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An Innovator Plans to Launch Telescope to Discover Earth- Threatening Asteroids; Creator of Lego-Like Toy Profiled

Aired May 25, 2013 - 14:30   ET


KAREN MAGINNIS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Hello, everyone, I am CNN meteorologist Karen Maginnis. What you are looking at are live pictures coming out of San Antonio. There have been numerous reports of water rescues taking place here. As you can see very swollen rivers, and this is inundated. It looks like that may be a shopping mall.

But we had reports of as much as ten inches of rainfall. That is a one day total reported. That is rivaling the flooding we saw back in 1998 that killed dozens of people. Already one fatality reported and we are looking at most of that rainfall in the corridor from Interstate 37 to Interstate 10 to Interstate 35 on the eastern edge of San Antonio. So the bulk of the precipitation has ended.

There was a water rescue earlier and we'll show you that. There were people in a rescue boat. They were looking for this gentleman sitting on this roof of his home or perhaps secondary building, and they did successfully rescue him. There was a wait. They were trying to navigate through the dangerous flood waters. And they are saying now that there is a flash flood emergency out until 3:30 local time.

Now, at the top of the hour I will bring you additional information, what we can expect, and what happens in the forecast and a look at your Memorial Day holiday. "The Next List" begins right now.

ANNOUNCER: They are innovators, game changers, people pushing themselves, moving us all forward. They are the next scientists, musicians, poets, the next makers, dreamers, teachers, and geniuses. They are "The Next List."

SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Welcome to "The Next List." I am Dr. Sanjay Gupta. This week I would like to introduce you to two extraordinary innovators, Ayah Bdeir and Ed Lu. Ayah Bdeir has invented the next generation of the Lego. It's called littleBits, small colorful electronic components that snap together to create just about anything.

AYAH BDEIR, CREATOR, LITTLEBITS: The hope with littleBits is get people to understand that technology at a very simple level and really start to take part in this revolution.

GUPTA: Ed Lu's revolution is very different.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One, two, ignition, lift off. He is a former NASA astronaut and modern day Asteroid hunter. He is on an urgent mission to build a space telescope that will protect the earth from a catastrophic collision with asteroids.

ED LU, FOUNDER AND COE, B612 FOUNDATION: You have to find them before you can protect yourself from them.

GUPTA: He says it's the small asteroids we need to be the most worried about like the rogue meteorite that soared over Russia in February injuring more than 1,000 people.

LU: A one kilometer asteroid if it were to hit the earth would wipe out civilization.

GUPTA: I am Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and this is "The Next List."

LU: My name is Ed Lu. I am a former astronaut and now I am the CEO of the B612 Foundation. The B612 Foundation's ultimate mission is to protect the earth. And what we're going to do is find threatening asteroids before they find us, because they do hit earth, and they will again in the future unless we do something about it.

Asteroids hit the earth all the time. Really small ones or just the shooting ones you see in the sky, larger ones like the gun that hit 100 years ago in Siberia. That wiped out an area about the size of the San Francisco Bay Area. So there is about a 50 percent chance that in your lifetime that another explosion of that size is going to happen somewhere on earth.

The basic idea that we're working on is that we actually have the technology today to deflect asteroids if we have adequate warning. By adequate warning we mean decades in advance. The problem is right now that nobody is really doing a comprehensive map of all the threatening asteroids. And so that is our goal.

GUPTA: The chances are small. We understand the concern. But just such unlikely thing is to happen at least for the foreseeable future. What do you say to that?

LU: Yes. You can play roulette all day long. Eventually you hit double zero. That's our point. This doesn't need to be a giant government program where we're talking billions of dollars. We're talking about building one spacecraft. Look at the dinosaurs. Do we want to go the way the dinosaurs?

The asteroid that killed off this guy was about 10 miles across. On the day that it hit, it carved out a huge crater and all of that rock falling back to earth heated up the atmosphere to about 500 degrees. So what that did is set fire to everything on earth worldwide. And everything burned on earth that day. We know this because we actually have a fossil record of this.

You look at this rock. If you go anywhere around the world and dig down to the right level will you find a layer of dark rock like that. It is called the KT boundary. It is the same layer anywhere on the earth. So something happened worldwide and corresponds with the end of the dinosaurs. Below this there are fossils of dinosaurs. Above this there are no fossils of dinosaurs.

NASA has actually been discovering asteroids. They have funded over the last 20 years a search for the very largest of asteroids.

GUPTA: So they did a good job, you say, of tracking the very big asteroids. But the smaller ones that could cause a huge problem, what's happened with them.

LU: Not much. They have never been able to fund a search for smaller asteroids, ones that may only wipe out a continent or may only collapse the world economy for a century or so. Something like that, we're not looking for. To me that seems crazy.

So this is what we are trying to protect. It is a nice view.

GUPTA: This is the view you had from when you go out.

LU: Somewhat like that, a little higher up than I was. If you look at the green line, that's the earth. You see the other planets with the sun in the middle. This is the orbit of every single known asteroid in our solar system.

GUPTA: Swarming around.

LU: Yes. It is a busy place. The outer part, this outer doughnut is called the asteroid belt. The intersection, these are called near earth asteroids because they come near earth. A lot of them are whizzing past the earth. The real solar system has 100 times more asteroids than you see right now. These are the 10,000 known near asteroids. The real solar system looks like this. There are about a million near earth asteroids larger than the one that hit in 1908. That means we only found about one percent of them. The other 99 percent are currently out there and unknown.

This is an interesting way to think about it. Let's look at asteroids of 100 mega tons or larger, five times bigger than all. There is about a one percent chance that will happen in any given person's lifetime. That's also about your chance of dying in a car accident, about one percent.

I will ask you. Do you wear a seatbelt?

GUPTA: I do.

LU: Why? It is only one percent chance will you get hit and killed by a car. Why would do you that? Not big odds, right?

GUPTA: It is not, but I do everything I can to try to protect myself.

LU: Who is protecting the earth?

GUPTA: Up next, meet the sentinel. Ed Lu's astonishing telescope that just might save the world. And later, Ayah Vidar's littleBits.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) LU: The plan of the B612 Foundation is to build a space telescope called Sentinel that will launch in 2018, and it will orbit the sun. This is the Sentinel space telescope.

GUPTA: That's it. That's basically the size of it there?

LU: Yes. The real one is about the size of say a delivery truck, so it is about 23, 24 feet tall, and about 2,600 pounds.

GUPTA: It has its back to the moon.

LU: Back to the sun.

GUPTA: And it is constantly surveying everything around it?

LU: Exactly. As you know, it is hard to look with a telescope in the direction of the sun. You want to have your back to the sun. The nighttime sky is in the opposite direction of the sun.

The challenging thing about the mission, it is going to be quite far away from earth. It will orbit the sun so that means that its distance will vary from the earth and it will range between 30 million miles at its closest to about 170 million miles from earth at its furthest.

That's about 500,000 times further from earth than the Hubble space telescope. We have challenges but we think we know how to do that. In fact, we can send products to Mars, we can do this too.

GUPTA: And it can see anything that might possibly be a threat to the earth.

LU: That is exactly right.

The asteroids are very dark, almost black. Therefore they glow in infrared because they're warmed by the sun. If you are looking infrared, you can spot the asteroids. They're the moving objects that are bright and infrared. Over a six and a half year period it will scan earth's orbit multiple times and map all the asteroids that cross earth's orbit, because those are the asteroids that could hit earth. So it will track about a half a million asteroids, so each month it will discover about 10,000 asteroids.

GUPTA: Each month, 10,000?

LU: Yes. Which is more than all other telescopes throughout history have combined to discover. It will do that every month.

One of the innovative things I think we're doing is that we are funding this privately. We're a non-profit foundation and we're funded by private donations. That does not mean that we don't have some government involvement, because NASA is, for instance, a partner of ours. NASA is going to provide the communications and tracking of the spacecraft because they have those facilities already built. In return we will make all the data publicly available. So our contract with the world is that as we finally discover the asteroids, all the data is over.

SCOTT HUBBARD, AUTHOR, "EXPLORING MARS": I think we may be opening a frontier for a new way of doing these deep space missions. And nobody has ever done one with private investment, with philanthropy.

LU: If you look at the cost of building something like a spacecraft that could find all of these asteroids.

GUPTA: What are we talking about here?

LU: A few hundred million and universities raise that all the time to build a chemistry building or art wings to build a new wing. That's the kind of scale you're talking about.

GUPTA: How is it going? That's what you're doing, trying to raise that money.

LU: It is going really well. We announced publicly just this last year, and we have raised quite a bit of funds and we have been moving.

GUPTA: Ed Lu is at the helm of this. Is he the right guy?

HUBBARD: Absolutely. Ed is terrific. He is a great salesman. And now you have to recognize that this is not just a technical issue. There is this whole sea change going on in space now where private enterprise is doing a lot of really incredibly bold things in space.

LU: I feel like we have been offered a chance to positively change the course of humanity. And how can you turn that down? I mean, if you are lucky, once in your lifetime will you ever get a chance like that. So we feel very blessed that we are here at this right time when we can do this.

GUPTA: Up next, a magical world of the next generation of Legos called littleBits.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It gives Jacob a chance to see how electronics can also be fun.


GUPTA: Welcome back to "The Next List," I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. The next innovator I want you to meet is Ayah BDEIR, inventor of the next generation of Lego called littleBits.

BDEIR: Each Little Bit is a preassembled, pre-engineered, electronic module with one specific function. It enables kids and adults even to play with light and sound and sensors without having any experience whatsoever and without any background in engineering.

GUPTA: Ayah believes everyone is an innovator, and as she tells CNN's Poppy Harlow, littleBits are breaking down the boundaries of technology to empower young and old alike to simply create.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: This is my first time with littleBits. How would I build something? How would I know what to make? BDEIR: The instructions are very simple. There is two instructions. First is the magnets are always right. So if the magnets don't allow you to connect two things, you have to flip them. And the second instruction is that to make a circuit, you need a blue and a green.

HARLOW: Always.

BDEIR: Always a minimum of one blue and one green. Blue is power. Green is output. And pink and orange can come in between. So you put the pink in between and you have a pressure sensor and this is a variation of a sensor that you would find, for example, in an iPod.

Much like you take different Lego bricks and you add different shaped pieces. You add wheels. You construct something by intuition and you are able to do the same thing with electronics and through that process are learning about the different building blocks of electronics.

HARLOW: It is vibrating, buzzing, and lights up.

BDEIR: One of my favorite things is seeing the first time people interact with littleBits. They walk up, they think they are two pieces, they snap the pieces together and suddenly their face lights up.


BDEIR: Suddenly you feel like a whole world of imagination suddenly opened up to them and they feel like the boundaries are no longer there and they're able to imagine what's possible.

HARLOW: What's this?

BDEIR: So this is the starter kit. It's the first kit we put together that we made available. And it's basically everything you need to get started. You have power modules, input modules, output modules, batteries, screwdriver, and it is sort of you get started quick guide.

HARLOW: These are for young kids and adults?

BDEIR: These are for -- initially when we started they were for adults.

HARLOW: Really?

BDEIR: And then the first couple of demos I did and exhibits, kids started hovering around and really looking at them and starting to pick them up. They would have so much fun that I realized that there is kind of a very big opportunity to change the way kids are taught science and technology and math, and so that kind of became a big focus.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is what I made. If you press this, his tail turns around and around. And his eyes lit up. HARLOW: One thing I notice is that the colors are very gender neutral, right? They're not all pink. They're not all blue. It is the same for boys and girls, or more towards girls and getting girls more into the sciences? What is it?

BDEIR: There is a hidden agenda that I really believe that we have to work harder to get girls interested in science and technology, but I don't believe in producing products for girls or for boys. I think that the intention here was that littleBits were not going to be designed for boys. That was a deliberate decision and automatically they became gender neutral.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It gives Jacob a chance to see how electronics can also be fun and how they can be part of play and part of art and how electronics don't have to be just by themselves. They can be part of art and play.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I love that. I have been working with littleBits for most of my life.

BDEIR: The target audience is primarily kids. We have been doing actually very well with adults as well, designers, artists, business people, you know, retired engineers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two things, right?

BDEIR: One of my favorite projects actually is a project that we saw at a workshop we did at south by southwest. I particularly wanted to make a collaborative game so they put the end game and they put two pressure sensors and fans. And they had a foam ball, kind of floating on top of the fan. So it was kind of a combination of a collaborative game and also kind of very -- it was, you know, very romantic to see this ball that they drew a map of the world on it.

HARLOW: Let's build something.

BDEIR: This is the light waves project. What it does, it is a car that follows the light.

HARLOW: I love by the way how they all say a little bit of geeky gun. It is sort of encouraging geekiness.

BDEIR: Exactly. I mean, there is no reason why being a geek should be something you are ashamed of.

HARLOW: These littleBits will go inside the car.

BDEIR: Exactly. You start always with the blue, the battery. And then the goal, what we're trying to do is branch out to make the two motors go.

HARLOW: On the sides. Here we go. We did it.

BDEIR: We did it.

HARLOW: It's not so difficult. BDEIR: It teaches you the concept of construction, how we made these teeth, how they stuck together, but it is also teaching you will light sensing and how to respond to light and --

HARLOW: Could I attach anything to this? Could I give it headlights?

BDEIR: You can give it headlights, sure. How about these?

HARLOW: There we go. My car now has headlights.

BDEIR: What about a horn?

HARLOW: Let's see. Attach it here.

BDEIR: Turn this on.

GUPTA: Up next, the future of littleBits.

BDEIR: I am working towards littleBits becoming a staple in every household much like Lego is, and I think we can do it.


HARLOW: You are an engineer, a technologist, an artist in many ways. How would you define yourself?

BDEIR: It is tricky. On my bio on my website I used to have engineer, designer, artist. And I think out of all the titles, I choose innovator as the closest one to describe me.

The birth of littleBits, when I was doing freelance with a design company in New York, and my colleague there were starting to work on different ways to integrate electronics into the design prototyping process. And so the very first iteration was cardboard pieces that had copper tape on top and electronic components jammed into it, and we wanted to experiment how to make the blocks communicate with each other.

When we first started out we had a lot of warnings from people in the toy industry and the education industry that told us these are industries that are jaded and they're aggressive and competitive and you really have to be careful. In fact, our experience hasn't been like that. We have received a lot of acclaim and great support from the toy industry. We have won now I think 16 toy awards over the past year, which is really exciting.

Today we're at HQ, and this is the new logo made entirely of littleBits and wood and craft material. We are now 25 people. Last December we were actually eight, and we have been growing really fast since. We have been running workshops more often. We are starting to open up to the educator community and have over 300 educators using littleBits in the classroom. And most importantly, this year we'll be releasing around 30 new bits and kits that are pushing the boundaries of their library more.

These are some of the newest bits. This is a number bit. The number bit is displaying the voltage levels as we go through the dimmer. You have another mode in which it shows sort of a zero to 100 cycle like a percentage.

This is a fun new bit we made called the EL wire. It is basically a safe version of neon. I will put the switch here. As I activate the switch you see how it is a string of flight essentially. You can make signs and like store signs and greeting cards.

And this is probably one of my favorites, the microphone bit which is brand new. I will connect this to a wire and then to the other side to this speaker. Now as I speak into it, hello, hello, hello, hello. You are able to transmit your sound. But then you can also get it from an MP3 player or phone. It is like a little boom box.

I am working towards littleBits becoming a staple in every household, much like Lego is, and I think we can do it.

GUPTA: Ayah BDEIR wants to inspire a new generation of artists and innovators, and she won't stop until littleBits is a household name.

And as asteroid hunter Ed Lu won't stop until he has a telescope in deep space that will detect life-threatening asteroids headed towards earth.

They're both dedicating their lives to changing the world, and that's earned them a spot on "The Next List."

I am Dr. Sanjay Jay Gupta. Hope to see you back next week.