Cooking Up A River In The Lab For almost 100 years, scientists have been trying to create a meandering river in the laboratory. Christian Braudrick and Bill Dietrich of University of California, Berkeley, finally found a recipe and published it in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.
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Cooking Up A River In The Lab

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Cooking Up A River In The Lab

Cooking Up A River In The Lab

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  • Transcript


Time now for our Video Pick of the Week. Flora Lichtman, our video producer is here. Hi, Flora.


FLATOW: What have you got for us this week?

LICHTMAN: This week, we go out West to California…

(Soundbite of clacking)

FLATOW: Wrong way, sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: …to the Richmond Field Station, which is part of Berkeley, and we see a mini meandering river.

FLATOW: A mini - how long did it take you to come up with mini meandering river?

LICHTMAN: I didn't even come up with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: It's all true.

FLATOW: I saw the video. It's on our Web site at, the video up on the left side. And when you see it, you think it's a big river, right?

LICHTMAN: This is the most amazing thing.

FLATOW: This is amazing.

LICHTMAN: I mean it really is, I think, pretty neat. So what I learned from these researchers, which is Christian Braudrick and Bill Dietrich, who are both geomorphologists out there, is that rivers - this type of river, the meandering river, which is the river you see from the airplane…

FLATOW: Mississippi, all that kind of stuff.

LICHTMAN: It's the curvy one, basically.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: One channel curves, okay?

FLATOW: It meanders.

LICHTMAN: It meanders. But they're always to scale. So if you make a tiny one or you look at a big one from far away, like a satellite image, they look exactly the same. They're indistinguishable.


LICHTMAN: It's really pretty neat.

FLATOW: So they proved this by making a little mini meandering river in their laboratory.

LICHTMAN: Well, this is already known, but what researchers have been trying to do for the last 100 years is to create this very common geological feature in the lab. And it's been really hard. I mean, they said, you know, it's so common. You think you could just turn on some water and put it in a sandbox and you'd get a meandering river, but no.

FLATOW: No. So, yeah, it's interesting what they were using for the river bed, the river sides. The vegetation on the side is - what did they use?

LICHTMAN: This might be the best part of the story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: I love this part of the story. So to - the trick to making this meandering river was planting vegetation, like a real riverbank.

FLATOW: Right. Sure.

LICHTMAN: And so they used alfalfa sprouts.

FLATOW: Oh, sprouts. That's California.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: There's - right. And they're - apparently, they're really fickle so Christian Braudrick said that, you know, he loves them and hates them because just - they're difficult to work…

FLATOW: Yeah. You have to be a gardener. Not only an engineer - a river engineer, you have to know how to plant the sprouts. They grow.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. He's been called sort of an alfalfa sprout expert. He's a - you have to replant them all the time, apparently.

FLATOW: Yes, right. So you - so in the video you have up there, you've interviewed them and we see how they actually create it. It's not - as you say, it's not easy to make a meandering river. How long is the river?

LICHTMAN: It's - I mean, the sandbox that they do it in is like almost 50 feet long. It's huge. But you see it step by step. So, first, you carve out this channel and then you turn on the water and, you know…

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: …I think the whole process takes months and months actually.

FLATOW: And they had to discover the right kind of sand, right, to put in their river?

LICHTMAN: Yeah. It's not just any kind of sand. You need coarse sediment and fine sediment, all of these sort of - this combination, the recipe is really key to getting this to work.

FLATOW: And what's interesting, as you say about this, is once you get it right, you can't distinguish it, this 50-foot river from the 500-mile river.

LICHTMAN: That's right.

FLATOW: It looks like - if you take a satellite picture, as you're saying, it shrinks it down and then it's like the same size as the laboratory version.

LICHTMAN: It's - I think it's worth looking at just for that because it really is kind of like an optical illusion.

FLATOW: Yeah, all right. That's Flora Lichtman with our Video Pick of the Week. Go to and see - we haven't got a name - meandering river, the…

LICHTMAN: Recipe for a river.

FLATOW: …recipe - maybe we'll have a - tell us what you think we should call it.

LICHTMAN: If someone can come up with a good title for this, please, we'll change it.

FLATOW: Someone come with this. Write on the Web site. Just tell us what you think. You'll watch it. There are comments on the bottom. What should we call it? Take me down to the river or something like that.


FLATOW: All right. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

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