

The second experiment was conducted the same way, but with one slight change. After viewing the image, subjects were either asked three “why” questions or three “how” questions on an unrelated topic, maintaining their health.

The “why” questions but not the “how” questions yielded greater results in moving people closer to the center in their views on the mosque and community center.

“Why” questions help people to think more broadly on a subject, thus making it easier for them to look at an issue from a different perspective.

“After this very brief task that just put them in this abstract mindset, they were more willing to consider the point of view of the opposition,” said Preston.

Click to view larger imageDifficult-to-Read Font Reduces Political Polarity
Political arguments become less polarizing when read in difficult-to-read font. This is a second study from the University of Illinois, also led by professor Jesse Preston, that shows how subtle manipulation of how people take in information can reduce bias.

Participants were asked to read a political argument about capital punishment in a difficult font. Both liberals and conservatives who read the argument in a challenging font were less polarized than those who read it in a normal font.

“Not only are people considering more the opposing point of view but they’re also being more skeptical of their own because they’re more critically engaging both sides of the argument,” said Preston.

The study is the first to use difficult-to-read materials as a way to disrupt confirmation bias.

*Neil Shubin’s new book, The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People was released on January 8. Learn more about it here.