Science Friday

By Science Friday and WNYC Studios

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Subscribers: 9210
Reviews: 13

Christopher
 Dec 29, 2020
Science is a good investment. However, this program often dips into politics instead of the realm of Science, and it's disingenuous to mislead the audience. I will unsubscribe now and check back again perhaps in one year's time.

wjt
 Dec 20, 2020
I normally enjoy this podcast, but the latest edition is causing me to consider unsubscribing. It is hard to sound intelligent with so many mispronounciations. For example, in 30 seconds the host mispronounces "contingent" and then the expert guest mixes up "adopts" and "adapts".


 Oct 23, 2020
Can we stop doing 'Politics Fridays' and go back to 'Science Fridays'?


 Oct 14, 2020


 Feb 12, 2020

Description

Brain fun for curious people.

Episode Date
Valley Fever And COVID-19, Structure of Conspiracy Theories, New Climate Wars. Jan 15, 2021, Part 2
46:48

How The West Is Battling COVID-19 And Valley Fever

For the past year, the COVID-19 crisis has taken up much of our attention. But the pandemic can come with complications: Some states face an onslaught of pre-existing diseases. In the American West, doctors, scientists, and patients continue to battle valley fever, a respiratory illness caused by breathing in the fungus Coccidioides. In desert hot spots, communities are now facing what doctors at Kern Medical’s Valley Fever Institute in Bakersfield, California are calling it a “triple threat”: COVID-19, valley fever, and the flu.

Valley fever is already a commonly misdiagnosed disease. Initial symptoms often overlap with other respiratory diseases, raising concern that the pandemic could further delay proper diagnosis. SciFri producer Lauren Young tells the story of patients who have encountered both COVID-19 and valley fever. She speaks with Valley Fever Institute clinicians Rasha Kuran and Arash Heidari about diagnosing the disease, and checks in with UC Merced immunologist Katrina Hoyer on delays in valley fever research during the pandemic. 

How To Spot A Conspiracy Theory

2020 was a fruitful year for conspiracy theories: QAnon gained followers, COVID-19 misinformation proliferated in viral YouTube videos, and in November, President Trump helped proliferate the entirely false narrative that the election he’d lost was, in fact, stolen.

The details holding these falsehoods together get complicated quickly. But according to a group of researchers at UCLA and the University of California, Berkeley, even the most convoluted of conspiracy theories has a distinct structure. That’s different from real-life scandals, which tend to unravel as new evidence emerges—take former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s ‘Bridgegate’ scandal, a completely verified event in which several of the governor’s staff and appointees colluded to close toll bridge lanes during morning rush hour, intentionally clogging traffic to the town of Fort Lee, New Jersey.

The researchers wrote in the journal PLOS One in June that applying machine learning tools to conspiracy theories reveal them to be less complex than things that actually happen. Ira talks to UC Berkeley’s Tim Tangherlini, a co-author on the research, about how these analyses might help actually disarm dangerous conspiracy theories.

A New President, An Ongoing Climate Crisis

In The New Climate War, author and climate scientist Michael Mann writes that climate messaging is distorted. To prevent a climate crisis, individual actions are useful, but insufficient. In the past, focusing on individual action distracted viewers from focusing on the harm of industrial polluters. For real change, we have to fight the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry. 

On January 20th the United States has a new opportunity to do just that. The incoming Biden Administration will have a full plate of issues to tackle—among them, hustling to re-engage with foreign allies, and reversing the climate damage of the last four years. But there is room for cautious optimism. President-elect Biden campaigned more aggressively on climate issues than any of his opponents, and has appointed John Kerry to the newly created position of Climate Envoy within his administration. 

Climate scientist Michael Mann joins Ira to discuss what President Biden can do in his first 100 days to show he’s serious about enacting climate policy, and his new book The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back our Planet.

Jan 15, 2021
How The COVID-19 Vaccine Was Developed And Is Being Distributed. Jan 15, 2021, Part 1
46:55

How Did A Vaccine Get Developed In Less Than A Year?

From the first discovery of a strange new respiratory virus in Wuhan, China, in January of 2020, it took less than a year to get a vaccine into the arms of frontline healthcare workers. More than two dozen vaccine candidates have made it from basic safety trials to Phase 3, where efficacy against COVID-19 is tested. That’s particularly remarkable as before the pandemic, it was rare for a vaccine to take fewer than 5 years from start to finish.

The extraordinary speed of these critical developments is thanks to decades and decades of previous work, including research on the original SARS virus, and even HIV.

Ira talks to two researchers who have contributed to COVID-19 vaccines about the foundations these innovations rest on, and how increased resources and collaboration helped save time in 2020.


How COVID-19's Vaccine Development Will Benefit Future Vaccines

For months, much of the world’s attention has been on COVID-19 vaccines—people want to know when they will come, how well will they work, and when can I get one? 

Fortunately, the pharmaceutical industry has rapidly developed and tested multiple vaccines for SARS-CoV2. Now, the discovery that two vaccines based on messenger RNA technology have over 94% efficacy is drawing attention to new ways to think about vaccines. We’ve come a long way from the days of the inactivated poliovirus vaccine used by Salk, or the attenuated virus vaccines developed by Sabin.

Ira talks to vaccine researcher Paul Duprex and biotech reporter Ryan Cross about how these new developments improve our ability to fight infectious disease, and looks ahead to where the future of vaccine development might lie.


West Virginia Leads In Race To Distribute Vaccines

Healthcare workers have had mixed success getting COVID-19 vaccines into people’s arms across the U.S. A big reason for the unequal rollout is the lack of federal requirements for who gets vaccinated, and in what order. There are, however, federal recommendations—for example, this week Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar recommended that vaccination strategies should prioritize people age 65 and older. But states are on their own when it comes to distribution, resulting in 50 different plans.

One of the states with the highest percentages of residents vaccinated for COVID-19 is West Virginia. Though it’s predominantly rural, the state’s high population of elderly people has resulted in a large-scale, largely successful effort to reach its residents.

New York state, on the other hand, has been less successful. Bureaucratic infighting between state and city officials delayed vaccination, and many residents eligible for vaccination are turning down the opportunity, citing concerns about safety.

Joining Ira to talk about COVID-19 vaccine distribution are Fred Mogul, health and government reporter for New York Public Radio in New York City and Dave Mistich, senior reporter at West Virginia Public Broadcasting in Morgantown.

Jan 15, 2021
COVID Fact Check, Aging Cells, News Roundup. Jan 8, 2021, Part 1
47:19

Fact Check My Feed: What’s Up With These COVID-19 Mutations?

It’s a new year, and that means there’s a whole slew of new COVID-19 news to dive into, including an overwhelming amount of new information about vaccines and mutations.

The U.S. has now administered roughly five million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, far behind the nation’s goal of vaccinating 20 million by the end of 2020. The two approved COVID-19 vaccines, one from Pfizer and one from Moderna, are intended to be given over the course of two doses. But there’s a discussion within the medical community about whether or not both doses are necessary for every patient. 

Mutations are also an increasing concern. Variants from the U.K. and South Africa are concerning epidemiologists, and appear to be spreading. Though there’s no proof that either are more deadly, they may be more infectious.

Joining Ira to explain is Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security, based in Seattle, Washington.


 

Can Cells Rewind The Wrinkles Of Time?

As a cell ages, its DNA goes through a process called “methylation”—gaining extra methyl chemical groups. These groups can affect how the genes’ encoded information is expressed, without actually changing the sequence of genes.

In work published in Nature, researchers explore whether reversing that methylation can reprogram the cells back to a more youthful state. They used modified adenoviruses to introduce three specific transcription factors into mouse retinal ganglion cells, a type of neuron found in the eye. These transcription factors helped revert the cell to a more immature state—and also seemed to let the cell behave in a more ‘youthful’ way.

David Sinclair, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and one of the authors of the study, joins Ira to discuss what the work means, and what it could tell scientists about the aging process.


 

Trump’s New EPA ‘Transparency’ Rule Could Hamper Science

This week, the Environmental Protection Agency passed the “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler stated that “the American public has the right to know what scientific studies underline the Agency’s regulatory decisions.”

But critics say that this outgoing policy by the Trump administration can be used to hamper new environmental regulations. Amy Nordrum lines out the policy and other science headlines from the week.

 

 

Jan 08, 2021
Fundamentals of Physics, Giant Ancient Birds, 2021 Space Outlook. Jan 8, 2021, Part 2
47:08

Finding New Particles On The Frontier of Physics

As a theoretical physicist, Frank Wilczek has made a career out of dreaming up new ways to understand our physical universe—and he’s usually right. 

In the early 1980’s, he predicted the existence of a new quasiparticle, called the anyon—which was confirmed in experiments last summer. In 2004, Wilczek was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contribution decades earlier to the theory of quantum chromodynamics. And in addition to the anyon, he has predicted the existence of a hypothetical particle known as the axion, a possible component of cold dark matter. 

Wilczek joins Ira for a sweeping, mind-bending conversation about physics and the universe as discussed in his latest book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality.

Giant, Toothed Birds Once Ruled The Skies

More than 62 million years ago, a few million years after the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs, a group of seafaring birds known as pelagornithids first appeared in the fossil record. They had long wings, and, unusually for a bird, teeth. They had a much  simpler structure than modern mammal teeth, known as pseudoteeth. 

While alive, pelagornithids successfully took over the planet. Their remains have been found on every continent, and their existence stretched for more than 50 million years. New research, published in Scientific Reports late last year, reveals that by the time the pelagornithids had been around for 12 million years, they’d already evolved to gigantic sizes never seen since in birds. They had 6-meter wingspans, nearly twice the size of modern albatrosses.

SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to Peter Kloess, a co-author on the new research, about these giants of the past, plus the mystery of the pelagornithids’ disappearance.

Jan 08, 2021
They Might Be Giants, Animal Sounds Quiz, Luxury Ostrich Eggs. Jan 1, 2021, Part 2
46:28

They Might Be Giants With A Timely Reminder: “Science Is Real”

Fans of the band They Might Be Giants are likely to be familiar with the band’s version of the 1959 Tom Glazer song “Why Does The Sun Shine?” As they sing, “The sun is a mass / of incandescent gas / a gigantic nuclear furnace.”

In their album “Here Comes Science,” the band revisits that song, and follows it with a fact-checking track titled “Why Does the Sun Really Shine?” In the lyrics, they describe the science of plasma. The album also includes an ode to the elements, descriptions of what blood does in the body, and songs describing the scientific process. In a reminder that resonates for the start of 2021, one song is titled “Science is Real.”  

In this archival segment from 2009, John Linnell and John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants join Ira in the studio to discuss the album, and to play some science songs.

Name That Call: Test Your Animal Sound Trivia

Can you differentiate the cry of an Antarctic Weddell seal from the song of an emperor penguin? How about the bellows of a howler monkey from a warthog’s rumbling roar? The animal kingdom is filled with diverse calls and sounds, and for World Wildlife Day earlier this week on Tuesday, we curated them—in a quiz. SciFri’s digital producer Daniel Peterschmidt teamed up with Google Earth to create an interactive quiz that hops you around the world and highlights the many (sometimes surprising) sounds that species make. Daniel challenges Ira to an animal sound showdown.

Test your knowledge and explore the wide world of screeches, howls, and growls with the Science Friday Google Earth Animal Sound Quiz!

The Luxury Ostrich Eggs Of The Bronze And Iron Age Upper Class

Today, if you want to show off that you’ve made it, you might buy a top-of-the-line Rolex watch, or line your garage with Ferraris and Rolls Royces. But in the Iron and Bronze age, one of the luxury goods of choice was to put a highly decorated ostrich egg in your tomb. These status symbols have been found in multiple European Iron and Bronze Age locations, despite ostriches not being indigenous to the area. A team of scientists wanted to know the origins of these eggs—and just how they made it from Africa into the hands of the Iron and Bronze Age elite. Mediterranean archaeologist Tamar Hodos, an author on the study recently published in Antiquity, explains how the team determined that these eggs came from wild ostriches, rather than captive birds, and what this reveals about the ancient luxury trade. See a gallery of these ostrich eggs below!

Jan 01, 2021
Christmas Bird Count, Black Birders Week, Science Diction: Vaccine. Jan 1, 2021, Part 1
47:10

Where Did The Word ‘Vaccine’ Come From?

As we head into 2021, there’s one word on all of our minds: Vaccine. It may be in headlines right and left these days, but the word was actually coined more than a century ago. 

In the 1700s, smallpox seemed unbeatable. People tried all sorts of things to protect themselves, from taking herbal remedies to tossing back 12 bottles of beer a day. Nothing worked. 

Then Edward Jenner, an English doctor, heard a rumor about a possible solution. It wasn’t a cure, but Jenner thought he might be able to stop smallpox infections, before its dreaded symptoms began. One spring day, with the help of a milkmaid, an eight-year-old boy, and a cow named Blossom, he decided to run an experiment. 

In this segment, Science Diction host Johanna Mayer tells the story of that ethically questionable, but ultimately world-altering experiment, and how it gave us the word “vaccine.”

New Year, New Birds

This year’s Audubon Christmas Bird Count is anything but usual: Since gatherings are unsafe, it’s up to individuals to count what they can, where they are. But eager birders are still out there counting crows, chickadees, and grosbeaks in the name of community science.

Ira joins a flock of bird nerds—Audubon’s Geoff LeBaron and Joanna Wu, and author and nature photographer Dudley Edmondson—to talk about the wonders of winter birding, and what decades of data show about how birds are shifting in a warming, changing world. Plus, how to make the most of birding while sheltering in place.

Birds Of A Feather: Making Science More Inclusive

It’s been six months since Black birders took over Twitter in solidarity with New York City birder and science writer Christian Cooper, who posted a video of a white woman threatening to call the police on him the very same day that George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. In response, Black naturalists and birders celebrated their communities and told stories about similar harassment in the outdoors for #BlackBirdersWeek. Other Black scientists have held their own visibility campaigns with #BlackInNeuro, #BlackInAstro, and dozens of other disciplines.

SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to herpetologist Chelsea Connor, a co-founder of Black Birders Week, about her relationship with the outdoors, and what comes next for creating, and maintaining, spaces where Black scientists can thrive. 

Jan 01, 2021
Indigenous Astronomy, Auroras, Inclusive Science. Dec 25, 2020, Part 2
48:11

Nature’s Own Holiday Light Show

The spectacular glowing green of the Northern Lights is caused by charged particles from the solar wind interacting with gas molecules, atoms, and ions in the atmosphere. Protons and electrons streaming from the sun follow the Earth’s magnetic field lines, accelerating down towards the poles. The aurora process is similar to a neon sign—the charged particles excite atmospheric gas, causing it to emit light. 

Don Hampton, research associate professor in the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, explains how the aurora borealis forms, what accounts for its typical green glow, and offers tips for snapping a photo of the lights should you be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this astronomical light show.


 

Relearning The Star Stories Of Indigenous People

In 2012, the Obama administration projected that the United States would need to add an additional 1 million college graduates in STEM fields per year for the next ten years to keep up with projected growth in the need for science and technology expertise. At the same time, though, native Americans and other Indigenous groups are underrepresented in the sciences, making up only 0.2% of the STEM workforce in 2014, despite being 2% of the total population of the United States. Why are Indigenous people still underrepresented in science?

Ira speaks with astrophysicist Annette Lee and anthropologist Kim TallBear about the historical role of science and observation in Indigenous communities, and how Western scientific culture can leave out other voices. They also discuss the solutions: What does an inclusive scientific enterprise look like, and how could we get there?

Dec 25, 2020
2020 In Review, Charismatic Tubeworms, Dog Evolution. Dec 25, 2020, Part 1
48:18

2020: The Year In Science, With Wendy Zukerman

It’s the end of the year, and time to reflect. While there’s no doubt the coronavirus and efforts to combat it led the science pages this year, there was more to this year than masks and hand sanitizer. 

Wendy Zukerman, host and executive producer of the Gimlet podcast Science Vs, joins Ira to talk about this very strange year, and recap some of the best science—from the rise of COVID-19, to climate change and wildfires, to the discovery of fluorescent platypuses.

Plus, check out some of Science Friday’s favorite stories from the year.


These Worms Are Superheroes Of The Sea

If winter has felt gray and colorless for you lately, cheer up and join us for a special, festive edition of the Charismatic Creature Corner. This month, we’re looking not at one creature, but a whole class of them: Meet the polychaetes, also known as bristle worms. (“Polychaete” translates to “many bristles.”)

Yes, they may seem short on charm—they’re worms, after all. Many, like the bloodworm, the bobbit worm, and the bearded fireworm, pack either razor-sharp jaws, or a painful venom. 

But they’re also both gorgeous and mighty. Polychaetes come in iridescent colors, with feathery fronds or intricate patterns. Just in time for the holidays, consider the cone-shaped branches of the Christmas Tree worm, which makes its home on coral reefs. Others, like tube worms, produce energy for whole ecosystems from chemicals in the deep ocean’s hydrothermal vents or even the bones of dead whales. Still others, like alciopids, have remarkably human-like eyes. Gossamer worms can shoot yellow bioluminescence out of their arm-like bristles. And thousands more species provide lessons in marine evolution and invertebrate biology for the eager explorer. 

This week’s Charismatic Creature Correspondent, producer Christie Taylor, asks Ira to consider polychaetes—all 10,000 known species—for entry to the Charismatic Creature Corner Hall of Fame. Helping make the case is Karen Osborn, curator of marine invertebrates for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and a seasoned ocean explorer and discoverer of new species.


How Did Dogs Evolve To Be Domesticated?

Human DNA ancestry kits have become very popular in the last few years—and now, the trend has arrived for canines. A group of scientists recently mapped out the genomes of twenty-seven ancient dog genomes, looking back as far as 11,000 years ago to trace the evolution of the domesticated dog. Their findings were published in the journal Science. 

Producer Alexa Lim talks to two of the study’s authors, evolutionary biologists Anders Bergstrom and Greger Larson, about what this tells us about the origins of the domesticated dog, and how they evolved to be pets.

Dec 25, 2020
Black Holes, Scallop Die-off, River Sound Map. Dec 18, 2020, Part 2
48:51

What Would Happen If You Fell Into A Black Hole?

A new book, Black Hole Survival Guide, explores different theories of what would happen if you jumped into a black hole. Most of them are grizzly. As the reader traverses one of the great mysteries of the universe, they meet different fates. Author Janna Levin, a physics and astronomy professor at Barnard College at Columbia University in New York, makes a convincing argument that black holes are unfairly maligned—and are actually perfect in their creation.

Levin joins Ira to talk black hole physics and theories, and answer some SciFri listener questions along the way.

The Case Of The Vanishing Scallops

Over the last two years, Long Island's Peconic Bay has lost more than 90% of its scallops—bad news for a community where harvesting shellfish has long been an important part of the economy. Researchers are scrambling to discover why this is happening. Is it predation, climate change, illness—or maybe a combination of everything?

Joining Ira to talk about his research with the Peconic Bay’s scallops is Stephen Tomasetti, PhD candidate in marine science at Stony Brook University in Southampton, New York. They talk about what could be causing this devastation, and how a “scallop FitBit” could shed light into how these shellfish are feeling.

Composing A Sound Map Of An Ever-Changing River

Annea Lockwood thinks of rivers as “live phenomena” that are constantly changing and shifting. She’s been drawn to the energy that rivers create, and the sound that energy makes, since she first started working with environmental recordings in the 1960s.

One of her projects has been to create detailed “river maps” of the Hudson, Danube, and Housatonic rivers. Using stereo microphones and underwater hydrophones, she captures the gentle, powerful sounds of the water, along with the noises of insects, birds, and occasional humans she finds along the way.

Lockwood’s composition, “A Sound Map of the Housatonic River”—a decade old, this year—takes listeners on a 150-mile tour, from the headwaters in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, past sites of toxic PCB contamination, to the Connecticut Audubon sanctuary, where the river spills into Long Island Sound.

Dec 18, 2020
Future Of Climate Change, Tongue Microbiome. Dec 18, 2020, Part 1
48:42

How The Past Hints About Our Climate’s Future

Ask a climate scientist how much the earth will warm as a result of the carbon dioxide we’re emitting right now, and the answer will be a range of temperatures: likely anywhere from 1 to 5 degrees Celsius.

But all the models we have to predict the future are based on data from the past, most of it collected in the last 140 years. As carbon dioxide rises further past the unprecedented-in-human-history 400 parts per million (ppm), we are increasingly in a world never before seen by human eyes—or measured by thermometers.

While we are certain the Earth’s climate will warm as CO2 increases, it’s harder to pin down exactly how sensitive the climate is. Scientists are working hard to narrow down our uncertainties about the coming temperature changes, sea level rises, and new patterns of rainfall and drought.

And paleoclimatologists can examine ancient rocks, sediments, ice, and fossilized shells for clues about how past climates changed in response to different levels of carbon dioxide. Climates from past epochs have not only experienced that 400 ppm mark, but also levels higher than 1,000 ppm—and correspondingly, higher temperatures and higher seas. In Science last month, a team of researchers made the case for using more data from these climates, millions of years ago, to help us map out the future we face.

Science Friday producer Christie Taylor talks to University of Arizona geoscientist Jessica Tierney, who is lead author on the new research.

Mapping Out The ‘Microbial Skyscrapers’ On Your Tongue

Your mouth is home to billions of bacteria, and they’re very particular—some prefer to live on the inside of the cheeks, while others prefer the teeth, the gums, or the surface of the tongue. Writing in the journal Cell Reports, researchers describe their efforts to map out the various communities of bacteria that inhabit the tongue.

In the average mouth, around two dozen different types of bacteria form tiny “microbial skyscrapers” on the tongue’s surface, clustered around a central core made up of individual human skin cells. In this study, scientists mapped out the locations of tiny bacterial colonies within those clusters, to get a better understanding of the relationships and interdependencies between each colony.

Jessica Mark Welch, one of the authors of the report and an associate scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, talks about what we know about the microbiome of the human mouth—and what researchers would still like to learn.

Moderna’s COVID-19 Vaccine May Soon Be Approved In The U.S.

As the national rollout of the Pfizer/BioNTec vaccine began this week, Moderna’s own formula looks ready to add to the options for the nation’s healthcare workers and high-priority patients, at least according to a panel tasked with deciding whether the benefits outweigh the risks. On Thursday, the FDA’s independent advisory committee voted 20-0, with one abstention, to recommend the vaccine for emergency use. Now, the FDA itself must decide whether to follow through, a decision that is expected to come in the next few days.

Vox staff writer Umair Irfan talks about the similarities and differences between Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccine, what we’re learning about side effects for both injections, and the concerns about COVID-19 transmission to animals. Plus, why researchers say President-elect Biden’s goal for net-zero carbon emissions will require drastic, but feasible changes to how the nation operates. And how to view Monday’s conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter—a phenomenon theorized to be the explanation for the biblical Star of Bethlehem.

Dec 18, 2020
Science Books of 2020, ANWR Drilling, Science Diction. Dec 11, 2020, Part 2
48:42

Trump Administration Rushes To Sell Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Land For Drilling

In a last-minute push, the Trump administration announced Thursday that it plans to auction off drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in just over a month, setting up a final showdown with opponents before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

The sale, which is set for Jan. 6, could cap a bitter, decades-long battle over whether to drill in the refuge’s coastal plain, and it would seal the administration’s efforts to open the land to development.

But conservation and tribal groups who oppose oil and gas development in the coastal plain strongly disagree. And they blasted the administration on Thursday, saying it’s cutting corners so it can hand over leases to oil companies before Biden, who opposes drilling in the refuge, is sworn in and can block it. Tegan Hanlon, Alaska energy desk reporter at Alaska Public Media, gives us the story and is joined by Sarah James, a Neetsa’ii Gwich’in elder and an anti-drilling advocate based in Arctic Village, Alaska.

The Best Science Books Of 2020

As 2020 comes to a close, it’s hard to find ways to celebrate a year that brought so much frustration, loneliness, disappointment, and heartache. 

But however difficult the world got, we at Science Friday could still find joy in awesome science stories and comfort in tales of remarkable science fiction. 

And, given that science was so much at the center of our lives this year, it’s not a surprise that we saw so many interesting science books published in 2020. Books about the pandemic, about climate change, and about the algorithms that rule our lives. But also books about curiosity—those things about the human condition that you (maybe) finally had time to notice.  

Guest host John Dankosky is joined by librarian Brian Muldoon and Science senior editor Valerie Thompson to highlight some of the science books you may have missed this year. Get the list of the books recommended by our guests

What’s In A (Hurricane) Name?

This year was the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record—we saw a whopping 30 named storms. In fact, there were so many storms that we exhausted the list of predetermined names for the season, and had to resort to using the Greek alphabet. The most recent hurricane (for now), was Hurricane Iota.

But why do we name hurricanes in the first place? The practice of naming storms goes back to the 19th century, and it was a bumpy ride to land on the system we use today. 

Science Diction host Johanna Mayer tells the story of a meteorologist in Australia, a novel, and a second-wave feminist from Florida—and how they brought us hurricane names.

Dec 11, 2020
Vaccination Logistics, Europe’s Green Deal. Dec 11, 2020, Part 1
48:16

COVID-19 Vaccinations Begin In The U.K.

This week, the U.K. began its vaccination effort against COVID-19 with Margaret Keenan, a 90-year-old woman from Coventry, becoming the first U.K. resident to receive the shot. She received a first dose of the vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech, and will require a second dose in several weeks to achieve the full effect.

Nations around the world are racing to implement vaccination programs. The clinical use of the vaccine in the U.K. came just six days after the vaccine obtained emergency approval. This week, Canada also gave emergency approval to the Pfizer approach, and could start vaccinations next week. And the FDA is meeting this week to examine trial data and could soon approve treatments here.

Sophie Bushwick of Scientific American joins guest host John Dankosky to talk about the vaccination effort and other stories from the week in science, including the return to Earth of asteroid material sampled by the Hayabusa2 mission, the finding that human-made stuff now outweighs all living things on Earth, and an advance in bionic eye development.

What Has Europe’s Green New Deal Accomplished In Its First Year? 

Just over a year ago, the Youth Climate Movement was at its peak. Millions of people were protesting government inaction in the face of rising global temperatures. 

Nearly everything about the world has changed since then. And while the incoming Biden Administration has said it will adopt parts of the “Green New Deal,” the U.S. has failed to capitalize on the momentum of last year’s Global Climate Strikes.

In Europe, however, the European Commission unveiled the “European Green New Deal in December of 2019. This 24-page document lays out a plan to make Europe climate neutral by 2050.

Despite the pandemic, the commission has since made progress on many of its climate goals. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen took pains in her European “State of the Union” address this past September to spell out how the European economy could emerge stronger from the global pandemic, with help from the Green Deal. 

On the one year anniversary of the announcement of the European Green Deal, guest host John Dankosky talks with Frederic Simon, energy and environmental editor for EUROACTIV and Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, as they reflect back on the progress the EU has made towards its ambitious climate goals.

Charting A Path To Deliver The COVID-19 Vaccine

Last week, the United Kingdom approved a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer through an emergency authorization, and vaccinations began this week. There is still not an approved vaccine in the United States, but according to Operation Warp Speed, the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine team, the goal is to produce and deliver 300 million doses by the end of January 2021. 

Journalist Maryn McKenna and physician Uché Blackstock discuss how states and health departments are preparing to distribute the vaccine—and the hurdles they may face. 

Dec 11, 2020
Virtual Worlds And Wildfire Health Effects. Dec 4, 2020, Part 2
48:53

Science Friday’s Second Life: The Voyage Home

Do you remember Second Life? That online virtual world where you can create an avatar, build whatever you want, and meet people? It was a hit in the late 2000s, quickly becoming a pop culture phenomenon. Within the first few years, an average of 38,000 users were logged in at any given time. Second Life was so big that Science Friday created a community there in 2007. We livestreamed our show in-world every Friday, and a huge community of avatars—humans, fairies, wolves, dogs with wings—would gather with us every week to listen.

Sadly, after a couple years, our staff left Second Life, and the space was dismantled. But we recently learned that for the last ten years, some members of that original community have still been meeting up virtually to listen to the show every week. 

Producer Daniel Peterschmidt catches up with the group to find out what they had to do to survive in the virtual landscape, what the online community is like today, and what they’ve learned while spending over a decade in Second Life.

We’ll also hear from Celia Pearce, an associate professor of game design at Northeastern University, and Katherine Isbister, a human computer interaction and games researcher at the the University of California, Santa Cruz, about how virtual worlds like Second Life can help us cope with the quarantine-induced reality we live in now.

How Do Wildfires Affect Our Bodies?

This summer, the skies in California, Oregon, and other West Coast states turned sickly orange—a hue that lingered in many places for days, due to the smoke and ash from wildfires. 

It’s estimated that more than eight million acres of land have been scorched this year, and wildfires are still blazing: Nearly 40 fires are still active out west. Climate change is creating warmer, drier conditions in western states, resulting in a season that starts earlier and ends later than in the past. The foregoing of historically effective indigenous burning practices has also exacerbated the problem. 

Joining Ira to explain what we know about the health effects of wildfires are Colleen Reid, assistant professor of geography at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Chris Migliaccio, immunologist and research associate professor at the University of Montana in Missoula. 

Dec 04, 2020
David Attenborough, China’s Moon Mission, COVID Approved In U.K. Dec 4, 2020, Part 1
47:55

David Attenborough Observes A Natural World In Crisis

If you were to make a list of celebrities of the natural world, Sir David Attenborough would most likely make the cut. You probably know him from television series such as Life on Earth, The Secret Life of Plants, Living Planet, and so many more.

Now, at age 94, he’s written a new book, A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and Vision for the Future, and filmed an accompanying Netflix documentary. The book and film talk about the changes to the natural world in the time he’s been alive—from overfishing, to deforestation, to climate change—and urge us to adopt a more sustainable future.

David Attenborough and BBC producer and science writer Jonnie Hughes join Ira to talk about the challenges the world is facing today, and steps we can take toward sustainability. Read an excerpt of Attenborough’s new book.


China’s Chang’e-5 Lander Touches Down On The Moon

It was an historic week for space news. On Tuesday, China’s Chang’e-5 lander touched down on the moon’s near-side, near Mons Rumker, a mountain in the “Ocean of Storms” region. Over the course of two days, the lander collected several kilograms of lunar soil—the first samples collected in over 40 years. If all goes well, the Chang’e-5 ascension module and its cargo will reunite with the orbiter on December 6th.

 

Also this week, a video from the control tower of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico captured the moment its final cable snapped. The platform came crashing down on the dish, effectively ending the future—but not the legacy—of this iconic observatory. Ira and Loren Grush, senior science reporter for The Verge, pay tribute, and discuss the historic space news of the week.


This Wednesday, the United Kingdom announced approval for a COVID-19 vaccine through an emergency authorization, beating out the U.S. and most other countries. The vaccine is being produced by the U.S. pharma company Pfizer and German partner BioNTech. And the first U.K. vaccinations may start as early as next week. 

Nsikan Akpan of National Geographic talks about how this vaccine works and what it means for the vaccination schedule for the rest of the world.

 

 

Dec 04, 2020
Ig Nobel Prizes, Koji Alchemy. Nov 27, 2020, Part 2
47:19

Laugh Along At Home With The Ig Nobel Awards

We know traditions are different this year. Maybe you’re having a small family dinner instead of a huge gathering. Maybe you’re just hopping on a video call instead of going over the river and through the woods. At Science Friday, our holiday tradition of broadcasting highlights from the annual Ig Nobel Awards ceremony is different this year too. Rather than being recorded live in front of a cheering crowd at Harvard’s Sanders Theater, the ceremony was virtual this year.

But one thing remains the same—awards went to a bunch of genuine scientists for research that first makes you laugh, then makes you think. This year marks the ceremony’s 30th anniversary. 

Marc Abrahams, editor of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research and master of ceremonies for the awards, joins Ira to talk about Ig Nobel history, and to share highlights from this year’s winners.

Koji: The Mold You Want In Your Kitchen

When chef Jeremy Umansky grows a batch of Aspergillus oryzae, a cultured mold also known as koji, in a tray of rice, he says he’s “bewitched” by its fluffy white texture and tantalizing floral smells. When professional mechanical engineer and koji hobbyist Rich Shih thinks about the versatility of koji, from traditional Japanese sake to cured meats, he says, “It blows my mind.”

Koji-inoculated starches are crucial in centuries-old Asian foods like soy sauce and miso—and, now, inspiring new and creative twists from modern culinary minds.

And Shih and Umansky, the two food fanatics, have written a new book describing the near-magical workings of the fungus, which, like other molds, uses enzymes to break starches, fats, and proteins down into food for itself. It just so happens that, in the process, it’s making our food tastier. 

You can grow koji on grains, vegetables, and other starchy foods, and make sauces, pastes, alcohols, and vinegars. Even cure meats. Umansky and Shih say the possibilities are endless—and they have the koji pastrami and umami popcorn to prove it.

Plus, Urmansky and Shih share some of their favorite koji-inspired holiday dishes and leftover recipes—from turkey amino spreads to cranberry sauce amazake to soy sauce-infused whipped cream. Read more on Science Friday!

Nov 27, 2020
Your Cheese’s Microbiome, COVID Reinfection Questions, Future Of Meat. Nov 27, 2020, Part 1
46:54

Can You Get COVID-19 More Than Once?

SciFri producer Elah Feder’s friend tested positive for antibodies a few months ago—but last month, she developed COVID-19 symptoms again. So far, only a handful of cases of COVID reinfection have been confirmed, but we don’t yet know the true rates. Cases could be missed if the first or second infection is asymptomatic, and sometimes, what looks like a case of reinfection is something else entirely.

Over the past few months, we’ve seen both concerns that antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 fade quickly and reassurances that immunity probably endures. Akiko Iwasaki, an immunobiologist at Yale, along with Alessandro Sette and Shane Crotty of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, explain what we know about the immune system’s ability to remember this virus, and what cases of reinfection could mean for the efficacy of vaccines.


What Is The Future of Meat?

More and more people are trying meat alternatives, and for good reason: The meat industry is a major contributor to climate change. Almost 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, with cattle making up about two-thirds of that. Others avoid meat because of ethical problems with slaughtering animals.

Altogether, plant-based meats are having a major moment, making their way onto the shelves of major grocery stores, and the menus of fast food chains. It’s now possible to eat a burger that tastes, looks, and feels like beef—while being entirely made of plants.

Some scientists are devoting their careers to creating a future where more meat comes from plants, or even cells grown in a lab. Joining Ira to mull over the future of meat is Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, and Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest, a non-profit that promotes the research and development of cell-based animal products.

 

Nov 27, 2020
Roman Mars, Disinformation, Ancient Female Big Game Hunters. Nov 20, 2020, Part 2
47:58

Exploring The Invisible Architecture Of Cities With Roman Mars

On a walk through your city or town, there are all sorts of sights and sounds to take in—big buildings, parks and patches of green space, roaring vehicles, and people strolling around. But according to Roman Mars, host of the 99% Invisible podcast, you need to look at the smaller, often unseen details to decode what’s really going on in the city. 

In the new book The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design, co-authors Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt show that you can learn a lot about the place you live in by taking a closer look at tucked-away architecture and pavement markings. There’s meaning behind the etchings on the covers of maintenance holes and water lines, and the cryptic spray painted symbols on the street that signify network and telecommunication cables. These signs and structures can tell stories about a city’s past and present. Ira chats with Mars about the overlooked details built into our cities and how our urban environments are adapting to the pandemic.

Big Tech Can’t Stop The Lies

As the dust continues to settle from the 2020 presidential election, unfounded rumors persist about stolen ballots, dead people voting, and other kinds of alleged fraud—all without evidence. But as slow results trickle in, President-Elect Joe Biden has won by large but plausible margins, and investigations into the process have held up the results as inarguable.  

Anticipating a wave of misinformation, Twitter and Facebook both took unprecedented steps in the weeks leading up to the election to put election claims in context, marking questionable posts as misinformation. And yet large numbers of Americans continue to disagree about reality.

How did this happen? And why have we seen so much of other kinds of misinformation this year—like anti-mask beliefs, or other COVID-19 hoaxes? Or take the QAnon conspiracy theories, all of which are completely baseless, yet somehow still spreading?

Ira talks to New York Times reporter Davey Alba, and misinformation researcher Joan Donovan, about the patterns of media manipulation and how misinformation succeeds in our digital world.

Ancient Big Game Hunters May Have Included Women

In ancient hunter-gatherer societies, it’s been predominantly thought that men were the hunters and the women were the gatherers. This narrative has persisted for centuries. But researchers say the story might be more complicated. In Peru, a team of anthropologists uncovered a burial site containing 9,000-year-old remains of a possible female big game hunter. Their findings were published in the journal Science Advances. Producer Alexa Lim talks with one of the authors on that study, anthropologist Randy Haas from UC Davis, about what this can tell us about the social structure of hunter-gatherers. 

Nov 20, 2020
Famous Arecibo Observatory Decommissioned, Biden’s Climate Change Plan. Nov 20, 2020, Part 1
48:18

Puerto Rico's Famous Arecibo Observatory Decommissioned

The astronomical observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, has been standing since 1963. It has weathered hurricanes, earthquakes, and time itself. But in August, a large cable—holding up one of three towers that help suspend the telescope’s 900-ton receiver platform above the collecting dish—slipped out of its socket. It fell into the dish below, leaving a trail of broken panels.

One broken cable seemed like a fixable problem, but in early November a second cable broke. Now, after engineers assessing the damage said it’s likely these breakages have increased strain on the remaining cables, and pointed to fraying strands on additional cables, scientists and others worried of the odds of an accelerating spiral of broken cables, which would cause the massive receiver to collapse onto the dish below and destroy the observatory beyond repair.

On Thursday, it seemed the National Science Foundation agreed with these worries: The agency announced it would decommission the historic observatory, and plan for a demolition process that could eliminate the portions at risk of collapse while preserving as much of the structure as possible. As National Geographic contributor (and daughter of one-time observatory director Frank Drake) Nadia Drake wrote Thursday, “It’s game over.”

SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to Drake, former observatory director Mike Nolan, and astronomer Edgard Rivera-Valentín about the damage, as well as the telescope’s irreplaceable role in detecting Earth-threatening asteroids, and its huge importance as a symbol for Puerto Ricans.


What Our Climate Can Look Like Under Biden

The transition from a Trump presidency to a Biden administration will be a stark contrast for many sectors—perhaps most notably for climate change. While Trump spent his time in office rolling back environmental rules and regulations and setting the country’s climate progress back, president-elect Joe Biden has promised the most ambitious climate plan of any incoming American president in history.

The plan is sprawling: investing $400 billion over ten years in clean energy, conserving 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030, and prioritizing environmental justice are just the tip of the plan. Biden also promises to take executive action to reverse the harmful climate rollbacks made during the Trump administration.

But is this plan realistic, or even possible if Republicans continue control of the Senate? Joining Ira to talk about the Biden plan is Emily Atkin, author and founder of HEATED, a daily newsletter about the climate crisis, and Rebecca Leber, climate and environment reporter for Mother Jones.


What The Latest Promising Pfizer And Moderna Vaccine Trials Mean

After a long ten months, the moment we’ve been waiting for is almost here. This week, drug companies Moderna and Pfizer both announced that clinical trials on their respective COVID-19 vaccines had concluded, and both were found to be 95% effective against the coronavirus.

While that may be very welcome good news, it comes in the same week that deaths from the coronavirus surpassed 250,000 in the United States. The Atlantic staff writer Sarah Zhang joins Ira to talk about what we can expect over the coming months as these vaccines roll out—with more still to come. Plus, the prehistoric parasites that likely killed a dinosaur, and a scientific debate is sparked on TikTok.

 

Nov 20, 2020
Body Temperature, COVID Vaccines, Dog Genomics. Nov 13, 2020, Part 2
48:32

Our Average Body Temperature Is Getting Cooler

We’ve all been getting our temperature checked on the regular these days. Most restaurants and businesses have been scanning peoples’ foreheads with thermometer guns to check for signs of fever as a safety precaution for COVID-19. We’ve been told that our temperature should be around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (or 37 degrees Celsius), the “normal” human body temperature. The value was set over 150 years ago by the German physician Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich. But 98.6 degrees may no longer be the golden standard. 

In several studies, researchers have found that the average human body temperature may be lowering. Producer Alexa Lim talks with infectious disease specialist Julie Parsonnet about what temperature can tell us about our body and overall human health

Fact Check My Feed: How Excited Should You Be About COVID-19 Vaccines?

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations set new records, worse than even the initial surge this spring, there was one piece of promising pandemic news this week: a press release from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, one of several racing toward developing a vaccine.

Pfizer, working with German company BioNTech, announced Monday that their vaccine candidate, which uses a new technology involving mRNA, had reached an efficacy of 90 percent based on interim data. Trial participants were either given the vaccine or a placebo. Enough of the participants in the placebo group have since gone on to get COVID-19 to offer clues to its success: These rates suggest that nine out of 10 people who receive the vaccine will be protected from symptoms of disease. 

But, as many have pointed out, Pfizer’s optimistic claims did not come with any release of data to back them up—nor an understanding of whether the most vulnerable would receive the same level of protection. Furthermore, this is only an interim analysis, meaning there’s more the company still has to learn before settling on a final efficacy number. 

There are many questions yet to answer: For example, the process of understanding a vaccine’s safety takes much longer, and more people, than any trial period can fully assess. And even if Pfizer’s vaccine is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, how will a vaccine that requires two doses and expensive deep-freeze storage be distributed to all the people who need it? 

Other vaccine candidates are also moving quickly. Another mRNA vaccine maker, Moderna, also indicated this week by press release that they will have their own interim analysis ready soon.

Ira fact—and reality—checks the latest news on COVID-19 vaccine trials with virologist Angela Rasmussen and biostatistician Natalie Dean.

How To Decode Your Dog’s DNA

While we have been sitting at home for months, some of you have been spending a lot more time with your pets. You might stare at your dog and wonder: What exactly is your breed? Well, some people have been taking the extra step in finding out more about their furry quarantine companion—by getting a dog DNA test.

Producer Katie Feather talks with pet genomics experts (yes, they exist!) about what you can and can’t learn from these direct-to-consumer genetics tests for dogs. They also discuss a citizen science project that studies connections between your pup’s genes and their behavior.

Nov 13, 2020
Biden’s COVID Transition Team, Election Drug Policy Reform. Nov 13, 2020, Part 1
48:17

The New Biden Administration Plans For COVID-19

It’s been less than a week since it became clear that Joe Biden would be the president elect. While President Trump and his allies continue to push unsubstantiated claims of election misdeeds—with no evidence—the Biden transition team is moving into action. 

This week, as coronavirus cases spike alarmingly around the country, the president-elect unveiled his own coronavirus task force. The team of experts will help guide the incoming administration’s COVID-19 response, as well as potentially shape the fight against the pandemic once the Biden administration is sworn in in January. 

The panel will be co-chaired by three prominent names: David Kessler, the former FDA commissioner; Marcella Nunez-Smith, an associate dean at Yale Medical School focusing on health equity research; and Vivek Murthy, former U.S. surgeon general. The remainder of the panel is made up of experts from across academia, industry, and government roles.  

Lev Facher, Washington correspondent for STAT, joins Ira to talk about the makeup of the task force, and how a Biden administration coronavirus response might differ from existing policy. 


The Election Shows Americans Are Rethinking The War On Drugs

Last week, all eyes were on the presidential election. But across the country, another major referendum was put before many voters. 

In every state where drug reform was on the ballot, it passed. Voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota legalized recreational marijuana. And medical marijuana got approved in Mississippi and South Dakota.

In Washington D.C., residents voted to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms. And in Oregon, all drugs, including heroin and cocaine, will now be decriminalized. The state will also legalize the use of psilocybin, the psychedelic drug found in magic mushrooms.

With so many states approving pro-drug measures, from the deep blue to the deep red, does this signal a major turning point for how Americans view the war on drugs? Joining Ira to talk about this are Amelia Templeton, health reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland and Lee Strubinger, politics and public policy reporter for South Dakota Public Broadcasting in Rapid City. 


Everywhere In America, COVID-19 Is Surging

It’s been another bad week for COVID-19 in the United States. Every state in the country is seeing increased cases, most at rates indicating completely unchecked community spread. Hospitalizations are at their highest rate ever: more than 60,000 people were in the hospital with coronavirus infections on Tuesday. And following the now-expected pattern, deaths are also rising, with more than 1,000 being recorded every day and that number, too, steadily increasing. Experts are predicting that an additional 20,000-25,000 people could die in the next two weeks alone, and 160,000 new deaths by February 1, 2021.

MIT Technology Review’s Amy Nordrum briefs Ira on the latest alarming pandemic numbers, what President-Elect Biden said he wants to do about the climate crisis, and, on a lighter note, some stories you might have missed—like how Alphabet is unrolling optical internet in Kenya, and the amazing discovery of advanced water filtration in the ancient Mayan city of Tikal.

 

 

Nov 13, 2020
Climate Policy And The Election, COVID Winter Forecast, Murder Hornets. Nov 6, 2020, Part 1
47:17

What Will The Pandemic Look Like During The Winter?

It’s been almost a year since officials in China announced the spread of a mysterious pneumonia, and identified the first COVID-19 patients. On January 21, the first U.S. COVID-19 case was confirmed in Washington State. And new record highs for cases were set this week. 

Since March, just about every country in the world has tried to get a handle on the pandemic using different interventions. Infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm and physician Abraar Karan discuss what pandemic planning might look like heading into the winter and during the second year of the virus

Key Congressional Races That Could Affect Future Climate Change Legislation

In addition to the presidential race, there were hundreds of local congressional elections that may be important in determining what type of climate change legislation will be passed in the next few years. Reporter Scott Waldman from E&E News/Climatewire talks about some of these races in areas affected by climate change.

Not So Fast, Murder Hornets

This past spring, you might have seen many headlines about murder hornets making it to the U.S. This is the sensationalist nickname for the Asian Giant Hornet, a large insect native to East and South Asia that preys on honey bee colonies. 

Since late 2019, there have been several sightings of these hornets in Washington state. Just last month, the first Asian Giant Hornet nest was discovered in the U.S., in Blaine, Washington, which is on the U.S. and Canada border. On October 24th, that nest was successfully eliminated by a group of scientists from the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

Joining Ira to talk about why it was so important to destroy this nest are two entomologists who worked closely on this effort: Chris Looney, with the WSDA in Olympia, and Jackie Serrano with the USDA in Wapato, Washington.

Nov 06, 2020
Ancient Algae, COVID Holidays, Accessible Pregnancy Test. Nov 6, 2020, Part 2
47:20

How Algae Survived A Mass Extinction

Sixty-six million years ago when an asteroid slammed into what is now the Yucatan peninsula, it set off a period of near global darkness for almost two years. Scientists think a majority of land species went extinct during that time, but what was going on in the planet’s oceans? And how were these ecosystems able to bounce back? 

In a new paper published in Science Advances, researchers say what saved Earth’s oceans may have been a type of algae that could hunt for food. Ira is joined by one of the paper’s authors, Andrew Ridgwell, a professor of earth system science at the University of California, Riverside, to discuss the little algae that could

Gathering Together (Carefully) For A Pandemic Holiday

The winter holidays hinge on gatherings of multiple generations of family and friends, indoors, for long periods of time. These are all factors that increase the risk of spreading COVID-19, or unintentionally infecting your loved ones. The CDC now defines a “close contact” as spending 15 minutes within less than 6 feet of an infected person, over the course of 24 hours—encompassing pretty much any holiday gathering. 

With Thanksgiving looming, new cases are setting records all over the country, and mayors like New York’s Bill de Blasio are urging people not to travel. Many are rightfully now weighing whether they can in good conscience get together.

Some epidemiologists, including Anthony Fauci, aren’t outright telling people to cancel their holiday plans, even as they worry about a further surge in the pandemic tied to winter gathering. But if you do choose to travel, there are things you can do to reduce the risk you’re taking, like isolating before you go, getting your flu shot, and taking well-timed COVID-19 tests.

Science journalist Kate Baggaley and epidemiologist Julia Marcus discuss how to identify the risks you might encounter, and minimizing those risks you can control—like the choice between driving and flying, how much faith to put in coronavirus testing, and indoor versus outdoor spaces. 

This Accessible Pregnancy Test Has Results You Can Touch

Whatever answer you’re hoping for from a pregnancy test, taking one is rarely a low-stress occurrence. And for many who are blind or vision-impaired, taking a pregnancy test can be even more tricky: the tests use visual displays, and often the only solution for knowing the result is to call a friend, family member, or even stranger into a very private moment.

The app Be My Eyes is now partnering with pregnancy test maker ClearBlue to offer volunteer services in reading pregnancy tests—but that still brings a stranger into the process. The UK’s Royal National Institute for the Blind, however, now has a new design for a tactile, accessible test that could be taken privately. It’s colorful, high-contrast, and big enough to use without full sight. And the results appear as bumps that anyone can feel.

SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to Gizmodo reporter Victoria Song, Blind Motherhood blogger Holly Bonner, and Procter & Gamble accessibility leader Sumaira Latif about the value of accessibility in pregnancy testing, and how a good idea might become an actual product.

Nov 06, 2020
Book Club Finale, Floating Nuclear Plants. Oct 30, 2020, Part 2
47:45

Pushing Boundaries In Fantastical Fiction

The Science Friday Book Club has spent all of October immersed in short stories by Indigenous, Black, Chicanx and South Asian authors. But at the end of the day, where do these stories fit in the bigger picture of fiction writing in 2020?

In the final conversation of this fall’s speculative fiction focus, SciFri’s Book Club joins writer and ‘New Suns’ editor Nisi Shawl in a conversation about the expanding footprint of writers of color in science fiction and fantasy, and the ways both science and science fiction can be re-imagined and redefined when you look outside of the perspectives of white, Western authors who have dominated these genres in the past. 

Shawl suggests broadening what stories we call science fiction. What happens when we think of writing, or even religion, as forms of technology? 

SciFri producer Christie Taylor and Journal of Science Fiction editor Aisha Matthews join Nisi Shawl in front of a live Zoom audience for this conversation about the diverse and dynamic future of science fiction.

Shipping Nuclear Power Out To Sea

When the Green New Deal was proposed last year, it called for the United States to become fully energy independent, moving to 100% renewable energy sources within the next decade. It specifically mentions solar and wind power as two alternatives the country should invest in. And it conspicuously leaves out nuclear power. 

But the nuclear industry is fighting to be part of the renewable conversation. While it’s been innovating at a slower pace, there is one old idea that engineers say still holds water: floating nuclear power plants

Ira talks to Nick Touran, a nuclear engineer and reactor physicist from Seattle, Washington about the advantages of shipping nuclear out to sea, as well as some newer technology keeping nuclear power in the renewable energy conversation.

Oct 30, 2020
Science And The Election, Disinformation, Vampire Bats. Oct 30, 2020, Part 1
47:24

Choosing the next U.S. president is not the only decision voters will make in the upcoming 2020 elections. Major science policies are also on the ballot. In some states, people will be casting votes on propositions that influence scientific research and the environment. While in other local elections, candidates with scientific backgrounds are in the running for public office. Jeffrey Mervis of Science Magazine talks about California stem cell research policies and Nevada renewable energy propositions, and how a science platform could help or harm candidates.


Plus, this election season has been filled with disinformation—unverified stories of voter fraud, rumors of uncounted and tossed out mail-in ballots, claims of third parties hacking voter results, and other false information. And with possible delayed election results due to the overwhelming number of absentee ballots, driven in part by COVID, there could be even more of this disinformation spread before the final polls are announced. Disinformation expert Deen Freelon discusses how these unverified and fake news stories take hold. Freelon also provides techniques on how to decipher fact from fiction in your overfilled news feeds.


Relatedly, the November election will likely have big consequences for climate policy in the United States. It comes at a critical time. Scientists say major action is needed by 2030 to avoid the worst effects of global warming. President Donald Trump does not have a climate policy. His administration has rolled back Obama-era climate initiatives. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is promising to put the country on a path toward a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions from the U.S. no later than 2050. Polls show about 70% of Pennsylvanians want their state lawmakers to do more to address climate change. But polls rarely carry examples of what actions people want. A recent StateImpact survey shows Pennsylvanians want a lot — from state and federal lawmakers. The one-question survey attracted responses from more than 200 people, who asked for everything from specific policy proposals such as Pennsylvania’s entrance into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and the Green New Deal, to desperate pleas such as “listen to science!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (Read the full piece at ScienceFriday.com.)


And it’s almost Halloween, which means it’s time to get a little spooky. A perfect time for the newest installment of our Charismatic Creature Corner!

This month, we’re diving into the wild world of vampire bats. These little mammals are native to Central and South America, and have bodies about the size of a mouse. 

And yes, let’s address the elephant in the room: Vampire bats have a diet that consists entirely of blood. They gravitate toward livestock, but have been known to feed on people too. Their status as blood-suckers makes them one of the only mammals classified as parasites.

Despite their gruesome diets, vampire bats are extremely social creatures, and are known to display acts of friendships with other bats. In fact, a study last year found that vampire bat friendships forged in captivity actually last when the bats are released into the wild. Friendships are important for vampire bats: They result in food sharing, which is integral to keeping everyone fed and happy.

Science Friday’s Charismatic Creature Correspondent, producer Kathleen Davis, is back to convince Ira that this creature is worthy of entry into the Charismatic Creature Corner Hall of Fame. Joining them is Dan Riskin, an evolutionary biologist and adjunct professor of biology at the University of Toronto, Mississauga.

 

 

 

 

 

Oct 30, 2020
Should We Trust Election Forecasting, COVID Dreams. Oct 23, 2020, Part 1
47:02

The first “scientific” election poll was conducted in 1936 by George Gallup, who correctly predicted that Franklin D. Roosevelt would win the presidential election. Since Gallup, our appetite for polls and forecasts has only grown, but watching the needle too closely might have some unintended side effects.

Solomon Messing, chief scientist at ACRONYM, a political digital strategy nonprofit, tells us about a study he co-authored that found people are often confused by what forecast numbers mean, and that their confidence in an election’s outcome might depress voter turnout. Sunshine Hillygus, professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, also joins to tell us about the history of polling in the United States.


Next up, say you're standing in a crowded room and realizing nobody is wearing a mask. Or a family dog that has passed away protectively guarding grandkids. Maybe having a pleasant get-together with someone you haven’t thought of in years, then suddenly realizing everyone is a little too close, and a little too sick.

Do any of these instances sound familiar? A few weeks ago, we asked Science Friday listeners if their dreams have changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. We heard from many listeners who said yes, their dreams have become more vivid, with elements of the pandemic included.

A change in dreams due to a crisis is very common, says Deirdre Barrett, a dream researcher and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When we’re in a dream state, the brain is processing the same things we think about during the day. But when we’re asleep, the parts of our brain that handle logic and speech are damped down. The parts that handle visuals, however, are ramped up.

Barrett has been collecting dreams from people all over the world since the start of the pandemic. She says common dream themes range from actually getting the virus, natural disasters and bug attacks. Healthcare workers have regularly reported the highest level of stressful COVID-19 dreams, according to her data.

“The typical dream from the healthcare workers is really a full-on nightmare,” Barrett says. “Just as bad as you’d see in war zones.”

Barrett joins SciFri producer Kathleen Davis to talk about her research into crisis dreams, and what people can do if they want to experience stressful dreams less often.


And, search engine giant Google was served an antitrust lawsuit by the Justice Department this week, which alleges the company abuses its near-monopoly status to harm consumers and competitors. This is the first such action against the company, which, over the last couple decades, has grown into one of the more powerful tech companies in history. 

Meanwhile, early data from New York City schools shows a promising picture of what back-to-school in the age of COVID means. Out of more than 16,000 randomly tested students and staff members, only 28 positive results came back—20 from staff members, and eight from students. While COVID-19 cases in K-12 schools across the country are not zero, low rates are the norm so far. 

Joining Ira to talk about these stories and other news from the week is Nsikan Akpan, a science editor at National Geographic in Washington, D.C.

 

Oct 23, 2020
Teaching in a Pandemic, Inheriting Stress, Book Club. Oct 23, 2020, Part 2
47:30

Even In A Pandemic, Science Class Is In Session

This academic year, school campuses across the United States look very different. Instead of crowded hallways and bustling classrooms, students are spaced six feet apart, sometimes behind plastic barriers, while others are at home on camera in a video call. Since some states do not weigh in on school operations, communities witnessed a myriad of learning approaches, such as fully virtual, fully in-person, or a mixture of both. All are subject to change as COVID-19 rates fluctuate throughout regions. For instance, on October 1, all New York City public schools reopened and shifted 500,000 students to in-person class. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, October 21, Boston Public Schools announced that it suspended all in-person learning as numbers of COVID-19 cases rose in the region.

Teachers, students, parents, caregivers, and staff have all felt the stress and uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation is academically, mentally, and emotionally overwhelming. While the pandemic has presented many challenges in learning, STEAM educators are adapting. They are coming up with creative solutions to continue to meet the needs of all students, like holding outdoor biology classes, dissecting flowers at home, and even delivering materials and devices to students who need them.  

STEAM educators Rabiah Harris, Josa Rivas, and Rick Erickson join Ira for a roundtable discussion on how the pandemic has impacted school this academic year

Can Trauma Today Affect Future Children?

We typically think of a traumatic event as a sudden thing—something that has a beginning and an end. Stress and trauma can of course have lasting psychological effects—and, in some cases, physical effects such as elevated blood pressure or premature aging. But now researchers are considering whether stress to an organism can be somehow transmitted to that animal’s future offspring, via epigenetic changes that modify how genetic code is expressed in the young.

Bianca Jones Marlin is a neuroscientist studying such changes. In one study, she found that if researchers trained mice to associate the smell of almonds with an electric shock, the offspring of the mice tended to be afraid of an almond smell—even if they were raised separately, by foster parents that had no experience with the odor.

Jones Marlin joins Ira to talk about her research, and her experience as a young researcher starting her own lab in the neurosciences.

Making Peace With The End Of Your Species

Welcome to week four of the Science Friday Book Club’s reading of ‘New Suns’! Our last short story assignment is ‘The Shadow We Cast Through Time’ by Indian writer Indrapramit Das. On a far-off planet, a human colony has been cut off from the rest of space: but they’ve also encountered other life, a fungus-like organism that infects and distorts human bodies into horned “demon”-like creatures. And as one human woman, Surya, approaches her death at their hands willingly, she makes a discovery that speaks of a new future for both species.

Author Indrapramit Das joins SciFri producer Christie Taylor and Journal of Science Fiction managing editor Aisha Matthews to talk about creating new worlds, and the “modern mythology” of writing science fiction and fantasy.

Oct 23, 2020
U.S. COVID Spikes, Blockchain Chicken Farm, Book Club: Chicanafuturism. Oct 16, 2020, Part 2
47:08

Across The Country, A Spike In Coronavirus Cases

Over 217,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S., and many states are seeing an upswing in case numbers as we head into fall

In rural Wyoming, there have been over 8,100 cases, with 57 deaths to date. More populated Wisconsin has seen over 167,000 cases—and recently crossed the grim threshold of 1,500 deaths due to the disease. Both states have reported more hospitalizations, with Wisconsin this week opening a field hospital to help deal with the increased demand for medical care and pressure on hospitals.

In this State of Science segment, Ira talks with Bob Beck, news director at Wyoming Public Radio, and Will Cushman, associate editor for WisContext, about how their communities are responding to the pandemic.

Blockchain And Big Tech In China’s Countryside

Many of us are familiar with blockchain: the decentralized, anonymous ledger system. In the U.S., blockchain is usually talked about in terms of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. But in China, chicken farmers are using blockchain to monitor food safety. 

There are hundreds of million people living in the Chinese countryside. Chinese tech companies are investing in all sorts of projects in the country’s rural areas—from villages built around e-commerce to internet gaming sites getting into the pork industry. In Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside, author Xiaowei Wang traveled through China to investigate how this technology is shaping the people and countryside.  

Science Friday Book Club: Conjuring An Alternate History Of Colonization

It’s week three of the SciFri Book Club’s exploration of New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. This week’s story is ‘Burn the Ships,’ by author Alberto Yáñez. It’s set in a world that could be the Cortés-conquered Aztec Empire of 1520—but in this fictional version, the Spanish conquerors have modern guns, radios, railroads, and even scientific developments like vaccines. And as the Indigenous people are contained and slaughtered in camps, they use powerful magic to animate their dead against the invaders.

SciFri producer Christie Taylor, Journal of Science Fiction managing editor Aisha Matthews and University of California Santa Cruz professor Catherine S. Ramirez talk about how a story about the past can still be science fiction, and introduce Chicanafuturism—a literary cousin of the Afrofuturism we discussed in last week’s conversation about Andrea Hairston’s story ‘Dumb House.’

Oct 16, 2020
The Black Hole At The Center Of The Galaxy, Shipwreck Microbes. Oct 16, 2020, Part 1
47:05

The 2020 Nobel Prize winners have been announced, and among them is UCLA astronomer Andrea Ghez, who split the prize with Roger Penrose and Reinhard Genzel. Ghez, also the fourth woman to ever win the Physics prize, won for her 1998 work that resolved a decades-old debate among astronomers: What lurks at the difficult-to-observe heart of the Milky Way?

After innovating new ways to peer through the obscuring gas and dust, Ghez and her team observed the orbits of stars around the galaxy’s seemingly empty center—and found they fit a pattern explained so far only by a supermassive black hole of at least four million times the mass of our Sun. In the decades since, she and her team have investigated the gravitational forces of the galactic center, and how well they match Einstein’s theory of relativity. (So far, her team has concluded, Einstein seems mostly right, but his theories may not fully explain what’s going on.)

Ira talks to Ghez about how our understanding of the center of the galaxy has evolved, plus the questions that still puzzle her.


Plus, off the coast of North Carolina is a large lagoon called the Pamlico Sound, which supports a diverse ecological landscape. It’s also home to the Pappy’s Lane Shipwreck, a World War II vessel that’s partially submerged in the Sound. This wreck has become an artificial reef, and the life that surrounds it, big and small, is ripe for research.

Just as humans have their own microbiomes, which are different for everyone, shipwrecks have microbiomes, too. Scientists study them to better understand what’s living on these sunken ships, and how to preserve them for future generations.

While the vessel is not a natural part of the Sound, its role as an artificial reef makes it an important part of the ecosystem. By better understanding its microbes, scientists hope to help preserve this non-renewable cultural artifact.

Joining Ira to talk about the marvelous microbes on the Pappy’s Lane Shipwreck is Erin Field, assistant professor of biology at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. 

Oct 16, 2020
Science News, Nobel Roundup, Book Club. Oct 9, 2020, Part 1
46:55

What Is The Status Of President Trump’s COVID-19 Case?

Late last week, President Trump announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. 

This Tuesday, he left the hospital and returned to the White House. And many questions still remain. Reporter Umair Irfan discusses the status of President Trump’s health, the experimental treatments he received and who else in the White House and in Congress may have been infected. 

Talking About Black Holes And CRISPR With 2020 Nobel Prize Winners

This week, a few researchers around the world received that legendary early-morning wake up call from Sweden, bearing word of the 2020 Nobel Prizes. This week, the prize in Medicine or Physiology went jointly to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles M. Rice “for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus.”

In Chemistry, Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Institute and Jennifer Doudna of the University of California at Berkeley won the prize for their work on the technique known as CRISPR. In 2017, Doudna described the technique on Science Friday.

In Physics, the award was split among different types of black hole research. One half went to mathematician Richard Penrose, “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.” He described his work with physicist Stephen Hawking in a 2015 Science Friday interview.

The other half of the physics prize was split between Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for the discovery of one such supermassive black hole—”a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy.”

Doomscrolling? Here’s Non-COVID Science News You Might Have Missed

 

Among all the COVID-19 news of the past week, other stories have gotten less attention than they deserve—including a discussion of climate issues at the presidential debate a week ago. The 12 minutes the candidates spent on climate change and the policy surrounding it marks the first substantive discussion of climate at a presidential debate in years.

Science journalist Annalee Newitz joins Ira to unpack the climate discussion, and other science news—including a gruesome ancient punishment, and research into the savviness of crows.

 

The Science Friday Book Club: Technology, Magic, And Afrofuturism 

The Science Friday Book Club continues this week, this time reading another short story from the speculative fiction collection New Suns. African-American author Andrea Hairston’s story ‘Dumb House,’ is about a woman named Cinnamon who finds herself pestered by a pair of traveling salesmen, who hope to persuade her to upgrade her house into something smarter.

This week, we talk about ‘Dumb House,’ plus its place in Afrofuturism—culture and storytelling that imagines futures with African-descended people and culture at the forefront. 

SciFri producer Christie Taylor, Journal of Science Fiction managing editor Aisha Matthews, and speculative fiction author K. Tempest Bradford discuss trust and community in ‘Dumb House,’ the relationship between technology and magic, and other elements that contribute to the story’s Afrofuturist theme.

Oct 09, 2020
Solar System Smackdown: Mars v. Venus, Mussel Mystery. Oct 9, 2020, Part 2
47:05

Solar System Smackdown: Mars Vs. Venus

One of the fiercest hunts in the solar system is the scientific search for signs of extraterrestrial life—whether that’s in a methane ocean on Titan, under the icy crusts of Europa or Enceladus, in newly discovered subsurface salty lakes of Mars or, in the case of hypothetical long-dead fossils, in the rocks of ancient Martian river deltas.

But just as the next Mars rover—equipped with life-sensing instruments of all kinds—is barreling toward the Red Planet for a February landing, comes news from another planet. A research team writing in Nature in September say they’ve found high concentrations of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus. That much phosphine is not known to exist without help from bacteria—and researchers dating all the way back to Carl Sagan have suggested that the thick, acidic clouds of Venus would be a plausible place to harbor microscopic, extreme-loving life.

Is this a good reason to send more missions to Venus? Or is Mars still the best candidate for investment of finite resources? Science Friday producers Katie Feather and Christie Taylor host this completely made-up argument about which planet is the best bet for finding life, with help from genetics and astrobiology researcher Jaime Cordova, and planetary scientist Briony Horgan.

A Breakthrough In A Mollusk Mystery

Freshwater mussels in the United States are having a bad time. It’s estimated that 70 percent of freshwater mussel species in North America are extinct or imperiled—a shocking number. 

There’s a good chance you haven’t heard about this. Mussels aren’t the most engaging creatures, and they don’t pull at the heartstrings like easy anthropomorphised mammals. These mussels also aren’t the ones that wind up on a restaurant’s seafood platter. But mussels play an extremely important role in aquatic ecosystems, so scientists are doing their best to figure out what’s going on with their drastically declining populations. 

Scientists recently discovered 17 viruses present in mussels in the Clinch River, a waterway in Tennessee and Virginia, where about 80,000 mussels have died since 2016. This is a huge breakthrough in a mystery that has plagued researchers for years—though it may just be one piece of evidence for a multi-dimensional decline.

Joining Ira to talk about mussels in trouble are Jordan Richard, a fish and wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Madison, Wisconsin, and Eric Leis, a parasitologist and fish biologist at the La Crosse Fish Health Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Oct 09, 2020
Antarctic Ice, Itching, Ancient Birds. Oct. 2, 2020, Part 2
47:33

New Study Shows No Second Chance For Antarctic Ice Shelves

From the heat waves and wildfires in the western U.S. to the active hurricane season in the Gulf, the climate crisis is intensifying. Sea ice is melting in the Arctic, and the ice sheets covering Antarctica are shrinking. 

Now, researchers have released the results of a study using satellite data, radar readings, and a massive computer simulation looking at the effects of gravity on ice in Antarctica. Their projections aren’t hopeful. Once Antarctic glaciers melt, the scientists found, they don’t re-freeze the same way, even if temperatures drop again. 

That spells bad news for sea level rise. Even if the world manages to hold to the 2 degrees Celsius rise targeted in the Paris climate agreements, the study predicts enough ice will likely to melt to cause roughly five meters of sea level rise—leading to flooding in cities from New York to Shanghai to London to Calcutta. 

Anders Levermann, a professor of the dynamics of the climate system at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany joins Ira to talk about the team’s ice melt predictions, and the need for fundamental changes in society to forestall even more catastrophic climate results.

Ask An Expert: Why Do We Itch?

The pandemic has us feeling a lot of things: anxious, stressed, tired. But what about itchy? 

Have you ever had a hard time not scratching or rubbing your face in public? Or had an unreachable itch beneath a mask? This week on Science Friday, we ask an expert: why do we itch? And is there any relief to be found in understanding the neuroscience behind why we scratch? 

Ira asks these questions and more to Diana Bautista, professor of molecular and cellular biology at the University of California Berkeley. They were joined by a live Zoom audience, who were also itching to ask their own questions.

Digging For Answers To Avians’ Ancestors

One of the biggest questions in paleontology is figuring out how dinosaurs transitioned into the modern birds we see today—and all of the intermediate steps involved in that process. 

China is becoming one of the latest hotspots for unearthing fossils of these prehistoric birds and bird-like dinosaurs. Paleontologist Jiangmai O’Connor is featured in our second season of ‘Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science,’ a video series profiling scientists and how their lives and work intersect. Here, she discusses her work in China, where she’s spent ten years trying to uncover clues about the diversity of ancient birds by examining their bones and preserved soft tissues, like lungs and ovaries. 

 

Oct 02, 2020
Trump Tests Positive For Coronavirus, COVID-19 Fact Check, SciFri Book Club. Oct. 2, 2020, Part 1
47:02

The news hit us overnight: President Trump, the First Lady, and at least one member of the president’s staff tested positive for COVID-19.

Just before 1 a.m. ET, the president tweeted that “Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19. We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!”

Sean Conley, the White House physician, confirmed the positive COVID test and said that, “The President and First Lady are both well at this time, and they plan to remain at home within the White House during their convalescence.” The president reportedly has mild symptoms of the virus.

Joining Ira to talk about the medical ramifications and possibilities presented by the president’s infection with COVID-19 is Angela Rasmussen, an associate research scientist in the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York, New York.


Plus, this week, the U.S. had its first televised presidential debate of the election season. It was interesting, to say the least. During the debate, the President’s COVID-19 response came under question, prompting President Trump to allege the U.S. is just weeks away from a COVID-19 vaccine.

This isn’t the first time Trump has claimed something along these lines. In fact, he’s repeatedly said he wants a vaccine before election day. But is rushing out a vaccine possible—or safe?

Joining Ira for another round of Fact Check Your Feed—election edition, this time—is Angela Rasmussen, associate professor in the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health in New York, New York. She also explains why New York City has not yet reached herd immunity, and fact checks Trump’s claims that the Obama administration botched its H1N1 response.


 

And, the Science Friday Book Club is back! Imagine: A planet inhabited by parasitic life forms that turn human settlers into demonic figures. An aging woman who just wants to live in peace in a “dumb house” with no technological upgrades. A woman who starts to experience the presence of otherworldly visitors. A taxi driver who takes tourists from other planets on rides far above the New York City skyline.

And, in the case of Darcie Little Badger’s short story “Kelsey and the Burdened Breath,” a young woman helps the last breaths of the dying, literally their souls or “shimmers,” depart for the next adventure. That is, until she is asked to track down one that has committed the unthinkable: murder and cannibalism of other souls.

All these are stories in the Nisi Shawl-edited collection, New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction By People Of Color, this fall’s Science Friday Book Club pick. Over the next five weeks, we’ll talk about stories from the book, starting with Little Badger’s story about burdens—literal, metaphorical, and metaphysical.

SciFri Book Club captain Christie Taylor kicks off the first in of a series of conversations about short stories from New Suns with Aisha Matthews, managing editor of The Journal of Science Fiction, and Darcie Little Badger, a Lipan Apache writer and author of the New Suns story “Kelsey and the Burdened Breath.” 

 

Oct 02, 2020
Feather Communication, Thermal Imaging Wildfires, Tick Saliva. September 25, 2020, Part 2
46:51

Thermal Imaging Technology Helps Firefighters See Through Smoke

Wildfires are still raging out west, and states are using anything in their arsenals to fight back. This year, for the first time, Oregon’s Department of Forestry is using thermal imaging technology to see through thick smoke to the fires below. The state’s firefighting teams say this technology has been game-changing during this devastating wildfire season. 

Thermal imaging technology uses infrared waves to detect heat, and then presents that information visually. These graphics make it possible to see exactly where the fire is moving, which areas are the hottest, and how much is actually burning. This information is crucial to firefighting teams on the ground, who can know with more certainty which areas are safe to enter.

Freelance tech reporter Kate Kaye from Portland, Oregon joins Ira to talk about seeing this tech in action in a plane several miles above the wildfires

Birds Of A Feather Flutter Together

Bird feathers have many different functions. Softer down keeps a bird warm and stiffer wing feathers are used for flight. Feathers are also important in communication. Bright plumage can say ‘hey, look at me.’ And some birds even use the shape of their feathers as a communication tool—by using the sound their feathers make to relay messages. The results were published this week in the journal Integrative and Comparative Biology.

Biologists Valentina Gomez-Bahamón and Christopher Clark, both authors on that study, describe how birds might develop different wing-fluttering dialects, and how this could play a role in the evolution of bird species. Check out more sounds, videos and images from the research!

To Milk A Tick 

Ticks are masters of breaking down the defenses of their host organism to get a blood meal. They use anesthetics to numb the skin, anticoagulants to keep the blood flowing, and keep the host’s immune system from recognizing them as invaders and kicking them out. And the key to understanding this is in the tick’s saliva. Biochemist and microbiologist Seemay Chou discusses how she milks the saliva from ticks to study what compounds play key parts in these chemical tricks. She also talks about how ticks are able to control the microbes in their saliva. 

Sep 25, 2020
Indigenous Fire Management, Oliver Sacks Film. September 25, 2020, Part 1
46:52

Down a long, single-lane road in the most northern part of California is Karuk territory—one of the largest Indigenous tribes in the state. It’s here that Bill Tripp’s great-grandmother, who was born in the 1800s, taught him starting as a 4-year-old how to burn land on purpose.

“She took me outside—she was over 100 years old—and walked up the hill with her walker,” Tripp recalled, “and handed me a box of stick matches and told me to burn a line from this point to that point.”

Those cultural burns—or prescribed burns, as they’re often called now by fire agencies—are a form of keeping wildfire in check, a practice the state and federal agencies do use, but experts say isn’t leaned on enough as a fire prevention tactic.

Climate change is a driving factor of California wildfires, but so is a build-up of excess fuels. That’s often attributed to a century of fire suppression dating back to the era of the Great Fire of 1910.

But what experts say is often missing from this conversation is the racist removal of Native American people from California. Along with their physical beings, the knowledge of taking care of the land was also removed resulting in overgrown forests, experts say.

Read the rest of this story at ScienceFriday.com.

Plus, the neurologist Oliver Sacks died just over five years ago after a sudden diagnosis of metastatic cancer. Over his long career, Sacks explored mysteries of both human mental abnormalities and the natural world. Endlessly empathetic and curious, Sacks shared his clinical observations through a series of books and articles, and appeared on Science Friday many times to discuss his work.

A new film released this week describes Sacks’ life through his own words and reflections from those close to him—including the story behind the book ‘Awakenings,’ which later became a major motion picture and propelled Sacks into worldwide prominence. It also details his difficult childhood, his addiction to amphetamines in young adulthood, and his homosexuality, including three decades of celibacy before he found love in the last four years of his life.

Ric Burns, director of the film Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, joins Ira to talk about the life and legacy of Oliver Sacks. The film premieres nationwide this week on the Kino Marquee and Film Forum virtual platforms.

 

Sep 25, 2020
SciFri Extra: After 20 Years, The ‘Cosmic Crisp’ Has Landed
32:57

This fall, there’s a new apple all around town. After 20 years of development, the Cosmic Crisp has landed.

Today, we're bringing you an episode of another podcast called The Sporkful. They’re a James Beard Award-winning show that uses food as a lens to talk about science, history, race, culture, and the ideal way to layer the components of a PB&J. 

This episode is all about the Cosmic Crisp, how scientists developed it, and how it got that dazzling name.

Guests:

Helen Zaltzman is the host of The Allusionist podcast.

Dan Charles is a food and agriculture reporter at NPR.

Kate Evans is a horticulturist and the leader of the pome fruit breeding program at Washington State University.

Kathryn Grandy is Chief Marketing Officer for Proprietary Variety Management.

Footnotes & Further Reading:

For more episodes, subscribe to The Sporkful podcast.

Credits:

The Sporkful is produced by Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Jared O'Connell and Harry Huggins.

Sep 21, 2020
Nursing Homes, Volcano Science. Sept 18, 2020, Part 2
46:39

America’s Elder Care Has A Problem

Since the pandemic began, long-term care facilities across the country have experienced some of its worst effects: One of the first major outbreaks in the U.S. began in a nursing home in Washington state. Since then, the virus has ravaged through care centers across the country—as of September 16, more than 479,000 people have been infected with COVID-19 in U.S. care facilities. 

But COVID-19 is merely adding stress to an already fragile system of long-term care facilities—including nursing homes, assisted living, and other rehabilitation centers. Coronavirus outbreaks have only exacerbated pre-existing problems, including overworked and underpaid staff, limited funding, and poor communication with families.  

In Kansas, more than half of the state’s COVID-19 deaths have been among nursing home residents, with 50 active outbreaks in long-term care facilities as of August 26, reports Celia Llopis-Jepsen for the Kansas News Service. In the midst of these challenges, facility administrators have reported major issues with staff turnover and availability. 

When facilities are so vulnerable, COVID-19 won’t be the only hazard that becomes a problem. A recent KQED investigation, Older and Overlooked, found that thousands of long-term care facilities in California are also located in high risk wildfire areas. Many of these facilities have inadequate or poorly communicated evacuation plans, reports KQED's Molly Peterson. This adds to the growing concern over this year’s devastating wildfire season, with fires currently threatening facilities in Vallejo and Fairfield. 

Re-thinking long-term care will become even more important as our population ages. In the United States, the number of those 85 and older is expected to nearly triple from 6.7 million in 2020 to 19 million by 2060, according to the Population Reference Bureau’s analysis of U.S. census data. This is the demographic that most relies on long-term care facilities—but experts doubt the current system can support the demands of our growing elderly population. 

In this week’s segment hosted by radio producer Katie Feather, Celia Llopis-Jepsen and Molly Peterson give a closer look at the issues inside nursing homes in Kansas and California. Then, gerontology professor Robert Applebaum and gerontologist Sonya Barsness dig into the root of the systemic problems, and look for solutions that can build better long-term care for our aging population.

Hunting For The Crystalline Clues Of A Volcano’s Eruption

We notice volcanoes when they erupt. It’s hard to miss the huge, dramatic plumes of ash, or red glowing lava spewing high into the air. 

But the geologic precursors of these giant eruptions are less obvious. To learn more about when and why these catastrophic events occur, scientists study the gases and rocks inside of volcanoes. Volcanologist Kayla Iacovino, for example, conducts research on volcanoes from Costa Rica to Antarctica—and now, is even looking to other planets. 

Iacovino is featured in our second season of Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science, a video series profiling scientists and how their lives and work intersect. Here, she explains how the gases and crystals released by volcanoes provide important clues into why volcanoes erupt.

Sep 18, 2020
West Coast Fires, Sen. Ed Markey, Deafness Cures. Sept 18, 2020, Part 1
47:16

Peak wildfire season is just beginning on the West Coast, but 2020 is already another unprecedented year. In California, more than 2.2 million acres have burned so far this year, beating an all-time record of 1.6 million set just two years ago. And in the Pacific Northwest, where Portland’s air quality hit the worst in the world on Monday, raging fires have produced never-before-seen poor air quality that threatens the health of millions. More than 500,000 people in California, Washington and Oregon are under evacuation orders, and dozens of people have died.

Kerry Klein of Valley Public Radio in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Erin Ross talk about the toll of the fires in their regions, the role of climate change and other factors, and what the rest of the fire season may bring


Plus, with record heat and fires raging in the American west, and the Gulf Coast facing still more hurricane activity, is climate change becoming a more prominent issue for U.S. voters?

Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts thinks so. He recently repelled a primary challenge in what he calls “a referendum on the Green New Deal.” Now, just weeks before the November elections, candidates from both parties are forced to confront hazards worsened by climate change.

Senator Markey joins Ira to discuss the Green New Deal, energy options, and environmental policy priorities for this election year—and many years to come

 

Sep 18, 2020
Medium Black Holes, World of Wonders, Warsaw Typhus. Sept 11, 2020, Part 2
47:10

Why A Medium-Sized Black Hole Is Surprising Physicists

If you’re looking for a black hole, they normally come in two sizes. There’s the basic model, in which a large, dying star collapses in on itself, and the gravity of its core pulls in other matter. Then there are the supermassive black holes, millions of times the mass of our sun, that tend to be found at the center of a galaxy.

But recently researchers reported that they had evidence for two colliding black holes that created a surprising offspring. Their collision formed a middle-weight black hole, around 142 times the mass of our sun. 

Daniel Holz, a member of the LIGO team that spotted the collision, and a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago, joins Ira to talk about what the observation means for theories of how black holes form and grow.

Against Impossible Odds, The Warsaw Ghetto Stopped A Typhus Outbreak

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto in November of 1940. The Nazis purposefully tried to starve to death almost half a million Jews, who were kept with little food and water in a space about the size of Central Park. 

Theoretical mathematician Lewi Stone of Tel Aviv University has been studying a concurrent public health crisis that happened in the Warsaw Ghetto: a Typhus outbreak. The infectious disease is spread by lice, and can be deadly. 

Typhus ran rampant in the Warsaw Ghetto for the better part of 1941. But when the winter rolled around, the expected second wave never came. Researchers have found evidence that public health measures enacted under these impossible circumstances—think public education and social distancing—actually worked.

Stone talks to SciFri producer Kathleen Davis about this research, and potential takeaways for 2020’s public health crisis. 

It’s Still A Wild, Wonderful World

The table of contents for poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s new book of essays reads like a list of evolution’s most fantastic products. The comb jelly, which pulses with rainbow bioluminescence. The smiling-faced axolotl, which can regrow lost limbs and is a star of biology research labs, but is considered critically endangered in the wild. The human-sized corpse flower, which blooms for a mere 24 hours, smelling of dead flesh.

It’s also a deeply personal book: Nezhukumatathil says the screaming pink of dragonfruit signals “summertime, pop music, sunglasses balanced on the top of my head, weather too warm for socks.” A firefly’s spark might send her back to her grandmother’s backyard, or “to splashing in an ice-cold creek bed, with our jeans rolled up to our knees, until we shudder and gasp, our toes fully wrinkled.” Even the horizontal eye of an octopus becomes a “door that judges us,” as the oceans become increasingly difficult to inhabit, thanks to humans’ ravages.

Science Friday’s Christie Taylor talks to Nezhukumatathil about her experiences in natural wonder, and why in a world of changing climate, rising seas, and burning forests, she finds it important to share her joy in learning about the creatures we share the planet with

Sep 11, 2020
The Wonders of Moss, Clean. Sept 11, 2020, Part 1
47:04

These Moss Are Living Their Best Life—Under Rocks

Desert mosses live a much different life than their cousins in lush, water-rich forests. In fact, they spend most of their time dormant: dried out, waiting for the rare rainfall to bring them to life so they can grow and reproduce. Once exposed to water, though, these same mosses can re-animate quickly—within minutes they’re back to photosynthesizing.

And in research published in PLoS One this summer, scientists working in the Mojave Desert discovered another bryophyta trick. They found some moss species were using rocks as sun shades, preventing them from drying out as quickly. But not just any rock will do—with the help of semi-translucent quartz, moss are still able to receive small amounts of sunlight, thriving in small shady oases for weeks past the most recent rainfall. 

Science Friday producer Christie Taylor talks to Jenna Ekwealor, a co-author on the research and PhD candidate at the University of California-Berkeley. 

An Argument For The Benefits Of Not Bathing 

If the idea of not showering every day makes you feel icky, how about not showering for years? Writer James Hamblin says he stopped showering five years ago and never looked back. He says his skin has never been better, thanks to his healthy, well-functioning skin microbiome. Hamblin joins Ira to talk about his new book Clean: The New Science of Skin, breaking the rules when it comes to cleanliness, and discovering the benefits of skipping that shower

COVID-19 Vaccine Developers Promise Not To Rush Testing

Pharmaceutical companies are racing to find a vaccine for COVID-19. And there is a huge financial incentive to be the first to produce the first vaccine. But as President Donald Trump promises a vaccine “very soon,” nine of the biggest pharma companies signed a letter that pledged not to put profit—or politics—over sound science. 

Science writer Maggie Koerth talks about that letter, as well as bad news for a vaccine clinical trial, which paused this week after an unexplained illness in a participant.

Sep 11, 2020
Fact Check Your Feed, Climate And Fungi, Cells Solve A Maze. September 4, 2020, Part 2
47:04

Can Fungus Survive Climate Change?

One of the most extensive global networks for sharing information and moving around essential nutrients is hidden from us—but it’s right below our feet. 

Networks of fungi often connect trees and plants to one another. But scientists are just starting to untangle what these fungal connections look like, and how important they are. Mycologist Christopher Fernandez explains how these fungal systems might be affected by climate change—and what that means for the entire forest ecosystem.

A Cellular Race Through A Maze

Cells are the basic building blocks of life. Our bodies are made up of trillions and trillions of them, and they all serve a specific purpose. But these tiny workers don’t always stay in the same place. Many move around the body—whether they’re creating a developing embryo, helping the immune system, or, distressingly, spreading cancer.  

A team of scientists in the UK recently set up an experiment to learn more about how cells move. They put dirt-dwelling amoebas and mouse cancer cells at the start of a maze, to see how well each would migrate. 

While amoebas proved speedier than their cancerous counterparts, Luke Tweedy, a postdoctoral researcher at the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow, Scotland, says the cancer cells were surprisingly mobile. 

Tweedy joins Ira to talk about what his team learned about cancer cell movement, and explains why recreating a famous English hedge maze proved to be a little too difficult for his cellular subjects. 

Fact Check Your Feed: Are Kids Really COVID-19 ‘Super Spreaders’?

Late last month, as parents and teachers were gearing up for an unusual and stressful start to the school year, conflicting media reports of coronavirus transmission among children started populating our news feeds. One headline proclaimed, “New study suggests children may be COVID-19 ‘super spreaders,’” while other articles cited researchers saying the opposite. But the disagreement didn’t stop there. Some outlets reported that very few preschoolers are catching the coronavirus, while others cited a study that suggests children younger than 5 may harbor up to 100 times as much of the virus as adults.

Angela Rasmussen, associate professor in the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, joins Ira to talk about the data behind these stories in a round of Fact Check Your Feed. She also explains new testing guidelines issued by the CDC, and a misleading report on the coronavirus death rate. 

Sep 04, 2020
Urban Forests And Climate Change, HIV Treatment Progress. September 4, 2020, Part 1
46:28

New York City’s skyline is dominated by tall skyscrapers—but there’s a surprising amount of forest in the city known as a concrete jungle. Tree canopy actually covers about 20% of the city. In fact, woodlands are one of the few natural resources the city has.

Reporter Clarisa Diaz, in collaboration with John Upton from Climate Central, shares how the city’s green spaces, both large and small, are needed to create an urban forest ecosystem in the face of climate change. Plus, forester David Nowak talks about the science behind planting an urban forest, and how to determine the value of a tree.


Plus, while all eyes are currently on the COVID-19 pandemic, the coronavirus isn’t the only disease circulating the world. Lockdowns have hindered access to medical care, and supply chains for both tests and medications have been disrupted. With countries allocating limited public health resources to battle COVID-19, longstanding public health threats like tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS may be at risk of resurging.

However, there is also hopeful news for communities facing HIV/AIDS. Last week, a study published in the journal Nature examined 64 unusual people who seem to be able to naturally keep HIV at bay. Researchers investigated what makes these so-called ‘elite controllers’ able to manage their infections. They now think powerful T cells—a type of white blood cell which helps regulate the immune system—may hold a clue to these cases.

Furthermore, earlier in the summer, a trial of a long-lasting injectable drug to prevent HIV infection was found to be at least as protective as the existing “pre-exposure prophylaxis,” or PrEP drug, which must be taken daily.

Health and science reporters Apoorva Mandavilli of the New York Times and Jon Cohen of Science join Ira to discuss recent HIV/AIDS developments, and to reflect on 40 years of AIDS research. 

Sep 04, 2020
Milky Way Gas, COVID Ventilation, Immunotherapy And The Microbiome. August 28, 2020, Part 2
47:09

Recently, a group of scientists studying the Milky Way through the world’s largest ground-based radio telescope identified something they had never seen—a cold, dense gas that had been ejected at high speed from the galaxy’s center.

The mystery of this gas—what caused it, how it could move so fast, and where it will end up—prompted research by Enrico Di Teodoro, a scientist in the department of astrophysics at Johns Hopkins University. He joined Science Friday producer Katie Feather to talk about the new discovery, as well as answer some fundamental questions about what is happening at the center of our galaxy.


Plus, this year, back-to-school season comes with some major challenges to keeping students and teachers safe. Recently, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced a plan to give K-12 classes the option to move outdoors; the idea is that an open space, with a fresh breeze, lessens the chance of spreading the coronavirus.

We’ve been brain-storming, too: What if you could bring the benefits of the outdoors inside, by creating better ventilation in the classrooms, akin to outside winds? What would it take to re-design or modify a typical classroom—not to mention your office building or home?

Most modern buildings ventilate space with 80% recycled indoor air, and 20% of fresh outdoor air, to save on energy costs. But Shelly Miller, professor of mechanical engineering at University of Colorado, Boulder says, “In a pandemic, we don’t care about energy efficiency.” Miller explains that to lower the risk of infection, ideally indoor spaces would be ventilated with 100% outdoor air—but most building HVAC systems aren’t strong enough to handle that.

Miller joins Jose-Luis Jimenez, professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at University of Colorado, Boulder to discuss what we know about the coronavirus, and our indoor air space and how we could build safer, healthier indoor spaces for the future.


And cancer immunotherapy, especially a type known as checkpoint inhibitors, has given new hope to many people with cancer. The treatment takes the brakes off the body’s own immune system, allowing it to attack tumor cells. But some people respond to the therapy, while others don’t—and it’s not entirely clear why.

In recent years, researchers have been looking into the microbiome—the collection of microorganisms that live in and on your body—for clues. Studies have found that there’s a microbial difference between people who respond to immunotherapy, and those who don’t. Research recently published in the academic journal Science, suggests scientists may have finally unraveled how one of those bacteria has an effect.

The researchers discovered that Bifidobacterium pseudolongum, a species of bacteria found in elevated levels in the tumors of mice who responded well to immunotherapy, produces a small molecule called inosine—and that under the right conditions, inosine can help to turn on the immune T cells needed to attack a cancerous tumor.

Kathy McCoy, one of the authors of the study, and the director of the IMC Germ-Free Program at the University of Calgary, joins Ira to talk about the study, and the challenges of raising mice without any microbiome at all.

 

 

Aug 28, 2020
Coronavirus Immunity, Ask A Cephalopod Scientist. August 28, 2020, Part 1
47:14

How well you fare in fighting a new pathogen like SARS-CoV2 depends in large part on how your immune system responds to—and kills—the virus. The immune system’s job is to protect you from invasions, both right after you’re infected as well as when you encounter similar viruses in the future.

As the pandemic marches on, we still don’t know exactly how our immune systems tackle this virus. The people who get the sickest seem to have an exaggerated, but ineffective immune response that turns on their own bodies. Others have lasting symptoms, sometimes for months. Immune responses even seem to vary based on your sex.

Increasingly, research suggests that COVID-19 is a disease like many others, at least in some important ways. Your body remembers the virus, and may therefore fight it more effectively the next time you encounter it—which has big implications for eventually developing an effective vaccine.

Immunobiologist Deepta Bhattacharya and New York Times science journalist Katherine J. Wu talk to Ira about the complicated and varied response of the immune system to SARS-CoV2—and why current research suggests we can be optimistic about gaining long-lasting immunity from future COVID-19 vaccines.


Plus, cephalopods—mollusks like octopus, squid, and cuttlefish—seem to universally excite people. Many marine enthusiasts have a favorite, from the color-changing octopus to the multi chambered nautilus.

But these smart, colorful undersea creatures also raise a lot of questions. How do they move? How do they change shape and color? How intelligent are they? How do researchers study these animals?

Squid biologist Sarah McAnulty answers listeners’ questions, and catches us up on the latest cephalopod news


And Hurricane Laura made landfall Wednesday night in Louisiana after strengthening from a Category 1 to a Category 4 storm in less than a day. As residents try to find shelter in pandemic-safe ways, meteorologists are warning of an “unsurvivable” storm surge reaching as far as 30 miles inland.

National Geographic editor Nsikan Akpan describes the factors that have caused the storm to so quickly gain strength. Plus, why recent changes to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations on who should get a coronavirus test and when people should quarantine are alarming epidemiologists and other experts—and other news from the week. 

Aug 28, 2020
Pregnancy And Coronavirus, Good News For Corals. August 21, 2020, Part 1
47:35

There’s no guidebook for how to have a baby during a pandemic. Experiences like having loved ones present at the delivery, or inviting grandparents over to meet a newborn have not been an option for everyone during this time. Lockdowns across the U.S., and varying procedures at hospitals and clinics, have created a whole new set of limitations and concerns for new parents.

Many new parents are dealing with changed birth plans, less in-person health, and the realization that there isn’t much data about how COVID-19, pregnancy and childbirth mix.

Joining Ira to talk about what it’s like to have a baby during COVID-19 are Oge Emetarom, a birth doula and certified lactation counselor at Your Baby Your Birth in Brooklyn, New York, and Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, a clinical instructor at the Infectious Diseases Clinic at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Davis is also a physician at the John Cochran Veterans Hospital.


Plus, over the past few years, news about coral reefs around the world has largely followed one theme: bad news. Coral populations are declining dramatically, with climate change remaining a big threat.

But this month, we got some good news about corals in the Florida Keys. Researchers at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Summerland Key found propagated coral they had outplanted in the ocean spawned in the wild. This is a big deal, as it’s the first time restored corals like these have been observed to reach this sexual reproduction milestone.

Joining Ira to talk about this big breakthrough is Hanna Koch, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Summerland Key, Florida, and Hollie Putnam, assistant professor of biology at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston.


And on Monday, Interior Secretary Secretary David Bernhardt announced the plan that would auction drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Yasmin Tayag of Medium’s OneZero talks about the details of the leases and criticisms of the plan—and checks in on wildfires in California from station KQED.

Aug 21, 2020
Iowa Derecho, Showering And Hygiene, Parasites. August 21, 2020, Part 2
47:38

Dealing With The Aftermath Of Iowa’s Devastating Derecho 

It’s been more than a week since the state of Iowa was hit by a surprise visitor: a line of thunderstorms with unusual power and duration, known as a derecho. The storms swept from South Dakota to Ohio in the course of a day. At its most powerful, the derecho hit Iowa’s Linn County and surroundings with hurricane-force winds amid the rain. Crops like corn and soybeans were flattened, while thousands of homes were damaged—if not completely destroyed. 

Ira talks to Iowa Public Radio reporter Kate Payne and University of Northern Iowa meteorology professor Alan Czarnetzki about the devastating effects and unpredictable power of last week’s storm.

An Argument For The Benefits Of—Not Bathing

COVID has us all taking personal hygiene a lot more seriously these days. But for some, staying home during the pandemic has them rethinking their hygiene routines, including not showering.

If the idea of not showering every day makes you feel icky, how about not showering for years? Writer James Hamblin says he stopped showering five years ago and never looked back. He says his skin has never been better, thanks to his healthy, well-functioning skin microbiome. 

In his new book Clean: The New Science of Skin, Hamblin challenges the conventional wisdom about staying clean, and digs into the history of why we started showering in the first place. He discovered our modern notions of cleanliness have more to do with marketing and advertising than what’s really good for your skin. Hamblin joins Ira to talk about breaking the rules when it comes to cleanliness and discovering the benefits of skipping that shower

Should We Conserve Parasites? Some Scientists Say Yes

The idea of a parasite—an organism that needs a host organism—has always captured our attention and has been the theme of countless movies, from the sci-fi horror film Alien to the Oscar-winning movie Parasite. But a group of scientists say that parasites undeservedly get a bad reputation, and that some of them should even be conserved. They published their 12-point parasite conservation plan in the journal Biological ConservationParasite ecologist Skylar Hopkins and museum curator Kayce Bell, who are both authors on the recent article, talk about the role of parasites in the ecosystem and how a conservation plan might work

Aug 21, 2020
Contraceptive Access, Robot Bias, Story Structure. August 14, 2020, Part 2
47:16

Roboticists, like other artificial intelligence researchers, are concerned about how bias affects our relationship with machines that are supposed to help us. But what happens when the bias is not in the machine itself, but in the people trying to use it?

Ayanna Howard, a roboticist at Georgia Tech, went looking to see if the “gender” of a robot, whether it was a female-coded robotic assistant like Amazon’s Alexa, or a genderless surgeon robot like those currently deployed in hospitals, influenced how people responded. But what she found was something more troubling sexism—we tend not to think of robots as competent at all, regardless of what human characteristics we assign them.

Howard joins producer Christie Taylor to talk about the surprises in her research about machines and biases, as well as how to build robots we can trust. Plus, how COVID-19 is changing our relationships with helpful robots.


Plus, contraceptives have been around since the 19th century, but for decades, more than half of the pregnancies in the United States were unintended. In recent years, that number has improved, but it’s still an astonishingly high 45%. Why is that?

Family planning is a balancing act. Access to contraception, education on how to use it, and new developments that fit the needs of the public are needed. Even though there have been advances in all these fronts we somehow are still not completely hitting the mark. This is reflected in the high percentages of unintended pregnancies. How can we do better?

Linda Gordon, a historian and professor at New York University and author of the book The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America and Cynthia Harper a professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco join producer Alexa Lim to discuss this. 


And, if you hear the words “once upon a time,” you might guess that you’re hearing the beginning of a child’s fairy tale. And if you hear the words “and they all lived happily ever after,” you know you’ve probably come to the end of the story. But what happens in between? Writing in the journal Science Advances, researchers report that by using computerized text analysis methods, they’ve been able to identify words that help indicate the structure of a narrative.

The team analyzed thousands of stories—from fiction found on Project Gutenberg to the transcripts of TED Talks—and found some common rules that seem to apply to most narratives. During a story’s introduction and scene-setting parts, for instance, articles such as “a,” “an,” and “the” feature heavily. Conversely, during moments of crisis and conflict, words like “think,” believe,” and “cause” appear. The researchers wanted to find out if these patterns might function as a sort of signal, helping an audience follow plot lines. However, these patterns don’t necessarily make a story any better—the study did not find that stories using these rules were necessarily more popular.

Ryan Boyd, a psychologist at Lancaster University in the UK, joins Ira to talk about the structure of stories and the rules we use when navigating a narrative. 

 

 

 

Aug 14, 2020
Faster COVID-19 Testing, Hell Ants. August 14, 2020, Part 1
46:43

Throughout the pandemic, testing has continued to be one of the biggest issues, particularly in the United States. Some scientists say that the solution is to rethink our COVID-19 testing strategy, focusing on making faster, cheaper tests. While these more cost-effective tests may be lower in sensitivity than the PCR tests and perhaps not as accurate, they would allow for more people to get tested and receive faster results. The system can also help improve case tracking—which is essential as more people return to work, school, and daily lives. Eric Topol, the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, talks about how these tests can look ahead for infectious patients rather than those already infected. Plus, epidemiologist Anne Wylie walks us through what the process would look like to develop a rapid test.


Plus, we’re back with another installment of the Charismatic Creature Corner! This is Science Friday’s place to highlight creatures (broadly defined) that we think are charismatic (even more broadly defined).

This month, we’re bringing you an ancient ant relative with a possibly offputting name: the Hell Ant. This insect was a subspecies of ants that lived in the Cretaceous period, when T. rexes and velociraptors roamed the earth. The largest hell ants were about a centimeter and a half long, which isn’t much different than some modern ants.

What makes hell ants so cool, however, is their dramatic headgear. They sport jaws that look like mammoth tusks, sticking out of their faces and moving up and down, a motion similar to our own jaws. Hell ants also had horn-like protrusions coming out of their foreheads, which may have helped them catch and eat prey.

SciFri’s new Charismatic Creatures Correspondent Kathleen Davis tries to convince Ira that these extinct insects are worthy of the coveted Charismatic Creature title, with the help of Phil Barden, assistant professor of biology at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, New Jersey. 


Also, climate activists have struggled to convince lawmakers to meaningfully reduce the country’s carbon footprint. Now, new research ties air pollution’s monetary cost to arguments for change. As Vox reports, a Duke University researcher presented findings to Congress last week that air pollution’s effects are roughly twice as bad as previously thought, potentially costing the United States as much as $700 billion per year in avoidable death, illness, and lost productivity—more than the estimated price tag for transitioning to clean energy.

 

Aug 14, 2020
SciFri en Español: El Río Hirviente De Perú Tiene Más De Lo Que El Ojo Ve
20:53

En el verano del 2019, Rosa Vásquez Espinoza bioquímica y candidata a Ph.D. en la Universidad de Michigan Ann Arbor, fue en una expedición al Río Hirviente en la Amazonía peruana para colectar microbios. Ahora, está tratando de comprender el papel que juegan los microbios en la creación de productos naturales, y cómo esa maquinaria se podría utilizar más adelante para manufacturar posibles medicamentos y terapéuticos. En esta nueva entrevista de SciFri en Español, recipiente de la beca en medio de comunicación de la AAAS (siglas en inglés) Attabey Rodríguez Benítez habla con Vásquez Espinosa sobre su investigación en el Río Hirviente de Perú

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Aug 12, 2020
Biden Climate Plan, Boiling River. August 7, 2020, Part 1
47:01

Last month, Vice President Joe Biden unveiled his plan for climate change—a sweeping $2 trillion dollar platform that aims to tighten standards for clean energy, decarbonize the electrical grid by 2035, and reach carbon neutrality for the whole country by 2050. Biden’s plan, like the Green New Deal, purports to create millions of jobs at a time when people are reeling financially from the pandemic—proposing employment opportunities including retrofitting buildings, converting electrical grids and vehicles, and otherwise transforming the country into an energy efficient, emissions-free economy.

But are the foundations of this plan on solid scientific ground? Yes, say Ira’s guests, political scientist Leah Stokes and energy systems engineer Sally Benson. Stokes and Benson run through Biden’s proposals, explaining what’s ambitious, what’s pragmatic, and what people might show up to vote for.


Deep in the largest rainforest of Latin America is the Peruvian Boiling River, a name earned from water that can reach 100°C—or about 212°F. 

While the river is hot enough to cook any animal unfortunate enough to wind up in it, its microbes don’t mind. They can handle the heat—and their odd survival mechanisms might have medicinal value. 

Joining Ira to talk about these tiny heat-seekers and the Peruvian Boiling River is Rosa Vásquez Espinoza, a Ph.D. candidate in chemical biology at the University of Michigan. 

See photos and video of Rosa Vásquez Espinoza’s expedition to the Boiling River and learn more about her research on extreme microbes in a feature article on SciFri. 


It’s been a busy week for science news. Cities are still grappling with COVID-19, and in New York City, previously the country’s largest coronavirus hotspot, health commissioner Oxiris Barbot has resigned. She cited Mayor Bill de Blasio’s handling of the pandemic as her reason for doing so, issuing a scathing statement on her way out the door. Barbot is just one of the many health officials around the country who have butted heads with the politicians that oversee them during the pandemic.

And across the world, devastating explosions in Beirut, Lebanon have injured thousands and killed several dozen. As officials piece together why this happened, they’re pointing to a warehouse of ammonium nitrate as the source of the blasts. 

Joining Ira to talk about these stories, and other science news of the week, is Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American in New York, New York.

Aug 07, 2020
The End of Everything, Bright Fluorescence, Gene Editing a Squid. August 7, 2020, Part 2
47:14

When it comes to the eventual end of our universe, cosmologists have a few classic theories: the Big Crunch, where the universe reverses its expansion and contracts again, setting the stars themselves on fire in the process. Or the Big Rip, where the universe expands forever—but in a fundamentally unstable way that tears matter itself apart. Or it might be heat death, in which matter and energy become equally distributed in a cold, eventless soup.

These theories have continued to evolve as we gain new understandings from particle accelerators and astronomical observations. As our understanding of fundamental physics advances, new ideas about the ending are joining the list. Take vacuum decay, a theory that’s been around since the 1970s, but which gained new support when CERN confirmed detection of the Higgs Boson particle. The nice thing about vacuum decay, writes cosmologist Katie Mack in her new book, The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking), is that it could happen at any time, and would be almost instantaneous—painless, efficient.

Mack joins Ira to talk about the diversity of universe-ending theories, and how cosmologists like her think about the big questions, like where the universe started, how it might end, and what happens after it does


Over the years, researchers have created thousands of chemical dyes that fluoresce in every color of the rainbow—but there’s a catch. Most of those dyes fluoresce most brightly when they’re in a dilute liquid solution. Now, researchers say they’ve created what they call a “plug-and-play” approach to locking those dyes into a solid form, without dimming their light.  

The new strategy uses a colorless, donut-shaped molecule called a cyanostar. When combined with fluorescent dye, cyanostar molecules insulate the dye molecules from each other, and allow them to pack closely together in an orderly checkerboard—resulting in brightly-fluorescing solid materials

Amar Flood, a professor of chemistry at Indiana University, says the new materials can be around thirty times brighter than other materials on a per-volume basis, and the approach works for any number of off-the-shelf dyes—no tweaking required. Flood joins SciFri’s Charles Bergquist to discuss the work and possible applications for the new technology.


Scientists at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory recently thrilled the genetics world by announcing they’ve successfully knocked out a gene in squid for the first time

“I’m like a kid in a candy store with how much opportunity there is now,” says Karen Crawford, one of the researchers and a biology professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Crawford explains this modification has huge implications for the study of genetics: Squids’ big brains mean this work could hold the key to breakthroughs in research for human genetic diseases, like Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis.

Joining Ira to talk about the news are Crawford and her co-lead on the research, Josh Rosenthal, a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. 

Aug 07, 2020