/ Modified may 1, 2010 2:24 a.m.

NOVA scienceNOW

What the songs of zebra finches can tell us about the evolution of language; the glorious but mysterious northern lights; a profile of Yoky Matsuoka, a leader in the emerging field of neurobotics; and smart bridges. Wednesday, July 16th 8pm KUAT6 9pm HD

Finch Brains What can the songs of zebra finches tells us about the human evolution of language? A lot more than we once thought. The way a finch learns to sing is similar to the way babies learn to speak. New research is looking into the genetics behind language acquisition and uncovering fascinating leads on how we developed language — one of the key traits that makes us human.

Dr. Manfred Bester and Neil deGrasse Tyson

Northern Lights The northern lights are glorious, but mysterious: What causes them? Finding the answer is not just an exercise in satisfying scientific curiosity; the dance of the northern lights masks a growing danger, since the most energetic displays are associated with violent space weather. Space weather — the energetic flow of radiation, magnetic fields and charged particles from the sun — can disable satellites or even kill astronauts who happen to be in deep space. And given our increasing reliance on space-based technologies, we need to learn to predict space weather. The pressure is on: There’s a storm brewing in the next few years, which will mark the peak in the sun’s 11-year cycle of activity. NOVA scienceNOW investigates efforts to improve space weather forecasting with a new fleet of NASA satellites called THEMIS.

Yoky Matsuoka

Yoky Matsuoka Growing up in Japan, Yoky Matsuoka was on her way to becoming a world-class tennis player. She even competed in qualifiers for Wimbledon. But in daily practice it was hard to find a regular partner. So Matsuoka came up with the idea of building her own: a robotic player that would never get tired. Injuries put a hold on her tennis dreams, but not on her interest in robotics. Twenty years later, Matsuoka is now a leader in the emerging field of neurobotics and is at work on creating robot technology that can help disabled people. Now an associate professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, Matsuoka was recently awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant.

Peter Standrig_ sensing skin

Smart Bridges Ever since last summer’s sudden collapse of the Minneapolis Interstate 35 bridge, millions are now nervous about crossing long highway spans. In a nation abounding with aging bridges, what can be done to avert the next catastrophe? One technique being investigated at the University of California San Diego probes bridge supports with ultrasonic sound waves, searching for “sour notes” that signal damaged metal. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Michigan are using nanotechnology to create a coating that works like human skin to detect structural damage beneath its surface.

See previews and find out more at pbs.org

Watch it Wednesday, July 16th at 8pm on KUAT6 and 9pm on KUAT-HD

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