Oklahoma's New Frontiers
Oklahoma’s intellectual capital is impressive – 25 colleges and universities generate a statewide economic impact of more than $3.2 billion a year.
Numbers tell one story. In these pages, we put a face on those statistics to share four of the remarkable, cutting-edge research endeavors that are thriving in the skies, across the prairies and down the halls of academia in our state – and influencing the world.
Chris O’Brien: Scavenging for Clues
Outgoing Chris O’Brien talks as easily about rotting corpses and bones gnawed by animals as if he were casually discussing last week’s Monday Night Football game.
It’s par for the course at the University of Central Oklahoma’s Forensic Science Institute. This is a place where a skeleton sporting a Santa hat, nestled in a comfy chair next to a lighted tree, was a way to say “Merry Christmas!”
For people whose jobs focus on tragic crimes, gallows humor smooths the edges.
An assistant professor who teaches forensics courses, O’Brien earned his doctoral degree from the University of Western Australia, in part by dropping off dead pigs outdoors as feasts for wild animals.
In nature, a free lunch, breakfast and dinner aren’t taken for granted. Finding out what animals do to a carcass – be it pig or human – is valuable to forensics. Knowing how a corpse left outdoors is fed upon and taken apart can help lead to recovering body parts for a grieving family, or finding clues for solving a crime.
O’Brien’s research isn’t a magic path that will allow a forensics investigator to eye a body and announce how long ago a murder happened. “If I were to lay a body right here, and we’re outside and lay another one 10 or 50 feet away, they’re going to decompose completely differently,” O’Brien said in his office. “You know all those ‘CSI’ shows where they walk out and they go, ‘This person’s been dead for two weeks.’ It’s like… bull.”
Scavenger research focuses more on how animal feeding affects the window of time since the body was deposited to the time it was found. “We never talk about time since death, because what if they locked him in a freezer for a year?” O’Brien said.
O’Brien has studied animal scavenging of pigs, which stand in for human remains, in Australia and Canada. His work with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on solved forensic cases with animal scavenging was the largest survey of its kind in Canada and a model for research in other countries. He recently received a grant and is working with UCO graduate student Kama King, from Enid, in the first study of animal scavenging of remains in Oklahoma.
Scavenging studies can lead to some general similarities, but each biome is different. Western Australia has no large predators, so birds tend to play a bigger role. Canada has highly aroma-sensitive bears. Oklahoma is home to coyotes and bobcats. That variety complicates making generalities about how animals scavenge human remains.
The serious study of animal scavenging in forensics is only about a decade old, O’Brien said. Standard search methods for scavenged human remains typically involve a circling pattern radiating out from the body. He hopes the study will lead to more effective methods.
“We want to find out that if coyotes are more prevalent in this area, and whether they are more likely to be going down game trails, or they’re going to be going into dens and those types of things,” O’Brien said. “We want to have almost like a manual into how to search for remains. That’s our main goal because in forensic science… we’re not doing science for the sake of science. We’re doing it so that it can help.”
There’s also the gross side of O’Brien’s chosen field. The current study in central Oklahoma uses a video camera to capture the scavenging. It starts, however, with dropping off a pig carcass in a field, then setting up cameras and checking on the remains from time to time. The research fumes with obvious drawbacks.
“I don’t smell it anymore,” O’Brien said. “I’ll come home and my wife will be like, ‘Get outside. You stink!’ and I won’t smell it. It can get pretty nasty, especially for the control pigs [protected by structures that block scavengers]. You’re letting decomposition go unaided. It can get a bit on the nose.”
O’Brien cautions his students to walk up to decomposing flesh slowly. You want to avoid suddenly inhaling a full blast of funk. “I have yet to have a student topple or throw up from it,” he said.
Howie Baer: Cracking the Universe
The littlest things can make Howie Baer’s day. On December 13, 2011, it was the Higgs boson.
Scientists at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland, home of the world’s most powerful atom smasher, announced they’d seen what appeared to be the long-theorized, elusive elementary particle that would explain how other more-familiar particles, such as electrons, gain mass.
Mass is fundamentally important in physics. It leads to the bigger-picture things like suns, our planet and gravity. And to say “long-theorized,” it had been half a century.
The newly discovered subatomic Higgs boson – now confirmed – was the last piece of the puzzle in the Standard Model of physics – humankind’s most proven understanding about what makes up the basic stuff of the universe. It’s the furthest extension of what we all learn in middle school – that things are made of molecules, which are made of atoms, which are made of protons, electrons, etc.
The Higgs boson is associated with the Higgs field, which has been described as a kind of universal, invisible molasses. Imagine a stone (an elementary particle) dropping into a bucket of it. It picks up “mass” passing through it, but a few particles don’t.
For Baer, the University of Oklahoma’s Homer L. Dodge professor of high energy physics, laboratory confirmation of the particle was great news. More importantly, the boson’s mass fell within a narrow range predicted by his specialization – supersymmetry physics.
If the Higgs boson’s mass had been outside that range (for the record, roughly 125 gigaelectronvolts), it could have overturned more than 25 years of his work and his co-authored, post-graduate textbook, “Weak Scale Supersymmetry: From Superfields to Scattering Events.” Cambridge University Press published it based on Baer’s record as a leading theorist in the field. “My book would have been out to sea,” he said.
Born in the 1970s, supersymmetry theory competes among several others to build upon where the Standard Model mathematically falls apart. It’s the leading candidate for the next big thing in particle physics.
The Standard Model, for example, can’t fully account mathematically for the effects of gravity and doesn’t explain the known phenomenon of dark matter, a mysterious material in the cosmos that makes up most of the universe’s mass.
Supersymmetry, however, builds on the Standard Model and predicts a range of new matter/particle states, such as squarks and leptons, known as superparticles, that could augment the Standard Model’s shortcomings, if proven by experiment.
Baer and associate professor Chung Kao are the two theoretical physicists at OU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. In prior work, Baer and collaborators developed the first computer code to reliably predict what supersymmetric matter might look like in particle collider experiments.
The physics department is actively involved in the theories and physical experiments behind the multi-billion-dollar particle accelerator in Europe. During the CERN collider’s construction, OU’s experimental physicists built micro-electronics in Norman that became part of Atlas, one of the two most powerful particle detectors at CERN. The instruments were designed to detect particles that can disappear in an instant.
Much like the Standard Model predicted the Higgs boson, supersymmetry theory anticipates a host of new particles that should show up in accelerator collisions. This may be discovered at CERN or elsewhere.
Baer and colleagues are working on a new paper that will propose the concept of “radiative natural supersymmetry” that accounts for the latest experimental data and predicts where superparticles should be found. It’s part of the natural scientific process: experimental data is king, and it’s up to theorists to explain the data through mathematical models and to predict the outcome of future experiments.
Baer was drawn to physics as a young man growing up in Wisconsin because it held the exciting promise of the “deepest level of knowledge that’s available to humanity.”
“We try to take it a step at a time and push back the frontiers,” he said, sitting in a chair behind an office desk with multiple layers of scattered papers. “In my lifetime, we’re not going to know the ultimate theory. But we may learn that supersymmetry exists and that would be huge. It is in a sense shocking that humans can conceive of nature at its most fundamental level, while many of those conceptions become verified by actual data.”
Pramode Verma: Hiding Secrets
Secret codes make the information society go ’round. They keep your medical records private when they fly through the Internet, and make sure you’re the only one who knows the balance of your bank account.
How’s that work? Encryption is the tool that turns computer data into secrets. It jumbles the data, twisting readable information into gibberish. It can only be made useful again by the holder of the right computer “key” to unlock it.
The problem is that all data encryption methods are based on mathematical formulas. So, given enough time and computer power, anyone can snatch the key. That goes not only for identity thieves, but for data miners trying to heist a corporation’s competitive advantage or international spies sleuthing for military secrets.
A University of Oklahoma-Tulsa researcher, however, is working to help refine a new unbreakable encryption method: quantum cryptography.
It works by employing physics instead of mathematics for secrecy. Specifically, it encodes information using photons, the elementary particles of light. To send a message, researchers can pick a specific polarity for a photon, such as vertical or horizontal. Those positions can stand in for 1s and 0s, which form the basis of computer language – language that contains the message or data.
Due to the laws of quantum mechanics, when someone intercepts a photon-based message, just reading the message alters the photon’s position, ruining the message. And unlike data on the Internet, photon-based data can’t be copied.
The OU-Tulsa Schusterman Center was the first laboratory to demonstrate the feasibility of a three-stage protocol for quantum cryptography. The team included Pramode Verma, an OU electrical and computer engineering professor, Professor Subhash Kak from Oklahoma State University and Professor Yuhua Chen of the University of Houston.
Based on Kak’s theory, the method could end code-cracking as we know it.
“Even if you had an infinite number of years and unlimited power in computers,” Verma said, “it can never be broken.” Verma notes that in an information society, information is wealth. Like money, it needs to be protected sometimes and used in others.
“Information is valuable when it moves and it needs to be protected, and we need to do that,” Verma said. “We cannot simply lock it up in a safe or in a desk and be happy about it because it’s most useful when it’s made available at the right place where it’s needed – hence the importance of cryptography.”
James Grimsley: Building Birds of Prey
If James Grimsley were born 100 years ago, more than likely he’d have been in his garage, arms dotted with grease, tinkering on a horseless carriage he was building from scratch.
The early 20th century automobile boom is the analogy Grimsley draws upon to describe the state of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry today. Dozens of small companies and garage labs are creating new technologies and spawning new ideas due to the relatively low entry cost of creating small-scale UAVs.
Grimsley is well beyond the tinkering stage. He is president and CEO of Design Intelligence Inc., a Norman company with clients that include the Air Force and Fortune 100 and 500 companies. Among its projects, Design Intelligence designed a prototype Perching Micro Air Weapon for the Air Force Research Laboratory.
The UAV mimics the shape of a hawk-like bird in flight to throw off suspicion in surveillance missions, such as finding an enemy target. The perching aspect would allow it to conserve power while still on watch.
It can also explode – up close to a target, if needed.
The company has unveiled a commercial version (sans weapon) called the Mk.4, which weighs 4 pounds and has a 50-inch wingspan, in anticipation of moves under- way in Congress and federal agencies to eventually open up America’s skies for civilian UAVs as early as 2015. Currently, only public agencies such as the U.S. Border Patrol are flying remotely piloted vehicles in unrestricted airspace.
The future of UAVs is wide open: pipe- and power-line inspection, weather research, wildfire monitoring. Researchers are working on collision-avoidance and autonomous flight that could lead to a future where self-guiding UAVs zip by in the skies delivering packages and cargo.
Grimsley is optimistic about Oklahoma’s chances of becoming a Silicon Valley of small UAV development. In June, the Department of Homeland Security selected a site near Fort Sill for unmanned aircraft testing. It’s investigating their use for public safety, such as search and rescue operations.
Oklahoma State University is the only university in the nation to offer a Ph.D. program in unmanned aerial vehicles. Grimsley credits Gov. Mary Fallin and others for adopting a unified statewide approach aimed at launching a thriving UAV industry in the state.
“We have a one-Oklahoma approach,” he said. “Our major universities are working together, we have our National Guard working with us, and we have all our industry pulling together.”
Unmanned flight is a new era, and Grimsley says he’s lucky to be part of it.
“Things don’t happen very often where we see this huge science, engineering and industry opportunity occurring at the same time that could be very profound. So for me, it’s an exciting time.”