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Another week, another treadmill

This week’s Project X was all about heat and I was tasked with looking at how heat affects the human body. As always, the experimental subject was me, and we again returned to DRDC Toronto, aka the Torture Chamber.

Instead of being spun around in the centrifuge, I got to check out the very shiny and very hot climate chamber – a room where the temperature and humidity can be set to just about anything. The centrifuge guys had warned me about this place – in the past, they’d been recruited to test out a combat suit in conditions simulating a hot desert environment. They had to walk on a treadmill until they passed out from exhaustion AND they had to do it with an anal-probe thermometer up their butt.

Fortunately the climate chamber guys were a little easier on me – I only had to do two sets of 30-minute exercise, walking at a brisk pace at a slight incline – and they monitored my core temperature with a radio pill and not a butt probe (though that was plan B – B for butt? – if the radio pill somehow failed to broadcast.). The pill was actually pretty neat – it’s about the size of a large vitamin and is coated in a smooth rubber, and is pretty easy to swallow. I took it a few hours before heading to DRDC so that it would be nicely lodged in the core of my digestive system come exercise time. A receiver I was wearing picked up the temperature signal being broadcast by the transmitter in the pill, and that information was then sent to a computer to be graphed.

(In case you’re curious, the radio pill exits your body within a day or two, which is good because I was getting on a plane not too long after we shot this and didn’t want to have to explain that one at the airport metal detector!)

Even though I wasn’t going through the same torture my centrifuge buddies had been subjected to, it wasn’t exactly pleasant in there. It’s funny how much you take fresh, circulating air for granted – the air was heavy, hot and perfectly still in there and there was no relief to be had until I had finished my high-humidity pass and was finally allowed to dip my arteriovenous anastomoses (great Scrabble word!) into the cool water. And boy did it work. Just like our in-studio guinea pig (did any of you recognize him? He was Sample 6 in the Armour episode’s sweat experiment!), my body’s radiators managed to bring my core temperature down quickly and I had fully recovered shortly after the treadmill was shut down for the day.

Although some of the stuff we cover on Project X is a bit too advanced to try at home – ever try stopping light in your garage or isolating peptides from the gator in your yard? – this episode nicely illustrated how knowing a little bit of biology can help anyone cool down on a hot day. Turns out all those people who set up lawn chairs in kiddie pools were right! The AVAs in the soles of your feet work just like those in your palms, so dipping your feet in a cool pool will do the trick.

Stay tuned for next week’s episode, when I’m spared another treadmill but end up going from +35C temperatures to more like -35C.

Baby, it's Hot Outside

The next episode is about HEAT, which in keeping with Project X tradition, is an award winningly vague subject. I’m a mechanical engineer (or a MEC-E’s as we are called at the University of Alberta) and this subject is right up my alley. We MEC-E’s spend a lot of time learning about thermodynamics and heat transfer, and nowhere is the need to understand these concepts more important than in the hot climes.

In the studio we compare how heating up water for a cup of tea is no different than cooling water by pouring liquid nitrogen on it. In both cases, the boiling liquid (either water or nitrogen) stays at the same temperature while it absorbs the energy required to change from a liquid to gas. You might have noticed that boiling water stays at the same temperature.

Manufacturers use similar tricks in refrigerators. A special fluid boils in the cold part of your fridge, then is compressed and condensed in the warm side of your fridge around back. This way heat is sucked out of your cool "bevies" in the fridge, and "pumped" out to your kitchen.

OK, enough technical stuff. We went to Phoenix, Arizona to really feel the pain of hot weather and see first hand how cooling and refrigeration there is no laughing matter. We start by asking some window washers what life is like in the baking sun. In fact, this is a dangerous work, and sadly, one of the fellows we interviewed fell to his death on the job a few months after we were there. Later we go into the building to look at how a huge air conditioning system is a serious design consideration in Arizona buildings.

We also look at some very cool archeological sites and see how early North American cultures learned how to avoid the heat and built their wisdom into their living spaces around them. They were very clever, considering the simple technology available.

Of course, we look like death warmed over dragging our butts around in the punishing sun. It didn’t help that we were also suffering from sleep deprivation as a result of the previous day’s overzealous devotion to the Project X prime directive of discovering the local culture wherever we go. We were relieved to observe that being a local doesn’t make withstanding the heat any easier.

It turns out that the lessons of the early native architecture work today in homes too. A couple we visit in their 'passively' cooled home show us some of the tricks of keeping a cool in a more sustainable way.

Finally, we couldn’t end our portion of the show without Marc proving his superior intellectual wit by shattering my innocent poolside reverie with a cannonball jump into the water. I guess Wilde might have said that in Arizona, "the only thing worse than being soaked, is not being soaked".

Also this week, you’ll see Brian Alters prove, once again, how life on earth solved its own problems through evolution. Then Jenn is back on the treadmill trying to win the “masochist of the year award”. You go girl!

Just Walkin’

It’s not often that I get to sport my own outfits on camera. I wear nice stuff but it can veer into Chloe Sevigny territory more often than not, and besides, how awful would it look if these episodes aired in Spring/Summer 2015 and there I am in Fall/Winter 2007’s ready to wear collections? I mean, C’MON! :) But in this episode you get a glimpse into my own wardrobe in the form of the best t-shirt ever… Just Walkin’.

The story behind the shirt is that long, long ago I was in Louisville with my buddy Jessica, checking out the Kentucky Derby. Jessica’s friend Pat was one of our hosts, and he had this completely insane, 70s-era yellow t-shirt with “Just Walkin’” airbrushed across it in crazy green script. It sort of became an in-joke and for years after that, “Just Walkin’” became the joke answer when somebody asked me what I was up to. (It’s really funny when you say it and you’re sitting still. Seriously.)

Anyway, at home my preferred form of exercise is loooooooong brisk walks all over the city, so one day my husband presented me with my own Just Walkin’ t-shirt that he had specially made for me to wear whilst on my peregrinations. It lacks some of the yellow and all of the crazy of the original, but retains the spirit and has a cute 1980s gym class look about it.

So when packing for the Houston trip, knowing I’d be running at top speed on the treadmill, I threw some regular workout gear in the suitcase and then brought Just Walkin’ along as a joke. That night I showed the director my wardrobe pieces and brought that out with the disclaimer “Now, you don’t have to put this on tv; I just brought it along for fun; but…”. And whaddya know. She loved it! We decided to made it kind a running gag (running, get it? Ha!) so the next day my humble little t-shirt got its star turn on camera.

Playing with the treadmill was a blast. Jason, our elite sprinter, is an ace on that thing and has helped Dr. Weyand with all sorts of studies. He’s even set the record for fastest backwards-hopping-on-one-leg on that thing (4m/sec! Holy moly!). We all enjoyed grilling Dr. Weyand about all the experiments he’d run on the predecessor to the Houston treadmill – an even bigger treadmill at Harvard that has measured the strides of all sorts of animals. We learned which animals they’ve run on there (everything from flightless birds to jungle cats), what they use to entice the animals to run (a steak dangled in front of the carnivores, or a poke in the butt for herbivores), and what happens if the animal goes poop when the treadmill is running at top speed (exactly what you’d expect would happen, which is bad news for whomever is on herbivore butt-poking duty).

Participating in the experiment was a whole lot of fun too! I was really surprised by the results – I’ve never been a good runner and just figured I wasn’t designed for it, but Jason and I had more in common than I expected and it really showed me that running was something I could do if I just applied myself. I also enjoyed burning a few calories in anticipation of the crew dinner at a ridiculous Texan steakhouse that night – massive hunks of meat! And the fact that I was wearing shorts outside in early January was kinda cool too.

Surprise, surprise, next week features more of me on a treadmill! I don’t get up to speeds close to what I hit in this episode, but I am once again subjected to mild torture by the guys at DRDC Toronto, who this time forego the centrifuge in favour of sticking me in a heat chamber, making me walk briskly up a hill for 30 minutes, and monitoring my core temperature through a radio transmitter in my, uh colon.

At the Speed of Sound

This week is about speed. You’re going to see a lot of things go by quickly so keep your eyes peeled…

After throwing some numbers at you about the speeds of various things from snails to high speed trains, we get on to the subject of setting land speed records. That’s where seemingly crazy people devise “cars” that look a heck of a lot like airplanes without wings, to see if they can break the speed of sound. They race through the desert on these death machines and this week we follow them out there to see what it’s about.

It all happens in the Black Rock Desert near Gerlach Nevada (If you’ve seen the town of Big Tuna in David Lynch’s “Wild At Heart” you have an idea what Gerlach is like. To say Gerlach has character would be a monumental understatement, and yes, the woman working the bar in town does wear an eye patch (I’m not making this up, only reality can be this bizarre).

But Gerlach is not quite remote enough for land speed record setting. The fun happens out in the dusty desert. This desert is beautiful and bleak to behold, with a singularly planar dusty flat that extends in every direction.

Out in that surreal plain some speed-obsessed techies try out their mega-hotrod: The North American Eagle. The “car” is a superannuated F104 Star Fighter (once flown by Chuck Yeager I might add) with the wings
lopped off and some very high tech solid aluminum wheels attached.

We watch and wait and hope the driver/pilot doesn’t kill himself stalking his personal Moby Dick known as the land speed record. That record is currently just above Mach 1 (the speed of sound). If you love cars, mechanics, and just plain crazy one-up-manship you’re going to love these guys.

In the end the crew comes closer to making their death wish than breaking the record. The weather goes nasty and they have to put off going for the record when we are there. That doesn’t stop them from a “test drive” in a dust storm that would calm the need for speed of the most obsessive racing enthusiast. Keep your eye on the North American Eagle folks, they’re going to make the news…one way or other.

Also this week Brian Alters wins a hundred quid at the greyhound track (and that isn’t faked either) and risks his life chatting with ornery cockney gamblers, while Jenn talks about running 60 km/h on a treadmill but I don’t think quite runs that fast. Only Jenn knows the answer to that one for sure.

Memories, misty water-coloured memories…

I guess Brian Fleck and I both have a thing for the Streisand numbers…

Yup, this shoot led to misty water-coloured memories – a day of it took place in the pouring rain in London, England! One of the original ideas for this episode involved looking at muscle memory by working with circus performers, but when Brian Alters and the crew headed to London to check out greyhound racing for next week’s Speed episode, we stowed away in their suitcases so we could meet up with some of the guys from Urban Freeflow, the world’s leading parkour/free running organization.

The UF crew are just amazing - what started off as a hobby for many of them has turned into a lifestyle and a career, with appearances in commercials, video games, fashion spreads, and even a James Bond movie! You can watch their work on their own YouTube Channel.

The first day of shooting started out beautifully - director Mike took our UF athletes Bam and Lewis out to a few locations in the morning, whilst I enjoyed sleeping in (a rare treat indeed on location shoots) and then exploring the streets of London. When I met up with the crew around lunchtime, however, our luck changed. A torrential downpour started so we retreated to the nearest safe, dry place. The pub! Fuelled by a few pints, we had the brilliant idea of doing a bit of parkour in the pub and so after the lunch crowd left and with the owner’s permission, we had Bam and Lewis flying over bar stools and tables, hurling themselves over ledges, and generally looking like action movie heroes, much to the bewilderment of the slightly inebriated afternoon drinkers.

The weather was a heck of a lot better on our second day of shooting, and the day couldn’t have gone any better. In the morning Bam and Blue (replacing Lewis, who got a nasty bump whilst cavorting about the pub and wasn’t up for another 8 hours of parkour) taught me a few freerunning basics in the comfort of a well-padded gym. It’s a good thing the padding was there - I bailed more than a few times, but had a blast doing it. I had to concentrate quite hard while doing the jumps, not so much to get the move right, but more to keep my tongue in my mouth. I stick it out when I’m focused on something and it doesn’t look so hot on camera.

After I had tuckered myself out (uh, 10 minutes after I started jumping and rolling), Professor Alan Wing from the University of Birmingham sat Bam, Blue and I down for a chat and we were all rapt with attention as he explained how the brain deals with movement. During the chat, he mentioned that he had a motion capture facility at his lab and he invited us to come for a visit and check it out. The director quickly changed his travel plans so that instead of flying back the next morning, he’d leave in the evening, and we made arrangements to meet up with Dr. Wing the next morning in Birmingham, a couple hours’ drive outside London.

After the gym shoot, we set out on our great South Bank adventure. You’ll note my parkour skills improved significantly sometime during the cab ride from the gym to the South Bank ;) Must have been all those Marks & Spencer biscuits I had in the cab...

It was great fun watching Bam and Blue do their thing, and their antics drew quite a crowd, especially when we hit Trafalgar Square as dusk to catch a few final scenic shots. The square seems to be another parkour hot spot as while we were there, a young traceur from Brazil introduced himself to the UF guys and they spent a few happy minutes backflipping off Nelson’s Column. After a long day, we rewarded ourselves with another trip to the pub and a great meal at a restaurant run by a relative of Andy, our sound man.

The next day in Birmingham with Dr. Wing was great - his invitation was so kind (he brought a ridiculously good cake to the shoot) and being able to talk with him more and run through some experiments at the mo-cap studio (to use the industry parlance) really added a lot to the story. Plus we got to cover Bam in piles and piles of tiny dots which looks pretty neat on camera.

That evening, the director and I headed to the airport - he went back to Canada, and I flew to Hong Kong for my other job. It was the only time I’ve ever got mushy saying goodbye to a crew - the guys we had with us in the UK were absolutely wonderful and Bam and I bonded over our shared musical tastes and the omnipresent tv-crew-in-van game of pass-the-iPod.

Now about Memory Man, some of the more skeptical among you may be wondering whether any editing tricks were used that made it easy for him to remember that long string of numbers. Nope! It was all him! When he arrived for the shoot, he had me write out a string of whatever numbers I felt like. We gave him the paper and he hung out in his dressing room, using his system to commit them to memory. Around an hour or so later, we brought him into the studio for the shoot and pow! He recited them forwards, and then backwards, perfectly.

We were all amused to discover we had our own memory man on the crew too. As we were blocking out the camera moves and the lighting, camera assistant Jeremy was sitting in for Memory Man. We did a run-through using Jeremy, and he had memorized a good portion of the string of digits while he was sitting there! Very impressive.

So that was memory. Stay tuned for next week’s episode, which features yet more of me running! This time instead of the fancy flips and tricks, it’s all about speed.

“Like the corners of my mind…”

In this episode we do magic tricks, crash cars, dress up as gorillas and stuff my mouth and nose with marshmallows. All in a days work for Team X. Indeed our commitment to expanding the frontiers of science is exceeded only by our penchant for exploring the absurd (when you see the murder scene you’ll understand the whole "absurd" bit).

True to our Project X form, we will surprise you with how little our show is about "Memory" in the way you were expecting. There are no Barbra Streisand torch songs or even neat little games looking for pairs of cards. In fact Marc and I spend all of our time investigating how memories are formed, not how they are recalled.

Our goal is to understand "inattentional blindness". That’s where you don’t notice the spilt beer on the rug when the Esks are third and goal in the fourth quarter and trailing 5 points. It turns out, if you concentrate hard enough on one thing, your brain filters out other things coming to your senses and prevents that "extraneous" information from being recorded in your memory (note to myself: concentrate on what you like, and you won’t see the stuff you don’t like - I should go into politics). On top of that, I’m told that engineers are particularly susceptible to this affliction as they are good at focusing on analytical tasks while blocking other distractions out. Yep, my wife will confirm that one.

Our guest stars are a stage magician and a memory expert. With their help, we do a little test on live human subjects at the University of Alberta. In this scene, five live subjects watch the magician and do not notice our little gag. I won’t tell you what happens, you’ll have to watch yourself, but one of our subjects who is actually my cousin falls for it twice in a row (coincidence? I don’t think so).

We also try to riddle Marc with annoying questions while he is driving a special skid-prone car. The purpose of this experiment is to see how much attention overload is required to make him crash. To his credit, you should know this car is especially hard to drive, and practically spins out if the nasty prairie winds blow too hard. He crashes all right, but it’s worth the sacrifice because he gets to wear this snazzy race car driver suit.

Also this week, Brian Alters acts out his fantasy of murdering me to discover a new science called “memory fingerprinting”. Meanwhile Jenn looks into muscle memory with some real life spidermen. Test your own inattentional blindness at the end when "Jenn" does her own wallcrawling routine.

Trip the Light Fantastic

As those of you who have been watching us regularly might have noticed, Project X is a pretty busy show. Virtually all of our segments involve at least some location shooting – meeting up with scientists on their home turf. Because we shoot most of the show in the summer (longer days + generally sunny conditions = happy production team), we have to work things around scientists’ vacation schedules and general availability, so the end result is the whole series is assembled a bit like a patchwork quilt (or for you techophiles, a torrent!) – you shoot a bit for one episode here, a bit for another episode there, and it only all comes together at the end of the whole production season.

So, even though this is episode #4, the segment at Harvard was the first bit of Project X work I did this summer. It was a nice way to kick things off – spending a sunny August day strolling around the campus of one of the most famous universities in the world. I think I gained a few IQ points just breathing in the air.

I tell ya, I sure had to use those extra IQ points later that day when Dr. Hau started walking me through her experimental setup. Phwoar! Light is a great topic, but there’s not a lot of crazy stories to tell about it from the human body/micro world perspective. We were really keen to feature Dr. Hau and her mind-blowing experiments, so I had to dust off the vastly underused physics portion of my brain to tackle this segment.

I think I managed it alright, which I attribute to always checking out the physics articles in my husband’s Discover magazine collection. I’m glad I had the chance to check out her lab – it’s always nice to meet another female scientist, especially one who has been massively successful in what has tended to be a more male-oriented field, and I really think that she could be a Nobel Prize winner in the future.

That’s about it for this episode – they took it pretty easy on me for this show. I’m glad I didn’t have Marc’s job, running from Officer Fleck – I would have passed out from exhaustion. On second thought, I probably would have done a great job as the corpse.

Anyway, things are back to normal in Project X-land next week, where I am again placed in an amusing and potentially dangerous situation for the delight of the viewers at home! Next week is the memory episode, and while I didn’t have to endure 5Gs, trap gators or come into close contact with tapeworms, I did join up with a crew of free runners in London, England – tune in next Thursday to see our assault on the South Bank!

The Blinding Light Show

This week we will talk about light - a very general topic. We restricted ourselves to talking about the visible, ultraviolet (UV) and infrared (IR) portions of what we call the electromagnetic spectrum. The E-M spectrum also has radio waves, microwaves, x-rays and other waves with cool names like that, but hey, we only had 22 minutes to work with here.

Now believe it or not, I have, on occasion, been told I look like a cop. So this week I really got to live up to that image by hanging out with the boys in blue and finding out how they use light when tracking down bad guys and solving crimes. And who do you think the bad guy is? Take one guess. Marc, you can run, but you can’t hide, especially when I’m in a helicopter and you’re running on foot. Look at him go…

Later we see Marc laying immobile on the floor and pretending to be a corpse at a crime scene. He’s quite good at it. All those years of acting school for Marc were really paying off here.

We describe IR and UV light by showing off my ambidextrous chalkboard work. That’s a professor trick; dogs roll over, we draw lines. Watch for the sneaky cheating we try to slip by you as our multiple takes of this scene mix together. You’ll see how hard it is to do the same thing twice for the camera.

We head off to the Ontario version of Crime Scene Investigation to show you how the pros get fingerprints and other clues from crime scenes. Believe it or not, they have this big machine that sprays a thin layer of superglue on everything that actually makes stains and fingerprints show up better, especially when you shine a blue laser at them.

The fun really gets going when we get into the Ontario Provincial Police helicopter in Orillia. Their chopper is rigged with a very sensitive IR camera that makes playing cops and robbers a lot easier when it’s night and some nasty character like Marc is on the run. We ended up having a lot of fun that night, in spite of the lost sleep.

Brian Alters also does some nightstalking, but he’s out in the tidal pools of Vancouver Island looking at jellyfish that look like they snuck off the set of Alien. Jenn goes in search of how to make light actually come to a near standstill. There’s a test on her segment so make sure you take notes and memorize all those 12 syllable words that come at you - at the speed of light!