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Bill Nye shares the optimism of space exploration with ASU students, faculty.
Bill Nye, the rational guy? TV star says space exploration should be privatized.
December 7, 2015

Science celeb Bill Nye visits ASU to share his views on a "bright" future outside Earth

We are specks, floating in a black void.

And that black void is where we’re headed, to work, play, explore and learn.

That was the theme of a talk Monday night at ASU Gammage by Bill Nye, science educator, CEO of the Planetary Society and host of the popular TV show “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”

Arizona State University’s New Space Initiative in the School of Earth and Space Exploration hosted the talk and panel discussion with representatives from New Space — aka private space companies.

“Everybody has asked these two questions: Are we alone? And where did we come from?” Nye said. “Is there someone else in the universe wondering the same thing?”

He referenced recent events in Paris and California. “Space is optimistic,” Nye said. “We will learn more. We will learn more about ourselves, and our place in space.”

Nye spoke about his third grade teacher telling him there were as many stars in the sky as there are grains of sand on the beach. “She way underestimated it,” he said, pointing to photos of Earth taken from Saturn. “From space, I’m just another speck. … I suck.”


Man having fun with his hands.
"There is a lot of space in space," Bill Nye said at ASU Gammage, adding that we should be exploring it because it is a source of optimism. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now


The American effort to put 12 men on the moon cost about $151 billion — adjusted for inflation. The days of spending vast amounts of government money are over, Nye said. It’s up to the private sector to make space a reality.

Only 551 people have gone into space, said Will Pomerantz, vice president for special projects at Virgin Galactic.

“It’s not NASA’s job to fulfill Will Pomerantz’s childhood dream of going to space,” he said. “If I want to go to Arizona, I go on and buy a ticket and it’s pretty easy. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that for space?”

Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining company, talked about how in the future materials to build space stations and spacecraft will be mined in space.

“Those are all things that are going to happen in this century,” Lewicki said.

ASU grads are working in New Space companies now. Space is becoming much more than just a place for astronauts, said Scott Smas, program director of the New Space Initiative, in a pre-event interview.

“As fantastic a place as NASA is, some students are drawn to the entrepreneurial small startup world because they can have their hand on many more things than they would if they were at a larger, stodgy bureaucratic institution like Boeing or Lockheed Martin,” Smas said. “There seems to be an uptick in going away from JPL to places like Spire, where there are a couple of engineering grads. It’s a less than 100 person company that’s launching CubeSats to track ships across oceans. Their launch manager is an ASU alum.”

Space isn’t a distant thing done by brilliant gods on some far-off plane like Lockheed Martin or NASA any more, Smas said.


“I hope that we have people living long enough in space that we have hospitals up there,”  Hannah Kerner, Space Frontier Foundation


“You are seeing faculty, students, researchers open up access to space in terms of science and technology developments and exploring new arenas in the planetary field,” he said, citing ASU’s role in many ongoing NASA missions and the role that students play in them.

Pomerantz echoed that space has a lot of job opportunities now, pointing out he was washed out of becoming an astronaut because he wears glasses.

“When I was a student, there were about four jobs, period (in space),” he said. “Now I think you all do have a place in space. … If you are a graphic designer, we are hiring one now.”

Hannah Kerner is the executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, a group dedicated to opening the space frontier to human settlement as rapidly as possible. She is also earning her doctorate at ASU. Kerner envisioned many private space stations in a decade. She echoed the thought that there will be far more job descriptions than astronauts in space.

“I hope that we have people living long enough in space that we have hospitals up there,” Kerner said, pointing out a friend who is both a nurse and a space enthusiast.

It’s a hopeful view of our place in space.

“Go get ’em, people,” Nye said.

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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Pro-tatoes: You can excel at sports without leaving the couch — well, sort of

Can watching sports on TV make you a better athlete? Well, kind of.
ASU professor says watching sports makes us better athletes.
Finally, an academic reason to watch more football.
December 8, 2015

ASU professor chalks it up to observational learning

To the Barcalounger quarterbacks, to the chiseled Greek gods at the Elks club, to the sports-bar barnacle whose other tab is at Big & Tall — you’ve been right all along: You can become a better athlete from watching so much sports on TV.

It’s called observational learning, and it’s due to the brain's ability to pick up subtle cues.

“Watching other people perform does seem to help you perform,” said Rob Gray, an associate professor of human systems engineering at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic School. Gray studies the dynamics of perception, cognition and action in skilled performance like driving and sports.

A connoisseur who has logged millions of couch hours is more visually acute, Gray said.

“You’re learning to pick up subtle differences in the movement of your opponents and anticipate what they’re going to do next,” he said.

Gray highlighted the curious fact in a recent edition of his podcast Perception and Action. He features his research and studies from others in his field to illustrate lectures.

In “Perception Through the Eyes of a Fan — Is Watching Sports a Skill That Improves With Practice?” Gray cited a 2009 study that investigated the ability to anticipate the outcome of a basketball free throw. Researchers tested three groups: expert basketball players; expert observers, such as coaches and sports reporters; and people who neither played basketball nor watched it on TV.

What they found was the players could predict the outcome of a free throw earlier and more accurately than the other two groups. That’s not a surprise, but both players and expert viewers showed increased brain activity while watching the shots. The third group did not show as much increased activity while watching.

“Having extensive experience watching a sport changes the way you perceive it when watching,” Gray said. “You understand what you see if you’ve played it yourself.”

“It’s learning the body language of your opponent, picking up what we call advanced cues.”
— Rob Gray, ASU associate professor of human systems engineering

One example of TV trying to provide that perception was the infamous Fox blue puck. Introduced in 1996, the blue puck was actually called "FoxTrax," an effect Fox Sports used to help people in America follows the puck during hockey broadcasts. The puck was highlighted in blue, and when a player took a shot, the puck was followed by a red streak.

“The idea was if you make it easier to follow the puck, more people will enjoy it,” said Gray, a Canadian who called the idea “distracting” and “silly.”

“For true hockey fans, this was laughable,” he said. “If you watch a lot of hockey, you know where it’s going to go.”

The blue puck has been called one of the worst blunders in TV sports history. Canadians endlessly mocked it in satire, song and a Molson commercial where an American marketer pitched the idea to executives and was ejected from the room trailing a blue comet.

Athletes learn to read subtle cues, like a player’s hips in football signaling where he’s going to run. Viewers can do the same watching sports from their couches.

“It’s learning the body language of your opponent, picking up what we call advanced cues,” Gray said. “Your opponent has to learn to try to suppress them. That’s where you get the deception on the other side, like a baseball player has to learn not to tip their pitches. … It’s almost like a cat-and-mouse game between both sides.”

Watching sports can also trigger mirror neurons, the brain cells used to generate a movement triggered by observing that same movement. The classic non-sporting example is yawning. When you see other people yawn, you almost always yawn too.

“This kind of relationship between perceiving and acting is linked,” Gray said. “When you’re an athlete and you have experience with a sport, when you watch it you have a lot more to gain watching TV.”

Don’t rejoice just yet, lord of the La-Z-Boy. You still have to be able to react. Knowing a pitcher is going to throw you a fastball is not going to make you a great hitter, Gray cautioned.

“When you’re sitting back on the couch with a beer watching sports, you’re actually improving your ability to understand and anticipate what is going on,” he said. “However, this ability to perceive your favorite sport would be improved even more, and it would lead to other benefits too, if you actually got off up your butt and played it.”

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now