Science Friday

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 Feb 12, 2020

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 Dec 11, 2019
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Brain fun for curious people.

Episode Date
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, former 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
COVID In Prisons, How Sperm Swim. July 31, 2020, Part 2
47:36

As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread, it’s become clear certain populations are particularly at risk—including those serving sentences in prisons and jails. The virus has torn through correctional and detention centers across the U.S., with more than 78,000 incarcerated people testing positive for COVID-19 as of July 28, according to the Marshall Project’s data report. 

“Prisons are just the worst possible environment if we are trying to reduce infectious disease,” Zinzi Bailey told SciFri earlier this week on the phone. She is a social epidemiologist at the University of Miami and a principal investigator of the COVID Prison Project, which tracks and analyzes coronavirus data in U.S. correctional facilities. “A lot of people would argue that the conditions are inhumane.” Disease outbreaks have swept through prisons in the past, often due to poor living conditions and limited access to proper health care, Bailey explains. Hepatitis, tuberculosis, and HIV are just a few of the diseases that have historically hit inmates hard.

Now, the incarcerated, correctional officers, and staff members are battling COVID-19. Detention centers are notoriously overcrowded, making it easy for the virus to spread. The cramped, dormitory-style living conditions, shared spaces, and infrequent sanitation can contribute to increased risk of exposure and infection. In Ohio, for example, the prison system is at 130% capacity, making it “basically impossible” to socially distance inmates, Paige Pfleger, health reporter at WOSU in Columbus, Ohio, told SciFri on the phone last week. 

Yet incarcerated people living in these conditions have little to no access to protection. Some have resorted to making face coverings out of shirts and boxer shorts. At the beginning of the pandemic, some correctional officers in Arizona prisons were not allowed to wear masks. 

“Correctional officers were originally told that if they did wear masks, it would scare inmates—that they’re going to think, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a really serious virus,’” says Jimmy Jenkins, senior field correspondent and criminal justice reporter at KJZZ in Phoenix, Arizona. “I got letters from all these inmates saying they were scared of dying.”

Access to testing among the incarcerated population has also varied state to state. Ohio conducted mass tests in some of the facilities in April, but have been unable to retest in order to track community spread, says Pfleger. In Arizona, inmates are reporting that “only the sickest of the sick are actually getting tested,” says Jenkins.

Coronavirus outbreaks in prisons often spill over into the rest of the community. Contract workers and correctional officers coming in and out of detention facilities can cause further spread of the virus. This is concerning, particularly in Black, Latino, and Native American communities with an already increased risk of contracting the disease.

“We believe that there’s going to be a connection between the communities of color that are around prisons, and the prisons themselves,” says John Eason, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who spoke to Science Friday over the phone earlier in the week. In an ongoing study with the Dane County Criminal Justice Council, “we’re going to be able to parse that out to see the role of corrections officers.” He suspects they may find officers are “basically incubators—or vectors between communities and the prisons that they work in.”

The inmates are like “guinea pigs,” says Zinzi Bailey. “It’s like an experiment, and we are letting it run its course in these prisons,” she says—but one without an ethical review. “What is being made clear through this pandemic is the United States’ reliance on incarceration makes us more vulnerable to pandemics like this.”

Paige Pfleger and Jimmy Jenkins tell us more about how their states are responding to coronavirus outbreaks in prisons. Then, social epidemiologist Zinzi Bailey provides a closer look at the trends in American prisons—and what COVID-19 is revealing about public health in these systems


We didn’t always understand the basic science of where babies come from. Theories abounded, but until the 19th century, there was little understanding of how exactly pregnancy occurred, or even how much each parent actually contributed to the reproductive process. 

In 1677, a Dutch scientist named Antonie van Leeuwenhoek peered into a microscope and observed, for the first time in recorded history, the side-to-side swimming of tiny sperm cells. He wrote they looked like “an eel swimming in water.” At the time, van Leeuwenhoek thought those cells were tiny worms—maybe even parasites. It took several hundred more years before scientists understood even the crude theory of reproduction as most of us are taught: That a sperm and an egg cell combine inside the fallopian tubes.

But, as it turns out, even the movement of sperm first described by van Leeuwenhoek—and corroborated ever since in two-dimensional, overhead microscope views—might be wrong. A team of scientists writing in the journal Science Advances this week report finally viewing sperm movement in three dimensions. With the help of 3D microscopy and high-speed photography, they describe a “wonky,” lopsided swimming motion that would keep sperm swimming in circles—if they didn’t also have a corkscrew-like spin that let them move forward “like playful otters.”

Hermes Gadelha, a senior lecturer in mathematical and data modeling at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, talks to John Dankosky about the complexity and beauty of these swimming cells, and why understanding their movement better could lead to breakthroughs in infertility treatment—or even other kinds of medicine.

Jul 31, 2020
Science In Space, Sports and COVID, Science Diction. July 31, 2020, Part 1
47:01

Astronauts have conducted all sorts of experiments in the International Space Station—from observations of microgravity on the human to body to growing space lettuce. But recently, cosmonauts bioengineered human cartilage cells into 3D structures aboard the station, using a device that utilizes magnetic levitation. 

The results were recently published in the journal Science Advances. Electrical engineer Utkan Demirci and stem cell biologist Alysson Muotri what removing gravity can reveal about basic biological questions, and how you design experiments to run in space


Major League Baseball’s season opened to great fanfare last week, amid the pandemic. But 18 players and staff of the Miami Marlins have already tested positive for COVID-19—forcing the team to pause their season until at least next week. Meanwhile, the NBA has quarantined their entire roster in a bubble in the Magic Kingdom in Florida. 

Sports reporter Ben Cohen and epidemiologist Zachary Binney talk about the strategies and effectiveness of different leagues as competitive sports attempt to make a COVID-19 comeback


Ketchup has long been central to American culture. We use it in hot dogs, burgers, fries—and the list goes on. But have you ever wondered why we even call it ‘ketchup,’ or where the condiment came from?  

It turns out there are many words related to food—like restaurant, umami, and “rocky road”—that have an interesting science backstory. To trace the origins of these words, Science Friday’s word nerd Johanna Mayer joins John Dankosky to talk about the origins of the word ketchup, and the new season of her podcast ‘Science Diction.’


As American pharmaceutical company Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate entered Phase 3 of human clinical trials this week—an important step in what is still an early phase of its development—Russia claims a vaccine of its own will be approved for use as soon as mid-August, prompting safety concerns. But questions about vaccines extend far beyond who is first. What happens next for the people around the world waiting for protection from the pandemic? As Science Magazine reports, rich nations have placed hundreds of millions of advance orders for successful vaccines, while poorer countries worry that there will be little left for everyone else.

Maggie Koerth, senior science reporter for FiveThirtyEight, discusses this story and more news from the week, including the discovery of 100-million-year-old microbes living beneath the ocean floor.

 

Jul 31, 2020
SciFri Extra: The Origin Of The Word 'Ketchup'
19:11

Science Diction is back! This time around, the team is investigating the science, language, and history of food. First up: Digging into America's favorite condiment, ketchup!

At the turn of the 20th century, 12 young men sat in the basement of the Department of Agriculture, eating meals with a side of borax, salicylic acid, or formaldehyde. They were called the Poison Squad, and they were part of a government experiment to figure out whether popular food additives were safe. (Spoiler: Many weren’t.) Food manufacturers weren’t pleased with the findings, but one prominent ketchup maker paid attention. Influenced by these experiments, he transformed ketchup into the all-American condiment that we know and love today. Except ketchup—both the sauce and the word—didn't come from the United States. The story of America’s favorite condiment begins in East Asia.

Want more Science Diction? Subscribe on Apple podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Guest

Alan Lee is a freelance linguist and native Hokkien speaker. 

Footnotes And Further Reading

The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum tells the very entertaining history of Harvey Wiley, the early days of food regulation in the United States, and, of course, the Poison Squad.

The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky is a word nerd’s dream, and contains more on ketchup’s early history. Special thanks to Dan Jurafsky for providing background information on the early history of ketchup for this episode. 

Can't get enough ketchup history? Check out Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment With Recipes by Andrew F. Smith.

Learn more about ketchup's early origins in Dan Jurafsky's Slate article on "The Cosmopolitan Condiment." 

Credits

Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our editor and producer is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey. Our Chief Content Office is Nadja Oertelt. Fact checking by Michelle Harris, with help from Danya AbdelHameid. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer, and they wrote our version of the “Song of the Poison Squad.” We had research help from Cosmo Bjorkenheim and Attabey Rodríguez Benítez. Sound design and mastering by Chris Wood.

Jul 28, 2020
Three Missions To Mars, COVID Fact Check, Solar Probes. July 24, 2020, Part 1
49:07

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, your news feed is likely still overflowing with both breaking research and rumors. Virologist Angela Rasmussen of Columbia University joins Ira once again to Fact Check Your Feed, discussing everything from two vaccine trials’ hopeful early results to what antibody production might mean for long-term protection against the COVID-19 virus. They also discuss kids’ response to SARS-CoV-2—a topic of great interest to parents and educators trying to make plans for the coming school year—as well as the confusing terminology around ‘aerosol’ and ‘airborne,’ and research into mutations of the spike protein in one coronavirus variant.


Recently, the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter satellite sent photos of surprising events on the sun’s surface. Scientists are calling these swirling areas “campfires,” though no one is quite sure what causes them.

Joining Ira to talk about these new images is Anik de Groof, instrument operations scientist for the Solar Orbiter, based in Madrid, Spain. They talk about what kind of data the satellite is collecting, how COVID-19 impacted the mission, and what solar mysteries Anik is most excited to learn more about.


This month, three different countries are launching missions to Mars—the first for The United Arab Emirates, China is sending an orbiter and a rover, and NASA’s Perseverance will join the Curiosity rover already on the ground. Amy Nordrum from MIT Technology Review talks about the science that each of these missions will be conducting

Jul 24, 2020
Long-Term COVID Effects, Dicamba and Agriculture, Mosquitoes. July 24, 2020, Part 2
47:27

Since the beginning of the pandemic, hospitals have been treating and triaging an influx of COVID-19 patients. Hundreds of thousands of seriously ill patients have been hospitalized, with some having to stay and receive care for months at a time.  

But now as some of those patients return home, hospitals are opening post-COVID clinics to help with their transition. Health care professionals are monitoring the recovery process and taking note of persisting health issues from the disease.

Mafuzur Rahman, clinician and leader of the post-discharge COVID-19 clinic at SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn, New York, and Margaret Wheeler, a physician at the Richard Fine’s People Clinic at San Francisco General Hospital, talk about the health effects they have seen in their patients and what patients may need for recovery.


A federal court in California recently vacated the three popular dicamba herbicides—Xtendimax, Fexipan, and Engenia—after the court determined the EPA violated the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) by registering the chemicals for use. Environmental advocates rejoiced, while farm groups lamented the decision as yet another hurdle for farmers to overcome during a difficult year.

More herbicides could face legal challenges in the coming years. But they were once part of a golden era of U.S. agriculture, and a key player in the rise of modern industrialized growing systems.


There are over 3,000 mosquitoes, but only a handful feast on blood, like the yellow fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti. Other mammals also have blood running through their veins, but are bit less frequently. So why do mosquitoes love humans so much?

New research on these bugs look into the cause, investigating mosquitoes’ preference for certain mammal odors and human population densities. Another paper examines a potential gene solution to decrease mosquito bites—thus lowering transmission of mosquito-borne diseases. Joining Ira to talk about the latest research and more mosquito science is “Lindy” McBride, biology assistant professor at Princeton University and Jake Tu, biochemistry professor at Virginia Tech.

Jul 24, 2020
How Brains Organize Smells, Plant Evolution In Art, New Hearing Aids. July 17, 2020, Part 2
46:48

How we smell has been a bit of a mystery to scientists. Other senses are easier to understand: For example, it’s possible to predict what a color will look like based on its wavelength. But predicting what a new molecule will smell like is more difficult.

Our sense of smell can be quite complex. Take the delicious smell of morning coffee—that aroma is made up of more than 800 individual molecules.

How does our brain keep track of the millions of scents that we sniff? To find out, a group of scientists gave mice different molecules to smell, and tracked what patterns were formed in their brains. Their results were recently published in the journal Nature.

Neurobiologist Robert Datta, one of the authors on that study, joins Ira to discuss how our brains make patterns every time we sniff, and how wine aficionados train their noses to decode the different scents in wine.


To understand variation in living things, scientists often compare specimens, recording the details. This kind of scientific investigation has long been practiced: Charles Darwin, for example, made sketches of everything from finch beaks to barnacles shells in his field notebooks. Today, natural history museums store these catalogues in shelves and drawers of preserved specimens.

But scientists can also draw from less likely forums. Recently, one team of researchers—an art historian and a plant biologist—documented the different plant species represented in historical paintings and sculptures. Their results were published in the journal Trends in Plant Science. Plant biologist Ive de Smet and art historian David Vergauwen discuss what a 17th century painting by Giovanni Stanchi can reveal about watermelon evolution, as well as other trends in strawberries, potatoes, and other plants spotted in works of art.


Have you ever met a friend for dinner at a restaurant, only to have trouble hearing each other talk over the din of other diners? And as we get older, this phenomenon only gets worse and can be compounded by age-related hearing loss and conditions like tinnitus.

Unfortunately there is no silver bullet for tinnitus or other forms of hearing loss, and researchers don’t even understand all the ways in which the auditory system can go awry. But we now have more sophisticated technology to help us cope with it. 

Nowadays, there are over-the-counter hearing aids and assistive listening devices that connect with your smartphone. Certain tech allows you to amplify softer sounds and cancel out the noise of a crowded room—it can even focus on the sound waves created by the person you’re speaking with. 

Ira chats with David Owen, New Yorker staff writer and author of the new book Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World about the industry that’s helping millions of Americans cope with hearing loss.

Jul 18, 2020
Coronavirus And Schools, New Mars Rover. July 17, 2020, Part 1
47:10

As we approach August, many of our young listeners and their parents are starting to think about going back to school. Usually, that might mean getting new notebooks and pencils, and the excitement of seeing classmates after a summer apart.

But COVID-19 makes this upcoming school year different. Big districts, including Los Angeles and San Diego public schools, will be completely remote this fall. Other districts are looking at hybrid programs, with some time in the classroom and some at home. Still others want kids to return to the classroom full-time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says schools should adjust plans based on how many coronavirus cases are in the community. Schools with little transmission may be able to go back to the classroom, but with more sanitation efforts and no sports events. For communities with high levels of spread, the CDC says stronger measures are needed, like staggered arrivals and dismissals, kids staying in one classroom, or all-remote education. However, Vice President Mike Pence said this week that CDC guidance should not dictate whether schools open for in-classroom instruction.

Joining Ira to talk about what to consider in back-to-school plans are Pedro Noguera, dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and Laura Fuchs, a high school history teacher and secretary of the Washington Teachers’ Union in Washington, D.C.


In just a few weeks, NASA is scheduled to launch its newest rover in the direction of Mars. Perseverance, the formal name for the Mars 2020 mission’s rover, is now safely at Cape Canaveral, strapped to its Atlas V rocket, waiting only for the launch window to open.

If all goes well, Perseverance will begin roving Mars next February. Once on Mars, it will join its cousin Curiosity in combing through the dust and rocks of the red planet—but where Curiosity hunts inside a meteor crater for water and other signs of suitability for life, Perseverance will scour an ancient river delta for the traces left by potential microscopic life.

Ira talks to two Perseverance masterminds, deputy project scientist Katie Stack Morgan and aerospace engineer Diana Trujillo, about the challenges of building for space exploration, and what it takes to conduct science experiments 70 million miles from Earth.

Jul 17, 2020
Great Indoors, Science Museums, Who Owns The Sky. July 10, 2020, Part 2
46:47

A whole lot of folks’ summer plans have been cut short this season. Maybe you were planning a family road trip to visit a national park. Or your local science museum. Now, you can watch from home, as Emily Graslie, executive producer, host, and writer for the PBS series “Prehistoric Road Trip,” takes us along for the ride to some of the big geologic sites across the country. She talks about the future of museums and science communication. “Prehistoric Road Trip” is currently streaming on pbs.org. 


There’s a whole thriving, diverse microbiome that lives in your home. One 2010 study of North Carolina homes found an average of 2,000 types of microbes per house. And there’s likely a menagerie of arthropods living with you, too. Another study found that homes contain an average population of about a hundred invertebrate species, including spiders, mites, earwigs, cockroaches, and moths.

There’s no need to panic: These thriving ecosystems are doing us more good than we give them credit for. Children who grow up exposed to an abundance of microbes are less sensitive to allergens, and appear to have better developed immune systems throughout their lives. Science journalist Emily Anthes talks about the indoor microbiome in her new book, The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness. She joins Ira to discuss what she learned about the unique microbiome of her own home while writing the book, and the vast biodiversity of the indoors.


In the last year, Elon Musk’s SpaceX company has launched more than 500 small satellites, the beginning of a project that Musk says will create a worldwide network of internet access for those who currently lack it. But there’s a problem: The reflective objects in their low-earth orbit shine brighter than actual stars in the 90 minutes after sunset. In astronomical images taken during these times, the ‘constellations’ of closely grouped satellites show up as bright streaks of light that distort images of far-away galaxies.

With SpaceX planning to launch up to 12,000 satellites, and other companies contemplating thousands more, the entire night sky might change—and not just at twilight. Astronomers have voiced concerns that these satellites will disrupt sensitive data collection needed to study exoplanets, near-earth asteroids, dark matter, and more. And there’s another question on the minds of scientists, photographers, Indigenous communities, and everyone else who places high value on the darkness of the night sky: Who gets to decide to put all these objects in space in the first place

Astronomers Aparna Venkatesan and James Lowenthal discuss the risks of too many satellites, both to science and culture, and why it may be time to update the laws that govern space to include more voices. Plus, astronomer Annette Lee of the Lakota tribe sends a message about her cultural relationship with the night sky.

Plus, NASA is asking amateur astronomers and photography enthusiasts to take as many pictures as they can of the Starslink “streaks.” You can help NASA document the night sky—and the changes happening there—by uploading your sky photos to the Satellite Streak Watcher research project. All you need to get started is a digital camera or smartphone, a tripod, and a long exposure on a clear evening. Click here to participate!

Jul 10, 2020
Degrees of Change: Changing Behavior. July 10, 2020, Part 1
46:05

Over the past months, our Degrees of Change series has looked at some of the many ways our actions affect the climate, and how our changing climate is affecting us—from the impact of the fashion industry on global emissions to the ways in which coastal communities are adapting to rising tides.

But beyond the graphs and figures, how do you get people to actually take action? And are small changes in behavior enough—or is a reshaping of society needed to deal with the climate crisis?

Climate journalist Eric Holthaus and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, founder of the Urban Ocean Lab, talk with Ira about creating a climate revolution, the parallels between the climate crisis and other conversations about social structures like Black Lives Matter, and the challenges of working towards a better future in the midst of the chaos of 2020. Then Matthew Goldberg, a researcher at the Yale Project on Climate Communication, shares some tips for having difficult climate conversations with friends and family


More than 200 scientists this week wrote a letter to the World Health Organization (WHO), reporting there’s a good chance that COVID-19 can be spread through the air. While the WHO has previously said most transmission happens from direct contact with droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze, these experts say the virus can actually stay suspended in the air. If this is true, it’s bad news for people who gather in crowded, poorly ventilated spaces. A lot of questions remain, however, about if this is accurate. 

Joining Ira to talk about this story, and more is Nsikan Akpan, a science editor at National Geographic, based in Washington, D.C. 

Jul 10, 2020
Summer Science Books, Naked Mole Rats. July 3, 2020, Part 2
46:51

The pandemic has nixed many summer vacation plans, but our summer science book list will help you still escape. While staying socially distant, you can take a trip to the great outdoors to unlock the mysteries of bird behaviors. Or instead of trekking to a museum, you can learn about the little-known history of lightbulbs, clocks, and other inventions.

Our guests Stephanie Sendaula and Sarah Olson Michel talk with Ira about their favorite science book picks for summer reading.


Naked mole rats, native to East Africa, are strange mammals: They’re almost completely hairless. They live in underground colonies, like ants. And, like ants and bees, they have a single reproducing “queen.”

Their biology is also unique: They resist cancer, live a long time for such small rodents (often for 30 years or more), and have been found not just to tolerate high, normally toxic levels of carbon dioxide in their nests—but require them. And in the newest strange discovery, researchers writing in Cell earlier this year found that mole rats were prone to anxiety and even seizures when carbon dioxide levels get too low, such as in an environment similar to above-ground air.

Ira talks to the paper’s co-author Dan McCloskey, a neuroscientist at the City University of New York. McCloskey explains why mole rat brains might be helpful guides to human brains, especially in the case of infants who have seizures with high fevers. Plus, the mystery of how such homebodies found new colonies, and other naked mole rat oddities.

Jul 03, 2020
Making The Outdoors Great For Everyone. July 3, 2020, Part 1
47:16

It’s the start to a holiday weekend, which often means spending time outdoors, whether that’s going to the beach, on a hike, or grilling in a park. But not everyone feels safe enjoying the great outdoors—and we’re not talking about getting mosquito bites or sunburns.

In late May, a white woman, Amy Cooper, called the police on a Black bird watcher who asked her to leash her dog. This incident felt familiar to many other Black outdoor enthusiasts, many of whom had encountered similar experiences of racism outside.

To understand why the outdoors is an unwelcoming place for some people, we need to look back at our violent history. Joining Ira to talk about this is Dr. Carolyn Finney, author of the book Black Faces, White Spaces. She is also a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.

And later in the conversation, Ira is joined by two scientists, biology graduate student Corina Newsome from Statesboro, Georgia, and exploration geoscientist Tim Shin from Houston, Texas. They’ll talk about what it’s like to do fieldwork while Black, and what responsibility academic institutions should have in keeping their students safe.

 


As coronavirus cases surge across the U.S., including in Texas, Florida, Arizona, and California, it’s more important than ever to have an accurate and real-time understanding of transmission. Epidemiologists have been measuring the spread of the virus based on the number of individual people who test positive. But depending on when people get tested, and how long it takes to get their results, confirmed cases can lag days behind actual infections.

Luckily, there’s another way to find out where people are getting sick: The virus that causes COVID-19 can be detected in feces, and for months, researchers have been studying whether sampling sewage systems can help identify new outbreaks faster.

Scientific American technology editor Sophie Bushwick joins Ira to talk about the value of sewage tracing for COVID-19. Plus, a new sparrow song has gone viral in Canada, and why summer fireworks can damage not only your hearing, but also your lungs.

Jul 03, 2020
Honeybee Health, Assessing COVID Risk, Seeing Numbers. June 26, 2020, Part 2
46:35

This past year was a strange one for beekeepers. According to a survey from the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership, U.S. beekeepers lost more than 40% of their honey bee colonies between April of 2019 and April of 2020. That’s significantly more than normal.

The Bee Informed Partnership has surveyed professional and amateur beekeepers for the past 14 years to monitor how their colonies are doing. They reach more than 10% of beekeepers in the U.S., so their survey is thought to be a pretty accurate look at what’s going on across the country.

That’s why these latest results are so important—and they raise a lot of questions for honey bee researchers. Honey bees are responsible for pollinating a lot of the food grown in the U.S. If they’re in trouble, we’re in trouble.

Nathalie Steinhauer, research coordinator for the Bee Informed Partnership in College Park, Maryland, joins producer Kathleen Davis to talk about the report, and what it means for our beloved pollinators.


As coronavirus cases spike in re-opened states like Arizona, Texas, and Florida, you may be wondering how to weigh the risks of socializing—whether it’s saying yes to a socially distant barbecue, going on a date, or meeting an old friend for coffee.

Many health departments and media outlets have offered guides to being safer while out and about. But when the messages are confusing, or you’re facing a new situation, how can you apply what you know about the virus to make the best choice for you?

Ira talks to Oni Blackstock, a primary care physician and an assistant commissioner at the New York City Health Department, and Abraar Karan, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, about minimizing risk, and why an all-or-nothing approach to COVID-19 can do more harm than good.


Imagine looking at an elementary school poster that shows the alphabet, and the numbers one through 10. The letters make perfect sense to you, as do the numbers zero and one. But instead of a curvy number “2,” or the straight edges of the number “4,” all you see is a messy tangle of lines. That’s the phenomenon experienced by RFS, a man identified only by his initials for privacy reasons.

In 2011, RFS was diagnosed with a condition called corticobasal syndrome, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder. Normally, that rare condition primarily affects motor circuitry in the brain. However, RFS had an additional symptom—while he was very skilled at math, he became unable to see the written digits 2 through 9. When RFS looked at one of those numbers, he saw in its place something “very strange” that he could only describe as “visual spaghetti.” Even weirder, other images placed on top of or nearby the digits also became completely distorted.

Teresa Schubert and David Rothlein, two scientists who studied RFS’ case as graduate students, discuss what this unusual phenomenon tells us about how the human brain processes incoming visual information.

Jun 26, 2020
Checking In On Kids’ Mental Health During the Pandemic. June 26, 2020, Part 1
46:35

In the U.S., we’re heading into the fourth month of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing and lockdowns have taken a toll on everyone’s mental and emotional well-being—including children and teens, many of whom may be having trouble processing what’s going on. 

Psychologists Archana Basu and Robin Gurwitch discuss the unique issues the pandemic brings up for children and teens. They talk about how parents and caregivers can support the mental health of the kids and teens in their lives, helping them better cope with isolation and uncertainty, as well as learning remotely during the pandemic

Jun 26, 2020
SciFri Extra: A Pragmatic Wishlist For AI Ethics
16:35

Earlier this month, three major tech companies publicly distanced themselves from the facial recognition tools used by police: IBM said they would stop all such research, while Amazon and Microsoft said they would push pause on any plans to give facial recognition technology to domestic law enforcement. And just this week, the city of Boston banned facial surveillance technology entirely.

Why? Facial recognition algorithms built by companies like Amazon have been found to misidentify people of color, especially women of color, at higher rates—meaning when police use facial recognition to identify suspects who are not white, they are more likely to arrest the wrong person. 

CEOs are calling for national laws to govern this technology, or programming solutions to remove the racial biases and other inequities from their code. But there are others who want to ban it entirely—and completely re-envision how AI is developed and used in communities.

In this SciFri Extra, we continue a conversation between producer Christie Taylor, Deborah Raji from NYU’s AI Now Institute, and Princeton University’s Ruha Benjamin about how to pragmatically move forward to build artificial intelligence technology that takes racial justice into account—whether you’re an AI researcher, a tech company, or a policymaker.

Jun 24, 2020
Facial Recognition, Hummingbird Vision, Moon Lander. June 19, 2020, Part 2
47:10

Protests Shine Light On Facial Recognition Tech Problems

Earlier this month, three major tech companies publicly distanced themselves from the facial recognition tools used by police. IBM CEO Arvind Krishna explained their company's move was because of facial recognition’s use in racial profiling and mass surveillance. Facial recognition algorithms built by companies like Amazon have been found to misidentify people of color, especially women of color, at higher rates—meaning when police use facial recognition to identify suspects who are not white, they are more likely to arrest the wrong person.

Nevertheless, companies have been pitching this technology to the government. CEOs are calling for national laws to govern this technology, or programming solutions to remove the racial biases and other inequities from their code. But there are others who want to ban it entirely—and completely re-envisioning how AI is developed and used in communities.

SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to Ruha Benjamin, a sociologist, and AI researcher Deborah Raji about the relationship between AI and racial injustice, and their visions for slower, more community-oriented processes for tech and data science.

Hummingbirds See Beyond The Rainbow

Conventional wisdom suggests hummingbirds really like the color red—it’s the reason many commercial hummingbird feeders are made to look like a kind of red blossom. But it turns out that two items that both look “red” to humans may look very different to a hummingbird. That’s because these birds can see colors that humans cannot.

Humans see colors through photoreceptors called cones, and we have three of them for red, green, and blue colors. But most birds, reptiles, and even some fish also have fourth cone that’s sensitive to UV light. That means they can see further into the spectrum than we can, and that they can see “non-spectral colors”—combinations of colors that aren’t directly adjacent on the rainbow, such as red+UV and green+UV.

Mary Caswell Stoddard, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, set out to study whether hummingbirds actually make use of that ability in their everyday lives. Her team's research was published this week in the academic journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A NASA Rover Is Catching A Private Ride To The Moon

Last week, NASA announced that it had signed a $199.5 million contract with the private company Astrobotic to deliver NASA’s VIPER rover to the moon in 2023. The company will be responsible for the rover for getting the rover from Earth into space, up until the moment the rover rolls onto the lunar surface near the moon’s south pole. The rover is designed to explore for water and other resources—especially the large stores of water ice that scientists suspect may be frozen in lunar polar regions. Astrobotic CEO John Thornton joins Ira to talk about the challenges of building a new lunar lander, and the increasing involvement of commercial industry in the U.S. space program.

 

Jun 19, 2020
Doctor Burnout, International Doctors. June 19, 2020, Part 1
47:36

A Crisis Of Health In Healthcare Workers

Content Warning: This segment contains talk of suicide. For help for people considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Depression and anxiety are extremely common in healthcare workers, and they have higher rates of suicide than the general public—doctors in particular are twice as likely to die by suicide. That’s when the world is operating normally. Now, healthcare workers are also dealing with a devastating pandemic, and the uncertainty surrounding a new disease. And some healthcare workers are using what little emotional labor they have left to advocate in the streets and online for racial justice. 

Joining Ira to talk about burnout in the healthcare industry are Steven McDonald, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York, and Kali Cyrus, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

Insights From International Doctors On The Frontlines Of The Pandemic

 

In March, governors Andrew Cuomo in New York and Gavin Newsome in California put out a call for medical professionals to come to their states to help with the COVID-19 crisis. Many of those on the frontlines aren’t just from out of the state, but from out of the country. International medical professionals are estimated to make up a quarter of working doctors in the U.S.  

Journalist Max Blau talks about the role of international doctors in the U.S. medical system and how they have been affected during the pandemic. Then international resident physicians Quinn Lougheide and Muhammad Jahanzaib Anwar share stories from aiding COVID-19 patients in Bronx, New York.

PG&E Guilty Plea Sets A Precedent For Climate Change Culpability

 

In 2018, the devastating Camp Fire wildfire swept through northern California, killing 84 people. Utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric, or PG&E, was deemed to be responsible for the spark that caused the fire. This week, the company pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter for the deaths, marking the first case of its kind. The decision sets a precedent for future legal battles over holding companies accountable for climate change, and how that burden should be split. 

Vox staff writer Umair Irfan joins Ira to talk about the PG&E case, plus more on why a second round of COVID-19 lockdowns might not work as well as the first shelter in place orders.

 

Jun 19, 2020
Proactive Policing, The Social Brain. June 12, 2020, Part 2
46:37

In the 1980s and 1990s, in the midst of rising crime rates and a nationally waning confidence in policing, law enforcement around the country adopted a different approach to addressing crime. Instead of just reacting to crime when it happened, officers decided they’d try to prevent it from happening in the first place, employing things like “hot spots” policing and “stop and frisk,” or “terry stops.” The strategy is what criminologists call proactive policing, and it’s now become widely used in police departments across the nation, especially in cities.

Critics and experts debate how effective these tactics are in lowering crime rates. While there’s some evidence that proactive policing does reduce crime, now public health researchers are questioning if the practice—which sometimes results in innocent people being stopped, searched, and detained—comes with other unintended physical and mental health consequences.

Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska Omaha and an expert in police accountability, reviews what led police departments to adopt a more proactive approach, while medical sociologist Alyasah Ali Sewell explains the physical and mental health impacts of stop-question-and-frisk policing.


Over the past few months, people’s social lives have transformed. We’re now told to stay home, and when we do go out, to maintain at least six feet between ourselves and others—forget about a handshake or a hug. Many are now isolated in their homes, with just a screen and its two-dimensional images to keep them company. But our brains are wired for social connections. “We’re social primates,” says psychiatrist Julie Holland. “It’s in the job description.” 

Holland’s new book, Good Chemistry: The Science of Connection, from Soul to Psychedelics, looks at what happens to the brain’s chemistry when we connect socially, and how devastating disconnections can be. She joins Ira to talk about the social life of the brain, community, and the mental health impact of the stressful times we’re living in.

Jun 12, 2020
Anthony Fauci On The Pandemic’s Future. June 12, 2020, Part 1
47:07

During the pandemic, immunologist Anthony Fauci has gained fame as “America’s doctor.” He’s a leading scientist in the government’s response to COVID-19, and a celebrated teller of truths—uncomfortable as they may be—like how long the world may have to wait for a vaccine, or the lack of evidence for using the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine on COVID-19 patients.

He’s also not new to public health crises created by new pathogens. If history is any indicator, it is not a matter of if, but when another outbreak of disease will come, Fauci says.

“There will be emerging and re-emerging infections in our history, it’s been that way forever. We’re seeing it now. And we will continue to see emerging and re-emerging infections,” Fauci tells Ira during the interview. “We can expect, but you can’t predict when. It may be well beyond the lifespan of you and I. But sooner or later, we’re going to get other serious outbreaks. So we have to maintain the memory of a degree of preparedness that would allow us to respond in an effective way the next time we get something like this.”

He and Ira reflect on the AIDS epidemic, lessons learned from past pandemics, and what the path out of the COVID-19 crisis may look like.

Jun 12, 2020
Breast Cancer Cultural History, Butterfly Wings. June 5, 2020, Part 2
46:33

‘Radical’ Explores The Hidden History Of Breast Cancer 

Nearly 270,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, along with a couple thousand men. But the disease manifests in many different ways, meaning few patients have the same story to tell. 

Journalist Kate Pickert collects many of those stories in her book Radical: The Science, Culture, and History of Breast Cancer in America. And one of those stories is her own. As she writes about her own journey with breast cancer, Pickert delves into the history of breast cancer treatment—first devised by a Scottish medical student studying sheep in the 1800s—and chronicles the huge clinical trials for blockbuster drugs in the 80s and 90s—one of which required armies of people to harvest timber from the evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest. 

She joins Ira Flatow to tell her story, and the surprising cultural history of breast cancer

With Butterfly Wings, There’s More Than Meets The Eye 

Scientists are learning that butterfly wings are more than just a pretty adornment. Once thought to be made up of non-living cells, new research suggests that portions of a butterfly wing are actually alive—and serve a very useful purpose. 

In a study published in the journal Nature Communications, Naomi Pierce, curator of Lepidoptera at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, found that nano-structures within the wing help regulate the wing’s temperature, an important function that keeps the thin membrane from overheating in the sun. They also discovered a “wing heart” that beats a few dozen times per minute to facilitate the directional flow of insect blood or hemolymph. 

Pierce joins Ira to talk about her work and the hidden structures of butterfly wings. Plus, Nipam Patel, director of the Marine Biological Laboratory, talks about how butterfly wing structure is an important component of the dazzling color on some butterfly wings.

Jun 05, 2020
Police Behavior Research, Dermatology In Skin Of Color, Coffee Extraction. June 5, 2020, Part 1
47:00

This week, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans by police brutality and racial inequality continue to fuel demonstrations around the nation. In many cities, police are using tear gas, rubber bullets, and other control tactics on protesters. 

A history of 50 years of research reveals what makes a protest safe for participants and police alike. The findings show that police response is what makes the biggest difference: de-escalating and building trust supports peaceful demonstrations rather than responding with weapons and riot gear.

And, as thousands of protesters risk abrasive, cough-inducing tear gas and mass arrests, health researchers are concerned a militant response could increase demonstrators’ risk of acquiring COVID-19. 

Maggie Koerth, senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight and a Minneapolis, Minnesota resident, joins Ira to discuss these stories.


 

Dermatologists presented with a new patient have a number of symptoms to look at in order to diagnose. Does the patient have a rash, bumps, or scaling skin? Is there redness, inflammation, or ulceration? For rare conditions a doctor may have never seen in person before, it’s likely that they were trained on photos of the conditions—or can turn to colleagues who may themselves have photos.

But in people with darker, melanin-rich skin, the same skin conditions can look drastically different, or be harder to spot at all—and historically, there have been fewer photos of these conditions on darker-skinned patients. And for these patients, detection and diagnosis can be life-saving: people of color get less melanoma, for example, but are also less likely to survive it.

Dr. Jenna Lester, who started one of the few clinics in the country to focus on such patients, explains the need for more dermatologists trained to diagnose and treat people with darker skin tones—and why the difference can be both life-saving and life-altering.


A cup of coffee first thing in the morning is a ritual—from grinding the beans to boiling the water and brewing your cup. But following those steps won’t always get you a consistent pour. Researchers developed a mathematical model to determine how the size of grind affects water flow and the amount of coffee that gets into the final liquid. Their results were published in the journal Matter.

Computational chemist Christopher Hendon, who was an author on that study, talks about how understanding atomic vibration, particle size distribution, and water chemistry can help you brew the perfect cup of coffee.

Jun 05, 2020
Bio-Inspired Concrete, Nose Microbiome, Space News. May 29, 2020, Part 2
46:21

The human microbiome—our own personalized bacteria profile—plays a part in our health. The different parts of our body, from our skin to our gut, each have their own microbial profile. A team of researchers decided to explore the bacteria living inside our nose, publishing this week in the journal Cell Reports. Microbiologist Sarah Lebeer, one of the authors of the study, discusses what beneficial bacteria reside in our nose—and how this could be used to create a probiotic for upper respiratory infections.


Concrete is a seemingly simple mix of wet cement, but it’s been the foundation of many civilizations. Ancient Mayans and Romans used concrete in their structures, and it is the basic building block of the sky-scraping concrete jungles we inhabit today. But it turns out, it’s still possible to improve.

In an effort to create crack-free concrete that can resist the stresses of freezing temperatures, one group of researchers looked to organisms that live in sub-zero environments. Their results were published this week in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science. Engineer Wil Srubar, who is an author on that study, talks about how nature can serve as inspiration in the quest to create more sustainable concrete, wood, and other building materials.


On Wednesday, a planned launch of two astronauts from Cape Canaveral had to be scrubbed due to weather. The launch would have been the first crewed flight to the space station launched from U.S. soil since 2011—and will use a Dragon rocket built by the private company SpaceX. There will be a second launch attempt this weekend.

The Commercial Crew program began in 2011 to develop private launch capabilities to replace the retired space shuttle. Now, nine years later, is private industry finally ready to take over responsibilities that were once the territory of national governments?

Miriam Kramer, who writes the space newsletter for Axios, and Brendan Byrne, who reports on space for public radio station WMFE in Orlando, join Ira to talk about the DEMO-2 crewed launch and other spaceflight news.

 

 

 

May 29, 2020
Vaccine Rate Decrease, Mind-Body Music. May 29, 2020, Part 1
46:53

One unintended consequence of families sheltering at home is that children’s vaccination rates have gone way down. In New York City, for example, vaccine doses for kids older than two dropped by more than 90 percent. That could mean new outbreaks of measles and whooping cough, even while we’re struggling with COVID-19.

Joining Ira to talk about decreasing vaccination rates are two pediatricians, James Campbell, professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, and Amanda Dempsey, professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado Denver.


Electronic musician Grace Leslie makes music that creates a sense of calm—long notes held on the flute, creating rich tones, and layered sounds. But her method for creating her songs sets her apart from most other electronic musicians: Leslie collects heartbeats, neuroelectric activity, and other biofeedback with sensors on people’s bodies. She feeds this input into a computer, which then converts the data into flowing waves of sound

As a researcher at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, she explores how the brain and body react to music at the university’s School of Music. Leslie joins Ira to talk about her methods for creating art, and the mysteries of why music elicits an emotional response from those who listen.


Hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug the president promoted as a treatment for COVID-19, has not been proven effective against the virus. And new research published in The Lancet, involving 96,000 patients around the world, found the drug is linked to irregular heartbeats and increased risk of death for people who take it. As a result, numerous trials to further understand the drug have been put on hold, including one planned by the World Health Organization.

IEEE Spectrum news editor Amy Nordrum joins Ira to explain what this means for the future of understanding hydroxychloroquine as a potential help against coronavirus. Plus, understanding false negative results in COVID-19 tests, engineering virus-killing masks, and how researchers found a way to trail elusive narwhals and record their sounds—all in the name of understanding these shy, sea ice-dwelling mammals better even as the world they depend on changes.

 

May 29, 2020
Ancient East Asian Genomes, COVID And Clotting, And Cassowary Plumage. May 22, 2020, Part 2
47:09

The cassowary, a large flightless bird native to Australia, New Guinea, and nearby islands, has a reputation for aggression and wickedly clawed feet that can cause serious injury. Indeed, they’ve been known to attack humans dozens of times, and even occasionally kill people.

But they also have a beauty trick: Their glossy black body feathers have a structure for producing shine that’s never before been seen in birds. Where other black birds like crows are shiny because of structures in their feather barbules, the cassowary instead derives its shine from a smooth, wide rachis—the main “stem” of the feather.

University of Texas paleontologist Julia Clarke explains how the cassowary’s color could help shed light on the feathers of extinct birds and dinosaurs—and how paleontologists are investigating the evolution of birds as we see them today.


The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has primarily been considered a respiratory virus, causing acute problems in the lungs. But doctors around the world have recently been reporting unusual blood clotting in some COVID-19 patients. The exact cause of these blood clots isn’t yet known—there are several interacting biological pathways that all interact to create a blood clot. One theory is that the clotting is related to an overactive immune response, producing inflammation that damages the lining of small blood vessels. Other theories point to the complement system, part of the overall immune response. 

Ira speaks with hematologists Jeffrey Laurence of Weill-Cornell Medicine, and Mary Cushman of the University of Vermont Medical Center about the unusual clotting, how it impacts medical treatment, and what research they’re doing now in order to better understand what’s going on in patients. 


The history of a group of people can be reconstructed through what they’ve left behind, whether that’s artifacts like pottery, written texts, or even pieces of their genome — found in ancient bones or living descendents.

Scientists are now collecting genetic samples to expand the database of ancient East Asian genomes. One group examined 26 ancient genomes that provide clues into how people spread across Asia 10,000 years ago, and their results were published this month in the journal Science.

Biologist Melinda Yang, an author on the study, explains how two particular groups dominated East Asia during the Neolithic Age, and how farming may have influenced their dispersal over the continent.

May 22, 2020
Degrees Of Change: Regulatory Rollbacks. May 22, 2020, Part 1
46:19

The Trump administration is in the process of reversing nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations—threatening air, water, and public health. For example, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has relaxed enforcement for air pollution violations, allowing emissions to continue unchecked during the spread of a respiratory illness.

“We’ve never seen anything like the systematic rollback of all things environmental the way we have in this administration,” says David Uhlmann, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program and the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor.

A History Of Environmental Policy

Uhlmann looks back to years leading up to the push in pollution regulation in the U.S. and the establishment of the EPA in the 1970s. Some of the most catastrophic pollution events in U.S. history inspired the environmental protection efforts, from the historic Cuyahoga River fires in Ohio to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.

“I look at this decade, at both the challenges we face and the opportunities before us, and I’m reminded of the 1970s,” Uhlmann says. “I think we can, indeed we must, come together again around environmental issues, recognize the fact that there is no planet B. There’s no where else for us to go.”

The Public Health Challenge Of Our Time

Air pollution is extremely harmful to human health, especially for children. Not only do these emissions exacerbate respiratory problems, they’re linked to asthma, ADHD, depression, and low birth weight in children. Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council and former EPA administrator, calls climate change “the biggest public health challenge of our time.”

But climate change does not impact everyone equally. Low-income communities are especially vulnerable to this kind of pollution, risks that are expected to get worse as climate change continues.

“It’s very important to be aware of how much more affected children, everyone in low income communities, and communities of color have been,” says Frederica Perera, founding director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “They have suffered disproportionate exposure to air pollution and they’ve more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change as well.”

In this chapter of Degrees of Change, Uhlmann discusses the history of environmental regulations, and how we got here. Then later in the segment, McCarthy and Perera talk about the link between EPA rollbacks, climate change, and public health.

May 22, 2020
Galileo, Home COVID Monitoring Tech, Origin Of The Feces. May 15, 2020, Part 2
46:12

Galileo’s Battle Against Science Denial

Galileo Galilei is known as the father of observational astronomy. His theories about the movement of the Earth around the sun and his experiments testing principles of physics are the basis of modern astronomy. But he’s just as well known for his battles against science skeptics, having to defend his evidence against the political and religious critics and institutions of his time. In his new book Galileo and the Science Deniers, astrophysicist Mario Livio talks about the parallels of Galileo’s story to present-day climate change discussions, and other public scientific debates today.

Monitoring Your Pandemic Health, From Your Home

In recent weeks, the FDA has given the go-ahead to several tests for COVID-19 that can be performed remotely, from your own home. Such tests could help greatly expand testing capacity, an essential part of plans for recovery—but only if the tests are sensitive and reliable. Researchers are also working to develop other ways of using tech to monitor the outbreak, from heart rate monitors in smartwatches to sampling community sewage plants for evidence of the virus.  

Eric Topol, the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, joins Ira to talk about some of the technology that could be brought to bear to get a better picture of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Origin Of The Feces

For some researchers, nothing is more exciting than finding fossilized feces. These ancient poops are called coprolites, and they’re quite rare. Despite their less-than-glamorous-origins, each one is a gold mine of information about who left it behind. That’s because fecal fossils are a snapshot of the microbiome from which they came. Some researchers say studying these ancient records of diet and bacteria could help us learn about modern problems such as lactose intolerance and gut inflammation. 

Christina Warinner, assistant professor of anthropology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, joins Science Friday producer Kathleen Davis to talk coprolites, and what ancient feces can tell us about our ancestors, and ourselves

May 15, 2020
Global COVID Hotspots, Fact Check My Feed, Koji Fermenting. May 15, 2020, Part 1
46:41

Fact Check My Feed: Finding The Falsehoods In ‘Plandemic’

Science Friday continues to weigh the truth and sift through the seemingly never-ending stream of misleading claims about the novel coronavirus. This week, virologist Angela Rasmussen joins Ira to help us decipher the uncertainties around this week’s COVID-19 headlines.

While what we know and don’t know about COVID-19 changes daily, some things are certain: Rasmussen lays out some of the many falsehoods in the viral “Plandemic” video that circulated last week. She also explains why it’s important to know that a small study that found coronavirus RNA in semen samples leaves many questions unanswered—and that the presence of viral RNA doesn’t necessarily indicate a sexually-transmitted virus. Plus, more fact-checking of misconceptions about herd immunity, and more.

Global Flare-ups Of COVID-19 Hot Spots

Each country has tackled “flattening the curve” of COVID-19 cases in their own way and some countries were hailed as early successes in containing outbreaks. But two of these countries have seen recent increases: In reports earlier this week, Germany saw 900 new cases in a 24-hour period and as of Thursday, Singapore has identified more than 750 new cases, almost all linked to dormitories of foreign workers. Reporter Maggie Koerth of FiveThirtyEight.com talks about what the increasing numbers might mean for U.S. states that have started to reopen. She also discusses COVID-19 cases in Africa and South America, plus more science news of the week, including scientists that have identified heat-resistant algae that could help bleached corals. 

Koji: The Mold You Want In Your Kitchen

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.

Rich Shih and Jeremy Umansky, 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.

 

May 15, 2020
Moon Maps, Brain Replay, Contact Tracing. May 8, 2020, Part 2
46:54

Have you ever had to learn something new and repeat it over and over—until it feels like you’re doing it in your sleep? Maybe you are. In research published this week in the journal Cell Reports, scientists monitored the brain activity of two people implanted with fine grids of neural electrodes as part of a brain-computer interface study for tetraplegia: paralysis of all four limbs. With the implants and a computer model to process the signals, the study participants were able to use their thoughts to control the movement of a cursor on a computer screen.

In the study, the participants were asked to play a memory-pattern game similar to the old “Simon” handheld electronic game, pressing a sequence of four buttons in a given order. Then, they were asked to rest and relax—even to nap if they wanted—while the researchers continued to observe their brain activity. They found that the participants’ brains replayed sequences of the game’s patterns during shallow, stage one non-REM sleep. The researchers think that this replaying may be connected to mechanisms the brain uses for memory consolidation and learning.

Beata Jarosiewicz, one of the authors of the study, joins guest host John Dankosky to discuss their findings.


While research continues on vaccines, antivirals, and other medical solutions to the coronavirus outbreak, there are already non-pharmaceutical interventions that public health experts know work. One of them is contact tracing, the process of identifying the people who have been exposed to a known person with COVID-19, and then helping those people avoid infecting others.

But while using public health workers for contact tracing has helped contain diseases like Ebola and HIV, contact tracing effort for the much more contagious novel coronavirus could rely in part on digital tools. Around the globe, countries from Iceland, to Singapore have developed smartphone apps.

Now, in the U.S., states are also looking to invest in contact tracing—both by hiring thousands of workers to help, but also developing their own apps. And last month, Apple and Google announced they were teaming up to develop a platform for all smartphones to opt in to a system that would tell them if they’d been exposed.

But can an app do everything a person can? And will people trust an app with their health information? Producer Christie Taylor talks to two public health experts, Johns Hopkins University’s Crystal Watson, and Massachusetts General Hospital’s Louise Ivers, about the intensive and nuanced work of contact tracing and how digital solutions can fit in the picture.


For centuries, we’ve been trying to get a better understanding of the surface of the moon. Different cultures have imagined faces, rabbits, and even toads hiding in the rocky features. Astronauts have walked on the lunar terrain—bringing back photographs and rock samples. And so far, there have been 21 moon landings. The most recent happened last January, when China successfully put a lander on the far side of the moon.

Recently, USGS scientists used their expertise in map-making to pull together some of these scientific observations to catalogue the geology of the moon. They stitched together six Apollo-era moon maps, combined with modern satellite data, to create a 360-degree map of the geological structures on the moon. This “Unified Geologic Map of the Moon” was published last month. USGS research geologist James Skinner, one of the creators of the map, takes us through the terrain of the lunar surface, and talks about what it can tell us about the evolution of the moon.

Plus. Michelle Nichols of the Adler Planetarium gives moon gazing tips to help you spot the different geological features of the moon.

 

May 08, 2020
COVID-19 Inequalities. May 8, 2020, Part 1
46:26

Coronavirus is still hitting the U.S. hard. And breaking down infections by race shows a striking pattern: Black, Latino, and Native American people are hit much harder than other communities.

National data shows black Americans account for nearly 30% of COVID-19 deaths, despite only being 13% of the population. In New York City, the epicenter of America’s epidemic, the death rate among black and Latino residents is more than double that of white and Asian residents.

Coronavirus is spreading on tribal lands, too. If Navajo Nation were a state, it would be behind only New York and New Jersey in infection rates. Native communities are also often categorized in the racial category of “other” in statewide infection data —making it hard to know just how bad COVID-19 is for Native people.

Joining guest host John Dankosky to talk about COVID-19 inequities are Uché Blackstock, physician and founder of Advancing Health Equity in Brooklyn, New York, Rebecca Nagle, journalist and citizen of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at UCLA’s medical school in Los Angeles.

May 08, 2020
Evolutionary Biologist Neil Shubin, Bee Virus Behavior, Search for Lost Apples. May 1, 2020, Part 2
45:47

The Twists And Turns Of The Evolution Of Life On Earth

In an evolutionary tree, neat branches link the paths of different species back through time. As you follow the forking paths, you can trace common ancestors, winding down the trunk to see the root organism in common. 

Evolution in the real world is a little messier—full of dead ends and changes happening beneath the surface, even before new traits and species appear. And the research and science that gave us a better picture about how life evolved on Earth can just be just as complicated.  

Evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin, author of Some Assembly Required: Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA, explains how technology like DNA sequences has allowed scientists to fill in these gaps in the story of evolution

A Viral Battle In The Honey Bee Hive

New research published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that honey bees infected with a virus may alter their behavior in ways that slow the spread of the infection. At the same time, infection with the virus may help the bees sneak into neighboring hives, potentially spreading the virus to new hosts.

Adam Dolezal, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and one of the authors of the study, describes the research, and the evolutionary arms race that may be taking place between the bees and the virus.

The Malus Domestica Detectives

Earlier this month, the Lost Apple Project in Washington state announced a fruitful bounty: Ten varieties of apples found in the Pacific Northwest that had been considered “lost” varieties. These include the Sary Sinap, originally from Turkey, and the Streaked Pippin from New York.

To find these varieties, the researchers used an old school identification process—the partner organization, Temperate Orchard Conservancy, compared the mystery apples to watercolor paintings commissioned by the USDA from the 1800s and early 1900s. It’s a time consuming process, and positive identification can take years.

Joining Ira to talk apple identification are Shaun Shepherd, pomologist at the Temperate Orchard Conservancy in Portland, Oregon, and Gayle Volk, plant physiologist at the USDA in Fort Collins, Colorado.

May 01, 2020
COVID-19 By The Numbers, 1918 Flu. May 1, 2020, Part 1
47:24

Navigating COVID-19 By The Numbers

Ever since the first news about a new virus in China, we’ve been seeing projections, or models predicting how it might spread. But how are those models created? There’s a lot of math that goes into understanding what might come next.

Ira turns to a group of scientists who make their living in crunching the numbers—the people who make mathematical models to approximate different scenarios, trying to minimize loss of life. Sarah Cobey from the University of Chicago and Jeffrey Shaman from Columbia University share their work on the past, present and future of coronavirus spread, and explain how to understand the many models all trying to bring clarity to this very difficult pandemic.

A Pandemic Precedent—Set in 1918

In the spring of 1918, a new and virulent flu strain was documented at a military base in Kansas. Within weeks it had been observed in Queens, New York—and soon, spread all over the globe. By the time the flu petered out a year later, the world had suffered three distinct waves, killing somewhere between 17 and 50 million people, and heaping a fresh disaster atop the losses of World War I. 

How well does the present resemble history—and are we at risk of repeating the staggering toll of the 1918 flu? Historian Catharine Arnold talks to Ira about stories from the past, and the events and choices that drove additional waves of infection and death.

Plus, Science Diction host Johanna Mayer on why the 1918 flu wasn’t really ‘Spanish’ at all.

Look through images taken during the 1918 flu, from the U.S. National Archives, in a gallery article.

Strokes In COVID-19 Patients, Plus Trauma In Healthcare Workers

This week, a group of researchers observed five younger patients under the age of fifty that suffered from strokes. These patients either were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms. Their results were published online in a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Reporter Sophie Bushwick talks about this story, plus the trauma that frontline healthcare workers face during the pandemic, and other new research from the week.

Erosion Threatens A Unique Ecosystem

Indiana’s Lake Michigan shoreline is one of the most biodiverse places in the country. But that biodiversity is now washing away. Rebecca Thiele, energy and environment reporter at Indiana Public Broadcasting, unpacks the story

May 01, 2020
Vaccine Process, Hubble Space Telescope Anniversary, Alchemy Of Us. April 24, 2020, Part 2
48:23

Over 50 pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms around the world are now racing to develop vaccines for the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. Anthony Fauci has said that it might be possible to develop a vaccine in as quickly as 12 to 18 months—but so far, researchers still don’t know which of several approaches might be most safe and effective.

Paul Offit, head of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, says that usually, the standard time to develop a new vaccine and move it through the multiple phases of clinical trials required for FDA approval is measured in years, not months—and despite the need, he worries that shortening the path to a vaccine means that developers will skip critical parts of the testing process. 

He joins Ira to talk about the path to a vaccine, and how it might fit in with other parts of the coronavirus response, including community testing and the development of therapeutic drugs to treat patients with COVID-19.


Think about the breathtaking images you’ve seen of space—swirling, multicolor galaxies, shining star clusters, and far-off planets. There’s a good chance these photos were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched into space 30 years ago today. 

Over these decades, Hubble has helped researchers better understand space mysteries, like black holes, warped space, exoplanets, and the expansion of the universe. While it had a rough beginning—it was deployed with a miscalibrated mirror—Hubble has long maintained its status as the premiere telescope. 

Joining Ira to celebrate this anniversary is Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope in Greenbelt, Maryland.


When you think about how the telephone was invented, you probably think of Alexander Graham Bell. But what about the people who made the telephone effortless to use? For example, you might not have heard of Almon Strowger, a Kansas City undertaker in the late 19th century, who feared he was losing business thanks to poorly connected phone calls—at that time, calls relied on women known as “hello girls,” who manually operated the switches.

Strowger’s frustration led him to invent the automatic switching system, which led to modern telephones, transistors, and eventually, computers. His name, however, is still less well-known.

Strowger’s story is one of dozens documented in The Alchemy of Us, a new book by materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez, who explores the way human foibles and flaws have shaped our inventions—and how those inventions have changed us. Take, for example, Ruth Belleville, the Englishwoman who literally sold time until accurate clocks were ubiquitous, a story Ramirez uses to describe how industrialization and industrialized time have shaped our sleep.

Producer Christie Taylor talks to Ramirez about her unexpected stories of innovation in time, light, photography, and telecommunications—inventions that all helped shape modern culture.

 

Apr 24, 2020
Valley Fever, Citizen Science Month Finale. April 24, 2020, Part 1
47:26

When you think of fungal infections, you might think athlete’s foot or maybe ringworm—itchy, irritating reactions on the skin. But other fungal diseases can cause much more serious illness. One of them is Valley Fever, caused by the soil fungus Coccidioides. In 2018, over 15,000 people were diagnosed with coccidioidomycosis, commonly known as Valley Fever, in the United States, mainly in the American West, and in parts of Mexico, and Central and South America. But the numbers could be much higher: The disease is commonly misdiagnosed and the hot spots are difficult to pin down. Plus, the endemic region could grow with climate change. 

Science Friday digital producer Lauren Young takes us into the Central Valley in California—a Valley Fever hot spot—to learn more about how the disease spreads and the people it harms. She tells the story in a new feature on Methods, from Science Friday, using video, sound, and pictures, gives you a flavor of the challenges faced by scientists working to solve big problems. 

Ira brings on Valley Public Radio reporter Kerry Klein, who helped us report this story, to tell us more about the communities Valley Fever is impacting and new treatments. He also talks with UCSF microbiologist Anita Sil to dig deep into fungal pathogens and the latest research. 


This year’s Citizen Science Month may be winding down at the end of April, but you can help researchers collect and analyze their data all year long. 

This week, citizen science platform Zooniverse has not one, but four projects you can help with: data analysis tasks that will hopefully calm, soothe, distract, and divert you from life in a pandemic. Whether it’s identifying cute raccoons in camera trap photos, looking for seasonal wind on Mars, identifying how antibiotics kills tuberculosis in petri dishes, or even transcribing the cursive of old letters from anti-slavery activists—Zooniverse wants to help you find diversion in data.

Ira talks about these projects—and how to get involved with Zooniverse—with co-lead Laura Trouille, vice president of citizen science at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.

Learn more about Zooniverse and other SciFri Citizen Science Month partners at sciencefriday.com/citizenscience. And join our citizen science newsletter for all the latest updates on our online events here!

Apr 24, 2020
COVID-19 Factcheck, Digital Earth Day, City Nature Challenge, Ancient Antarctic Forest. April 17, 2020, Part 2
47:06

Can Coronavirus Reactivate In Patients After Recovery?

These days, newsfeeds are overloaded with stories of the coronavirus, but Science Friday continues to explain the science behind COVID-19 headlines. Here, we learn about South Korea reports of 116 patients who recovered from the disease tested positive. Angela Rasmussen, associate research scientist and virologist at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, breaks down how reactivation works in viruses in diseases such as herpes. Plus, Rasmussen talks about human challenge trials—where participants are given a vaccine and inoculated with a virus—and the debate over the usage of these trials to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

Earth Day Goes Digital

Next Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, marking five decades of environmental actions, like community cleanup, planting trees, or marching in the streets. 

But this year, coronavirus has led to the cancellation of planned marches and large-scale events. Instead, many people will be participating in a digital Earth Day. Ira talks to Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network about what people can do to participate, parallels between climate change and coronavirus, and environmental action in the age of the Trump administration. 

Uncovering Antarctica's Rainforest

Scientists found 90 million-year-old evidence that Antarctica wasn’t always a snow-covered continent. New ice core research provides evidence that the frozen land was once a temperature rainforest. Marine geologist Johann Klages, an author on the study, discusses what temperature the Earth would need to be to support such an environment in Antarctica, and how that can be used to create more accurate climate models. 

Show Off Your Backyard Birds And Bugs

Get involved in Citizen Science Month by snapping pictures of nature from your backyard with City Nature Challenge

Apr 17, 2020
Degrees of Change: Climate Anxiety and Depression. April 17, 2020, Part 1
47:33

You Aren’t Alone In Grieving The Climate Crisis

As the consequences of unchecked climate change come into sharper focus—wildfires in the Amazon and Australia, rising seas in low-lying Pacific Islands, mass coral bleaching around the world—what is to be done about the emotional devastation that people feel as a result?

In 2007, Australian eco-philosopher Glenn Albrecht described this feeling as homesickness “for a home that no longer exists,” which he called “solastalgia.” Others have settled on terms like “climate grief,” or, since environmental devastation can come without a changing climate, simply “ecological grief.” 

For this chapter of Degrees of Change, Ira talks about adapting emotionally to climate change. First, he speaks with psychologist Renee Lertzman and public health geographer Ashlee Cunsolo about their research on the phenomenon of grief tied to environmental loss, and what they’ve learned about how people can adapt their grief into actions that can make a difference. Then, climate researcher Kate Marvel and essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar share their experiences simultaneously working on climate change, and grieving it

Inequality In The Air

Air quality is a known public health threat, attributed to seven million deaths around the world every year. Minorities, especially African-Americans, often live in areas of high air pollution. Now, scientists say pollution is linked to high rates of COVID-19 deaths, which may help explain why people of color are dying from COVID-19 at disproportionate rates. 

Vox reporter Umair Irfan speaks with Ira about the pandemic’s inequitable impacts for some communities, as well as other coronavirus and climate change news from the past week

Apr 17, 2020
Spring Sounds, Luxury Ostrich Eggs, ISeeChange. April 10, 2020, Part 2
47:34

Enjoying Spring From Quarantine

You may be trapped inside, but outside, it’s bird migration season. Flowers are blooming from coast to coast, and even the bees are out getting ready for a year of productive buzzing around. 

Producer Christie Taylor talks to Atlanta birder and Birds of North America host Jason Ward, and Nature Conservancy land steward Kari Hagenow about the best ways to get started as a new birder under quarantine. Then, University of California entomology researcher Hollis Woodard takes us to the mountains of California, where bumblebee queens are just starting to emerge to start their colonies—and why bringing bees to your yard or windowsill this summer can be as joyful an act as birding. 

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

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

Citizen Scientists Are Helping Document Our Changing Planet

Our community science continues this week with a project about how climate change touches neighborhoods and the people who live in them. Ira talks to Julia Kumari Drapkin, the CEO and founder of ISeeChange, about how citizen observations about rainfall, new spring flowers, and even how you feel can be valuable data for climate science—plus, how tracking that data benefits you.

Apr 10, 2020
Healthcare Ripple Effects, Resilient Flowers, Cancer Detection. April 10, 2020, Part 1
47:48

Routine Healthcare Is Falling Through The COVID-19 Cracks

Our healthcare system is straining under the weight of the coronavirus epidemic, with hospital emergency rooms and ICUs around the country facing shortages of masks, ventilators, hospital beds, and medical staff. But the epidemic is also upsetting parts of the healthcare system that aren’t directly treating COVID patients. How are you supposed to keep up with regular medical care when you’re not supposed to leave the house, or when your primary care doctor’s office is shut down

Michael Barnett is an assistant professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health who studies access to healthcare services, as well as a primary care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He joins Ira to talk about how patients and clinics are attempting to navigate a healthcare landscape altered by the global pandemic—including telemedicine and virtual health services, the economics of private doctors’ offices, and shortages of regular medications.

These Flowers Bounce Back

Everywhere, colorful, spirit-lifting flowers are blooming. But if you’ve stepped off a path to avoid an oncoming runner recently, don’t worry. New research, published in the journal New Phytologist, finds some flowers have a unique ability to “bounce back” after injury—say after getting squished by a falling branch or shoe. This gives flowers a second chance at being pollinated, preserving their role in the seasonal ecosystem.

One of the authors of this study, Nathan Muchhala, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, joins Science Friday to discuss the unique properties of flowers.

How Dogs Are Helping Scientists Build A Smell Detector For Cancer

Scientists are now training dogs to sniff out cancer. A team at UPenn and Monell Chemical Chemical Senses Center are using dogs’ heightened sense of smell to detect the specific chemicals produced by cancer cells. The scientists are using this data to produce a device that could be used in ovarian cancer detection. 

Science Friday’s video producer Luke Groskin and digital producer Daniel Peterschmidt talk with Ira about a trip to the cancer laboratory, where they met the scientists—and dogs—behind this unique research. This is part of Science Friday’s Methods, where we bring you into the field alongside the scientists working to answer big questions, by using gorgeous video and pictures. You can read the article and watch the videos about their trip at sciencefriday.com/smellingcancer

Big Data’s Latest On Tracking The Spread of COVID-19

In an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, some European countries are collecting information on the movements of residents using cell phone data. This helps determine who is following stay-at-home orders, and who isn’t. Facebook and Google want to use their data about user movements to do the same. But some say this is a big breach of privacy. Amy Nordrum of IEEE Spectrum joins Ira to discuss this story and more of the latest COVID-19 news. 

Apr 10, 2020
SciFri Extra: Science Diction On The Word 'Quarantine'
17:04

Quarantine has been on many of our minds lately. The phrases “shelter in place” and “self-quarantine” have filled up our news, social media, and conversations since the first inklings of the coronavirus pandemic. But this is far from the first time cities and countries have used the practice of physical separation to battle the spread of disease. 

You might think of Mary Mallon, who many know as “Typhoid Mary.” In the early 1900s, she spent nearly 30 years  in a cottage on a small island in New York City’s East River, all to prevent her from infecting others. But we’ve been using quarantine for millennia—well before we even understood germs existed and that they can be transmitted from person-to-person. And the origin of the word stretches all the way back to the mid-14th century, when Europe was swept by one of the biggest losses of human life in history: the Black Death.

Want to stay up to speed with Science Diction? Sign up for our newsletter.

Guest:

Alexander More is a historian at Harvard University and Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Special thanks to Alexander More, Judith Walzer Leavitt, and Karl Appuhn.

If you want to learn more about Mary Mallon, we recommend Judith’s book, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health.

Credits:

Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our producer and editor is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey, and fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. Charles Bergquist played the part of George Soper.

Apr 07, 2020
DIY Masks, Neanderthal Diet, Symbiotic Worms. April 3, 2020, Part 2
46:51

During the global COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals across the country are running low on PPE—personal protective equipment. This includes masks, gowns, face shields, and other important gear to keep healthcare workers safe. These supplies are the first line of defense between healthcare workers and potentially sick patients.

Cloth masks are usually only advised as a last resort for healthcare workers, but an increasing number of hospitals are seeking them out. Some hospitals, including Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis—the largest hospital in Missouri—are anticipating a tsunami of COVID-19 cases in the weeks ahead. To get ready, it’s watching and taking lessons from the experiences of hospitals in coronavirus hotspots, like New York City. One big example is turning to homemade cloth masks to fill oncoming PPE shortages.

A homegrown effort called the Million Masks Challenge has sprung up amidst the crisis. Volunteers are pulling out their sewing machines and extra fabric to make masks that are sent to healthcare providers. And a new website, GetPPE.org, has launched to connect crafters with hospitals across the country that are asking for homemade face masks.

Joining Ira to talk about the PPE crisis and how hospitals are preparing are Rob Poirier, clinical chief of emergency medicine at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Jessica Choi, founder of GetPPE.org.


Why did Neanderthals disappear so quickly after the arrival of early modern humans in Europe, 40,000 years ago? Paleoanthropologists have long wondered whether it was some inferiority that allowed our ancestors to outcompete with Neanderthals for resources—whether that was intelligence, complexity, or some other measure of fitness. 

Over the last two decades, the image of the dumb, primitive Neanderthal has broken down. Researchers have found evidence of Neanderthal jewelry and art in European caves, as well as signs they may have buried their dead.

But the question remains: Why, when human ancestors finally made it to Europe, did Neanderthals vanish? One persisting theory is that getting Omega-3 fatty acids from diets rich in seafood enabled human ancestors to develop more advanced brains than their Neanderthal cousins. Stashes of fish bones and shells in South African caves have been taken as evidence that early modern humans ate from the sea—and until now, there’s been no evidence that Neanderthals in Europe also did so.

But, in a seaside cave in Portugal named Figueira Brava, researchers writing for the journal Science last month found a treasure trove of fish bones, mussel shells, and other remnants of dining from the sea—all older by tens of thousands of years than the first arrival of early modern humans in Europe. Lead author João Zilhão explains how this find expands the growing picture of Neanderthals as complex, intelligent hominins.


About 1,800 meters below the ocean surface off the western coast of Costa Rica, methane seeps dot the seafloor. These are places where methane and other hydrocarbons slowly escape from beneath the earth’s crust. Like more well-known hydrothermal vents, methane seeps are home to an unusual array of wildlife, relying on the seeps’ enriched chemistry for energy and nutrients.

Writing this week in the journal Science Advances, researchers describe two species of tube worms that live in a symbiotic relationship with methane-oxidizing bacteria that live on their crowns. The researchers collected some of the worms via deep-sea submersibles and then exposed them to carbon-13-labeled methane, showing that the worms were able to assimilate the methane into biomass. The team believes that the symbiosis allows these worms to rely on methane for much of their nutrition.

Shana Goffredi, an associate professor of biology at Occidental College in Los Angeles and one of the authors of the report, explains the research and what remains to be learned about the environment around these undersea methane seeps.

Writing this week in the journal Science Advances, researchers describe two species of tube worms that live in a symbiotic relationship with methane-oxidizing bacteria that live on their crowns. The researchers collected some of the worms via deep-sea submersibles and then exposed them to carbon-13-labeled methane, showing that the worms were able to assimilate the methane into biomass. The team believes that the symbiosis allows these worms to rely on methane for much of their nutrition.

Shana Goffredi, an associate professor of biology at Occidental College in Los Angeles and one of the authors of the report, explains the research and what remains to be learned about the environment around these undersea methane seeps.

 

Apr 03, 2020
COVID-19 Supplies Shortage, Citizen Science Month, Mercury Discovery. April 3, 2020, Part 1
46:36

April is Citizen Science Month! It’s a chance for everyone to contribute to the scientific process—including collecting data, taking observations, or helping to analyze a set of big data. And best of all, a lot of these projects can be done wherever you happen to be personally isolating.

Caren Cooper, an associate professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and co-author of the new book A Field Guide To Citizen Science: How You Can Contribute to Scientific Research and Make a Difference, joins Ira to talk about what makes a good citizen science project, how to get involved, and suggestions for projects in all fields of science.

Cooper is also the project leader for the citizen science project Crowd The Tap, looking at mapping water infrastructure and the prevalence of lead pipes throughout the country. For more projects to keep you company through this Citizen Science Month and beyond, head over to sciencefriday.com/citizenscience.


 

Mercury is the smallest planet in the solar system and the closest to the sun. The temperature there can reach up to 800 degrees, but the planet is not an inert, dry rock. Scientists recently found water ice at the poles of the planet, and another team found possible evidence for the chemicals building blocks of life underneath Mercury’s rocky terrain—a landscape pitted with impact craters and haphazardly strewn hills.

Those results were published in the journal Scientific Reports. Planetary astronomer Deborah Domingue takes us on a planetary tour and talks about what Mercury can tell us about the rest of the solar system.


 

All sorts of COVID-19 treatments have been proposed, but some are more promising than others. One of these experimental treatments is using the blood plasma from recovered patients to infuse antibodies into those who are currently sick. This week, New York put out a call for plasma donations, becoming the first state to attempt this approach.

Sarah Zhang of The Atlantic talks about what we know about the effectiveness and hurdles of this type of treatment. She also discusses the second wave of COVID-19 infections hitting Asia, and the CDC’s changing stance on personal face mask usage.

 

Apr 03, 2020
SciFri Extra: Science Diction On The Word 'Cobalt'
17:04

Cobalt has been hoodwinking people since the day it was pried from the earth. Named after a pesky spirit from German folklore, trickery is embedded in its name.  

In 1940s Netherlands, cobalt lived up to its name in a big way, playing a starring role in one of the most embarrassing art swindles of the 19th century. It’s a story of duped Nazis, a shocking court testimony, and one fateful mistake.

Want more Science Diction? Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and sign up for our newsletter.

Guest: 

Kassia St. Clair is a writer and cultural historian based in London.

Footnotes And Further Reading:

For fascinating histories on every color you can imagine, read Kassia St. Clair’s The Secret Lives of Color.

Thanks to Jennifer Culver for background information on the kobold.

Read more about Han van Meegeren in The Forger’s Spell by Edward Dolnick and in the 2009 series “Bamboozling Ourselves” in the New York Times.

Credits: 

Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

Mar 31, 2020
Squid Lighting, Tongue Microbiome, Invasive Herbivores. March 27, 2020, Part 2
45:42

How Humboldt Squid Talk To Each Other In The Dark

Cephalopods are masters of changing their bodies in response to their environments—from camouflaging to sending warning signals to predators. The art of their visual deception lies deep within their skin. They can change their skin to different colors, textures, and patterns to communicate with other animals and each other. But how does this play out in the darkness of the deep ocean? That’s the question a team of scientists studied in the deep diving Humboldt squid that lives over 2,000 feet beneath the ocean’s surface. Their results were published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Biologist Benjamin Burford, who is an author on that study, explains how Humboldt squid use a combination of skin color patterns and bioluminescence to send each other signals and what this might teach us about communication in the deep ocean. See a video and more photos of Humboldt squid communicating with each other from Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. 

Mapping The Microbiome Of Your Tongue

Your mouth is home to billions of bacteria—some prefer to live on the inside of the cheeks, while others prefer the teeth, some the gums, or the surface of the tongue. Writing this week 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 your tongue’s surface, clustered around a central core made up of individual human skin cells. The researchers are mapping out the locations of the tiny bacterial colonies within those skyscrapers, to try 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.

Rethinking Invasive Species With Pablo Escobar’s Hippos

Colombia is home to an estimated 80 to 100 hippos where they’re an invasive species—hippos are native to Africa. But notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar brought four to the country as part of his private zoo. After his death in 1993, the hippos escaped to the wild where they thrived. 

Some locals consider them pests, the government has mulled over getting rid of them, and recent studies have shown that their large amounts of waste is changing the aquatic ecology of Colombia.

But new research has taken a different view, showing that even though hippos are invasive, they might be filling an ecological hole left by large herbivores killed off by humans thousands of years ago. Erick Lundgren, the study’s lead author and a Ph.D. student at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, talks about why we should stop thinking of the phrase “invasive species” as inherently bad, and what may be in store for the future of these hippos. 

Mar 27, 2020
COVID Near You Citizen Science, Fact-Check Your Feed. March 27, 2020, Part 1
45:54

These days, our newsfeeds are overloaded with stories of the coronavirus. This week, Science Friday continues to dig into the facts behind the speculation—the peer-reviewed studies and reports published by scientists investigating the virus.

But what we know—and don’t know—about the new virus is changing daily, making it hard to keep up. Everyone, for example, wants to know more about possible therapies for treating COVID-19 patients. After President Trump publicly speculated about the tried and true antimalarial drug, hydroxychloroquine, his endorsement sent governors, doctors, and the worried public scrambling to get their hands on the drug. But is there any science to back-up this claim? And what about remdesivir, the antiviral drug that has been used to treat a handful of patients, and is now the subject of several new drug trials?

Angela Rasmussen, associate research scientist and virologist at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health joins Science Friday once again to break down the science behind the stories.


As suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19 skyrocket in the United States, testing availability remains limited, leaving people wondering if their cough is something to worry about. But testing isn’t just a balm for anxiety—public health officials need data about how far the new virus has spread to make decisions about how to best protect people, and where to send critical resources, like masks and gowns. Accurate information is the frontline of defense, but scientists still have pressing questions about the novel disease. For instance, how many people who are infected actually have symptoms? If you do have symptoms, how likely are you to get severely sick?

Until we are able to test both healthy and symptomatic people at scale, citizen science can help fill the gaps in tracking who has COVID-19. And the public health team that launched Flu Near You to track seasonal flu symptoms is now doing just that: soliciting your symptoms in the Covid Near You project.

Covid Near You co-founder John Brownstein of Boston Children’s Hospital explains what questions the project may help answer, and what trends Covid Near You will track—including why this data is so valuable to public health efforts. Sign up at www.covidnearyou.org to report how you’re feeling—whether you’re healthy or have symptoms.

Mar 27, 2020
SciFri Extra: Science Diction On The Word 'Dinosaur'
12:06

At the turn of the 19th century, Britons would stroll along the Yorkshire Coast, stumbling across unfathomably big bones. These mysterious fossils were all but tumbling out of the cliffside, but people had no idea what to call them. There wasn’t a name for this new class of creatures. 

Until Richard Owen came along. Owen was an exceptionally talented naturalist, with over 600 scientific books and papers. But perhaps his most lasting claim to fame is that he gave these fossils a name: the dinosaurs. And then he went ahead and sabotaged his own good name by picking a fight with one of the world’s most revered scientists.

Want more Science Diction? Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and sign up for our newsletter.

Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Special thanks to Sean B. Carroll and the staff of the Natural History Museum in London.

Read an article by Howard Markel on this same topic.

Credits: 

Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. This episode also featured music from Setuniman and The Greek Slave songs, used with permission from the open-source digital art history journal Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

Mar 24, 2020
Coronavirus Fact-Check, Poetry of Science, Social Bats. March 20, 2020, Part 2
47:05

As new cases of coronavirus pop up across the United States, and as millions of people must self-isolate from family and friends at home, one place many are turning to for comfort and information is their news feed. But our regular media diet of politics, sports, and entertainment has been replaced by 24/7 coverage of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Nearly every outlet is covering the pandemic in some way—celebrities live streaming their self-quarantine, restaurants rolling out new health practices and food delivery options, educators and parents finding ways to teach kids at home. There’s an overwhelming number of ways the media has covered the virus. But on top of that, there’s also blatant misinformation about the virus distracting us from the useful facts. It’s all appearing in one big blur on Facebook or Twitter feeds. And it doesn’t help that nearly every few hours we’re getting important, and often urgent, updates to the evolving story.

This week, guest host John Dankosky speaks with two scientists who can help fact-check your news feed. Angela Rasmussen, assistant research scientist and virologist at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, and Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunology at the Yale University School of Medicine give us a clearer picture of the coronavirus news this week.


Poet Jane Hirshfield calls these “unaccountable” times. Crises in the biosphere—climate change, extinctions—collide with crises in human life. And in her new book Ledger she says she has tried to do the accounting of where we, human beings, are as a result.

As a poet whose work touches on the Hubble telescope, the proteins of itch, and the silencing of climate researchers, Hirshfield talks with John Dankosky about the particular observational capacity of language, and why scientists and poets can share similar awe. Hirshfield is also the founder of Poets for Science, which continues a project to create a global community poem started after 2017’s March for Science.


“When we introduced them in isolated pairs they formed relationships much faster, like college students in a dorm room,” Carter said to Science Friday earlier this week. “And when we introduced a bat into a group of three, that was faster than when we just put two larger groups together.”

Carter has also studied how illness changes social relationships within a vampire bat roost. He found that if a baby bat gets sick, for instance, the mom won’t stop grooming or sharing food with their offspring. But that same bat will stop participating in some social behavior with a close roost-mate that isn’t family.

Carter joins Science Friday guest host John Dankosky to talk about researching vampire bats, and what their response to illness tells us about our own time social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak. See more photos and video of social bat behavior below.

Mar 21, 2020
Jane Goodall, Coronavirus Update, Science Diction. March 20, 2020, Part 1
48:14

60 years ago this year, a young Jane Goodall entered the Gombe in Tanzania to begin observations of the chimpanzees living there. During her time there, Goodall observed wild chimpanzees in the Gombe making and using tools—a finding that changed our thinking about chimps, primates, and even humans. Now, Goodall travels the world as a conservationist, advocate for animals, and United Nations Messenger of Peace. 

She joins guest host John Dankosky to reflect on her years of experience in the field, the scientific efforts she is involved with today, and the need for hope and cooperation in an increasingly connected but chaotic world. 


Science has given us more than data. It’s also brought us words for everyday things or ideas—meme, cobalt, dinosaur. And there’s often a good story about how those words got into our common use.

Take the word “vaccine,” the distant, but hoped-for solution to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It turns out the word originates from vaccinae, relating to cows, because the smallpox vaccine was derived from cowpox, a related virus. 

Science Friday word nerd Johanna Mayer joins John Dankosky to talk about the origins of the word “vaccine,” and how she sleuths the fascinating histories that she tells in her new podcast Science Diction.

The first season of Science Diction is now available! Listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts!

 

Mar 21, 2020
SciFri Extra: Science Diction On The Word 'Vaccine'
12:35

For centuries, smallpox seemed unbeatable. People had tried nearly everything to knock it out—from herbal remedies to tossing back 12 bottles of beer a day (yep, that was a real recommendation from a 17th century doctor), to intentionally infecting themselves with smallpox and hoping they didn’t get sick, all to no avail.

And then, in the 18th century, an English doctor heard a rumor about a possible solution. It wasn’t a cure, but if it worked, it would stop smallpox before it started. So one spring day, with the help of a milkmaid, an eight-year-old boy, and a cow named Blossom, the English doctor decided to run an experiment. Thanks to that ethically questionable but ultimately world-altering experiment (and Blossom the cow) we got the word vaccine.

Want more Science Diction? Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and sign up for our newsletter.

Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Special thanks to Elena Conis, Gareth Williams, and the Edward Jenner Museum.

Read an article by Howard Markel on this same topic.

We found many of the facts in this episode in “Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination” from Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings.

Note: Most sources indicate that the figure in Gillray's "The cow-pock" cartoon is Edward Jenner, but there's been some debate. Other sources indicate that the figure could be George Pearson. 

Credits: 

Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

Mar 17, 2020
Farmers’ Stress, Tiny Dino-Bird Discovery. March 13, 2020, Part 2
47:15

The Farm Crisis of the 1980s was a dark time for people working in food and agriculture. U.S. agricultural policies led to an oversupply of crops, price drops, and farms closures. At the same time, the rate of farmer suicide skyrocketed. The industry struggled, until organizations like Farm Aid and others popped up to give voice to the crisis.

But farm advocates agree that farmers are in the middle of another period of hardship, one brought on by the same factors that caused the Farm Crisis in the 1980s. Farmers today are experiencing low crop prices, uncertain markets, and high farm debt. And this time around, there’s a greater awareness and stress about the impacts of climate change.

So what will our response be to this latest crisis? How will farmers get the support they need—both economically and emotionally? State and regional organizations for farmers have been quick to restart the conversation around the importance of rural mental health, but funding has been slow to follow. In an unexpected twist, the Trump administration’s recent decision to move the U.S. Department of Agriculture from Washington, D.C. to Kansas City has been the source of some of this funding bottleneck.

All the while, studies are reporting increasing rates of farmer suicides—mirroring the 1980s.

Ira speaks with Katie Wedell, author of a recent article in USA Today on the latest farm crisis, as well as Roy Atkinson from the American Farm Bureau Federation about a recent poll looking at perceptions of rural mental health. They’re joined by Jennifer Fahy from Farm Aid, Brittney Schrick, assistant professor at University of Arkansas, and Jim Goodman, retired dairy farmer and farm advocate, to discuss the scope of the crisis and response.


Today, the Isle of Sky in the west coast of Scotland is a lush island with towering sea cliffs and tourists taking in the picturesque landscape. But during the late Jurassic period 170 million years ago, there were diverse groups of dinosaurs roaming the land. In two different areas on the island, paleontologists were able to find footprints of three different types of dinosaurs. These tracks include the stegosaurus, which had not been previously found in this region.

Their results were published in the journal PLOS ONE. Paleontologists Steve Brusatte and Paige Depolo, who are both authors on the study, describe why fossils and tracks from this period are difficult to find and what these footprints can tell us about the habitats of middle Jurassic dinosaurs and shed light on the evolution of the stegosaurus.

 

Mar 13, 2020
Coronavirus: Washing and Sanitizing, Science Diction, New HIV PrEP Drugs. March 13, 2020, Part 1
46:24

The number of people in the U.S. confirmed to be infected with the pandemic-level respiratory coronavirus continues to rise, even as testing and diagnosis capacity continues to lag behind other nations. In the meantime, epidemiologists are urging people all over the country to take actions that help “flatten the curve,” to slow the rate of infection so the number of cases don’t overwhelm the healthcare system and make the virus even more dangerous for those who get it.

And the best methods to flatten that curve? Social distancing, which means limiting your exposure to other people, including large gatherings. And, when you can’t avoid other people, it means washing your hands diligently, disinfecting door knobs, and otherwise killing virus particles—which may survive up to three days on inanimate objects, depending on conditions.


There are words we use every day for common things or ideas—meme, vaccine, dinosaur—but where did those words come from? Sometimes, there’s a scientific backstory.

Take the word quarantine, now in the news due to widespread infection control measures. Did you know that it comes from quarantino, a 40-day isolation period for arriving ships—which originally was a trentino, a 30-day period, established in what is now Croatia in the plague-stricken 1340’s?

Science Friday’s word nerd Johanna Mayer joins Ira to talk about the origins of the word quarantine, and how she flips through science history and culture to tell us these stories in her new podcast Science Diction.

The first season of Science Diction is now available! Listen and subscribe wherever you enjoy your podcasts.


In 2012, the FDA approved the drug Truvada, the brand-name HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) that HIV negative people can take to prevent contracting the virus. The patent for Truvada is due to expire, which would allow for more generic versions of the drug. But Gilead, the manufacturer of Truvada, is releasing a second brand name PrEP called Descovy.  

Physician Rochelle Walensky, who is chief of the infectious disease division at Massachusetts General Hospital, is an author on a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine that weighed the financial and accessibility impact that this new drug will have for patients. 

Mar 13, 2020
SciFri Extra: Science Diction On The Word 'Meme'
13:42

Remember that summer when the internet was one Distracted Boyfriend after another—that flannel-shirted dude rubbernecking at a passing woman, while his girlfriend glares at him? Everyone had their own take—the Boyfriend was you, staring directly at a solar eclipse, ignoring science. The Boyfriend was youth, seduced by socialism, spurning capitalism. The Boyfriend could be anyone you wanted him to be.   

We think of memes as a uniquely internet phenomenon. But the word meme originally had nothing to do with the internet. It came from an evolutionary biologist who noticed that genes weren’t the only thing that spread, mutated, and evolved.

Sign up for our newsletter, and stay up to speed with Science Diction

Guest: 

Gretchen McCulloch is an internet linguist. For some fun, check out her book, Because Internet, and her podcast Lingthusiasm. She’s also appeared on Science Friday.

Footnotes And Further Reading:

For an academic take on memes, read Memes in Digital Culture by Limor Shifman.

Read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.   

Check out the first time the word meme appeared in an internet context, in Mike Godwin’s 1994 Wired article called “Meme, Counter-meme.”

Credits: 

Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, and we had story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

Mar 10, 2020
Astronaut Training, Marsquakes, Whale Migration. March 6, 2020, Part 2
46:52

Do You Have The ‘Right Stuff’ To Be An Astronaut?

If you’ve ever considered being an astronaut, this might be your chance to land that dream job. This week, NASA opened applications for a new class of astronaut candidates. It’s a full-time position based in Houston, Texas, paying over $104,000 per year. Job duties would include “conducting operations in space, including on the International Space Station (ISS) and in the development and testing of future spacecraft” and “performing extravehicular activities (EVA) and robotics operations using the remote manipulator system.” Please note that “substantial travel” is required. 

How do you know if you have the ‘right stuff’ to apply? 

Frank Rubio, a NASA astronaut who completed the most recent previous selection program in 2017, joins Ira to talk about what other qualities are valuable in an astronaut applicant—and the training program for those accepted.  

Could A “Marsquake” Knock Down Your House?

On April 6, 2019, NASA’s InSight Mars lander recorded a sound researchers had been waiting to hear for months. To the untrained listener, it may sound like someone had turned up the volume on the hum of Martian wind. But NASA researchers could hear the likely first-ever “marsquake” recorded by the mission.

NASA’s InSight carries a suite of instruments to help study what’s happening deep within the Martian surface, including an ultra-sensitive seismometer (SEIS) for detecting suspected quakes on Mars. Now closing in on the end of it’s two-year primary mission, NASA scientists are studying the seismic data they’ve collected so far, comparing it to the well-known tectonic activity of Earth, and mapping out what to explore from here. Deputy principal investigator Suzanne Smrekar joins Ira to answer our pressing marsquake questions.

New Insight Into Whales On The Go 

Like the seasonal migrations of birds, whales are roamers. Every year, they travel thousands of miles, from the warm waters of the equatorial regions for breeding to the colder polar waters for feeding. But how do they find their way so consistently and precisely every year? 

New research in Current Biology this month adds more weight to one idea of how whales stay on course: Similar to birds, whales may detect the Earth’s magnetic field lines. Duke University graduate student Jesse Granger explains why a strong connection between gray whale strandings and solar activity could boost the magnetoreception theory.

Other research in Marine Mammal Science explores why whales leave the food-rich waters of the Arctic and Antarctic at all. Marine ecologist Robert Pitman of Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Center explains why this annual movement may not be about breeding—but rather, allowing their skin to molt and remain healthy

Mar 06, 2020
Coronavirus Genetics, Prosthetic Hands. March 6, 2020, Part 1
47:20

A New Trick For Dexterity In Prosthetic Hands

Researchers working on the next generation of prosthetic limbs have a few fundamental engineering problems to overcome. For starters, how can people using prosthetic limbs effectively signal what motions they want to perform? 

A team of researchers may have a solution: A surgical technique that uses muscle tissue to amplify the nerve signals. Participants fitted with prosthetic hands after this surgery, described in Science Translational Medicine this week, reported being able to manipulate objects with a degree of control and dexterity not previously seen. Electrical engineer Cynthia Chestek at the University of Michigan explains why this muscle graft seems to be solving the engineering problem of reading nerve signals and what the next generation of prosthetic hands could be capable of

Looking To The Genome To Track And Treat The New Coronavirus

As of Thursday, March 5, Washington state has reported over 30 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. To better understand the pathogen and the disease, scientists have sequenced the genome of the virus from two of the patients. Kristian Andersen, an immunologist at Scripps Research who uses genomics to track the spread of diseases, discusses how the genetic information from these patients can help determine the spread of the virus globally. Plus, Ralph Baric, a coronavirus researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, talks about developing vaccine and drug candidates for COVID-19 and how the genomic sequences from this outbreak can be used to help create treatments.

Can You 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 with the Science Friday Google Earth Animal Sound Quiz!

What You Don’t Know About Well Water Could Hurt You

Residents in Kansas who use private wells face uncertainty about what’s in their water. Environment and energy reporter Brian Grimmett for KMUW in Wichita tells us the State of Science

A Human Trial For CRISPR Gene Therapy

This week, researchers announced that they have started a clinical trial of a treatment that uses the CRISPR gene-editing technique on live cells inside a human eye. Plus a satellite rescue mission, parrot probability, and more in this week’s News Roundup.
Mar 06, 2020
Coronavirus Preparedness, Facebook’s History. Feb 28, 2020, Part 2
46:11

This week, the world’s attention has turned to the spread of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that was first detected in Wuhan, China, late in 2019. More countries are finding cases, and in the United States, a California patient has become the first known case of possible “community spread”—where the patient had not traveled to affected areas or had known exposure to someone who had been infected. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control said Americans should prepare for “significant disruption” and “inevitable” spread of the virus in the U.S. And on Wednesday, President Trump announced that Vice President Mike Pence would head the country’s coronavirus response.

But what does preparation actually look like for healthcare systems that will be on the frontlines of detecting and responding to any new cases? Ira talks to infection prevention epidemiologist Saskia Popescu and public health expert Jennifer Nuzzo about the practical steps of preparing for a new pathogen, including expanding testing and making sure healthcare workers have necessary protective equipment. Plus, they address why childcare, telecommuting, and community planning may be more important than face masks for individuals who are worried about what they can do.


Facebook is a household name globally with nearly 2 billion users. Mark Zuckerberg’s goal was to connect the entire world online when he founded the company in 2006. But 14 years later, Facebook has evolved into more than a social media platform. The company has been involved in debates and scandals around user privacy, outside interference in elections, and the spread of fake news. Last summer, the Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook $5 billion for “repeatedly used deceptive disclosures and settings to undermine users’ privacy preferences in violation of its 2012 FTC order.”

Journalist Steven Levy has been following Zuckerberg and the company since the beginning. In his new book Facebook: The Inside Story he chronicles Zuckerberg’s growth and data-driven approach and how that influenced the tactics the company applied to the problems that resulted from the platform.

Feb 28, 2020
Degrees of Change: Building Materials. Feb 28, 2020, Part 1
47:10

In order to slow a warming planet on track to increase by 2 degrees celsius, nearly every industry will be forced to adapt: airlines, fashion, and even the unglamorous and often overlooked building materials sector. 

Just like the farm to table movement, consumers are increasingly thinking about where the raw materials for their homes and cities come from, and how they impact climate change. And in response to this concern, the materials sector is serving up an unusual menu option: wood.

“Mass timber” is the buzzword these days in the world of sustainable building materials. Architects are crazy for it, engineers praise its excellent structural properties, and even forestry managers are in support of its use

Of course cutting down trees to curb carbon emissions seems counterintuitive at first. And there are skeptics who doubt whether wood is strong enough to build future city skyscrapers. 

Frank Lowenstein, Chief Conservation Officer with the New England Forestry Foundation and Casey Malmquist, Founder and CEO of timber company SmartLam North America, join Ira to explain why the hype over mass timber’s potential to mitigate climate change is the real deal. 

And as the popularity of sustainable mass timber rises, big carbon-emitting industries like steel and concrete are facing pressure to address their role in the climate crisis. One steel company out of Sweden is aiming to make it’s product carbon-neutral by 2026 by replacing coal with hydrogen in the steel-making process. And other researchers are hoping to make concrete more sustainable by using ingredients that would actually trap carbon inside the material. 

We hear from Martin Pei, Chief Technology Officer of European steel company SSAB, and Jeremy Gregory, Director of the Concrete Sustainability Hub at MIT, about how the traditional building materials sector is going green. 

Plus, architect and structural engineer Kate Simonen of the University of Washington talks about the need for more sustainable building materials to construct homes for an estimated 2.3 billion more people by the year 2050.

Feb 28, 2020
Coronavirus Update, Genuine Fakes, Neanderthal News. Feb. 21, 2020, Part 2
47:21

What Is Real And Fake?

There are two ways to grow a diamond. You can dig one up from the Earth—a product of billions of years of pressure and heat placed on carbon. Or you can make one in a lab—by applying lots of that same heat and pressure to tiny starter crystals—and get it made much faster. 

Put these two objects under a microscope and they look exactly the same. But is the lab-grown diamond real or fake?

The answer lies somewhere in between. The same goes for many other things, like artificial flavors or our favorite nature documentaries that put a sensational spin on an otherwise unvarnished look at wildlife. 

Writer and historian Lydia Pyne would call them “genuine fakes” and she explores some of them in her latest book Genuine Fakes: How Phony Things Teach Us About Real Stuff. She joins Ira to talk about the vast gray area between real and fake when it comes to science. 

How Are COVID-19 Numbers Counted?

This week, the death toll attributed to the new coronavirus outbreak passed 2,000 people. And while that number is solid, many of the other numbers involved with this disease, including the total number infected and the degree of transmissibility of the virus, change from day to day. Those shifting numbers are in part due to changes in how countries, such as China, are diagnosing patients and defining who is “infected.”  

It can be difficult to know what information deserves attention, especially when information on possible transmission routes and timelines for vaccine development shift constantly. Helen Branswell, senior reporter on infection diseases at STAT, joins Ira for an update on COVID-19 and a conversation about evaluating medical information in the midst of a developing story.

An Ancient Burial In A Famous Cave

Recently, modern archaeologists returned to Shanidar Cave, located in what is now Kurdistan, and found more Neanderthal remains, including a partial “articulated” skeleton that appears to have been deliberately positioned in a trench near the earlier discoveries. 

Emma Pomeroy, a lecturer in the department of archeology at Cambridge University, was the osteologist on the recent archeological team. She says the new find could provide insights into how Neanderthals viewed their dead, their sense of self, and more.

 

Feb 21, 2020
Ask A Dentist. Feb. 21, 2020, Part 1
47:02

Brushing Up On Tooth Science

Most of us spend our time at the dentist holding our mouths open, saying “ahhh,” and occasionally sticking out our tongues. But if you could ask a dentist anything, what would you want to know?

Ira asks University of Utah researcher Rena D’Souza and UPenn’s Mark Wolff about cavity formation, the oral microbiome, gum disease, and the future of stem cells in teeth restoration. Plus, NYU researcher Rodrigo Lacruz explains new research on how excessive fluoride can disrupt tooth cell functions and why you should still keep drinking that fluoridated tap water. 

East Africans Battle A Plague Of Locusts Brought On By Climate Change

A swarm of locusts the size of a city may sound biblical, but it’s the reality right now in East Africa. The pest is devouring the food supply of tens of millions of people, wreaking havoc on crops and pasturelands. Local residents are doing all they can to keep the swarms at bay, but the locusts may be here to stay for a while, as experts suggest their presence may be due to climate change. 

Sarah Zhang, reporter at The Atlantic, tells us about the locust issue along with other science news from the week.

Why Coal Country May Be Going Solar

A new bill passing through the West Virginia state legislature would increase the state’s solar capacity by 2,500%. Environment reporter Brittany Patterson at West Virginia Public Broadcasting tells us the State of Science.

 

Feb 21, 2020
Building A Ghost Heart, The Effect Of Big Tech. Feb 14, 2020, Part 2
46:22

The human heart is one of the most complicated organs in our body. The heart is, in a way, like a machine—the muscular organ pumping about 2,000 gallons of blood in an adult human every day. But can we construct a heart in the lab? Some scientists are turning to engineering to find ways to preserve that constant lub dub when a heart stops working.

One team of researchers created a biohybrid heart, which combines a pig heart and mechanical parts. The team could control the beating motion of the heart to test pacemakers and other devices. Their findings were published in the journal Science Advances in January. Mechanical engineering student Clara Park, an author on that study, talks about what it takes to engineer a biohybrid heart and how this model could be used in the future to develop implantable hearts and understand heart failure.

At the Texas Heart Institute, Doris Taylor is developing a regenerative method for heart construction. She pioneered the creation of “ghost hearts”—animals hearts that are stripped of their original cells and injected with stem cells to create a personalized heart. So far, Taylor has only developed the technique with animal hearts, but in the future these ghost hearts could be used as scaffolds to grow transplant hearts for patients. Taylor talks about how much we know about the heart and why it continues to fascinate us.


Last month Microsoft announced it is opening an office to represent itself to the United Nations. But what’s a tech company have to do with the U.N.? Meet the “Net State.” In her book The Information Trade: How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges Our Rights, and Transforms Our World, Alexis Wichowski writes about how big tech companies are becoming much more than technology providers, and what it means for world citizens when powerful government-like entities—the “Net States”—transcend physical borders and laws.

Feb 14, 2020
Great Lakes Book Club Wrap-Up, California Groundwater. Feb 14, 2020, Part 1
47:07

The Great Lakes hold 20% of the world’s surface drinking water, with Lake Superior holding half of that alone. The lakes stretch from New York to Minnesota, and cover a surface area of nearly 100,000 square miles—large enough to cover the entire state of Colorado.

And they’re teeming with life. Fish, phytoplankton, birds, even butterflies call the lakes home for some portion of their lives. But not all is calm in the waters. In The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, journalist Dan Egan tells the story of the changes that have unbalanced these ecosystems since the St. Lawrence Seaway was first made navigable for cargo ships and, with them, invasive species, like sea lampreys, alewives, quagga mussels and, perhaps soon, Asian carp.

The Science Friday Book Club has spent a month swimming in Great Lakes science. We’ve pondered the value of native fish to ecosystem resiliency, the threats facing people’s access to clean drinking water, and the influence of invasive species. SciFri producer and Book Club captain Christie Taylor, Wayne State University ecologist Donna Kashian, and Wisconsin-based journalist Peter Annin discuss potential paths to a healthy future, from ongoing restoration efforts to protective policies and new research.


Dennis Hutson’s rows of alfalfa, melons, okra and black-eyed peas are an oasis of green in the dry terrain of Allensworth, an unincorporated community in rural Tulare County. Hutson, currently cultivating on 60 acres, has a vision for many more fields bustling with jobs. “This community will forever be impoverished and viewed by the county as a hamlet,” he says, “unless something happens that can create an economic base. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

While he scours his field for slender pods of ripe okra, three workers, community members he calls “helpers,” mind the irrigation station: 500-gallon water tanks and gurgling ponds at the head of each row, all fed by a 720-foot-deep groundwater well.

Just like for any grower, managing water is a daily task for Hutson and his helpers. That’s why he’s concerned about what could happen under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the state’s overhaul of groundwater regulations. Among other goals, the law sets out to eliminate the estimated 1.8 million acre-feet in annual deficit the state racks up each year by pumping more water out of underground aquifers than it can replenish. Hutson worries small farmers may not have the resources to adapt to the potentially strict water allocations and cutbacks that might be coming. Their livelihoods and identities may be at stake. “You grow things a certain way, and then all of a sudden you don’t have access to as much water as you would like in order to grow what you grow,” he says, “and now you’re kind of out of sorts.”

Read the rest on sciencefriday.com.

Feb 14, 2020
SciFri Extra: The Marshall Islands Stare Down Rising Seas
15:07

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a country of 58,000 people spread across 29 coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean. And in a world where seas are both rising and acidifying, the Marshall Islands are exceptionally vulnerable: Those atolls rise a mere two meters above the original ocean height on average, and rely on the health and continued growth of their coral foundations to exist. A 2018 study projects that by 2050, the Marshall Islands could be mostly uninhabitable due to salt-contaminated groundwater and inundation of large swaths of their small land masses during both storm events and more regular high tides.

But the people of the Marshall Islands—who are already facing increasingly high king tides and more frequent droughts—are planning to adapt, not leave. They've already built sea walls and water catchments, while in February 2019, then-Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine announced an ambitious, expensive additional plan to raise the islands higher above the ocean.

Science Friday producer Christie Taylor spoke to Heine in October, after her remarks to the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science in Honolulu, Hawaii. They discussed the islands' adaptation plans, why leaving is the last option the Marshallese want to consider, and the role traditional knowledge has played in planning for the future. Plus, why major carbon emitters like the United States have a responsibility to help countries like the Marshall Islands adapt. 

Feb 13, 2020
Tech And Empathy, The Ball Method. Feb 7, 2020, Part 2
46:57

How Tech Can Make Us More—And Less—Empathetic

Much of technology was built on the promise of connecting people across the world, fostering a sense of community. But as much as technology gives us, it also may be taking away one of the things that makes us most human—empathy.

Meet Alice Ball, Unsung Pioneer In Leprosy Treatment

In 1915, an infection with leprosy (also called Hansen’s disease) often meant a death sentence. Patients were commonly sent into mandatory quarantine in “leper colonies,” never to return. Before the development of the drug Promin in the 1940s, one of the few somewhat-effective treatments for leprosy was use of an oil extracted from the chaulmoogra tree. However, that oil was not readily water soluble, making it difficult for the human body to absorb.

A new short film, The Ball Method, tells the story of Alice Ball, a young African-American chemist. Ball was able to discover a method for extracting compounds from the oil and modifying them to become more soluble—a modification that led to the development of an injectable treatment for leprosy. Dagmawi Abebe, director of the film, joins Ira to tell the story of Alice Ball.

Feb 07, 2020
Degrees Of Change: How Native American Communities Are Addressing Climate Change. Feb 7, 2020, Part 1
47:01

How Native American Communities Are Addressing Climate Change

Indigenous peoples are one of the most vulnerable communities when it comes to the effects of climate change. This is due to a mix of cultural, economic, policy and historical factors. Some Native American tribal governments and councils have put together their own climate risk assessment plans. Native American communities are very diverse—and the challenges and adaptations are just as varied. Professor Kyle Whyte, a tribal member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, says that many of the species and food resources that are affected by climate change are also important cultural pieces, which are integral to the identity and cohesion of tribes. Ryan Reed, a tribal member of the Karuk and Yurok Tribe and a sophomore undergrad student in Environmental Science at the University of Oregon, and James Rattling Leaf, tribal member of the Rosebud Sioux, and Tribal Engagement Leader for the Great Plains Water Alliance, join Ira for this segment.

“One Trillion Trees”… But Where to Plant Them?

In this week’s State of the Union address, President Trump didn’t utter the words “climate change”—but he did say this: “To protect the environment, days ago I announced the United States will join the One Trillion Trees Initiative, an ambitious effort to bring together government and private sector to plant new trees in America and all around the world.”

Planting trees to suck up carbon is an increasingly popular Republican alternative to limiting fossil fuel emissions—but how practical is it? In this segment, E&E News White House reporter Scott Waldman discusses the strategy.

Feb 07, 2020
Breast Cancer Cultural History, Butterfly Wings. Jan 31, 2020, Part 2
46:48

‘Radical’ Explores The Hidden History Of Breast Cancer 

Nearly 270,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, along with a couple thousand men. But the disease manifests in many different ways, meaning few patients have the same story to tell. 

Journalist Kate Pickert collects many of those stories in her book Radical: The Science, Culture, and History of Breast Cancer in America. And one of those stories is her own. As she writes about her own journey with breast cancer, Pickert delves into the history of breast cancer treatment—first devised by a Scottish medical student studying sheep in the 1800s—and chronicles the huge clinical trials for blockbuster drugs in the 80s and 90s—one of which required armies of people to harvest timber from the evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest. 

She joins Ira Flatow to tell her story, and the surprising cultural history of breast cancer

With Butterfly Wings, There’s More Than Meets The Eye 

Scientists are learning that butterfly wings are more than just a pretty adornment. Once thought to be made up of non-living cells, new research suggests that portions of a butterfly wing are actually alive—and serve a very useful purpose. 

In a study published in the journal Nature Communications, Naomi Pierce, curator of Lepidoptera at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, found that nano-structures within the wing help regulate the wing’s temperature, an important function that keeps the thin membrane from overheating in the sun. They also discovered a “wing heart” that beats a few dozen times per minute to facilitate the directional flow of insect blood or hemolymph. 

Pierce joins Ira to talk about her work and the hidden structures of butterfly wings. Plus, Nipam Patel, director of the Marine Biological Laboratory, talks about how butterfly wing structure is an important component of the dazzling color on some butterfly wings.

Jan 31, 2020
Coronavirus Update, Invasive Species. Jan 31, 2020, Part 1
47:19

Tracking The Spread Of The Coronavirus Outbreak

This week, the World Health Organization declared that the coronavirus outbreak—which began in Wuhan, China—is a public health emergency of international concern. Nearly 8,000 cases have been confirmed worldwide. Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of the virus from some of the patients who were infected early on in the outbreak. Virologist Kristian Andersen discusses how the genetics of the virus can provide clues to how it is transmitted and may be used for diagnostic tests and vaccines. Plus, infectious disease specialist Michael Osterholm talks about the effectiveness of quarantines and what types of measures could be put in place to halt the spread of the pathogen.

Putting Invasive Species On Trial

When species that have existed in one place for a long time are transported to new ecosystems, there are a few possible outcomes. First, nothing could happen. That flower, fish, or flying insect could find the new environment too hostile. In other cases, the new arrival may succeed and multiply just enough to establish itself in the food chain alongside the native species. But a small fraction of wayward species can go on to dominate. They out-compete an established species so well that they may take over their new home, and change the way a food web functions. Think garlic mustard, jumping worms, and emerald ash borer beetles.

And in The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, this winter’s Science Friday Book Club pick, journalist Dan Egan recounts how exposing lakes Michigan, Huron, Ontario, Superior, and Erie to new species had devastating effects on the ecosystems of each lake—first, blood-sucking sea lampreys decimated native lake trout, then tiny alewives exploded in population. Ship-transported round gobies, quagga and zebra mussels, spiny waterfleas, and more have since come on the scene. It’s no surprise that ecologists have had close eyes on the lakes for decades. And now, with species of potentially invasive Asian carp poised to enter from the Mississippi River basin, many wonder what’s next for the Great Lakes’ flora and fauna. 

Conservation biologist David Lodge, who helped pioneer the eDNA method for tracking Asian carp, joins University of Michigan ecologist Karen Alofs to talk about how new species become invasive and how biologists decide what to prevent, what to protect, and, sometimes, what changes to accept.

When A Correction May Not Be Helpful

New work relating to messages about the Zika virus and yellow fever published this week in the journal Science Advances indicates that delivering accurate messaging may be harder than you think. Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College and one of the authors of the report, joins Ira to talk about the study and what lessons it might hold for educating people about other public health risks.

A Close Call Collision In Near-Earth Orbit

On Wednesday night, skywatchers near Pittsburgh looked up, watching, just in case there was a collision in space. Two satellites, an old U.S. Air Force satellite and a nonfunctioning orbital telescope, narrowly avoided collision, passing as close as 40 feet from each other. One estimate ranked the odds of collision at 1 in 20. Amy Nordrum, news editor at IEEE Spectrum, joins Ira to talk about the problem of orbital debris and other stories from the week in science.

Jan 31, 2020
SciFri Extra: Revisiting Unique Science Stories Of 2019
33:20

2020 has just begun, but we’re still celebrating all the amazing work done by science journalists in 2019. Thanks to them, we’ve been informed on stories like the new illnesses linked to vaping, the first image of a black hole, and the increase in youth-led climate change protests.

At our year in review event at Caveat in NYC on December 18, 2019, three science storytellers—Arielle Duhaime-Ross, Sarah Zhang, and Ariel Zych—took the stage with a notable story they reported in 2019, including the untold and surprising facts that may not have made it to their final draft.

Jan 28, 2020
Coronavirus, Great Lakes Drinking Water. Jan 24, 2020, Part 1
46:59

A novel coronavirus—the type of virus that causes SARS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and common cold symptoms—has killed 18 people, and sickened more than 600. In response, Chinese officials have quarantined several huge cities, where some 20 million people live. In this segment, Ira talks with epidemiologists Saskia Popescu and Ian Lipkin about what we know about the virus, how it appears to spread, and whether efforts to contain it are effective—or ethical. 


Do you know where your drinking water comes from? For more than 40 million people in the Great Lakes Basin, the answer is the abundant waters of Lake Michigan, Ontario, Erie, Huron, or Superior.

This winter, the Science Friday Book Club has been reading Dan Egan’s The Death And Life of the Great Lakes, and unpacking the drastic ecological changes facing these bodies of water in the last century and beyond. But what about the changes to the water that might affect people who drink it? And does everyone who lives on the lakes actually have equal access? Great Lakes Now reporter Gary Wilson unpacks some of the threats to clean drinking water faced by the region’s residents, from Flint’s lead pipes to Lake Erie’s algae blooms to shutoffs for those who can’t afford to pay.

And Kristi Pullen Fedinick of the Natural Resources Defense Council explains a recent report that connected disproportionate levels of drinking water contamination to communities that are poorer or dominated by people of color—all over the country.

Finally, Science Diction host Johanna Mayer explains the origins of the word “mercury,” another pollutant that has plagued the Great Lakes.


This week business leaders, celebrities, and government officials from around the world met in Davos, Switzerland—and one of the topics was trees. The Trillion Tree campaign, a collaboration between several of the world’s largest environmental organizations, wants to combat global deforestation around the world But at the same time, work published in the journal Global Change Biology indicates that tree planting can lead to unintended consequences.

The researchers found that increased levels of forest can reduce the available water in nearby rivers dramatically, cutting river flow by as much as 23% after five years and 38% after 25 years. The effect of trees on river flow is smaller in drier years than wetter ones. The type of soil conditions also have an effect—trees planted on healthy grassland have a larger impact on river flow than forests on former degraded agricultural land.

David Coomes, Director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute and one of the authors of the paper, joins Ira to talk about the pros and cons of reforestation.

 

Jan 24, 2020
Feathered Dino, Clinical Trials, Coffee Extraction. Jan 24, 2020, Part 2
47:11

Before any new drug comes to market, it goes through a time-consuming process. Researchers have to recruit human subjects for a clinical trial, collect all the data, and analyze the results. All of that can take years to complete, but the end result could be worth it: a drug that treats a rare disease or improves patients lives with fewer side effects. 

Or the opposite could happen: The drug doesn’t have any effect or makes patients worse. So the question is, how is the public informed of the outcome?

One answer is ClinicalTrials.gov, a public-facing website where researchers are required by law to register all currently ongoing clinical trials and report their results. That way, the public is kept informed.

However, two recent investigations of ClinicalTrials.gov reporting practices show that many researchers aren’t posting their results online. In fact, up to 25% of studies never seem to have their results reported anywhere. And government agencies aren’t enforcing the rule in ways they’ve promised—with heavy fines and threats to withhold funding from institutions that don’t comply.


In a delicate piece of shale from coastal China, paleontologists have identified a new species of feathered dinosaur: Wulong bohaiensis, Chinese for “Dancing Dragon.” The house cat-sized dino has fierce talons, feathered wings, and a long, whip-like tail with feathered plumes at the end.

Ashley Poust, who published a description of the dinosaur in The Anatomical Record, says it’s “hard to imagine” the wings being used for flying. But he says the wings could have been used to arrest leaps or falls, or to hold down prey while killing it, as modern-day birds sometimes do.

In this conversation with Ira, Poust talks more about the dino’s possible lifestyle, and how it fits in with other feathered reptiles.


A cup of coffee first thing in the morning is a ritual—from grinding the beans to boiling the water and brewing your cup. But following those steps won’t always get you a consistent pour. Researchers developed a mathematical model to determine how the size of grind affects water flow and the amount of coffee that gets into the final liquid. Their results were published in the journal Matter.

Computational chemist Christopher Hendon, who was an author on that study, talks about how understanding atomic vibration, particle size distribution, and water chemistry can help you brew the perfect cup of coffee.

Jan 24, 2020
Polling Science, Gar-eat Lakes. Jan 17, 2020, Part 1
47:35

The Science Of Polling In 2020 And Beyond

In today’s fast-paced digital culture, it is more difficult than ever to follow and trust political polls. Campaigns, pollsters, and media outlets each say that their numbers are right, but can report different results. Plus, the 2016 election is still fresh in the public’s mind, when the major story was how political polling got it wrong. 

But despite how people may feel about the practice, the numbers suggest that polls are still working. Even as telephone survey response rates have fallen to around 5%, polling accuracy has stayed consistent, according to a new report published by the Pew Research Center. But things get even trickier when talking about online polls. 

So how can polling adapt to the way people live now, with texting, social media, and connecting online? And will the public continue to trust the numbers? Ira talks with Courtney Kennedy, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center about the science of polling in 2020 and beyond. Kennedy also told SciFri three questions you should ask when you’re evaluating a poll. Find out more.

Why Native Fish Matter

The fish populations of the Great Lakes have changed dramatically in the years since invasive species first arrived. Bloodsucking sea lampreys have decimated native lake trout, and tiny alewives have feasted on the eggs and young of trout and other native species. But there’s good news too, as researchers roll out solutions to help manage invasive fish populations and maintain the diversity of species. 

In this next installment of the SciFri Book Club, Fish ecologist Solomon David explains why the biodiversity of the Great Lakes matters more than ever, and how to appreciate these hard-to-see freshwater fish

Planning For Spring Waters Along The Missouri

In Missouri, people are looking towards repaired levees in the hopes of reducing future flood damage.

Our Bodies Are Cooling Down

98.6 F is no longer the average healthy body temperature. Is improving health the culprit? Science journalist Eleanor Cummins reports the latest in science news.
Jan 17, 2020
Biorobots, The Math Of Life, Science Comics. Jan 17, 2020, Part 2
47:57

Living Robots, Designed By Computer

Researchers have used artificial intelligence methods to design ‘living robots,’ made from two types of frog cells. The ‘xenobots,’ named for the Xenopus genus of frogs, can move, push objects, and potentially carry materials from one place to another—though the researchers acknowledge that much additional work would need to be done to make the xenobots into a practical tool.

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Josh Bongard, a professor of computer science at the University of Vermont and co-author of the report, joins Ira to talk about designing cell-based structures and next steps for the technology. 

The Math Behind Big Decision Making

What does it mean for your health if a cancer screening is 90% accurate? Or when a lawyer says there’s a 99% chance a defendant is guilty? We encounter numbers in our everyday lives that can influence how we make big decisions, but what do these numbers really tell us? 

Mathematical biologist explores these concepts and patterns in his book The Math of Life and Death: 7 Mathematical Principles That Shape Our Lives. He joins Ira to talk about the hidden math principles that are used in medicine, law, and in the media and how the numbers can be misused and correctly interpreted.

The Science Comics Of Rosemary Mosco

Have you ever wondered what a Great Blue Heron would write in a love letter to a potential mate? Or what the moons of Mars think of themselves? These are the scenes that nature cartoonist Rosemary Mosco dreams up in her comic Bird and Moon.  

“Nature is really funny. It’s never not funny,” Mosco says in SciFri’s latest SciArts video. “You can go into the woods and find 20 or 30 hilarious potential comic prompts anywhere you go.”

Viewers may come for the laughs, but they will end up learning facts, she explains. Mosco talks about her inspiration for finding the funny side of snakes, planets, and nature, and how she uses humor to communicate science

Jan 17, 2020
Migraines, Galaxy Formation. Jan 10, 2020, Part 2
46:04

The Mysteries Of Migraines

What do sensitivity to light, a craving for sweets and excessive yawning have in common? They’re all things that may let you know you’re about to have a migraine. Of course each person’s experience of this disease—which impacts an estimated 38 million people in the U.S.—can be very different. One person may be sensitive to light while another is sensitive to sound. Your pain may be sharp like a knife while your friend’s may be dull and pulsating. Or perhaps you don’t have any pain at all, but your vision gets temporarily hazy or wiggly. This week Ira is joined by two migraine experts, Elizabeth Loder, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and Peter Goadsby, professor of neurology at the University of California San Francisco, who explain what’s going on in the brain of a migraineur to cause such disparate symptoms. Plus, why some treatments work for some and not others, from acupuncture and magnesium supplements, to a new FDA approved medication that goes straight to the source.

How Do Galaxies Get Into Formation? 

The Milky Way and distant galaxies are a mix of gas, dust, and stars. And while all of this is swirling in space, there is a structure to a galaxy that holds all of this cosmic dust in order. A group of researchers discovered a nearly 9,000 light year-long wave of “stellar nurseries”—star forming regions filled with gas and dust—running through the Milky Way, and could form part of the galaxy’s arm. 

The study was published in the journal Nature. Astronomers Alyssa Goodman and Catherine Zucker, who are authors on that study, tell us what this star structure can tell us about the formation of our galaxy. 

Plus, astrophysicist Sangeeta Malhotra talks about one of the oldest galaxies formed 680 million years after the big bang, and the difference between these ancient galaxies and our own

Jan 10, 2020
Australia Fires, Great Lakes Book Club. Jan 10, 2020, Part 1
46:11

How Climate Change Is Fanning Australia’s Flames

 All eyes have been on Australia in recent weeks as the country’s annual summer fire season has spun out of control with devastating damage to endangered wildlife, homes, farms, indigenous communities, and—as smoke drifts across unburned major metropolitan centers like Sidney and Canberra—air quality. 

Vox reporter Umair Irfan and fire scientist Crystal Kolden explain why climate scientists are pointing the finger squarely at climate change for contributing to the fires’ unique size and intensity. Plus, Australian climate scientist Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick explains why climate change has heightened the country’s naturally volatile weather patterns to make this the worst fire season in living memory.

Science Friday Book Club’s Winter Read Plunges Into The Great Lakes

Even on a clear day, you can’t see across Lake Michigan. The same is true of the other Great Lakes: Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. At average widths of 50 to 160 feet across, the five magnificent pools are too massive for human eyes to make out the opposite shore. These glacier-carved inland seas hold 20% of the fresh surface water on the planet, and are a source of food, water, and sheer natural wonder for millions of people in communities living on their sprawling shores.

While the lakes have cleaned up immensely from a past of polluted rivers that caught on fire, it’s not all smooth sailing under the surface. From the tiny quagga and zebra mussels that now coat lake beds to the looming threat of voracious, fast-breeding carp species, the lakes are a far cry from the lush ecosystems they once were. This winter, the Science Friday Book Club will explore Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, which details both the toll of two centuries of human interference—and how the lakes can still have a bright future.

SciFri Book Club captain Christie Taylor is back to kick off our reading! She talks with ecologist Donna Kashian at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan and Wisconsin author Peter Annin about the ravaged ecosystems and enduring value of these waterways. 

Studying Drought, Under Glass

Scientists are using the enclosed Biosphere 2 ecosystem to investigate how carbon moves in a rainforest under drought conditions. KNAU science reporter Melissa Sevigny tells us the State of Science.

Solving The Mystery Of Ancient Egyptian Head Cones

Ancient Egyptian artwork often depicts people wearing ceremonial head cones, but the role of these head dressings remained a mystery. Journalist and author Annalee Newitz talks about the first piece of physical evidence found of these head cones and what they may have been used for. Plus, other stories including a group of scientists who trained cuttlefish to wear 3D glasses to test their depth perception.

Jan 10, 2020
Geoengineering Climate Change, Tasmanian Tiger, New Water Plan. Jan 3, 2020, Part 1
46:25

In the context of climate change, geoengineering refers to deliberate, large-scale manipulations of the planet to slow the effects of human-induced global warming—whether by removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it safely, or altering the atmosphere to reflect the amount of incoming sunlight that is absorbed as heat. 

But neither strategy is uncomplicated to deploy. Carbon capture is expensive and is often used to enhance fossil fuel extraction, not to actually reduce emissions. Meanwhile, altering our atmosphere would require maintenance indefinitely until we actually reduce emissions—that, or risk a whiplash of warming that plants could not adapt to. 

UCLA researcher Holly Buck is the author of a new book that examines these complexities. She explains to Ira why geoengineering could still be a valid strategy for buying time while we reduce emissions, and why any serious deployment of geoengineering technology would require a re-imagining of society as well.


Welcome to the Charismatic Creature Corner! Last month, we introduced this new monthly segment about creatures (broadly defined) that we deem charismatic (even more broadly defined). 

In the first creature spotlight, we marveled at slime molds, which look and feel like snot but can solve mazes. This time, a far more conventionally charismatic creature was nominated—but one mired in tragedy and mystery. 

Meet the Tasmanian tiger, believed to have gone extinct decades ago, but spotted all over Australia to this day.

Tasmanian tigers, also known as “thylacines,” look like dogs, have stripes like tigers, but aren’t closely related to either because they’re actually marsupials. They have pouches like kangaroos and koalas, and are even believed to have hopped on two feet at times!  

The last known Tasmanian tiger died in a zoo in 1936 and they were declared extinct in the 1980s, but people claim to have never stopped seeing them. There have been thousands of sightings of Tasmanian tigers, crossing roads and disappearing into the bush, lurking around campsites, even following people on their way home. But solid proof eludes us. So if they’re truly still around, they’re particularly sneaky at hiding from modern surveillance. 

Science Friday’s Elah Feder returns to convince Ira that Tasmanian tigers—dead or alive—are indeed worthy of our coveted Charismatic Creature title, with the help of Gregory Berns, a psychology professor at Emory University. We also hear from Neil Waters, president of the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia, who’s dedicating the next two years of his life to finding proof the tigers are still out there.


Nara Bopp was working at a thrift store in Moab, Utah the morning of March 4 when her desk started moving.

“I immediately assumed that it was a garbage truck,” Bopp said.

She looked out the window. No garbage truck. No construction nearby either. So she did the same thing she does every time something weird happens in Moab: She logged onto the town’s unofficial Facebook page to see what was up.

“Pretty much everyone was saying: ‘Did you just feel that earthquake?’ or, ‘Did you just feel something shaking? Was that an earthquake? Does Moab even get earthquakes? This is crazy,’” Bopp said.

Moab doesn’t normally have earthquakes people can feel. This one—at a magnitude 4.5—didn’t cause any damage. But it was enough to get people’s attention in communities all along the Utah-Colorado border. Many took to social media to post about the uncharacteristic shaking.

Earthquakes can feel like a freak of nature, something that strikes at random. But not this one. There’s no question where it came from and that human activity caused it.

Since the turn of the 20th century, the Colorado River and its tributaries have been dammed and diverted to sustain the growth of massive cities and large-scale farming in the American Southwest. Attempts to bend the river system to humanity’s will have also led to all kinds of unintended consequences. In Colorado’s Paradox Valley, those unintended consequences take the form of earthquakes.

Read more at sciencefriday.com.

Jan 03, 2020
Christmas Bird Count. Jan 3, 2020, Part 2
46:55

For many, the new year means looking back on the past accomplishments and checking off your goals. For birders, it means tallying up your species list and recording all the birds you’ve spotted in the season. Birders Corina Newsome and Geoff LeBaron, director of the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, guide us through the feathered friends flying overhead—from nuthatches to ducks to merlins. 

Jan 03, 2020
2019 Year In Review. Dec 27 2019, Part 1
48:17

 In 2019 we experienced some painful and heartbreaking moments—like the burning of the Amazon rainforest, a worldwide resurgence of measles cases, and the first ever deaths linked to vaping

Ira talks with this year’s panel of science news experts, Wendy Zukerman, Rachel Feltman, and Umair Irfan, live on stage at Caveat in New York City. 

Plus, as we turn the corner into 2020, Science Friday listeners weigh in with their picks for the best science moment of the decade. 

Dec 27, 2019
Looking Back at the Pale Blue Dot. Dec 27, 2019, Part 2
47:30

Few people could put the cosmos in perspective better than astronomer Carl Sagan. And that’s why we’re taking this opportunity to take another listen to this classic conversation with Sagan, recorded December 16, 1994, twenty-five years ago this month. 

Ira and Sagan talk about US space policy, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, the place of humans in the universe, and humanity’s need to explore.     

Dec 27, 2019
Emerging Technologies, Pokémon In The Brain, Colds And Flu. Dec 20, 2019, Part 1
46:34

Back when Science Friday began in 1991, the Internet, as we know it, didn’t even exist. While ARPA-NET existed and the first web pages began to come online, social media, online shopping, streaming video and music were all a long ways away. In fact, one of our early callers in 1993 had a genius idea: What if you could upload your credit card number, and download an album you were interested in listening to?

A truly great idea—just slightly before its time. In this segment, we’ll be looking ahead at the next 5 to 10 years of emerging technologies that are about to bubble up and change the world. Think, “metalenses,” tiny, flat chips that behave just like a curved piece of glass, or battery farms, which could transform our energy future. 

Scientific American technology editor Sophie Bushwick helped put together the magazine’s special report, the Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2019. She will be our guide through this techie future.

How does a child’s brain dedicate entire regions for processing faces or words? In order to answer this question, Stanford University neuroscientist Jesse Gomez leveraged a novel visual data set: Pokémon! Gomez, a lifelong fan of the popular anime creatures, wondered if his childhood ability to instantaneously identify all 150 Pokémon—combined with the repetitive way they were presented on screen—might have resulted in the formation of dedicated Pokémon region in his brain. Science Friday video producer Luke Groskin joins Ira to relay Gomez’s story and how Pokémon provide the perfect opportunity to teach us about how our vision systems develop.

It’s the time of the year for sniffles, but what exactly is the virus that’s making you sick? Researchers in Scotland took a survey of the viruses in the respiratory tracts of over 36,000 patients in the U.K. National Health System, and mapped out the viral ecosystem in their lungs. Around 8% of the patients with some form of viral infection had more than one virus active in their systems. And it turns out that if you have a flu infection, you’re less likely to also be infected with the cold virus. Sema Nickbakhsh, one of the authors of the paper and a researcher at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow, joins Ira to talk about the work and what it can tell us about viral ecosystems

And, this week a Congressional budget deal approved $25 million in funding for gun violence research at the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health. Maggie Koerth, senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight, joins Ira to talk about that news and other stories from the week in science.

Dec 20, 2019
Space Junk, Chronobiology, Mistletoe. Dec 20, 2019, Part 2
46:50

As more commercial companies are getting into the satellite launching game, space is becoming a crowded place and all of these objects are creating space debris. Right now, there are approximately 2,000 satellites floating in low-Earth orbit. Space agencies have estimated that are over 100 million small particles floating in low-Earth orbit, but there are no large scale projects to clean up these pieces of space trash. 

Aerospace engineer Moriba Jah and space archeologist Alice Gorman talk about framing the idea of space as another ecosystem of Earth and what environmental, cultural and political issues come along with cleaning up our space junkyard

Saturday’s Winter Solstice, which marks not just the arbitrary beginning of a season, but also the slow return of daylight to the Northern hemisphere. Or the coming decade, as many reflect back on everything that’s happened since 2010, and prepare to mark the beginning of 2020a completely human invention.

But there’s also an invisible timekeeper inside our cells, telling us when to sleep and when to wake. These are the clock genes, such as the period gene, which generates a protein known as PER that accumulates at night, and slowly disappears over the day, approximating a 24-hour cycle that drives other cellular machinery. This insight won its discoverers the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology

These clock genes don’t just say when you snooze: from the variability of our heart rates to the ebbs and flows of the immune system, we are ruled by circadian rhythms.

Erik Herzog, who studies the growing field of chronobiology at Washington University in St. Louis, explains how circadian rhythms are increasingly linked to more than our holiday jet lag or winter blues, but also asthma, prenatal health, and beyond. And he explains why the growing movement to end Daylight Savings Time isn’t just about convenience, but also saving lives.

This time of year, it’s not uncommon to see a little sprig of greenery hanging in someone’s doorway. It’s probably mistletoe, the holiday decoration that inspires paramours standing beneath it to kiss.

But as it turns out, we may have miscast mistletoe as the most romantic plant of the Christmas season. In reality, the plant that prompts your lover’s kiss is actually a parasite. Ira talks with evolutionary biologist Josh Der about the myth and tradition behind the parasitic plant, and what it may be up to the other 11 months of the year

Dec 20, 2019
Degrees of Change: Transportation. December 13, 2019, Part 1
46:55

Transportation—whether it be your car, aircraft, cargo ships, or the heavy trucks carrying all those holiday packages—makes a big contribution to the world’s CO2 emissions. In the U.S., the transportation sector accounts for some 29% of the country’s emissions, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. And despite the Paris Agreement mission to decrease global emissions, demand for transportation around the world is on the rise—and with that increased demand comes increased energy use. Air travel is growing at a rate of 2-3% a year, for instance—a trend that could cause the emissions effects of air transport to almost double by 2050. 

But there are some initiatives and technologies that aim to alleviate the energy costs from this transportation glut

In this chapter of our Degrees of Change series, we’ll talk about transportation, and some of the technology and policy changes that could be made to make getting around more sustainable. Daniel Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis joins Ira to talk about personal transportation in the U.S., and how individuals get around. We’ll talk with Steven Barrett, director of the Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, about greener flying. And Rachel Muncrief, of the International Council on Clean Transportation, joins the conversation to talk about improving heavy vehicles like buses and cargo trucks.

And, as the climate crisis deepens, the effects are increasingly ravaging developing nations, which had little or nothing to do with warming the planet. Now those nations are asking industrialized countries to help them deal with the damagebut major powers, like the United States, don’t want to pay up

Those tensions were playing out this week and last at the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid, and New York Times climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis joins Ira to catch us up on that international drama. 

Dec 13, 2019
Insulin Marketplace, Hair, Whale Size. December 13, 2019, Part 2
46:58

Why Diabetes Patients Are Getting Insulin From Facebook

Almost one in ten Americans are diagnosed with diabetes, according to the most recent statistics from the CDC. With those odds, you likely know someone with the disease. And you may also know that most diabetes patients need to be treated with insulin therapy—frequent injections of a hormone that helps regulate their blood sugar—or face serious complications, like blindness, nerve damage, or kidney failure. 

Unfortunately, a good number of these patients can’t afford to purchase insulin through official channels, like pharmacies and hospitals, even with the help of health insurance. In such cases, diabetes patients are turning to what one recent study called “underground exchanges”—platforms like Craigslist, Ebay and Facebook—to get access to the drug they need. 

Ira is joined by one of the authors of that study, Michelle Litchman, a nurse practitioner and researcher at the University of Utah College of Nursing in Salt Lake City, to talk about what patients are doing to combat the high cost of insulin in the U.S.

Combing Over What Makes Hair So Strong

Hair is one of the strongest materialswhen stretched, hair is stronger than steel. A team of researchers collected and tested hair from eight different mammals including humans, javelinas, and capybaras to measure what gives hair its strength. The basic structure of hair is similar across species with an outer cuticle layer surrounding fibers, but each species’ hair structure accommodates different needs. Javelinas have stiffer fibers to allow them to raise their hair when it’s in danger. Their results, published in the journal Matter, found that thinner hair was stronger than thicker strands.

Engineer Robert Ritchie, who was one of the authors of that study, talks about the structure that gives hair its strength and how bio-inspired design can create better materials.

How Whales Got Whale-Sized

We live in a time of giants. Whales are both the largest living animals, and, in the case of 110-foot-long blue whales, the largest animals that have ever been alive on the planet. 

But whales haven’t always been gigantic. Until about 3 million years ago, the fossil record shows that the average whale length was only about 20 feet long. They were big, but not big. The rise—and growth—of the lineages that gave rise to humpbacks, fin whales, and other behemoths happened, in evolutionary time, overnight.

So, why are whales big—and why are whales so big now?

Now, researchers who parsed data from feeding events of a dozen different whale species think they have the mathematical confirmation. Writing in Science this week, they say baleen whales, who become more energy-efficient as they grow, benefit from bigness because it lets them migrate to food sources that appear and disappear at different points around the globe. 

Study co-author Jeremy Goldbogen, a marine biologist for Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, explains the delicate balance of energy and size for giant mammals, and why bigness is such a compelling biological question.

Dec 13, 2019
Undiscovered Presents: Spontaneous Generation
20:21

These days, biologists believe all living things come from other living things. But for a long time, people believed that life would, from time to time, spontaneously pop into existence more often—and not just that one time at the base of the evolutionary tree. Even the likes of Aristotle believed in the “spontaneous generation” of life, until Louis Pasteur debunked the theory—or so the story goes. 

In a famous set of experiments, Pasteur showed that when you take a broth, boil it to kill all the microscopic organisms floating inside, and don’t let any dust get in, it stays dead. No life will spontaneously emerge. 

His experiments have been considered a win for science—but according to historian James Strick, they might have actually been a win for religion. 

This episode originally aired on Science Friday, when Elah joined Ira Flatow and science historian, James Strick, to find out what scientists of Pasteur’s day really thought of his experiment, the role the Catholic church played in shutting down “spontaneous generation,” and why even Darwin did his best to dodge the topic.

 

FOOTNOTES

Though Darwin was bold enough to go public with his theory of evolution, he seemed to shy away from the spontaneous generation debate. But his theory inevitably invited the question: if life could spontaneously arise once on Earth, why not many times? James Strick writes about Darwin’s complicated relationship with spontaneous generation.

The basic premise of Louis Pasteur’s famous swan-necked flask experiment is shown below. The swan necks let life-nourishing air into the flask, but kept potentially contaminating dust out.

Illustration and explanation of Louis Pasteur's spontaneous generation experiment.

 

 

GUEST

James Strick, associate professor at Franklin and Marshall College

 

CREDITS

This episode of Undiscovered was produced by Elah Feder and Alexa Lim. Our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud

Dec 11, 2019
Best Science Books and Board Games of 2019. Dec 6, 2019, Part 2
47:19

In a year jam-packed with fast-moving science news and groundbreaking research, books can provide a more slower-paced, reflective look at the world around us—and a precious chance to dive deep on big ideas. But how do you decide which scientific page-turner to pick up first? Science Friday staff pawed through the piles all year long. Listen to Ira round up his top picks, along with Valerie Thompson, Science Magazine senior editor and book reviewer, and Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and director of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism program. See a list of their 2019 science book selections. And we have been asking you for your favorite reads of the year. Find your recommendations here!

Plus, Science Diction correspondent Johanna Mayer reviews a lexicological classic, Isaac Asimov’s Words of Science. 

And, we rolled out a roundup of the best science board games! Some board games go beyond rolling dice, collecting $200, and passing “go.” Newer games have elaborate story-building narratives with complex strategies. And some of those board games focus on science themes that teach different STEM concepts. 

Board game creator Elizabeth Hargrave talks about how she turned her birding hobby into the game Wingspan. She and Angela Chuang, whose board game reviews have appeared in the journal Science, discuss their favorite STEM board games and what makes a good science game. Check out a list of recommended board games here!

 

Dec 06, 2019
Parker Solar Probe, Slime Molds. Dec 6, 2019, Part 1
46:49

In August 2018, NASA sent the Parker Solar Probe off on its anticipated seven-year-long mission to study the sun. Already, it has completed three of its 24 scheduled orbits, and data from two of those orbits are already telling us things we didn’t know about the star at the center of our solar system. The probe has collected information on the factors that influence the speed of solar wind, the amount of dust in the sun’s bubble-like region—the heliosphere—and also where scientists’ models were wrong. 

David McComas, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University and principal investigator of the integrated science investigation of the sun, breaks down the very first data collected from the Parker Solar Probe mission. He’s joined by Aleida Higginson, Parker Solar Probe deputy project scientist for science operations, who will update us on the mission that’s giving us an unprecedented look at our sun.


What makes a creature charismatic? 

In our new segment, we’ll feature one creature a month, and try to convince you that it’s worthy of the coveted Charismatic Creature title. By “creature” we mean almost anything—animals, viruses, subterranean fungal networks, you name it. And by “charismatic,” we don’t just mean cute, clever, or even all that nice! We just mean they have that special something that makes us want to lean in and learn everything about them—because they can’t all be baby pandas.

Over the past two months, we’ve received dozens of listener suggestions—everything from turtles to tardigrades. We had to choose just one, and we’re starting simple—single celled simple. Our first charismatic creature is Physarum polycephalum, the “multi-headed” slime mold.

Despite having no brain or neurons and being just one giant goopy cell, these slime molds keep defying our expectations. They can solve mazes, recreate the Tokyo railway network (animation below), learn, and even anticipate events. They can make rational and irrational choices that mirror our own. Not to mention they’re visually stunning too.

 

Despite having no brain or neurons and being just one giant goopy cell, these slime molds keep defying our expectations. They can solve mazes, recreate the Tokyo railway network (animation below), learn, and even anticipate events. They can make rational and irrational choices that mirror our own. Not to mention they’re visually stunning too.

 

Joining Ira to make the case that slime molds are uniquely charismatic is Science Friday’s Elah Feder and collective intelligence researchers Simon Garnier from New Jersey Institute of Technology and Tanya Latty from the University of Sydney.


Oregon is not very good at recycling, and it’s getting worse, according to a new report. Overall recycling rates in the state have steadily declined for the last several years, even as the amount of waste generated per person in the state has grown.

The report, published Thursday by the group Environment Oregon, uses data released yearly by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. It finds that Oregon faces major barriers to meeting its recycling goals. Nationally, recyclable plastics are being replaced with lower-value plastics. In Oregon, polystyrene (the flaky, foam-like material used in single-use coffee cups) isn’t recycled by municipal governments, and a legislative proposal to ban it statewide failed last year. Consumers can take certain polystyrene products to privately run drop boxes in some cities around the state.

This doesn’t mean that Oregonians aren’t passionate about recycling. The biggest barrier to recycling in Oregon is structural: less of the material placed in recycling bins can be repurposed by domestic facilities, and exporting recyclables to countries like China has become more difficult.

“The bottom line is, we need to take more of these products out of the waste stream,” Celeste Meiffren-Swango, the state director of Environment Oregon, said.

It’s not just an Oregon problem, it’s a national—even global—issue. For years, recycling in the United States has relied on Asian countries to take our waste. Many countries, finding that arrangement unprofitable, have started incinerating the recycling, dumping it in landfills, or simply stopped accepting recyclables from the United States altogether. The few countries that still purchase U.S. recyclables are increasingly facing unexpected health impacts stemming from too much waste and no way to process it.

 

 

Dec 06, 2019
SciFri Extra: Bringing Environmental Justice To The Classroom
16:14

Laura Diaz, a Bay Area science teacher, grew up in Pittsburg, California near chemical plants and refineries. That experience, combined with watching her mother’s home go up in flames in last year’s Camp Fire, transformed her into an “environmental justice activist.”

Now, she’s bringing those experiences into the classroom to inspire young people to solve the world’s injustices through science. Diaz joined Ira onstage at San Francisco’s Sydney Goldstein Theater, alongside a few former students, to talk about the connections between science education and environmental activism.

Nov 30, 2019
Science Awards Of The Sillier Sort. Nov 29, 2019, Part 2
46:23

The 2019 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony is a tribute to offbeat and quirky scientific studies. Here's some examples: Does pizza have a protective effect against cancer? What’s the physics behind the wombat’s unusual cubic-shaped droppings? And can dog-training clickers be used to help the medical education of orthopedic surgeons? 

These projects were among 10 that were recognized at this year’s 29th first annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies. The prizes, selected by the editors of the Annals of Improbable Research, were awarded in September at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre. They salute work that “first makes you laugh, and then, makes you think.” 

Nov 29, 2019
Imagining The Future Of AI / Face Mites. Nov 29, 2019, Part 1
47:39

What can science fiction and social science  contribute to how we think about our algorithmic present and future?

Science fiction writers and Hugo-winning podcast hosts Annalee Newitz (author of The Future Of Another Timeline) and Charlie Jane Anders (author of The City In The Middle Of The Night) talk about their work imagining future worlds and new kinds of technologyplus how all of this fiction traces back to the presentThen, AI ethicist Rumman Chowdhury joins to discuss how social science can help the tech industry slow down and think more responsibly about the future they’re helping to build. 

Plus, everyone has face mites—including you. But they have a fascinating evolutionary story to tell. In this interview recorded live at the Sydney Goldstein Theater in San Francisco, Ira talks with entomologist Michelle Trautwein of the California Academy of Sciences about why face mites live in our skin, where we get them (spoiler: thank your parents!), and how mite lineages can help reconstruct patterns of human migration around the globe. 

Nov 29, 2019
Undiscovered Presents: Planet Of The Killer Apes
24:01

In Apartheid-era South Africa, a scientist uncovered a cracked, proto-human jawbone. That humble fossil would go on to inspire one of the most blood-spattered theories in all of paleontology: the Killer Ape theory. 

According to the Killer Ape theory, humans are killers—unique among the apes for our capacity for bloodthirsty murder and violence. And at a particularly violent moment in U.S. history, the idea stuck! It even made its way into one of the most iconic scenes in film history. Until a female chimp named Passion showed the world that we might not be so special after all.

 

GUESTS

Erika Milam, professor of history, Princeton University

Agustín Fuentes, professor of anthropology, Notre Dame

 

FOOTNOTES

Erika Milam’s book Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America, elaborates on the Killer Ape theory.

Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis, published in 1961, tells his account of the Killer Ape theory and his visit with Dr. Raymond Dart.

Dr. Raymond Dart’s own narrative of his theory can be found in The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man. (Warning: bloody, over-the-top language ahead!) [requires log-in]

Read more about Australopithecus africanus.

Jane Goodall shared her chronicles of Gombe’s chimp war, Life and Death at Gombe for National Geographic. [requires log-in]

Watch the 1965 documentary Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees.

Learn more about murderous meerkats.

 

CREDITS

This episode of Undiscovered was produced by Annie Minoff and Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata and our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. Our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud. We had fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Special thanks to Charles Bergquist. The free version of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra is by Kevin MacLeod.

Nov 27, 2019
Degrees of Change: Coral Restoration. Nov 22 2019, Part 1
47:13

A quarter of the world’s corals are now dead, victims of warming waters, changing ocean chemistry, sediment runoff, and disease. Many spectacular, heavily-touristed reefs have simply been loved to death.

But there are reasons for hope. Scientists around the world working on the front lines of the coral crisis have been inventing creative solutions that might buy the world’s reefs a little time. 

Crawford Drury and his colleagues at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology are working to engineer more resilient corals, using a coral library for selective breeding experiments, and subjecting corals to different water conditions to see how they’ll adapt. 

Some resilient corals are still in the wild, waiting to be found. Narrissa Spiers of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory in Honolulu found one such specimen hiding out in the polluted Honolulu Harbor. 

Other scientists, like Danielle Dixson of the University of Delaware, are experimenting with corals that aren’t alive at all3D-printed corals. The idea, she says, is to provide a sort of temporary housing for reef-dwellers after a big storm or human damage. Dixson likens these 3D-printed structures to the FEMA trailers brought in after a hurricane. 

Dixson’s team is experimenting with these artificial corals in Fiji, to determine which animals use them as housing, and whether they spur the growth of new live corals too. 

Two huge challenges remain. For any of these technologies to work at scale, we need quicker, more efficient ways to plant corals in the wild, says Tom Moore, the coral reef restoration lead at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Listen to this chapter of the series, Degrees of Change.

Plus, California Governor Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on new fracking permits in the state. An independent scientific board will now need to review each project before it is approved. Reporter Rebecca Leber talks about what this state initiative tells us about the national debate on fracking. And, a look at the new members of the bipartisan Congressional Climate Solutions Caucus and their strategy for addressing climate change.

 

Nov 22, 2019
Astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, Marie Curie Play. Nov 22, 2019, Part 2
47:39

For most Americans, the story of the Hubble Space Telescope began on April 24th, 1990, the launch date of the now 30 year-old observatory. But for astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, Hubble’s journey began on a wintery day in early 1985 at a meeting at NASA headquarters, where she was assigned to the mission that would take Hubble into space. 

For the next five years, Sullivan, a former oceanographer and first female spacewalker, got to know Hubble intimately, training and preparing for its deployment. If Hubble’s automatic processes failed as it was detaching and unfolding from the spacecraft, Sullivan would be the one to step in and help. And she almost had to. Sullivan joins Ira to share the untold stories of Hubble’s launch and her time at NASA as told in her new book Handprints on Hubble.

Physicist Marie Curie is remembered as the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the first person—of two ever in history—to win two Nobel Prizes. With her role in discovering radium and polonium, and the energy emitted in the decay of large atomic nuclei, she brought us the concepts of radiation and radioactivity. Curie helped lay the groundwork for a revolution in both physics and chemistry.  

But a new play explores the person behind the brilliant scientist. In The Half-Life Of Marie Curie, we meet Curie after a scandal: She’s been caught having a love affair with a married man. But in a time of depression and isolation, she’s rescued by a friend,  English scientist Hertha Ayrton—also an intrepid but lesser-known physicist, engineer, and suffragette. 

Playwright Lauren Gunderson joins Ira to talk about the deep friendship between the two scientists, the importance of seeing Marie Curie as a person outside her work, and the many connections between storytelling and science. 

Nov 22, 2019
Undiscovered Presents: Like Jerry Springer For Bluebirds
26:02

“Do men need to cheat on their women?” a Playboy headline asked in the summer of 1978. Their not-so-surprising conclusion: Yes! Science says so! The idea that men are promiscuous by nature, while women are chaste and monogamous, is an old and tenacious one. As far back as Darwin, scientists were churning out theory and evidence that backed this up. In this episode, Annie and Elah go back to the 1970s and 1980s, when feminism and science come face to face, and it becomes clear that a lot of animals—humans and bluebirds included—are not playing by the rules.

 

GUESTS

Angela Saini, author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong

Patricia Adair Gowaty, professor emeritus at UCLA, editor of Feminism and Evolutionary Biology.

 

FOOTNOTES

Sarah B. Hrdy is an anthropologist, feminist, and a major figure in this chapter of science history. In this book chapter she addresses the myth of the “coy female” and reviews the relevant scientific happenings of the 1970s and 80s, especially in the primatology sphere.

Angus John Bateman’s 1948 paper about fruit fly mating and reproductive success, popularized by this paper from Robert Trivers in 1972. Bateman finds that males have more reproductive success the more females they mate with, and that females don’t benefit as much from mating with multiple males.

Patty Adair Gowaty found holes in Bateman’s study. Bateman didn’t know exactly how many sexual partners his fruit flies had because he didn’t watch them. Instead, he counted up how many offspring they made. Unfortunately, a lot of them had harmful mutations and died—skewing his numbers. Not only do they not meet Mendelian expectations, but in Bateman’s data, he consistently counts more fathers than mothers—which can’t be right, since every baby fly has one mother and one father.

Patty found that eastern bluebird females successfully raise offspring without help from their male partners.

Patty and Alvan Karlin found that eastern bluebird babies aren’t always related to the parents raising them.

True “genetic monogamy,” where bird couples only have sex with each other, appears to be the exception, not the rule in passerines. Polyandry—where females have sex with multiple males—has been found most of the species studied!

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, a psychology study at Florida State University found that most men, and no women would accept a sex invitation from a stranger.

In this more recent Germany study, 97% of the women expressed interest in sex with at least one strange man, but only when researchers promised to arrange a (relatively) safe encounter. 

Btw, Patty tells us bluebirds don’t actually have sex in the nest, so having sex “outside the nest” is the norm. We were using the expression figuratively, but worth noting. The nest is really for storing the babies.

 

CREDITS

This episode was reported and produced by Elah Feder and Annie Minoff. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata. Fact checking by Robin Palmer. I Am Robot and Proud wrote our theme. All other music by Daniel Peterschmidt.

Nov 20, 2019
Volume Control, Dermatology In Skin Of Color, Kelp Decline. Nov 15, 2019, Part 2
46:31

Dermatologists presented with a new patient have a number of symptoms to look at in order to diagnose. Does the patient have a rash, bumps, or scaling skin? Is there redness, inflammation, or ulceration? For rare conditions a doctor may have never seen in person before, it’s likely that they were trained on photos of the conditions—or can turn to colleagues who may themselves have photos.

But in people with darker, melanin-rich skin, the same skin conditions can look drastically different, or be harder to spot at all—and historically, there have been fewer photos of these conditions on darker-skinned patients. And for these patients, detection and diagnosis can be life-saving: people of color get less melanoma, for example, but are also less likely to survive it.

Dr. Jenna Lester, who started one of the few clinics in the country to focus on such patients, explains the need for more dermatologists trained to diagnose and treat people with darker skin tones—and why the difference can be both life-saving and life-altering.


Have you ever met a friend for dinner at a restaurant, only to have trouble hearing each other talk over the din of other diners? And as we get older, this phenomenon only gets worse and can be compounded by age-related hearing loss and conditions like tinnitus.

Unfortunately there is no silver bullet for tinnitus or other forms of hearing loss, and researchers don’t even understand all the ways in which the auditory system can go awry. But we now have more sophisticated technology to help us cope with it.

Nowadays, there are over-the-counter hearing aids and assistive listening devices that connect with your smartphone. Certain tech allows you to amplify softer sounds and cancel out the noise of a crowded room—it can even focus on the sound waves created by the person you’re speaking with.

Ira chats with David Owen, New Yorker staff writer and author of the new book Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World about the industry that’s helping millions of Americans cope with hearing loss.


Envision California’s lush forests from San Francisco to the Oregon border. Now imagine that 90 percent of those forests disappear within two years. Laura Rogers-Bennett, senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, says that’s exactly what happened to underwater kelp forests off Northern California’s coastline from 2014-16.

An analysis published this week in Scientific Reports documents the rapid decline of California’s bull kelp. The study links the reduction in the seaweed’s population to a confluence of environmental and ecological stressors, including a marine heat wave, a sea star die-off and the emergence of an “urchin barrens,” large swaths of subtidal zones overtaken by kelp-hungry purple sea urchins.

Rogers-Bennett, who monitors kelp forests in partnership with the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, says taken together, these strains on the kelp population threaten the greater coastal ecosystem. “We are finding out,” she says, “that if we cross some of these thresholds, that the system will collapse.” Observers are now noting kelp deforestation off the Oregon coast and in California south of San Francisco to Monterey Bay.

Nov 15, 2019
EPA Transparency Proposal, Tick Milking. Nov 15, 2019, Part 1
46:53

This week, a House Committee held a hearing to review an Environmental Protection Agency proposal called ‘Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.’ The proposal would require researchers to disclose underlying datawhich could include private medical and health informationfor any scientific studies that the agency would use in determining environmental regulations. Science reporter Lisa Friedman from the New York Times discusses how this proposal could be used to weaken regulations and discount certain scientific studies. Plus, epidemiologist Joshua Wallach talks about how the proposal could affect researchers who conduct long-term epidemiological studies. 

We reached out to the EPA for comment and they provided a statement that says:

“Science transparency does not weaken science, quite the contrary. By requiring transparency, scientists will be required to publish hypothesis and experimental data for other scientists to review and discuss, requiring the science to withstand skepticism and peer review.”


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.

Nov 15, 2019
SciFri Extra: Add A Dash Of Science To Your Thanksgiving Recipes
20:57

This Thanksgiving, put your cooking skills to the test. Looking for tips to avoid singed sweet potatoes, acrid apple pies, and a burned bird? In this 2016 conversation from the SciFri archive, Molly Birnbaum and Dan Souza from Cook’s Science help us understand the science behind favorite Thanksgiving recipes so you can avoid food failures, and get the most out of your roast and side dishes.

Nov 13, 2019
Infant Formula, AI Weirdness, Venus Fly Traps. Nov. 8, 2019, Part 2
47:30

Would you feel comfortable consuming a product that listed “whey protein concentrate” and “corn maltodextrin” on its list of ingredients? What about feeding it to your baby? Most of the ingredients found in baby formula are actually just carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, and are perfectly safe—and necessary—for infant health. But this inscrutable list of ingredients is one reason why many parents are opting to buy European formula for their little ones. Word is spreading around parenting blogs and websites—and among parents themselves—that European formulas, with their simpler ingredients lists, are “cleaner” and therefore healthier for babies.

But is there any truth to this claim? Baby formula expert and clinical researcher Bridget Young, PhD and professor of pediatrics Anthony Porto, MD, MPH, join Ira to discuss what the data says about the differences between infant formulas, as well as what those ingredients actually mean for your baby’s health.

And, AI may be short for “artificial intelligence,” but in many ways, our automated programs can be surprisingly dumb. For example, you can think you’re training a neural net to recognize sheep, but actually it’s just learning what a green grassy hill looks like. Or teaching it the difference between healthy skin and cancer—but actually just teaching it that tumors always have a ruler next to them. And if you ask a robot to navigate a space without touching the walls, sometimes it just stays still in one place. 

AI researcher Janelle Shane, author of a new book about the quirky, but also serious errors that riddle AI—which, at the end of the day, can only do what we tell them to

Plus, learn about the surprising facts and common misconceptions about the Venus flytrap. In our latest Macroscope video, researchers Elsa Youngsteadt and Laura Hamon are rushing to understand more about the Venus flytraps found in North Carolina before it’s too late. Science Friday video producer Luke Groskin joins Ira to talk about what we know and don’t know about this famous carnivorous plant. 

Nov 08, 2019
Biomedical Espionage, Einstein’s Eclipse, Transit Of Mercury. Nov. 8, 2019, Part 1
47:02

The FBI, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other agencies who oversee federal research grants are currently asking if the open culture of science in the U.S. is inviting other countries to steal it.

The FBI has been warning since 2016 that researchers could be potentially sending confidential research, and even biological samples, to other countries. On Monday, a report in the New York Times outlined the scale of ongoing investigations: nearly 200 cases of potential intellectual property theft at 71 different institutions. 

New York Times health and science reporter Gina Kolata, who broke the story, explains the investigations, and why China is featuring so prominently.

Then, on May 29, 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington and his scientific team photographed the stars during a total solar eclipse. The resulting images displayed stars that seemed slightly out of place—an indication that the mass of the sun had caused starlight to veer off course, as Einstein’s general theory of relativity had predicted. Six months later, on November 6, 1919, Eddington’s team presented their findings before a joint meeting of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society—and skyrocketed Einstein to worldwide fame

Science writer Ron Cowen, author of Gravity’s Century: From Einstein’s Eclipse to Images of Black Holes, joins Ira to tell the story.

Watch the Mercury transit! On Monday, November 11th, Mercury will slice a path across the sun—an occurrence that happens only about 13 times a century. These days, it’s fairly easy to observe a transit of Mercury—many local observatories or science centers hold viewing parties. But several centuries ago, transit chasers sailed the globe to observe these relatively rare events, in an effort to use them to calculate the size of the solar system. Find out how you can view the transit.

Researchers are collecting snapshots of Acadia National Park to supplement satellite data on fall leaf colors. Listen and learn more about this citizen science project

And, the Trump administration has begun a year-long process to exit the agreement—which would complete the day after the next presidential election. Listen to this week's science news roundup.

Nov 08, 2019
Moths, Alan Alda, Graveyard Lichens. Nov 1, 2019, Part 2
46:49

There are over 160,000 species of moths worldwide, and they come in all different shapes and sizes. For example, the Comet Moth, native to the rainforests of Madagascar, boasts vibrant red and yellow patterned wings, feathery antennae, and long swapping tails, thought to useful for distracting its bat predators.

By comparison, most common North American moths seem boring and dull. While their butterfly relatives flit about the garden in daylight, moths are often found lurking around outside lamps at night. And they can be a nuisance—eating holes in your cashmere sweaters or natural fiber rugs. Even in popular culture they get a bad rap. We use terms like “moth-balled” to describe a cancelled project and “like a moth to flame” when we talk about a perilous situation. 

But do moths deserve the unflattering characterization of the mysterious, scaly-winged insect that haunts the night? Dr. David Lees, Curator of Lepidoptera at the Natural History Museum of London, certainly doesn’t think so. He joins Ira to set the record straight about moths by highlighting their astonishing diversity and usefulness.


Actor and writer Alan Alda might be best known as Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H, or as a familiar face from several Woody Allen films. But he also spent more than a decade interviewing scientists on Scientific American Frontiers, and later founded a center to teach scientists how to communicate better with the public—through improv.

His latest project is hosting the podcast Clear + Vivid, where he’s interviewed a long list of public figures, from Adam Driver to Melinda Gates, and a wide variety of scientists like climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and primatologist Frans de Waal. In this interview with Ira, he focuses on a few memorable moments in the podcast that illustrate how to talk about tough topics like climate change.


A cemetery isn’t necessarily the first place that comes to mind when thinking about urban biodiversity and conservation, and, for a while, even ecologists wrote them off. But there’s a growing body of research that’s come together in recent years pointing to the value of these unexpected green spaces in protecting biodiversity, especially in cities where land is at a premium and green space is limited.

Researchers even discovered a new beetle species at a cemetery in Brooklyn earlier this summer and spotted a rare salamander species in the same cemetery only a few years earlier. But it’s not just beetles and salamanders that take refuge in cemeteries. Lichen, which are an algae-fungi amalgamation, do too.

Jessica Allen, assistant professor of biology at Eastern Washington University and an expert in New York City lichen, joins Ira to discuss the rare lichen that her research team found in a cemetery in the Bronx and why cemeteries are helping lichen to thrive in NYC.

 

Nov 01, 2019
PFAS Lawsuit, Bat Disease. Nov 1, 2019, Part 1
46:44

Eighteen years ago, a lawyer named Robert Bilott sent a letter to the EPA, the attorney general, and other regulators, warning them about a chemical called PFOA, short for perfluorooctanoic acid.

Outside of the companies that made and used PFOA, most people had never heard of it. But E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, better known as DuPont, had been using PFOA to make Teflon since the early 1950s. In the course of a lawsuit against the chemical corporation, Bilott had uncovered a trove of internal company documents, showing DuPont had been quietly monitoring the chemical’s health risks for decades, studying laboratory animals and their own workers. Bilott called on regulators to investigate and take action.

PFOA has since been linked to testicular and kidney cancer, among other diseases. It is part of a larger class of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have now been detected in everything from polar bears in Svalbard to fish in South Carolina, and are estimated to be in the blood of over 98% of Americans.

In the mid-2000s manufacturers started voluntarily phasing out PFOA and a related chemical, PFOS, but they substituted them with other PFAS chemicals, whose possible health effects are still being investigated and litigated.

Nearly two decades after Bilott wrote the EPA, the agency has not regulated these chemicals, but it says it plans to begin the process by the end of this year. Bilott, who previously secured a $670 million settlement from DuPont, is now suing DuPont, Chemours, and others on behalf of everyone in the United States who has PFAS in their blood.

This week, Robert Bilott tells Ira his story, now featured in his book, Exposure, and the movie, Dark Waters, out in theaters November 22. You can read an excerpt of Bilott’s book here.

Sharon Lerner of The Intercept also joins to discuss what is known about these chemicals, and what is and isn’t being done to limit our exposure.


Morgan Bengel stood about 35 feet underground, gesturing at the cold, rocky walls inside Old New-Gate Prison & Copper Mine. Late 18th-century descriptions of this subterranean penitentiary were bleak.

“Some of the words are, hell, a dungeon, woeful mansion,” Bengel said.

You’d think this would be the perfect place to find bats. It’s a dark damp cave. But during a bat survey here last winter scientists only found 10.

That’s because of white-nose syndrome. A disease caused by a fungus, which flourishes in caves, just like this one. The fungus gets on the muzzle and wings of bats, waking them up from hibernation, and depleting the fat they need to survive the winter.

It’s been more than a decade since the disease was first identified in North America. Since then, white-nose has killed off millions of bats across New England and other parts of the U.S. and Canada.

“We have a site in western Connecticut that was over 3,300 bats that we documented during a winter hibernaculum survey in 2007,” said Kate Moran, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “We returned there in 2009 and there were more like 300 bats. We returned there in 2010, and we counted fewer than a dozen bats. It was carnage, really.”

White-nose was first documented in New York in the winter of 2006 to 2007. Since then, it’s spread to at least 33 states and 7 Canadian provinces, including all of New England. In Connecticut caves, DEEP biologist Brian Hess said it’s virtually everywhere.

“To our knowledge, all of the caves in Connecticut have the fungal pathogen living in them,” Hess said.

Across Connecticut, the numbers of cave-dwelling bats like the northern long-eared bat, little brown bat, and tri-colored bat all dropped dramatically between 2007 and 2010. Moran said they still haven’t recovered.

“In New England bats were very common. The northern long-eared bat was probably the most common bat we had throughout New England. Now it is the least common bat we have in New England,” Moran said.

And it’s listed as “threatened” under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

Bats are beneficial to people. They eat moths and beetles that can pose dangers to crops. And they also consume mosquitoes, which can spread dangerous diseases like West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis.

 

Bats also live a long time. Moran said up to 30 years. And bats usually only produce one pup per year, which means any recovery will take a long time.

But it’s not all bad news. Hess said that while white-nose syndrome is present in all of Connecticut’s caves, there are spots within those areas where the fungus doesn’t do as well.

“There are little microclimates within caves that can help bats to survive that fungal load, because the fungus doesn’t grow quite as well if it’s warmer or cooler, or more or less humid than the fungus really, really likes,” Hess said.

What the fungus also doesn’t like, is going outside. It doesn’t survive in UV light or in springtime temperatures, so if a bat can make it through the winter, it can still have a shot at recovery.

That means hope for both the bats and the biologists working to conserve them.

“They’re still here. They haven’t blinked out,” Hess said. “When you have these introductions of diseases or pests, things are dire. But the fact that we still have bats is an encouragement and a reason to keep trying to make sure they still hang around.”

Hess said next year, the plan is to come back to New-Gate, to count bats and try to learn a little bit more about the handful of winter survivors who will awaken from an ecological nightmare.

 

Nov 01, 2019
“Black Software” Book, Mucus. Oct 25, 2019, Part 2
46:29

When the World Wide Web was first being developed, African American software engineers, journalists and entrepreneurs were building search engines, directories, and forums to connect and bring on black web users and communities. In his book Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, Charlton McIlwain tells the stories of these individuals. McIlwain also discusses the role these technologies can play in racial justice including how digital data can become segregated and the role social media platforms can play in offline social movements.

Plus, mucus gets a bad rap for its “ick” factor. But without it, you couldn’t blink, swallow, smell, or taste. You couldn’t digest your food, either. In fact, you wouldn’t even exist. The slimy material is the miraculous reason for our survival. Mucus is a ubiquitous natural goo. Jellyfish and hagfish have it; corals, which spend 40% of their daily energy intake producing mucus, are coated with it; even vegetables ooze it.

The substance is built from tiny thread-like polymers that look like bottle brushes, she says, and that backbone is studded with sugars called glycans. Those sugars appear to be one of the key ingredients that allows mucus to pacify problematic pathogens, according to a new study from Ribbeck’s group. The work is in the journal Nature MicrobiologyIn this segment, Ribbeck talks with Ira about the molecular complexities of mucus, and the many wondrous qualities of this potent and protective natural goo.

Oct 25, 2019
Spiders, Quantum Supremacy, Missouri Runoff. Oct 25, 2019, Part 1
46:49

Spiders were one of the first animals to evolve on land. And over the span of 400 million years of speciation and evolution, they’ve learned some amazing tricks. One of their trademarks? The strong, sticky substance that we call silk—every spider produces it, whether for weaving webs, wrapping prey, or even leaving trails on the ground for potential mates. 

But every silk is unique, each with different chemistry and different physical properties. Even a single spider web may use multiple kinds of silk. So how did spiders develop these wondrous fibers? We hear from Cheryl Hayashi at the American Museum of Natural HistorySarah Han at the University of Akron, and Linda Rayor at Cornell University about their work. 

Plus, a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico has states along the Mississippi working to reduce nutrient runoff. Science and environment reporter Eli Chen from St. Louis Public Radio tells the us the State of Science.

And, Google says its quantum computer has achieved in just 200 seconds what would take a supercomputer thousands of years. But IBM is pushing backSophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins Ira to talk about what this means and other stories from this week in science.

Oct 25, 2019
Policing And Mental Health, Ancient Clams, Moon Plan. Oct. 18, 2019, Part 2
47:11

In the 1980s and 1990s, in the midst of rising crime rates and a nationally waning confidence in policing, law enforcement around the country adopted a different approach to addressing crime. Instead of just reacting to crime when it happened, officers decided they’d try to prevent it from happening in the first place, employing things like “hot spots” policing and “stop and frisk,” or “terry stops.” The strategy is what criminologists call proactive policing, and it’s now become widely used in police departments across the nation, especially in cities.

Critics and experts debate how effective these tactics are in lowering crime rates. While there’s some evidence that proactive policing does reduce crime, now public health researchers are questioning if the practice—which sometimes results in innocent people being stopped, searched, and detained—comes with other unintended physical and mental health consequences.

Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska Omaha and an expert in police accountability, reviews what led police departments to adopt a more proactive approach, while medical sociologist Alyasah Ali Sewell explains the physical and mental health impacts of stop-question-and-frisk policing.


If you live near the coasts, you may occasionally enjoy a good clam bake. Thousands of years ago, indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest were much the same, with clams forming an important part of the coastal diet and culture. In fact, inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest developed techniques for cultivating clams in constructed ‘clam gardens’ along the coastline.

A new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that those clam gardens were very successful, allowing the farmed clams to sustainably grow larger and more rapidly than untended clams, despite being heavily harvested. Dana Lepofsky, a professor of archaeology at Simon Fraser University and one of the authors of that study, joins Ira to describe the technology of the clam garden and what it might be able to teach us about modern sustainable aquaculture.


This week, a congressional hearing examined NASA’s plan to return humans to the moon by 2024—and some Appropriations Committee members didn’t seem particularly bullish on the idea. New York Representative José E. Serrano had this to say:

Since NASA had already programmed the lunar landing mission for 2028, why does it suddenly need to speed up the clock by four years—time that is needed to carry out a successful program from a science and safety perspective. To a lot of Members, the motivation appears to be just a political one—giving President Trump a moon landing in a possible second term, should he be reelected.

In this segment, Eric Berger, a senior space editor at Ars Technica, talks with Ira about the implications of that hearing.

Plus, as it rushes to meet that 2024 deadline, NASA this week unveiled a new spacesuit, tailor-made for strolling on the lunar surface. Amy Ross of NASA Johnson Space Center led the suit’s design, and she joins Ira here to talk about its capabilities—and why a puffy suit is still necessary, rather than a tighter design depicted and described in films like The Martian.

Oct 18, 2019
Degrees Of Change: Climate Change Migration. Oct. 18, 2019, Part 1
47:16

When the water rises, whether from heavy rains or rising seas, communities have a few options: reinforce flood-threatened homes, rebuild after the water recedes, or—in places where the threat of repeated floods and even more damage is increasing—leave.

And while leaving may feel synonymous with defeat, more cities and states are interested in encouraging people to leave risky floodplains—a process called managed retreat. FEMA offers a buyout program that usually involves offering homeowners money to encourage them to move elsewhere. New York Times reporter Christopher Flavelle and University of Delaware social scientist A.R. Siders describe some of the different ways cities and states have attempted the process: from Staten Island residents who took buyouts after flooding from Hurricane Sandy, to Louisiana’s new statewide plan for strategically targeting high-risk areas.

But how can managed retreat go wrong? New research in Science Advances from Siders and her colleagues has found that it’s often rich counties that apply for FEMA money, and they often use it for buying out poorer residents—leading to questions of whether resources or opportunities are being distributed equitably. Jola Ajibade, a geographer at Portland State University, expands these questions to the global scale: In Lagos, Nigeria, managed retreat offers no financial incentive to people being asked to leave. And in Manila, Philippines, people are offered new homes, but aren’t given a way to earn a livelihood.

Finally, with enough planning, can retreating retain the fabric of an entire community? In Sidney, New York, neighbors have been waiting eight years trying to move together to higher ground—and they’re still caught up in red tape. The planned relocation of a Native American community on Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, has hit roadblocks as well. But small Midwestern towns fleeing massive river floods have tried the same, and seem to be thriving decades later: see Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, and Valmeyer, Illinois. Lehigh University anthropologist David Casagrande explains why collective community planning may end up being a key factor in retreat that leaves peoples’ lives and livelihoods most intact.

At a United Nations climate meeting in Poland last year, President Trump’s advisor on energy and climate change didn’t advance a forward-thinking plan to tackle climate change, but instead extolled the virtues of natural gas and even coal—one of the dirtiest fossil fuels. So, in the absence of meaningful federal policy on climate change, a grassroots effort by 435 U.S. mayors seeks to solve the climate problem, starting at the local level instead.

Emily Atkin, who writes the HEATED newsletter about the climate crisis, talks about that and other climate policy stories in the news, such as the lack of climate questions at the Democratic debate and the candidates’ views on punishing fossil fuel companies; Google donations that fuel climate science denial; and the Department of Agriculture’s lack of assistance for farmers dealing with increasingly extreme weather.

Oct 18, 2019
Office Air Pollution, Tetris Decisions, Alzheimer's Update. Oct 11, 2019, Part 2
47:02

If you live and work in an urban area, you might think about the air quality outside your home or workplace. But what about the air quality inside the office? It turns out that on average, indoor environments have higher concentrations of potentially harmful substances, such as aerosols and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). While past research has focused on chemical emissions from building materials, cleaning supplies, and even furniture, air pollution researchers are increasingly looking at another source of toxic air: us.

New research from Purdue University to be presented at the American Association for Aerosol Research conference has found that the majority of indoor VOCs may be released by a seemingly innocuous source: human beings, their lunches and coffee breaks, and anything they may wear or bring to work. And many of these compounds, such as the terpenes released by peeling an orange, or the squalene released in human skin oil, react with ozone to form even more worrisome molecules.


If you’ve ever played the classic puzzle-like computer game Tetris, you know that it starts out slowly. As the seven different pieces (called “zoids” by the initiated) descend from the top of the screen, a player has to shift the pieces horizontally and rotate them so that they fit into a gap in the stack of pieces at the bottom of the screen, or “well.” In early levels, the pieces might take 10-15 seconds to fall. The speed increases at each level.

In world champion Tetris matches, players often start play at Level 18—in which pieces are on the screen for about a second. Wayne Gray, a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic University, calls it a problem of “predictive processing and predictive action.” Champion-level expert players, he says, are able to take in the state of the gameboard and react almost immediately, without going through the mental steps of figuring out how to move the piece and rotate it that a novice player requires. “They can see the problem and reach a decision at the same time,” he said.

Gray and colleagues have attended the Classic World Tetris Championship tournament for three years, collecting data from expert players using a modified version of the game that collects keystrokes and eye-tracking data. He joins Ira to discuss what the researchers are learning about expert decision-making, and what he hopes to study at this year’s upcoming Tetris tournament.


The pharmaceutical industry has been on a 30 year mission to develop a drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease. The culprits behind the disease, they thought, were the amyloid plaques that build up in the brains of these patients. For many decades removing these plaques to treat Alzheimer’s was the goal.

But then drug after drug targeting amyloid failed to improve the symptoms of Alzheimer’s—the so-called “amyloid hypothesis” wasn’t bearing out. But drug companies kept developing and testing drugs that attacked amyloid from every angle—perhaps at the expense of pursuing other avenues of treatment.

This past summer, two more high profile clinical trials of drugs to treat Alzheimer’s failed. That brings the number of successful treatments for the disease, which affects 5.8 million Americans, to zero.

George Perry, professor of biology at UT San Antonio and Derek Lower, a drug researcher and pharmaceutical industry expert join Ira to explain what led pharmaceutical companies to doggedly pursue the amyloid hypothesis for decades, and whether or not they are ready to start trying something else.

 

Oct 11, 2019
Trust In Science, California Power Outages, Regrowing Cartilage. Oct 11, 2019, Part 1
46:27

Despite widely reported attacks on science, the vast majority of Americans continue to trust scientists, according to the latest survey from the Pew Research Center. Many listeners of Science Friday might take it as a given that we should trust science, but is that trust well-founded? Naomi Oreskes, history of science professor at Harvard University, argues that we should. In her new book, Why Trust Science?, she explains how science works and what makes it trustworthy. (Hint: it’s not the scientific method.)


Pacific Gas & Electric has generated confusion—not to mention outrage—with its power grid shutdowns. The situation continues for a second day in 34 California counties. On social media and phone calls to KQED’s Forum radio program, people throughout PG&E’s service area have asked how and why the investor-owned utility took this step. KQED reporters have some answers to some of the questions that have come in.

Why Is PG&E Turning the Power Off? Is This PG&E’s Fault?

Bottom line, PG&E doesn’t want to risk having its power lines start another fire, so it is pre-emptively turning the power off during this week’s dry, windy weather. The company made the decision based on information from its wildfire center, where meteorologists keep watch on fire conditions.

PG&E’s power lines have sparked many catastrophic wildfires in California, including last year’s Camp Fire in Butte County that caused 85 deaths, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire in 100 years. PG&E lines started more than a dozen fires in 2017. Less than a month ago, the company agreed to pay billion in a settlement with victims of the recent fires.

The shutoffs are part of its wildfire mitigation plan, mandated by the state and agreed to by the California Public Utilities Commission, the state’s top power regulator. — Kevin Stark

Who Made This Decision? When Did They Make It?

If past practice tells us anything, PG&E has been making and remaking this decision, with the help of its meteorological team, over several days. The utility says it considers weather, fuel and other conditions and observations, as well as the need for notice by state and local parties, when it decides to implement shutoffs. As we’ve seen over the last few days, the planned outage times can change with shifting conditions.

The fact is, there’s nothing new about turning off power lines when conditions get risky: San Diego Gas and Electric, with the permission of the CPUC, has mitigated fire risk this way since 2012. What is new are the guidelines PG&E filed just a year ago for its public safety power shutoff procedures.

For the last couple of years, the CPUC has required investor-owned utilities to describe their processes for arriving at decisions like the one affecting nearly three dozen California counties right now. PG&E shut off power two times last year; the last time PG&E called a public safety power shutoff, for two days in June, it affected about 22,000 customers in the North Bay and the Sierra foothills, including Butte County and Paradise. — Molly Peterson

Read more questions and answers on Science Friday.


Cartilage is the connective tissue that provides padding between your joints. As we age, the wearing down of cartilage can lead to different types of arthritis. It’s been long believed that once humans lose cartilage, it can never grow back. Now, a team of researchers investigated this idea, and found that the cartilage in our ankles might be able to turnover more easily compared to our hips and knees. Their results were published in the journal Science Advances. Rheumatologist Virginia Byers Kraus, who was an author on the study, discusses how human cartilage might be able to regenerate and what this means for future treatments.

 

 

 

Oct 11, 2019
Bread Baking Science And Denial In Climate Report. Oct 4, 2019, Part 2
47:08

Flour, salt, yeast and water are the basic ingredients in bread that can be transformed into a crusty baguette or a pillowy naan. But what happens when you get a sticky sourdough or brick-like brioche? Chef Francisco Migoya of Modernist Cuisine breaks down the science behind the perfect loaf. He talks about how gluten-free flours affect bread structure, the effects of altitude and humidity on dough and how to keep your sourdough starter happy. Plus, amateur baker and “Father of the Xbox” Seamus Blackley describes how he baked a loaf of bread from an ancient Egyptian yeast.


The Bureau of Land Management issued an environmental impact statement last month that examines the effects that oil development will have on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Buried deep in the appendix of the report was this BLM response to a public comment:

"The BLM does not agree that the proposed development is inconsistent with maintaining a livable planet (i.e., there is not a climate crisis). The planet was much warmer within the past 1,000 years, prior to the Little Ice Age, based on extensive archaeological evidence (such as farming in Greenland and vineyards in England). This warmth did not make the planet unlivable; rather, it was a time when societies prospered."

The comment alludes to the so-called “Medieval Warm Period,” which is commonly referenced by climate change deniers to justify their beliefs. The BLM has since said the comment had no bearing on the scientific conclusions contained elsewhere in the report. Adam Aton, a climate reporter at E&E News, joins Ira to talk about the report, and what fossil fuel development in the Arctic might mean for local wildlife and the planet.

Oct 04, 2019
Data-Collecting Smart TVs, Microbiome Cooking, Cannabis Pollution. Oct 4, 2019, Part 1
46:44

Today, it’s much easier to find smart TVs on the market. Companies like Vizio and Samsung create devices capable of internet connection and with built-in apps that let you quickly access your favorite streaming services. But that convenience comes with a hidden cost—one you pay for with your data. 

Smart TVs have joined the list of internet connected devices looking to harvest your data. They can track what shows you watch, then use that data to deliver targeted ads, just like Facebook. Not worried about what media companies know about your binge watching habits? New research suggests that’s not everything smart TVs are doing. If you are the owner of just one of many “internet of things” devices in your home, those devices could be talking to each other, influencing what gets advertised to you on your phone, tablet, and TV screen.

Dave Choffnes, associate professor of computer science at Northeastern University, and Nick Feamster, director of the Center for Data and Computing at the University of Chicago, join Ira to share what they each found when they looked into the spying habits of your smart devices.


Cooking food changes it in fundamental ways. Cooked starches are easier to digest. Seared meats are less likely to give us foodborne pathogens. And overall, we get more energy out of cooked foods than raw. But scientists are still pursuing a pivotal question about cooking: How did its invention change our bodies and shape our evolution? Did it shrink our teeth and digestive tracts? Or did it increase our brain size?

Researchers writing in Nature Microbiology reported a new chapter in our understanding of how cooking has changed us: The microbial communities in our guts change dramatically if our food is cooked or raw. And mice whose microbiomes were associated with raw foods seem to gain weight more easily—but their microbiomes also showed signs of damage from plant-generated antimicrobial chemicals. Harvard researcher Rachel Carmody explains the findings, and what our microbiomes might say about cooking food and evolution.


Between water and electricity, Colorado’s legal cannabis industry already has a big environmental footprint. But what about Front Range air quality? Could the plant itself be contributing to air pollution? No, it’s not the pot smoke. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is conducting a study of terpenes, the organic compounds that make the cannabis plant smell so strong.

Terpenes are classified as volatile organic compounds. Many consumer products release VOCs, like acetone in nail polish remover and butanal from barbecues and stoves. VOCs from terpenes are harmless until they combine with combustion gases to create ozone. That’s why the state is studying marijuana emissions—it’s about where it’s grown. Unlike other VOC-emitting crops, like lavender, cannabis is often cultivated in greenhouses in the industrial areas of cities, near highways and lots of cars.

“Here in Colorado, as far as air quality concerns go, ozone is our largest pollutant of concern. We are not meeting the national ambient air quality standards for ozone,” said CDPHE’s lead researcher on this project, Kaitlin Urso. Denver’s ozone problem is especially bad. According to the American Lung Association, it has the nation’s 12th worst air quality. Usually, it’s the Environmental Protection Agency that studies emissions from new industries. Since marijuana is still a federally controlled substance, it can’t.

With the feds on the sideline, Urso said it’s now up to the state to figure out, essentially, “how many pounds of VOCs are emitted into our atmosphere per pound of marijuana grown?”

 

Oct 04, 2019
Bitters And Botany, Whale Evolution. Sept 27, 2019, Part 2
47:08

Can conservation be concocted in your cocktails? Yes, according to the botanist authors of Botany at the Bar, a new book about making your own bitters—those complex flavor extracts used to season a Manhattan or old-fashioned. They experiment with an array of novel recipes using underappreciated plants found around the world, from tree resin, to osha root, to numbing Szechuan peppercorns. Ira talks to ethnobotanist Selena Ahmed and plant geneticist Ashley DuVal about their recipes, how you can make complex and flavorful tinctures for cocktails and other seasonings, and their not-so-secret ulterior motive to share the stories of how people have used plants—common and rare—for thousands of years. Plus, mixologist Christian Schaal talks about the art and science of combining flavors.

Fifty million years ago, the ancient ancestors of whales and dolphins roamed the land on four legs. But over time, these aquatic mammals have evolved to live fully in the ocean—their genetic makeup changing along the way. Now, a group of scientists have investigated the changes in 85 different genes that were lost in this land-to-sea transition. Mark Springer, evolutionary biologist, discusses the genetic trade-offs that cetaceans have evolved, including an inability to produce saliva and melatonin, and the benefits they provide for a deep-diving, aquatic lifestyle.

Sep 27, 2019
Oceans And Climate, Quantum Mechanics. Sept 27, 2019, Part 1
47:10

A new report issued this week by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change paints a troubling picture of the world’s ice and oceans. The ocean effects of climate change, from warming waters to ocean acidification to sea level rise, are already altering the weather, fisheries, and coastal communities. The authors of the report state that the ocean has already taken up more than 90% of the excess heat in the climate system since 1970, the surface is becoming more acidic, and oxygen is being depleted in the top thousand meters of the water column. All those conditions are projected to get worse in the years ahead. Ocean scientist and former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco joins Ira to talk about the risks to the ocean, its effects on the global ecosystem, and how the ocean can also help to blunt some of the worst climate outcomes—if action is taken now.

In his new book, Something Deeply Hidden, quantum physicist Sean Carroll offers a different ending for Schrödinger’s imaginary cat. Carroll ascribes to the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, originally proposed by American physicist Hugh Everett in the 1950’s. According to Everett, when you look inside the box you are also in two states at once. Now there are two worlds—one in which you saw the cat alive, and one in which you saw the cat dead. If thinking about this makes your head hurt, you’re not alone. Carroll joins Ira to talk about the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, and why he thinks not enough physicists are taking on the challenge of trying to understand it.

Plus: World leaders convened in New York City this week for the United Nations Climate Action Summit. But there wasn’t a whole lot of action at the Climate Action Summit, at least not from the greenhouse-gas-emitting elephants in the room: India, China, and the United States. Umair Irfan, who writes about energy, tech and climate for Vox.com, catches Ira up on how countries around the world are tackling—or ignoring—the climate crisis. 

And Sarah Zhang, staff writer at the Atlantic, tells Ira about NASA's new infrared telescope to detect near-Earth objects and other science headlines in this week's News Roundup.

Sep 27, 2019
Bird Populations In Decline, Real Life Sci-Fi Disasters, Brain Wiring. Sept 20, 2019, Part 2
47:12

There may be almost 3 billion fewer birds in North America today than there were in 1970, according to a study published this week in the journal ScienceThe decline over time works out to a loss of about one in 4 birds. However, the decline does not appear to be evenly distributed.

Then, journalist Mike Pearl investigates what the world would look like after technology breakdowns, a real-life Jurassic Park, and other sci-fi doomsday scenarios in his book, The Day It Finally Happens.

Finally, new research on the brains of people who paint with their toes reveal how our limbs affect our internal maps from birth. 

Sep 20, 2019
Degrees Of Change: Climate And Fashion. Sept 20, 2019, Part 1
47:04

Climate change has been trending in the news recently—and if there’s one industry out there that knows something about trends, it’s the fashion industry. Long known for churning out cheap garments and burning through resources, some fashion labels like fast fashion giant H&M are now embracing sustainable fashion trends. But can this industry—which is responsible for 8% of global carbon emissions—really shed its wasteful business model in favor of one with a lower carbon footprint? Marc Bain, a fashion reporter at Quartz, Maxine Bédat from the New Standard Institute, and Linda Greer, global policy fellow with the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs talk with Ira about the industry’s effort to reduce its climate impact.

Plus, a check in on the Trump administration's rollback of the Clean Air Act waiver, and more of the week's biggest climate headlines. 

Sep 20, 2019
The Center Of The Milky Way, Rats At Play, And Geometry. Sept 13, 2019, Part 2
46:56

The Greek mathematician Euclid imagined an ordered and methodical universe, but his vision struggled to catch on for centuries, until Renaissance painters and French monarchs found a way connect the ancient science of geometry to the real world. Science historian Amir Alexander joins Ira to share the story of geometry’s rising global influence in his new book Proof!: How The World Became Geometrical. 

Plus, a million years ago, the black hole at the center of our galaxy burped. Now, scientists are exploring what the resulting bubbles might say about our kinship with other galaxies.

And here on Earth, neuroscientists say they can learn a lot by observing brains at play—particularly those of rats playing hide and seek.

Sep 13, 2019
How AI Is Influencing Decisions In Police Departments And Courtrooms. Sept 13, 2019
46:53

Facial recognition technology is all around us—it’s at concerts, airports, and apartment buildings. But its use by law enforcement agencies and courtrooms raises particular concerns about privacy, fairness, and bias, according to some researchers. Some studies have shown that some of the major facial recognition systems are inaccurate. Amazon’s software misidentified 28 members of Congress and matched them with criminal mugshots. These inaccuracies tend to be far worse for people of color and women. We'll talk about how AI is guiding the decisions of police departments and courtrooms across the country—and whether we should be concerned.

Plus: Scientists were threatened with firings after the National Weather Service projections for Hurricane Dorian contradicted President Trump’s tweets, and more of the biggest science stories from the week.

Finally, wind turbines are great at producing green energy. But when they reach they end of their life-span, their parts are incredibly difficult to recycle.

 

Sep 13, 2019
SciFri Extra: Bird Nerds Of A Feather Flock Together
45:21

The Science Friday Book Club is done birding—for now. But after wrapping up our summer discussion of Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds, bird enthusiasts flocked together at Caveat, a venue in New York City, for one last celebration of bird brains and feathered phenomena.

We pitted audience members up against some local bird geniuses in tests of memory, pattern recognition, and problem-solving. Then, we brought on a gaggle of experts to talk about the special and smart birds of New York City, along with some of the threats they face—including bright lights and deceptive glass. And with fall migration underway, we’re talking about many more species than pigeons.

Science Friday SciArts producer and book club flock leader Christie Taylor hosted the conversation with NYC Audubon conservation biologist Kaitlyn Parkins, Wild Bird Fund director Rita McMahon, Fordham University evolutionary biologist Elizabeth Carlen, and National Audubon editor and Feminist Bird Club vice president Martha Harbison.

Sep 11, 2019
Randall Munroe, Football Concussion Research. Sept 6, 2019, Part 2
46:51

If you’ve ever been skiing, you might have wondered how your skiis and the layer of water interact. What would happen if the slope was made out of wood or rubber? Or how would you make more snow in the most efficient way if it all melted away? These are the questions that comic artist Randall Munroe thinks about in his book How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems. He answers these hypothetical scenarios and other everyday questions—from charging your phone to sending a digital file—with uncommon solutions. Munroe joins Ira to talk about how he comes up with his far-fetched solutions and why “…figuring out exactly why it’s a bad idea can teach you a lot—and might help you think of a better approach.”

Read an excerpt of Munroe’s new book where tennis legend Serena Williams takes to the court to test one of his hypotheses: How to catch a drone with sports equipment.

Plus: Researchers have long known about the connection between concussions sustained on the football field and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a neurodegenerative illness caused by repeated head injuries. But another group of researchers wondered—what about the hits that don’t result in a concussion? They found that even when a player didn’t show outward signs of having a concussion, their brains were showing symptoms of injury. Brad Mahon, associate professor in the department of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, and Adnan Hirad, MDPhD candidate in the Medical Sciences Training Program at the University of Rochester, share the results of their investigation into the unseen impacts of head injuries on football players.

 

 

Sep 06, 2019
Widening The Lens On A More Inclusive Science. Sept 6, 2019, Part 1
46:46

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 percent of the STEM workforce in 2014, despite being 2 percent 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? Learn more about the efforts in North America to recognize indigenous astronomy.

Plus: After Hurricane Dorian battered the Bahamas, Florida braced itself for a brutal start to hurricane season. The storm didn’t cause catastrophic damage to the state this time, but Florida is just beginning peak hurricane season—and its nursing homes, which care for over 70,000 people, may not be prepared. Caitie Switalski of WLRN tells Ira more in the latest "State Of Science."

And writer Annalee Newitz talks about the Trump administration's decision to roll back lightbulb efficiency standards, and other science headlines, in this week's News Roundup.

 

Sep 06, 2019
Vaping Sickness, Teaching Science. Aug 30, 2019, Part 2
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Over 10 million Americans vape, or smoke electronic cigarettes. E-cigarettes are also the most popular tobacco product among teenagers in this country. Some of them are marketed with bright colors and fun flavors like chocolate, creme brulee, and mint—or they’re advertised as a healthier alternative to regular cigarette smoking. But last week, public health officials reported that a patient in Illinois died from a mysterious lung illness linked to vaping. In 29 states across the country, there are 193 reported cases of this unknown illness as of August 30.

Most patients are teenagers or young adults and have symptoms like difficulty breathing, chest pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and fatigue. Patients with more severe cases have to be put on oxygen tanks and ventilators—and some may suffer from permanent lung damage. “Acute lung injury happens in response to all kinds of things, like inhaling a toxic chemical or an infection. This is similar to what we’d see there. The lungs’ protective response gets turned on and doesn’t turn off,” Dr. Frank Leone, a professor of medicine and the director of the Comprehensive Smoking Treatment Program at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Science Friday in a phone call earlier this week. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is still investigating the cause, but the illness is raising questions about the health effects of a growing smoking trend and how it should be regulated. “It’s sort of a Wild West out there,” Anna Maria Barry-Jester, a senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News, tells SciFri on the phone about current regulation of electronic cigarettes. Ira talks with Anna Maria Barry-Jester and Dr. Frank Leone about the illness and vaping’s health effects.


It’s back to school season for everyone: students, teachers, and Science Friday. Our Educator Collaborative is back with nine teaching resources from nine amazing educators—all inspired by Science Friday media. From a lesson in sauropod digestion, complete with simulated poop (yes, it’s gross), to inventing a way to get plastic out of the oceans, these resources offer learners in the classroom or at home chances to engage directly with complex science and engineering topics.

Program member Andrea La Rosa, an eighth-grade science teacher from Danbury Connecticut, joins Ira to talk about a topic near to our hearts: analog and digital technology. She explains how she used a drawing activity to help her students understand how the two kinds of signals are different. Plus, in a world that’s getting increasingly complicated, with more concepts to learn every year, how do you make the most of students’ time in science class? Science Friday education director Ariel Zych talks about the ways educators are teaching young learners to learn, think critically, and take on increasingly high-tech concepts.

Aug 30, 2019
Degrees of Change: Tourism. Aug 30, 2019, Part 1
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Each year, outdoor enthusiasts in the country spend nearly $900 billion dollars on hiking, fishing and other types of outdoor recreation. The different types of business that take part in that tourism economy span a wide range—from big all inclusive ski resorts to mom and pop shops that sell tours of their local hiking spots. 

But with shrinking snowpacks, more extreme weather, and the unpredictable changes from season to season, these businesses must wrestle with a challenge: climate change. Winter tourism operations are adding on summer water sports to stay afloat, while the number of ski resorts have dwindled almost in half since the 1950s. How will these local businesses adapt?

In Capital Public Radio’s podcast TahoeLand, reporter Ezra David Romero investigates how the community of Lake Tahoe in California, which sees 30 million tourists each year, is responding to these changes. Romero talks with Ira about how a pair of residents are trying to establish the area as the “Outdoor Capital of the World” in order to expand outdoor activities that can take place between the big winter and summer tourism seasons. He discusses how local businesses, from casinos to sleigh ride operators, are re-envisioning how they will operate in the future.

Daniel Scott, who studies the effects of climate change on tourism, joins the conversation to discuss how the ski resorts are implementing different attractions that can be used year round. And Mario Molina from Protect Our Winters talks about how his organizations trains professional athletes and businesses that depend on the outdoors to become advocates for sustainable practices and policies.

Plus, all eyes are on the Atlantic this week as Hurricane Dorian makes its way towards Florida. While Puerto Rico was spared the brunt of the storm, the hurricane still comes at a time when both Florida and Puerto Rico are especially vulnerable to storms. Rebecca Leber, climate and environment reporter at Mother Jones, joins Ira to discuss why—and the contributions a changing climate has to storms such as Dorian.

They’ll also talk about other climate stories from recent days, including statements from presidential candidates regarding their climate policy plans, the sailboat arrival of climate activist Greta Thunberg in New York, and a federal rule change that would loosen restrictions on methane gas emissions.

Aug 30, 2019
Climate And Farming, Mars 2020, Fireflies. August 23, 2019, Part 2
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From cutting back on fossil fuels to planting a million trees, people and policymakers around the world are looking for more ways to curb climate change. Another solution to add to the list is changing how we use land. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, released a special report this month that emphasized the importance of proper land management, such as protecting forests like the Amazon from being converted to farmland, has on mitigating climate change. Robinson Meyer, a staff writer at The Atlantic, joins Ira to discuss the ins and outs of the report. Cynthia Rosenzwieg, a senior research scientist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the lead authors, also joins to talk about ways we can use land to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

Plus: NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is just around the corner. Next fall, the Mars rover will launch with an upgraded suite of instruments to study the red planet in a way Curiosity and Opportunity never could. When it lands on Mars, it will search for and try to identify signs of ancient life. But how will it know what to look for? Katie Slack Morgan, deputy project scientist on the Mars 2020 mission, and Mitch Schulte, a Mars 2020 Program Scientist, talk to Ira about the chances of finding evidence for ancient life on Mars—and why the Australian Outback might be a good testing ground.

And if you take a walk at night during the summertime, you might catch a glimpse of fireflies lighting up the sky. But scientists are learning that these bioluminescent insect populations are vulnerable to habitat loss, pesticides, and light pollution. Biologist Sara Lewis talks about conservation efforts including Firefly Watch, a citizen science project that maps out firefly populations around the country. She joins geneticist Sarah Lower to discuss how individual species of fireflies create different blink patterns, as well as the difference between fireflies, lightning bugs, and glow worms.

Aug 23, 2019
Book Club Birds, Amazon Burning. August 23, 2019, Part 1
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“Bird-brain” has long been an insult meant to imply slow-wittedness or stupidity. But in reading Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds, SciFri Book Club readers have been learning that birds often have wits well beyond ours—take the mockingbird’s capacity to memorize the songs of other birds, or the precise annual migrations of hummingbirds and Arctic terns. Or the New Caledonian crow, which make tools and solve puzzles that might mystify human children. UCLA pigeon researcher Aaron Blaisdell and University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Lauren Riters join Ira and producer Christie Taylor to talk about the brightest minds of the bird world, and the burning questions remaining about avian brains.

The Brazilian rainforest is experiencing a record number of fires this year—an 83% increase over 2018. Since last week, smoke from an estimated 9,500 fires has blocked out the sun for thousands of miles, covering cities like São Paulo in a dark cloud. Environmental agencies and researchers suspect the fires are human caused, cattle ranchers and loggers who are looking to clear the land for their own use. Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer for Gizmodo, gives us a rundown of the unprecedented destruction currently underway, and other science headlines, in this week's News Roundup.

Plus: In North Carolina, electric vehicle charging stations will start operating more like gas pumps. David Boraks, from WFAE 90.7 in Charlotte, tells Ira more in "The State Of Science."

Aug 23, 2019
Live in San Antonio: Deadly Disease, Bats, Birds. Aug. 16, 2019, Part 2
47:56

Imagine stepping into a white suit, pulling on thick rubber gloves and a helmet with a clear face plate. You can only talk to your colleagues through an earpiece, and a rubber hose supplies you with breathable air. Sounds like something you wear in space, right? In this case, you’re not an astronaut. You’re at the Texas Biomedical Institute in San Antonio, one of the only places where the most dangerous pathogens—the ones with no known cures—can be studied in a lab setting. Dr. Jean Patterson, a professor there, and Dr. Ricardo Carrion, professor and director of maximum containment contract research, join Ira live on stage for a safe peek inside the place where the world’s deadliest diseases are studied

Bracken Cave, 20 miles outside of San Antonio, is the summer home to 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats. Each night, the bats swarm out of the cave in a “batnado“ in search of food. Fran Hutchins, director of Bat Conservation International’s Bracken Cave Preserve, talks about how the millions of individuals form a colony and the conservation efforts to preserve this colony in the face of housing developments and the encroaching city.

San Antonio is a great place for birding. Along with Texas Hill country, the Edwards Plateau, and the gulf coast, the region’s intersecting ecosystems make it a good home—and a welcome pitstop—for birdsIliana Peña, the Director of Conservation Programs at the Texas Wildlife Association, talks about sustainable grazing and other changes to ranching procedures that would make the tracts of land held by large Texas landowners more welcoming to grassland birds. Plus, Jennifer Smith, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Ecology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, describes her research on the effects of wind farms on prairie chickens in Nebraska.

 

Aug 16, 2019
Lightning, Electric Scooters, News Roundup. Aug. 16, 2019, Part 1
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Lightning during a heavy rainstorm is one of the most dramatic phenomena on the planet—and it happens, somewhere on Earth, an estimated 50 to 100 times a second. But even though scientists have been puzzling over the physics of lightning for decades, stretching back even to Ben Franklin’s kite experiment, much of the science remains mysterious. Ira and IEEE Spectrum news editor Amy Nordrum speak with Farhad Rachidi, a lightning researcher at Säntis Tower in Switzerland, as well as Bill Rison, a professor of electrical engineering at New Mexico Tech and Ryan Said, a research scientist at Vaisala, about what potentially causes lightning, lightning-sparked wildfires, and why it's hard to study it in a lab.

Plus: Scooters are electric, emission-free, and must be replacing gas-guzzling car trips. That has to be good for the climate, right? But a new study in the journal Environmental Research Letters says electric scooters actually aren’t very green. Sigal Samuel, a staff writer for Vox based in Washington D.C., joins Ira to talk more about the study.

And this week, the Trump administration announced it would change the way the Endangered Species Act is implemented starting in September. Regulators would soon be able to conduct economic assessments to decide whether a species should be protected or not. Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science reporter for FiveThiryEight, joins Ira to discuss the roll back as well as other science headlines in this week's News Roundup.

Aug 16, 2019
Northwest Passage Project, Birds and Color. Aug 9, 2019, Part 1
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First, tardigrades on the moon, feral hogs on Earth, and more news from this week’s News Roundup.

Scientists and students navigated the Northwest Passage waterways to study how the Arctic summers have changed. Last year, one day into expedition, the boat ran aground and cut the mission off before it could get started. This year, the team successfully launched from Thule, Greenland and completed their three-week cruise.

Birds don’t just see the world from higher up than the rest of us; they also see a whole range of light that we can’t. How does that shape the colors—both spectacular and drab—of our feathered friends?

Aug 09, 2019
Wiring Rural Texas, Visiting Jupiter and Saturn. Aug 9, 2019, Part 2
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High-speed internet access is becoming a necessity of modern life, but connecting over a million rural Texans is a challenge. How do we bridge the digital divide in Texas' wide open spaces?

It turns out the Great Red Spot might not be so great—it's shrinking. Plus, other news from the giant planets.

Aug 09, 2019
Is Chemical Sunscreen Safe, Slime, Amazon Deforestation. August 2, 2019, Part 2
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Sunscreen has been on the shelves of drugstores since the mid-1940s. And while new kinds of sunscreens have come out, some of the active ingredients in them have yet to be determined as safe and effective. A recent study conducted by the FDA showed that the active ingredients of four commercially available sunscreens were absorbed into the bloodstream—even days after a person stops using it.

Ira talks to professor of dermatology and editor in chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association Dermatology Kanade Shinkai about what the next steps are for sunscreen testing and what consumers should do in the meantime.


Often called the planet’s lungs, the trees of the Amazon rainforest suck up a quarter of Earth’s carbon and produce a fifth of the world’s oxygen. The National Institute for Space Research in Brazil has been using satellite images of tree cover to monitor the Amazon’s deforestation since the 1970s—and new data shows a potentially dangerous spike in deforestation. In the first seven months of 2019, the rainforest lost 50% more trees than during the same period last year.

That spike in tree loss has coincided with Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsanaro, taking office in January and slashing environmental protections. Bolsanaro even called the new data a lie. But climate scientists warn deforestation is pushing the Amazon rainforest to a tipping point that would disrupt both its ecosystem and the global climate.

Ira talks to Carlos Nobre, a climate scientist at the University of Sao Paulo’s Institute of Advanced Studies, about the new data and why deforestation in the Amazon is so risky for the planet.


When you think of algae, one of the first images that might come to mind is the green, fluffy stuff that takes over your fish tank when it needs cleaning, or maybe the ropy seaweed that washes up on the beach. But the diversity of the group of photosynthetic organisms is vast—ranging from small cyanobacteria to lichens to multicellular mats of seaweed. Author Ruth Kassinger calls algae “the most powerful organisms on the planet.” She talks about how this ancient group of organisms produces at least 50% of the oxygen on Earth, and how people are trying to harness algae as a food source, alternative fuel, and even a way to make cows burp less methane.

Aug 02, 2019
Ethics Of Hawaiian Telescope, Bird Song, Alaska Universities Budget Cut. August 2, 2019, Part 1
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Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in Hawaii, towering over the Pacific at nearly 14,000 feet. That high altitude, combined with the mountain’s dry, still air and its extreme darkness at night, make it an ideal place for astronomy. There are already 13 observatories on the summit plateau. Now, astronomers want to build another, called the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, which would become the largest visible-light telescope on the mountain. 

But many native Hawaiians don’t want it there, for a multitude of reasons. Science Friday talked with Kawika Winter, a multidisciplinary ecologist at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and the He'eia National Estuarine Research Reserve, who summed it up this way: 

"The notion of pursuit of knowledge is an important one here. But is it pursuit of knowledge at all costs? Is it pursuit of knowledge at the expense of our humanity? 

From the native Hawaiian perspective this is just the same thing that's happened before. It's preventing people from accessing sacred places. It's desecration of sacred places through construction. It's all of these issues, but this time it's for a ‘good reason.’ This time it's for science, this time it's for knowledge, so now it should be ok, right? But it's the same thing that's been happening for 200 years. It doesn't matter what the reason is.

Engaging native Hawaiians is not a box to check off in the process. And you check it off at the end, say 'yeah, we checked with native Hawaiians.' That's not the proper way to engage in science in indigenous places. So we're trying to advocate for a different model for approaching science, and integrating native peoples, indigenous peoples, and indigenous cultures into the process. And that's how we can make sure the science we conduct doesn't come at the expense of our humanity." 

Many native Hawaiians say the way this fight has been portrayed in the media—as Hawaiian culture versus science—is disrespectful of their culture, ignorant of their motives, and oblivious to the fact that science has long been an important part of traditional Hawaiian culture. Nearly a thousand scientists and astronomers have now signed an open letter in solidarity with those who would like to see a halt in construction. 


When a baby human learns to talk, there’s a predictable pattern of learning: First, they listen to the language spoken around them, then they babble and try to make the same sounds, and then they eventually learn the motor skills to shape that babble into words and meaning.

Researchers who study songbirds know this is also the process by which a baby male zebra finch learns the unique songs that as an adult he will use to mate and defend territory. The same holds true for canaries, nightingales, warblers, and beyond. And for many birds, like humans, the window where they learn their “language” best is a short one that closes early in life. In fact, bird song is studied closely as an analogy for human speech—an example of sophisticated brain machinery for learning that evolved separately in birds and humans. 


Alaska governor Mike Dunleavy’s budget cuts to the University of Alaska total about $136 million, or roughly 41 percent of state support. As a result, the University of Alaska Board of Regents voted 8 to 3 to move towards consolidating the entire university system to a single accredited university.

UA president Jim Johnsen says under any plan, it’s likely that the cuts will have a ripple effect on enrollment and research. He says both are avenues that could result in less money for the university as a whole. A task force has been put together to determine how to move forward with the single university model.

 

Aug 02, 2019
Ice Cream Science, Online Language. July 26, 2019, Part 2
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Have you ever tried to make your favorite rocky road flavored ice cream at home, but your chocolate ice cream turns out a little crunchier than you hoped? And your ribbons of marshmallow are more like frozen, sugary shards? Chemist Matt Hartings and ice cream maker Ben Van Leeuwen, co-founder of Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream in New York City, talk about the science behind how milk, sugar, and eggs turn into your favorite frozen desserts. They’ll chat about the sweet science behind other frozen delights, too—like how the size of water crystals affect texture and how you can make a scoopable vegan ice cream. 

Are you a fluent texter? Are you eloquent with your emoji? DOES WRITING IN ALL CAPS SOUND LIKE SCREAMING TO YOU? Maybe you’ve become accustomed to delivering just the right degree of snark using ~~sparkly tildes~~… Or you feel that slight sense of aggression when someone ends a simple text to you with a period.    

In her new book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch explores some of the ways that online communication has changed the way we write informally, from the early days of computer bulletin boards to today’s Facebook and Twitter memes.

Jul 26, 2019
Anonymous Data, Birding Basics. July 26, 2019, Part 1
45:45

The Science Friday Book Club is buckling down to read Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds this summer. Meanwhile, it’s vacation season, and we want you to go out and appreciate some birds in the wild.

But for beginning birders, it may seem intimidating to find and identify feathered friends both near and far from home. Audubon experts Martha Harbison and Purbita Saha join guest host Molly Webster to share some advice. They explain how to identify birds by sight and by ear, some guides that can help, and tips on photographing your finds. Plus the highlights of summer birding: Shore bird migration is already underway, and baby birds are venturing out of the nest. We challenge you to get outside to see your local clever birds in action! Join the Science Friday Bird Club on the citizen science platform iNaturalist. 

In this era of the Equifax breach and Facebook’s lax data privacy standards, most people are at least somewhat anxious about what happens to the data we give away. In recent years, companies have responded by promising to strip away identifying information, like your name, address, or social security number. 

But data scientists are warning us that that isn’t enough. Even seemingly harmless data—like your preferred choice of cereal—can be used to identify you. In a paper from Nature Communications out this week, researchers published a tool that calculates the likelihood of someone identifying you after offering up only a few pieces of personal information, like your zip code and your birth date. 

Dr. Julien Hendrickx, co-author of the study out in Nature Communications, joins guest host Molly Webster to discuss the risk of being discovered among anonymous data. And Joseph Jerome, policy council for the Privacy and Data project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, joins the conversation to talk about whether data can ever truly be anonymous.

Plus, the Ebola crisis in the D.R.C. is now the second biggest outbreak on record. That, and other science stories in the news this week. 

Jul 26, 2019
Moon Art, Space History, And NASA's Megarocket. July 19, 2019, Part 2
46:56

Our Lunar Muse

Most of us remember that iconic photograph of the Apollo 11 moon landing: Buzz Aldrin standing on a footprint-covered moon, one arm bent, and Neil Armstrong in his helmet’s reflection taking the picture. 

But there’s a much longer, ancient history of trying to visually capture the moon that came before the 1969 photo—from Bronze Age disks with crescent moons to Galileo’s telescope drawings to 19th-century photos and modern photographs. For millennia, we’ve been obsessed with the moon’s glow, its craters and blemishes, its familiar, but mysterious presence in the sky. The moon has mesmerized experts from all fields of study, from scientists, historians, curators, to artists, including this segment’s guest, Michael Benson. Benson is a filmmaker, artist, and author of Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time, a history of humanity’s quest to visualize the moon and space. In his own art, he uses raw data from space missions to create lunar and planetary landscapes. 

Benson isn’t the only person who’s thinking about how science and art has impacted how we see the moon. Mia Fineman recently curated Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The exhibit explores how humanity has interpreted the moon through drawings, paintings, and photographs for the last 400 years.

Preserving Space History

We’ve all heard the iconic stories of the early space program—from   Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech, to The Right Stuff, to Armstrong’s “one small step,” to the dramatic story of Apollo 13. 

But how do we find new stories to tell, locate hidden figures of history, or even know they exist? The answer may lie in museum collections, old paper archives, and in the memories of ordinary people. Ed Stewart, the curator of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, and Reagan Grimsley, head of Special Collections and Archives at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, join Ira to talk about preserving artifacts of the early space program, and the importance of the archival record in telling the tales of historic space flight.

NASA's Megarocket Bet

The Trump administration says it wants to go back to the moon—but how will we get there? You’ve seen the advances in spaceflight from private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. But a big part of the current U.S. plan for returning to the moon involves something called SLS, the Space Launch System—a megarocket assembled from a combination of parts repurposed from the Shuttle program, and new hardware. 

John Blevins, deputy chief engineer for the Space Launch System, and Erika Alvarez, lead systems engineer for the Space Launch System Vehicle, join Ira to talk about the rocket’s design, capabilities, and NASA’s plans to use it to go back to the moon and beyond

Jul 19, 2019
Apollo Anniversary And Bird Book Club. July 19, 2019, Part 1
44:59

Celebrating Apollo's 'Giant Leap'

July 20, 1969 was a day that changed us forever—the first time humans left footprints on another world. In this segment, Ira Flatow and space historian Andy Chaikin celebrate that history and examine the legacy of the Apollo program.

Apollo ushered in a new age of scientific discovery, with lunar samples that unlocked the history of how the moon and the solar system formed. It accelerated the development of new technologies, like the integrated circuit. And most of all, says Chaikin, it taught us how to work together, to achieve seemingly impossible goals

We also take a look at what comes next for NASA’s historic launchpads. Science Friday producers Alexa Lim and Daniel Peterschmidt went to NASA Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida a few months ago. They got to see how the space agency is upgrading some of its storied launchpads—and leaving others behind to rising sea levels.

Take Flight With Science Friday's Book Club

Called anyone a “bird brain” recently? There was a time when we thought this meant “stupid,” deceived by the small size and smooth surface of birds’ brains into thinking they were mere mindless bundles of feathers.

But researchers are finding out what birds themselves have always known: Our feathered friends come with mental skills that might stump even humans. Be it tool-making, social smarts, navigation across vast distances, or even the infinitely adaptable house sparrow, Jennifer Ackerman writes of dozens of examples in this summer’s SciFri Book Club pick, The Genius of Birds. Take homing pigeons, which can be released hundreds of miles from the roof and still eventually wing their way home. Or mockingbirds, who can memorize and mimic, with astonishing accuracy, the songs and calls of as many as 200 different other birds. And birds have other kinds of genius: Bowerbirds craft intricate displays to lure their mates, each species with its own particular aesthetic preferences, like the satin bowerbird’s penchant for blue.

Ira, Book Club captain Christie Taylor, and bird brain researchers Aaron Blaisdell and Lauren Riters convene for the summer Book Club kickoff, and a celebration of avian minds everywhere.

Jul 19, 2019
Mosquitos and Smell, Fermentation, Model Rocket Launch. July 12, 2019, Part 2
47:10

If you’ve ever tried brewing your own beer or raising your own sourdough, then you know that the process of fermentation isn't easy to get right. How do you control the growth of mold, yeast, or bacteria such that it creates a savory and delicious new flavor, and not a putrid mess on your kitchen counter? David Zilber is Director of Fermentation at the restaurant Noma, and he tells his fermentation secrets.

The human scent is made up of a combination of 100 odor compounds. Other mammals such as guinea pigs also emit the same odor compounds—just in different blends. And even though human odor can also differ from person to person, mosquitoes can still distinguish the scent of a human from other mammals. We'll talk about how mosquitos have evolved to hunt for the prey of their choice.

Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. But before astronauts could take that one small step on the moon, they had to take off from Earth. On Tuesday, July 16, in commemoration of the 9:32 am launch of the Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 11 crew, model rocketeers from around the world will conduct a global launch event—by firing off thousands of rockets planet-wide.

Plus, download the SciFri VoxPop app for iPhone or Android and contribute to the show all week long.

Jul 12, 2019
Degrees of Change: Food and Climate. July 12, 2019, Part 1
47:13

A quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from putting food on the table. From the fossil fuels used to produce fertilizers, to the methane burps of cows, to the jet fuel used to deliver your fresh asparagus, eating is one of the most planet-warming things we do. In our latest chapter of Degrees of Change, we're looking at how to eat smarter in a warming world.

Plus, we’ve launched a new way for you to add your voice to the show: the SciFri VoxPop app. Download now for iPhone or Android.

Jul 12, 2019
The Bastard Brigade, Spontaneous Generation. July 5, 2019, Part 2
59:18

Much has been written about the Manhattan Project, the American-led project to develop the atomic bomb. Less well known is Nazi Germany’s “Uranium Club”—a similar project started a full two years before the Manhattan Project. The Nazis had some of the greatest chemists and physicists in the world on their side, including Werner Heisenberg, and the Allies were terrified that the Nazis would beat them to the bomb—meaning the Allies were willing to try anything from espionage to assassination to bombing raids to stop them.

Science writer Sam Kean joins Ira to tell the high-stakes story written in his new book The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb. 

Plus, "spontaneous generation" was the idea that living organisms can spring into existence from non-living matter. In the late 19th century, in a showdown between chemist Louis Pasteur and biologist Felix Pouchet put on by the French Academy of Sciences, Pasteur famously came up with an experiment that debunked the theory. He showed that when you boil an infusion to kill everything inside and don’t let any particles get into it, life will not spontaneously emerge inside. His experiments have been considered a win for science—but they weren’t without controversy.

In this interview, Undiscovered’s Elah Feder, Ira Flatow, and historian James Strick talk about what scientists of Pasteur’s day really thought of his experiment, the role the Catholic church played in shutting down “spontaneous generation,” and why even Darwin did his best to dodge the topic.

Jul 05, 2019
Science Road Trips, Archaeology From Space. July 5, 2019, Part 1
46:12

Summer is here—and that means it’s time for a road trip! Dylan Thuras and Ella Morton, co-authors of Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the Hidden Wonders of the World, join Ira to share some suggestions for sciencey things to see and do around the country, from unusual museum exhibits to outstanding natural wonders. Plus, we asked you for YOUR travel ideas—and did you deliver! We’ll share tourist tips from some regular Science Friday guests, and highlight some of your many suggestions.

Speaking of summer trips... You might consider skipping the large urban centers, like Paris or Madrid, for something a little older—like Pompeii. The ancient city in Italy is one of the country’s largest tourist attractions, receiving over 4 million visitors a year. Perhaps it's because archaeology is inspiring tourism around the world. From Egypt, China, South America to India, archaeologists are experiencing a golden era of discovery thanks to new tools that help uncover buried civilizations. Sarah Parcak, professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama Birmingham and author of the new book Space Archaeology joins Ira to talk about what past civilizations can teach us about our current moment in time

Jul 05, 2019
Paternity, Musical Proteins, Microbiome In Runners. June 28, 2019, Part 2
47:41

These days, a scientific paternity test is easily acquired, and its results are seen as almost indisputable. But what about the days before so-called foolproof DNA analysis? For most of human history, people considered the identity of a child’s father to be more or less “unknowable.” Then in the 20th century, when a flurry of events sparked the idea that science could help clarify the question of fatherhood, and an era of “modern paternity” was born. The new science of paternity, which includes blood typing and fingerprinting, has helped establish family relationships and made inheritance and custody disputes easier for the courts. But it’s also made the definition of fatherhood a lot more murky in the process.

Proteins are the building blocks of life. They make up everything from cells and enzymes to skin, bones, and hair, to spider silk and conch shells. But it’s notoriously difficult to understand the complex shapes and structures that give proteins their unique identities. So at MIT, researchers are unraveling the mysteries of proteins using a more intuitive language—music. They’re translating proteins into music, composing orchestras of amino acids and concerts of enzymes, in hopes of better understanding proteins—and making new ones.

Though the ads tell you it’s gotta be the shoes, a new study suggests that elite runners might get an extra performance boost from the microbiome. Researchers looking at the collection of microbes found in the digestive tracts of marathon runners and other elite athletes say they’ve found a group of microbes that may aid in promoting athletic endurance. The group of microbes, Veillonella, consume lactate generated during exercise and produce proprionate, which appears to enhance performance. Adding the species Veillonella atypica to the guts of mice allowed the mice to perform better on a treadmill test. And infusing the proprionate metabolite back into a mouse’s intestines seemed to create some of the same effects as the bacteria themselves.

 

Jun 28, 2019
Cephalopod Week Wrap-Up, USDA Climate Change, Sinking Louisiana. June 28, 2019, Part 1
47:23

The eight-day squid-and-kin appreciation extravaganza of Cephalopod Week is nearly over, but there’s still plenty to learn and love about these tentacled “aliens” of the deep. After a rare video sighting of a giant squid—the first in North American waters—last week, NOAA zoologist Mike Vecchione talks about his role identifying the squid from a mere 25 seconds of video, and why ocean exploration is the best way to learn about the behavior and ecology of deep-sea cephalopods. Then, Marine Biological Laboratory scientist Carrie Albertin gives Ira a tour of the complex genomes of octopuses, and how understanding cephalopod genetics could lead to greater insights into human health. Finally, SciFri digital producer Lauren Young wraps up Cephalopod Week for 2019.

The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) receives over a billion dollars a year to study issues affecting American agriculture and the food supply. Climate change is one of those issues, and in years past, the ARS has publicized its work on how farmers can reduce their carbon footprint with no-till agriculture; how climate change alters the relationship of pests and crops; or how more abundant CO2 affects the growth of grasslands, potatoes, timber, wheat, and more. But in the last several years, that steady stream of climate-related agricultural science news has dried up. One of the only recent press releases from the ARS dealing with climate change is a good news story for the beef industry, about how beef’s greenhouse gas emissions may not be that bad after all. The agency’s move away from publicizing a wide range of work on climate science is part of a troubling trend, according to a new investigation by Politico. 

The wetland marshes just outside the city of New Orleans act as natural buffers from storm surges during hurricanes. But like much of southern Louisiana, that land is disappearing. It’s partly due to subsistence and sea level rise—but also due to the thousands of miles of channels that oil companies have carved through the fragile marshes to get out to their rigs. Those channels have eroded and turned the buffering wetlands to open water. Now, New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell is suing a handful of oil and gas companies, including ExxonMobil and Chevron, for money to rebuild the marshes they helped destroy. 

Jun 28, 2019
SciFri Extra: About Time
14:43

The official U.S. time is kept on a cesium fountain clock named NIST-F1, located in Boulder, Colorado. On a recent trip to Boulder, Ira took a trip to see the clock. He spoke with Elizabeth Donley, acting head of the Time and Frequency Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, about keeping the official U.S. time on track—and how NIST is using advanced physics to develop ever more precise and stable ways to measure time.

Jun 25, 2019
Smoke Chasers, Colorado Apples, Pikas. June 21, 2019, Part 2
48:46

When wildfires rage in the West, Colorado State University atmospheric scientist Emily Fischer hops into a plane, and flies straight into the smoke. The plane is a flying chemistry lab, studded with instruments, and Fischer’s goal is to uncover the chemical reactions happening in smoke plumes, to determine how wildfire smoke may affect ecosystems and human health.

Pikas—those cute little animals that look like rodents but are actually more closely related to rabbits—used to roam high mountain habitats across the West. But global warming is pushing temperatures up in their high mountain habitats, and pikas are now confined to a few areas. And thanks to those warmer temperatures, which are threatening the pikas’ way of life, they may be in danger of disappearing—potentially as early as the end of the centuryIn this segment, recorded as part of Science Friday’s live show at the Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, Colorado, Ira speaks with Chris Ray, a population biologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Ray is tagging and tracking the pikas to investigate how closely their fate is tied to climate change—and whether there’s a way to save them before it’s too late.

In the late 1800, Colorado was one of the top apple growing states, but the industry was wiped out by drought and the creation of the red delicious apple in Washington state. But even today, apple trees can still be found throughout the area. Plant ecologist Katharine Suding created the Boulder Apple Tree Project to map out the historic orchards. She talks about Boulder’s historic orchards, some of the heirloom varieties like the Surprise and Arkansas Black, and a surprising connection to a hit Hollywood franchise. Plus, cider maker Daniel Haykin talks about how he uses the information from the Boulder Apple Tree Project combined with sugar, yeast and apples to make the bubbly beverage.

 

 

Jun 21, 2019
Cephalopod Week 2019, Climate and Microbes, Puppy Eyes, Wave Energy. June 21, 2019, Part 1
48:11

For eight glorious days during the end of June, Science Friday honors the mighty mollusks of the ocean—Cephalopod Week returns for the sixth year! And we’re cephalo-brating with a tidal wave of ways for you to participate. This year, we want to know your favorite cephalopod. Is it the charismatic giant Pacific octopus or the long-lived chambered nautilus? Science Friday digital producer Lauren Young and biologist Diana Li add their own favorite cephalopods to the ultimate undersea showdown. They talk about the bizarre defenses of the blanket octopus, speedy squid getaways, and octopuses that play with LEGOs.

We may refer to Earth as “our planet,” but it really belongs to the microbes. All the plants and animals on Earth are relatively new additions to the planetary ecosystem. But despite living basically everywhere on the planet, and playing a role in many of the processes that affect the climate, the connection between microbes and the climate is often ignored. That needs to change, says a consensus statement published this week by researchers in the journal Nature Reviews: Microbiology. Take the issue of methane emissions from agriculture, particularly beef production. “The methane doesn’t come from the cows,” said David Mark Welch, director of the Division of Research at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole. “It comes from microbes in the cows.” In a similar way, emissions coming from rice paddies aren’t caused by the rice—they are caused by microbes living in stagnant water around the rice. David Mark Welch, one of the co-authors of the consensus statement, joins Ira to discuss the deep connections between microorganisms and the climate, and why scientists and policymakers should pay more attention to microbes in the climate arena.

If you’ve ever suspected your dog of looking extra cute to get a bite of your steak or pizza, it’s probably because you couldn’t resist their puppy dog eyes. Over time, dogs have evolved to make their eyes look bigger and more baby-like. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, researchers have discovered that dogs have muscles around their eyes that help them make puppy dog eyes at you. They also found that wolves, the wild ancestor of the dog, don’t have these muscles. Anne Burrows, one of the researchers in their study, joins Ira to discuss how dogs have evolved these muscles and why people are so susceptible to their big, sad-looking eyes. Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere also joins to talk about other ways that dogs have evolved to strengthen the human-dog bond.

A renewable energy project planned off the coast of Newport is taking a step forward. Oregon State University has submitted a final license application for a wave energy testing facility with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. If built, it would be the largest of its kind in the United States. Oregon’s potential to use the motion of the waves to generate electricity is very high. But nationally, the development of wave energy has lagged behind other green energy sources. Part of the delay is the time and expense involved in permitting new technology. Not only do companies have to pay to develop this kind of clean tech, they also have to go through a lengthy and expensive permitting process before being allowed to see if their ideas work in the real world. This is where Oregon State University’s PacWave South Project comes in. The university plans to create a wave energy testing facility about six miles off the Oregon Coast. The idea is that energy developers will be able to by-pass the permitting and just pay the University to test their wave energy converters in the water.

Jun 21, 2019
Degrees Of Change: Urban Heat Islands. June 14, 2019, Part 1
45:49

We’ve known for more than 200 years that cities are hotter than surrounding rural areas. All that concrete and brick soaks up the sun’s rays, then re-emits them as heat long after night has fallen. On top of that, waste heat from the energy we use to power our buildings, vehicle emissions, and even air conditioning units can cause some cities to be as many as 20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than their rural surroundings—creating “urban heat islands.” Between the toll that heat takes on the body and the concurrent air quality problems that heat exacerbates, heat waves kill more Americans per year than any other weather-related event. And if enough city residents are using air conditioning to beat the heat, power outages from overworked grids can add to the risk of mortality.

As the globe warms, urban heat islands are projected to become more pronounced, with even hotter temperatures and a more stark urban-rural divide. But scientists and engineers have been working on solutions to reflect the sun before it can raise temperatures, such as cooler roofing materials and heat-reflecting pigments, cool pavements, green roofs, and neighborhood green space. Ronnen Levinson of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory joins Ira to describe what we know about cool infrastructure, while Global Cool Cities Alliance executive director Kurt Shickman explains how cities around the world are implementing solutions—and why it may take something as bureaucratic as building codes to see mass adoption of cooling strategies.

Los Angeles: Cool Roofs And Fitting The Solution To Landscapes

The city of Los Angeles passed the first mandate for residential buildings to have high-reflectivity roofs, a step up from the past requirements, which only applied to flat, commercial roofs. Los Angeles is also pouring cool pavements to test their effectiveness in lowering temperatures. But how do you pick the right intervention for any given neighborhood in a city with as big and varied a landscape as Los Angeles? USC scientist George Ban-Weiss talks about his work tailoring cool solutions to individual neighborhoods.

New York City: Green Roofs And Community Activists 

While heat waves are projected to kill thousands of New Yorkers per year by 2080, that pain is not likely to be distributed evenly. Research has found hotter urban heat islands are home to higher percentages of poor people and people of color. Meanwhile, while New York City alerts residents of heat events and offers cooling shelters for them to go to, the shelters can be difficult for people to access, or even hear about. Community groups in the Bronx, Harlem, and other parts of the city are working both to cool down their neighborhoods, and connect residents to life-saving cooling. Justine Calma, a reporter for Grist, details the environmental justice problem of the urban heat island, and how New York City is responding.

Phoenix: The Hottest City In The U.S. Is Trying Everything

Phoenix, Arizona, experiences temperatures over 100 degrees in the summer, and researchers are only expecting summers to get hotter and longer. Hot season durations are projected to increase by several weeks on both ends, while the likelihood of temperatures that exceed 115 degrees is only expected to grow. In 2017, an estimated 155 people died of heat-related causes in the Phoenix area.

But the city has been taking the heat seriously. Phoenix has been painting municipal building roofs white since 2006. The city also has ambitious goals to establish shade trees, shelters along public transit routes, and a HeatReady program that would put heat planning on par with disaster preparedness—all with help from scientists like Arizona State University researcher David Hondula. Hondula joins Ira to describe the challenges of getting cities invested in heat preparedness, both short-term and long-term, and what’s next for Phoenix.

What Are The Presidential Candidates’ Climate Plans?

The first Democratic presidential debate will take place at the end of the month and climate change is becoming a central issue. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and other presidential hopefuls have released their versions of a climate plan. The different proposals range from increases in spending to executive action. Climate and environment reporter Rebecca Leber of Mother Jones outlines the major differences between these plans.

Jun 14, 2019
The Best Summer Science Books. June 14, 2019, Part 2
46:57

The Best Science Books To Read This Summer

They say a vacation is only as good as the book you bring with you. And these days it feels like there are as many ways to consume science writing as there are fields of science. Whether you’re a fan of historical nonfiction, graphic novels, poetry or short essays, this year’s panel of summer science books experts has the one you’re looking for to take with you on your journey.

Alison Gilchrist is a graduate student researcher at CU Boulder and host of the podcast Buff Talk Science, and editor in chief of Science Buffs. Caren Cooper is an associate professor of public science at NC State University and author of Citizen Science: How Ordinary People Are Changing the Face of Discovery. Stephanie Sendaula is associate editor for Library Journal Reviews. They join Ira to talk about what they have chosen for their best summer science reads.

Chronic Wasting Disease In Wildlife

Chronic wasting disease is a fatal illness affecting the brains of deer, moose, and elk. Since its discovery in 1967, the disease has been detected in at least 26 states, three Canadian provinces, Norway, Sweden, and South Korea. Rae Ellen Bichell, a reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau and KUNC, talks about the disease, research into its origin and spread, and what’s known about the possible effects of human exposure.

Jun 14, 2019
Quantum Leaps, Cancer Drugs, Cat Cameras. June 7, 2019, Part 2
47:07

The “spooky physics” of the quantum world has long been marked by two key ideas: The idea of superposition, meaning that a quantum particle can exist in multiple states simultaneously, and the idea of randomness, meaning that it’s impossible to predict when certain quantum transitions will take place. Writing in the journal Nature, Zlatko Minev and colleagues report that they may be able to make the quantum behavior slightly less mysterious. Minev joins Ira to talk about the finding, and what new directions it might open up in quantum research.

For patients whose cancer has metastasis, the options can be limited. While new drugs are being developed, they are often only approved for a specific subset or stage of cancer—sometimes even a specific age group. However, researchers are looking to expand on a pool of patients that can get these new drugs. Dr. Sara Hurvitz, the director of the Breast Cancer Research Program at UCLA, joins Ira to talk about how a drug that was approved for breast cancer in postmenopausal women may soon be available for younger patients. Plus, Dr. Neeraj Agarwal, the director of the Genitourinary Oncology Program, to talk about a new treatment option for patients with metastatic prostate cancer.

If you want the real scoop on what your cat is doing while you’re away, researchers are studying that very question, using cat cameras. Our feline friends spend quite a lot of time outside of our line of sight, and we imagine them napping, bathing, playing, hunting. But that’s merely speculation. To get the data, researchers need to catch them in the act. Maren Huck, Senior Lecturer at the University of Derby in the UK, recently published a methodological study where she successfully tracked the movements of 16 outdoor domestic cats to find out what they were up to. She joins Ira to discuss the findings, which she published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science. Plus, cat behavior specialist and University California Davis Veterinary School researcher Mikel Delgado joins the conversation to talk more about catching cat behavior on camera, and what we can learn from recording their secret lives.

 

Jun 07, 2019
Gender Bias In Research Trials, Antarctica, Tornado Engineering. June 7, 2019, Part 1
47:16

For half a century, most neuroscience experiments have had one glaring flaw: They've ignored female study subjects. The reason? Researchers claimed, for example, that female rats and mice would skew their data, due to hormonal cycling. Writing in the journal Science, neuroscientist Rebecca Shansky says that view is out of date—and it's been harming science too. She and Radiolab producer and co-host Molly Webster join Ira to talk about the past, present, and future of laboratory research, and whether science can leave these outdated gender stereotypes behind.

The Onyx River is the longest river in Antarctica, flowing for 19 miles from the coastal Wright Lower Glacier and ending in Lake Vanda. This seasonal stream also has a long scientific record—it has been continuously monitored by scientists for 50 years. Science Friday’s education director Ariel Zych took a trip to the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica to visit scientists in the field who are part of this monitoring project. She and limnologist and biogeochemist Diane McKnight, who has spent decades studying these rivers, talk about the frozen desert ecosystem these waterways transect, and how climate change has affected the continent in the last 50 years.

Plus: researchers in Missouri are examining the after-effects of recent tornadoes to engineer stronger homes. Eli Chen of St. Louis Public Radio tells Ira more in The State of Science.

And science journalist Annalee Newitz talks about the Trump Administration's recent fetal tissue research ban in this week's News Roundup.

Jun 07, 2019
SciFri Extra: Remembering Murray Gell-Mann
43:32

Physicist Murray Gell-Mann died recently at the age of 89. He received the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the theory of elementary particles, and is credited with giving quarks their name. But he was known for more than just physics—he was a co-founder of the Santa Fe Institute, and a champion of creativity and interdisciplinary research.  

One of his biggest interests was exploring the “chain of relationships”  that connects basic physical laws and the subatomic world to the complex systems that we can see, hear, and experience. He joined Ira in 1994 to discuss those chains, the topic of his book “The Quark and the Jaguar.”

Jun 04, 2019
Climate Politics, Football and Math, Ether. May 31, 2019, Part 2
47:07

A green wave is sweeping through Washington, and it’s picking up Republicans who are eager to share their ideas on clean energy and climate change. But even as Republican lawmakers turn to shaping climate policy, the White House is doubling down on climate denial, forming a “climate review panel” to vet and discredit the already peer-reviewed science on climate change. So where will climate science end up? Ira’s joined by marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and climate scientist Michael Mann for a round table conversation about climate politics, policy, and science activism.

Growing up, John Urschel grew up playing both math puzzles and high school football, and he would follow both of those passions. After playing for the Baltimore Ravens, he is now currently a mathematics Ph.D. candidate at MIT. He joins Ira to discuss seeing the world from a mathematical perspective and how he was able to balance the challenges of math and football.

Albert Michelson was a Polish immigrant who grew up in the hard-scrabble atmosphere of the California gold rush. In his physics career, Michelson also measured the speed of light to an unprecedented degree of accuracy, and designed one of the most elegant physics experiments in the 19th century, to detect something that ultimately didn’t even exist: the “luminiferous ether.” Science historian David Kaiser tells the story of how that idea rose and fell in this interview with Ira and Science Friday’s Annie Minoff.

 

 

 

May 31, 2019
Spoiler Alert, Glyphosate, Unisexual Salamanders. May 31, 2019, Part 1
47:12

How many times has this happened to you? You’re standing in front of an open freezer, wondering what type of mystery meat has been left in there, when you purchased it, and if it’s still safe to eat? If you’re puzzled by sell-by dates, freezer burn, and just how long food can remain edible, you’re not alone. Studies show that more than 80 percent of Americans misinterpret date labels and throw food away prematurely to protect their families’ health. That adds up to $218 billion worth of food each year. Janell Goodwin, with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, and Francisco Diez-Gonzales, professor and director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, join Ira for a master class in food microbiology and safety. Then, Roni Neff of Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health explains how confusion over date labeling is worsening food waste and climate change.

Plus: A population of mole salamanders in the Midwest is throwing a curveball at our understanding of sex and reproduction. Some populations of this salamander are unisexual—they’re females that can reproduce without males. Katie Greenwald, an associate professor of biology at Eastern Michigan University, joins Ira to explain what advantages living a single-sex life may have for the mole salamander.

The herbicide glyphosate, found in products such as Roundup, has become a crucial tool on midwestern farms—but weeds are becoming resistant. What's next? Chris Walljasper, a reporter from the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, tells Ira more on the State Of Science.

And The Atlantic's Sarah Zhang tells us what's whipping up 2019's active tornado season in this week's News Roundup.

May 31, 2019
SciFri Extra: A Relatively Important Eclipse
14:57

This week marks the 100th anniversary of an eclipse that forever changed physics and our understanding of the universe.

In May 1919, scientists set out for Sobral, Brazil, and Príncipe, an island off the west coast of Africa, to photograph the momentarily starry sky during a total eclipse. Their scientific aim was to test whether the sun’s gravity would indeed bend light rays from faraway stars, as predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. After analyzing the data from the brief minutes of darkness, they declared Einstein correct.

Carlo Rovelli, physicist and author, tells Ira the story.

May 28, 2019
Bees! May 24, 2019, Part 2
46:53

For the hobby beekeeper, there’s much to consider when homing your first domestic honey bee colonies—what kind of hive to get, where to put them, where to get your bees, and how to help them survive the winter.

But when left to their own devices, what do the bees themselves prefer? From smaller nests to higher openings, wild honey bees seem to prefer very different conditions from the closely clustered square boxes of traditional beekeeping.

But there are ways to adapt! Seeley joins Ira to explain his theory of “Darwinian beekeeping” as a way to keep bees healthy even in the age of varroa mites and colony collapse.

Plus, apiculturalist Elina L. Niño of the University of California Davis talks about the microbial world of bees, such as whether probiotics could benefit bee health, and how honey bees and bumblebees could be used to distribute beneficial microbes to plants, an idea called ‘apivectoring.’

May 24, 2019
Ebola Outbreak, Climate Play, Navajo Energy. May 24, 2019, Part 1
46:56

What would it take to power a subsea factory of the future? Plus, other stories from this week in science news.

Then, as the last coal-fired power plant plans to shut down at the end of the year, the Navajo Tribe is embracing renewables. 

Next, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, distrust of the government and healthcare workers are hampering efforts to contain the current outbreak.

Finally, in a new climate change play, a playwright explores what kinds of narratives we need to stir action on climate. 

May 24, 2019
New Horizons Discovery, Science Fair Finalists, Screams. May 17, 2019, Part 2
46:58

The most happening New Year’s Party of 2019 wasn’t at Times Square or Paris—it was in the small town of Laurel, Maryland, halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. There, scientists shared the stage with kids decked out in NASA gear, party hats, and astronaut helmets. They were there to count down not to the new year, but to the New Horizons spacecraft flying by a very distant, very ancient, snowman-shaped object: MU69. Now, the first haul of data about that mysterious object has returned. They reveal that MU69 is one of the reddest objects we’ve explored in the solar system, built from two skipping-stone-shaped bodies, each the size of small cities. Those details are featured in a cover story in the journal Science. Lead author Alan Stern joins Ira here to talk about it.

This week, more than 1,800 student scientists from 80 countries converged in Phoenix to present their projects for Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair, a competition founded by the Society for Science and the Public. Ira chats with two of the finalists. Colorado high school junior Krithik Ramesh came up with an idea for a real-time virtual tool for surgeons doing spinal surgeries, and Arizona high school freshman Ella Wang, along with her partner Breanna Tang, cooked up an innovative use for waste from soybean food products—enriching depleted farm soils.

When you hear a scream, you automatically perk up. It catches your attention. But scientists are still working to define what exactly makes a scream. People scream when they are scared or happy. It’s not just a humans, either—all types of animals scream, from frogs to macaques. Psychologist Harold Gouzoules and his team measured the acoustic properties of a human scream by actually playing screams for people: Screams of fright, screams of excitement, and even a whistle. He joins Ira to talks about the evolutionary basis of screaming and what it can tell us about how human nonverbal communication.

May 17, 2019
Degrees Of Change: Sea Level Rise, Coal-Use Decline. May 17, 2019, Part 1
46:53

As the frequency of tropical storms and droughts increase and sea levels rise with climate change, forested wetlands along the Atlantic coast are slowly filling with dead and dying trees. The accelerating spread of these “ghost forests” over the past decade has ecologists alarmed and eager to understand how they are formed and what effect they will have regionally and globally.

 One interdisciplinary group of researchers from North Carolina State University and Duke University are examining the causes and effects of repeated saltwater exposure to the coastal wetlands of North Carolina. Using soil and sediment sampling, remote hydrological monitoring, vegetation plotting, as well as spatial maps, the research team is determining the tipping point for when a struggling forest will become a ghost forest. According to ecologist Emily Bernhardt, their preliminary findings suggest that climate change is not the only culprit in the region.

Agricultural irrigation and wastewater ditches that criss-cross much of the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula facilitate the flow of saltwater intrusion deep into the landscape, wreaking ecological and economic havoc. Working with Brian Boutin, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Albemarle-Pamlico Program, Dr. Bernhardt and colleagues hope to provide valuable scientific insights to local farmers, wetlands managers, and regional decision-makers to plan for the further intrusions and hopefully mitigate the effects.

Meanwhile, less than 100 miles up the coast from the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula, the cities of Hampton Roads, Virginia along the Chesapeake Bay are facing some of the worst flooding due to sea level rise in the country. In Norfolk, home of the United States Navy, tides have increased as much as eight inches since the 1970s, and roads that lead from the community directly to naval installations are particularly vulnerable to flooding.

But in the last 10 years, Hampton Roads has begun to adapt. “When we first started having these discussions, there was a lot of concern about, should we be having discussions like this in public. What would be the potential impacts on economic development or on the population growth here?” said Ben McFarlane, senior regional planner with the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission. “Now it’s recognized and people know it’s happening. I think the strategy has changed to being more of a ‘Let’s stop talking about how bad it is and how bad it’s going to get. And let’s start talking about solutions.’”

The Planning District Commission supports the use of living shorelines and ordinance changes that discourage developing in flood prone areas. Norfolk has even been named one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities in part for its efforts promoting coastal resiliency in the face of sea level rise.

Plus, the latest investment report from the International Energy Agency was released this week, and shows that in 2018, final investment decisions were made to support bringing an additional 22GW of coal-fired electric generation online—but in the same year, around 30 GW of coal-burning generating capacity were closed. Of course, coal plants are still under construction, and there are thousands of terawatts of coal-generating capacity worldwide, so the end of coal is nowhere in sight yet—but the investment report may indicate a tipping point in the global energy budget.

Kendra Pierre-Louis, a reporter on the climate desk at the New York Times, joins Ira to talk about that and other climate news—including the President’s energy policy remarks at a natural gas plant, the discovery of another ocean garbage patch of plastic, and the rise of “climate refuge cities.”

May 17, 2019
Biodiversity Report And The Science Of Parenting. May 10, 2019, Part 2
46:16

According to a new UN report on global biodiversity, as many as one million species—both plants and animals—are now at risk of extinction, according to a new UN report on global biodiversity. That number includes 40% of all amphibian species, 33% of corals, and around 10% of insects.

One might assume that this type of devastating species loss could only come as a result of one thing—climate change. But in fact, as the report highlights illustrate, it’s deforestation, changes in land and sea use, hunting, poaching, pollution, invasive species—in short, human interventionsthat are causing species to disappear at a rate tens to hundreds of times higher than what has been seen over the last 10 million years. Walter Jetz, professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University, joins Ira to discuss why the damage we do to biodiversity in our lifetimes may never be undone.

Plus, if you're a new parent, you’ve probably had one of these nights. You’re up at 3 a.m., baby screaming, searching the internet for an answer to a question you’ve never thought to ask before: Are pacifiers bad for your baby? What about that weird breathing? Is that normal? Or is it time to head to the emergency room? 

Emily Oster is a health economist and mother of two who had a lot of those same questions as she raised her kids. She dove into the data to find out what the science actually says about sleep training, breastfeeding, introducing solid foods, and lots more in her new book, Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool.

Ira chats with Oster and Nikita Sood of Cohen Children’s Medical Center, who monitors the underground market for breastmilk and explains why parents should be cautious. 

May 10, 2019
Superconductivity Search, Ride-Share Congestion, Lions Vs. Porcupines. May 10, 2019, Part 1
47:20

Six decades ago, a group of physicists came up with a theory that described electrons at a low temperature that could attract a second electron. If the electrons were in the right configuration, they could conduct electricity with zero resistance. The Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer theory, named after the three physicists, is the basis for how superconductivity works at a quantum level. Superconductivity would allow electricity to flow with no loss of heat from its system.

Since that time, scientists have been trying to find a real-world material that fits that theory. One way to achieve this is by turning hydrogen into a metal. This is accomplished by squeezing hydrogen gas between two diamonds at such a high pressure that it solidifies. That metal then becomes a superconductor at room temperature. Previously, achieving zero resistance had only been possible by cooling the superconductor to near absolute zero.

Ira and Gizmodo science writer Ryan Mandelbaum talk with physicist Maddury Somayazulu and theoretical chemist Eva Zurek about the progress towards creating a room-temperature superconductor and how this type of material could be used in quantum computing and other technology.

During times of drought or disease, lions have to turn to other sources of food like the East African porcupine. But while the lion may get a quick meal when it attacks a porcupine, the porcupine may win in the long run. Writing in the Journal of East African Natural History, Julian Kerbis Peterhans and colleagues found that an untreated porcupine quill wound is often enough to severely injure a lion. If the wound becomes infected or hinders eating, it can lead to death. And, when a lion is injured and has difficulty hunting its usual prey, it can sometimes turn to easier sources of food—like humans. Kerbis joins Ira to talk about the study, and what this seemingly mismatched battle can teach us about survival in the animal kingdom.

Plus, a new study found that the presence of services like Uber and Lyft increased road congestion in San Francisco. And a roundup of the week's science news, including a rattling remark about climate change from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at an Arctic Council meeting.

May 10, 2019
Neuroscientists Peer Into The Mind's Eye, Alexander von Humboldt. May 3, 2019, Part 2
47:15

It sounds like a sci-fi plot: Hook a real brain up to artificial intelligence, and let the two talk to each other. That’s the design of a new study in the journal Cell, in which artificial intelligence networks displayed images to monkeys, and then studied how the monkey’s neurons responded to the picture. The computer network could then use that information about the brain’s responses to tweak the image, displaying a new picture that might resonate more with the monkey’s visual processing system.

In 1799, the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt embarked on the most ambitious scientific voyage of his life. On the Spanish ship Pizarro, he set sail for South America with 42 carefully chosen scientific instruments. There, he would climb volcanoes, collect countless plant and animal specimens, and eventually come to the conclusion that the natural world was a unified entity—biology, geology and meteorology all conjoining to determine what life took hold where. In the process, he also described human-induced climate change—and was perhaps the first person to do so. Author Andrea Wulf and illustrator Lillian Melcher retell the voyages of Alexander von Humboldt in a new, illustrated book that draws upon Humboldt’s own journal pages.

May 03, 2019
Business Planning For Climate Change,The Digital Afterlife. May 3, 2019, Part 1
47:42

Scientists have built all sorts of models to predict the likelihood of extreme weather events. But it’s not just scientists who are interested in these models. Telecomm giant AT&T teamed up with scientists at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois to build a climate map of the Southeastern part of the country, overlaid with a map of AT&T’s infrastructure. Climate scientist Rao Kothamarthi from Argonne Labs discusses the process of creating hyperlocal climate change models, and Shannon Carroll, director of environmental sustainability at At&T, talks about how the company can use that information for making decisions on how to protect their infrastructure.

Social media is, in many ways, the record keeper of our lives. It may be time to start thinking about how we preserve that record for the future. How should we think about the online profiles of the deceased? As the person’s property or as their remains? Should they be inherited or passed on? Preserved or deleted? We discuss planning for the digital afterlife. 

May 03, 2019
Measles, Poetry Month, Lemur Hibernation. April 26, 2019, Part 2
45:57

Back in 1963, before the development of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, there were 4 million cases of measles every year. It took nearly four decades, but by 2000, enough people had become vaccinated that the measles virus was eliminated in the U.S.

But since then, the ranks of unvaccinated people have grown, and the measles virus has been reintroduced into the U.S. This week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials report over 600 cases of measles across 22 states. Dr. Saad Omer, professor of Global Health, Epidemiology, and Pediatrics at Emory University joins Ira to answer questions about the current outbreak, including how much worse conditions could get.

Every year, hundreds pack Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, New York for “The Universe In Verse,” a live celebration of writing that has found inspiration from science and scientists. This year’s event, which featured readings from guests including Amanda Palmer, David Byrne, and Josh Groban, celebrated the 100th anniversary of Sir Arthur Eddington’s groundbreaking experiment to prove general relativity. The poems also honored Albert Einstein’s legacy in describing the universe as we understand it today.

Maria Popova, founder and editor of Brain Pickings, and astrophysicist Janna Levin, both writers as well, join Ira for a conversation about the enduring link between art and science, and share readings of their favorite works.

What has big eyes, a bushy tail, and is the only primate to go into hibernation six months out of the year? It’s the fat-tailed dwarf lemur, an endangered species endemic to the island of Madagascar. During their hibernation period, the lemurs enter a state of torpor, which essentially disables the animals’ internal thermostat. It turns out we humans possess the same gene that is activated when the lemur initiates torpor—we just don’t know how to activate it. Science Friday video producer Luke Groskin traveled to the only captive colony of dwarf lemurs in the world outside of Madagascar, the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina, to investigate the sleeping cuties’ hibernation habits—and how they could apply to humans.

Apr 26, 2019
Degrees of Change: Sponge Cities and Pocket Prairies. April 26, 2019, Part 1
46:09

Climate change is happening—now we need to deal with it. Degrees of Change, a new series of hour-long radio specials from Science Friday, explores the problem of climate change and how we as a planet are adapting to it. In this first chapter, SciFri looks at how climate change affects water systems. This year, there were record downpours in the American Midwest that washed out levees and caused catastrophic flooding. Meanwhile, California is recovering from a seven year-long drought that led to water shortages across the state.

Cities are starting to rethink their water futures and how they can make their communities more resilient. Here are two examples of how cities around the world are adapting to their climate change future.

The ‘Sponge Cities’ Of China

In China, more people are leaving the countryside and moving into big cities. Shenzhen in the south has gone from a city of 50,000 people to over 13 million in just three decades. This rapid urbanization has led to more construction, more concrete, and entire landscapes that have been paved over. Mix that with stronger storms driven to climate change, and the stage is set for future water disasters.

To combat this, the Chinese government started the “Sponge Cities” program in 2014, which calls for cities to soak up and reuse 70% of their rainwater.

Journalist Erica Gies and Chris Zevenbergen, flood risk management expert, talks about the pedestrian bridges, green roofs and terraced urban landscapes that architects and engineers are designing to build resiliency and what needs to be done to expand these ideas to the rest of the country.

The ‘Pocket Prairies’ Of Houston

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit some areas of Houston with nearly four feet of rain, causing widespread flooding throughout the city. As the city rebuilds, “pocket prairies” are among the tools being used to manage future flooding. These patches of native prairie grass can be planted anywhere—in front yards, traffic medians, parking lots, vacant lots, and between city buildings—and high quality prairie habitat can hold up to nine inches of rainwater during a storm, reducing the likelihood of catastrophic floods.

“At a neighborhood level, they can manage the ‘flash’ part of ‘flash floods,’” says Laura Huffman, Texas regional director of The Nature Conservancy. Plus, pocket prairies provide additional benefits, she says. As rainwater seeps into soil, it pre-treats chemicals in the rain, helping to keep them out of the water supply. In this conversation, Gies and Huffman explain the benefits of pocket prairies and other green infrastructure.

The Climate Effects Of A Heated Campaign Season

The Democratic presidential primary field is vast—where do the candidates stand on climate issues? Scott Waldman, White House reporter with Climatewire and E&E News, joins Ira to talk about how 2020 presidential campaigns are addressing climate change, plus other climate-related stories of the week—from Facebook's plans to fact-check hot button issues like climate change to a new study that attempts to put a price tag on the effects of Arctic melting.    

Apr 26, 2019
5G, Pig Brains, Privacy For Nature. April 19, 2019, Part 1
47:02

Last week, President Trump announced a new initiative to push forward the implementation of 5G, the next generation of wireless connectivity for smartphones and other devices. How is this faster speed possible, and how quickly will it become accessible to consumers? Washington Post technology reporter Brian Fung explains the innovations that would enable greater rates of data transmission. Plus: Harold Feld, a lawyer and consumer advocate, says not everyone will benefit equally from 5G as plans currently stand—including rural communities.

One of the top technology candidates for 5G relies on higher frequencies and bringing more smaller-signal base stations much closer to the people using them. But what does research say about how it will affect human health? Researchers review what the literature has suggested so far about non-ionizing radiation from 2G and 3G, including a 2018 study from the National Toxicology Program (NTP) that found an increase in tumors for male rats. The NTP’s John Bucher and Jonathan Samet of the Colorado School of Public Health join Ira to discuss the data, and the limitations of research to date. Plus, toxicologist and epidemiologist Devra Davis of the Environmental Health Trust provides a statement on the health concerns of 5G.

 

Plus: Spring is a great time to get out and enjoy the outdoors—and increasingly, people are using citizen science apps like eBird and iNaturalist to record sightings and share data. But the public nature of some citizen science platforms can make them liable for abuse, such as people using location data collected by the apps to disturb—or even poach—threatened species. April Glaser, a technology reporter for Slate, tells Ira more.

And Sarah Kaplan, science reporter at the Washington Post, joins Ira to talk about post-death pig brains, Jovian moons, and more in this week's News Roundup.

Apr 19, 2019
New Human Species, Census, Plankton, Brain Etchings. April 19, 2019, Part 2
46:57

Last week, researchers announced they’d found the remains of a new species of ancient human on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. It was just a few teeth and bones from toes and hands, but they appeared to have a strange mix of ancient and modern human traits scientists had never seen before. Enter: Homo luzonesis. However, Homo luzonesis’ entry on the hominid family tree is still fuzzy and uncertain. Dr. Shara Bailey, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at New York University, joins Ira to weigh in on the new find and to discuss how we determine what makes a species “human.”

Next year, the United States Census Bureau will send out its 10-year census to collect demographic data on every person in the country. That survey happens once a decade and asks a handful of questions, but the agency also sends out the yearly American Community Survey, or ACS, which is an ongoing survey that collects more detailed data on smaller populations. How is your data used once you turn in your survey? Demographer Catherine Fitch talks about how the information surveys are used for research and policies, why certain questions appear on the forms, and new ways that the census is trying to survey the country.

Plus: For half a century, merchant ships have hitched humble metal boxes to their sterns, and towed these robotic passengers across some 6.5 million nautical miles of the world’s oceans. The metal boxes are the “Continuous Plankton Recorder” or CPR, a project conceived, in a more innocent time, to catalogue the diversity of plankton populating the seas. But the first piece of plastic twine got caught up in the device in 1957; the first plastic bag appeared in 1965. In the decades since, the device has picked up more and more plastic pollution. Clare Ostle, a marine biogeochemist and lead author on a study about the CPR’s plastic finds in the journal Nature Communications, joins Ira to talk about the treasures and trash the CPR has collected over the years.

And back in 2011, after Greg Dunn completed his PhD in neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, he didn’t return to the lab. Instead, he decided to focus on art. “The only difference between a landscape of a forest and a landscape of a brain is you need a microscope to see one and not the other,” Dunn told Science Friday. Using the techniques of microetching and lithographing, Dunn has created a project called “Self Reflected,” which visualizes what it might look like to see all the neurons of the brain connected and firing. He joins Ira to discuss his work, which is also the subject of our latest SciArts video.

 

Apr 19, 2019
Year In Space Results, Citizen Science Day, Cherry Blossoms. April 12, 2019, Part 2
46:29

To find out what was happening to astronauts over longer periods of space flight, NASA put together a 10-team study of twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly. Scott spent a year on International Space Station, while his brother Mark lived a relatively normal life on Earth—though both regularly sent the researchers samples of their blood, urine, cognitive test results, and other data to assess their physiology over time. Scott Kelly returned to Earth in 2016, and researchers have been studying and comparing the twins ever since. The conclusion? A year in space caused a cascade of changes in Scott’s gene expression and physiology—some of which remained even after he returned to EarthDr. Susan Bailey, a radiation biologist at Colorado State University, explains one surprising mystery: The average length of Scott’s telomeres, a part of DNA that usually shortens with aging or other kinds of stress, increased. And Dr. Christopher Mason at Weill Cornell Medicine explains how spaceflight ramped up genes associated with Scott Kelly’s immune system and what remained different even months after his return to Earth.

Patients with Alzheimer’s disease can experience decreased blood flow in their brains caused by white blood cells sticking to blood vessels that can cause a block. Researchers at Cornell University have found that these stalls happen in the tiniest blood vessels, the capillaries. Understanding these capillary blocks could help find new Alzheimer’s treatments—and to do that, the researchers have to look through hundreds of thousands of images of blocked capillaries. Now, you can help. Physicist Chris Shaffer, who is on the Cornell University team, teamed up with Pietro Michelucci to develop a citizen science game called Stall Catchers that uses the power of the crowd to help identify these stalls. They talk about how Stall Catchers can help with their data—and the one-day megathon when you can participate.

By 1918, the British naturalist and ornithologist Collingwood Ingram had tired of studying birds, but soon became obsessed with two magnificent flowering cherry trees planted on his property. He went to Japan and hunted for wild cherries all over the country on foot, horseback, and even from the sea, using binoculars to spot prime specimens. Throughout his travels, he became convinced that Japan was in danger of losing its multitude of cherry varieties, through modernization, development, and neglect, and he went on to evangelize for the wondrous diversity of flowering cherries in Japan, and back home in the western world. In The Sakura Obsession, Japanese journalist Naoko Abe tells Ingram's story, and the cultural history of cherry blossoms in Japan.

 

Apr 12, 2019
Event Horizon Telescope, Biosphere 2. April 12, 2019, Part 1
46:51

“As I like to say, it’s never a good idea to bet against Einstein,” astrophysicist Shep Doeleman told Science Friday back in 2016, when the Event Horizon Telescope project was just getting underway. At an illuminating press conference on Wednesday, April 10th, scientists shared the image for the first time: a slightly blurry lopsided ring of light encircling a dark shadow. But even as the image confirms current ideas about gravity, it also raises new questions about galaxy formation and quantum physics. Event Horizon Telescope Director Shep Doelemen and Feryal Özel, professor of astrophysics at the University of Arizona and EHT study scientist, help us wrap our minds around the image. And Julie Hlavacek-Larrondo, assistant professor of physics and Canada research chair at the University of Montreal joins the conversation to talk about what scientists would like to discover next.

Plus: A project aims to use the artificial sea of Biosphere 2 as a testing ground for bringing back coral reefs affected by climate change. Christopher Conover from Arizona Public Media reports in this edition of The State Of Science.

And the image of a black hole isn't the only space news that came out this week. Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox, joins Ira to talk about the crash of the Israeli lunar lander Beresheet and other stories from the week in science in this week’s News Roundup.

Apr 12, 2019
SciFri Extra: Picturing A Black Hole
17:02

The Event Horizon Telescope is tackling one of the largest cosmological challenges ever undertaken: Take an image of the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, using a telescope the size of the Earth.

Now, the Event Horizon team has announced they have big news to share about those efforts. On Wednesday April 10th, it’s anticipated they will show a photo of the event horizon. Before they do, we wanted to share this 2016 conversation with Event Horizon project director Shep Doeleman and black hole expert Priya Natarajan, in which they discuss how you image an object as dark and elusive as a black hole.

Apr 06, 2019
Right-To-Repair, Exercise Recovery, Gov. Inslee. April 5, 2019, Part 2
47:01

Whenever your smartphone or video game console breaks down, you usually have to go back to the manufacture or a technician affiliated with the company to have your device fixed. Oftentimes, companies don’t release parts or guides to their devices, making it difficult to repair them own your own. 20 different states have introduced right-to-repair legislation, which calls for companies to open up the ability for individuals to fix their own devices. Recently, senator Elizabeth Warren called for a national right-to-repair law for farming equipment made by John Deere and other agricultural manufacturers. Jason Koebler from Motherboard and agricultural lawyer Todd Janzen discuss the debate between right-to-repair advocates who want more choice in the hands of consumers and companies who cite security issues and intellectual property rights for keep devices closed.

If you’re a runner, hitting the road after a long winter indoors feels invigorating… until you get back home, 10 miles later, and your legs feel like jelly. How do you start to recover? Ibuprofen, ice, lots of water, and stretching might sound like good place to start. But it turns out that following these seemingly logical steps for a faster recovery achieves just the opposite. Icing your muscles slows down the process of recovery. Too much water can be harmful. And stretching? You can put that in the same category as compression boots and cupping—they don’t help recovery one bit. Science writer Christie Aschwanden, author of Good To Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery, a new book on the science of recovery, joins Ira to share what she discovered debunking our most commonly-held beliefs about recovery with science.

“Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.” So goes the saying. And for Washington state governor Jay Inslee, that idea is climate change. He has staked his run for the White House in 2020 on what he calls “America’s Climate Mission,” and his campaign platform says “defeating climate change is the defining challenge of our time and [it] must be the foremost priority for the next president.” For a little historical perspective, however, consider that climate change was practically a non-issue in the last presidential election. There were no specific questions about climate policy in the debates. And only five minutes and twenty-seven seconds—two percent of total talking time—were spent on climate change across all three presidential debates. In this conversation, Ira discusses Gov. Inslee’s presidential ambitions, and the science issues that have defined his time as governor of Washington.

Apr 05, 2019
Coal Ash, Soil Loss, Sap, Bristlecone Pines. April 5, 2019, Part 1
47:03

Maple tapping season is underway in the sugar maple stands of the United States. Warm days and below-freezing nights kick off a cycle of sap flow crucial for maple syrup production. But why is the flow of sap so temperature dependent in sugar maples? University of Vermont maple researcher Abby van den Berg explains how ice crystals in the trees’ cells power sap flow, while Yale University’s Craig Brodersen tackles how other trees and plants move gallons of fluid per day from roots to leaves—all without using any energy at all.

In mid-March, a late winter storm dumped inches of rain on frozen soil in the Midwest, flooding the Missouri River and tributaries—particularly in agriculture-intensive Iowa, eastern Nebraska, and western Illinois. The storm has submerged farm fields under water, washed-out roads and bridges, caused grain silos to burst from flood damage, and drowned livestock. Many farmers may be unable to plant their fields in time this year, or even at all. But soil experts looking at that same damage will notice another thing: erosion of precious topsoil. This first layer of soil is the key to the Midwest’s immense fertility and agricultural strength, but a resource that is slow to rebuild after major losses like farms are currently experiencing. Mahdi Al-Kaisi, a soil scientist at Iowa State University, explains why erosion is bad news for farmers, and how the damage from this flood event could ripple for years to come.

Bristlecone pine trees grow in harsh, dry mountain climates and can live up to 5,000 years old. The trees have adapted to these rough habitats by building up dense woody trunks that can hold up against insects, and rely on the wind to disperse their hard seeds. Ecologist Brian Smithers became interested in these species because “they epitomized growing and living on the edge of what is possible.” Smithers talks about the adaptations and competition the species will face as rising temperatures from climate change force the trees to move up in elevation.

Washington University’s analysis of data from Missouri utility companies shows high levels of toxic coal ash contamination near ponds power plants use to dump waste from coal combustion. Will proposed new regulations be enough?

 

Apr 05, 2019
Poetry of Science, The Power of Calculus. March 29, 2019, Part 2
48:22

April is National Poetry Month, a time of readings, outreach programs, and enthusiastic celebration of the craft. And for a special Science Friday celebration, we’ll be looking at where science and poetry meet. Tracy K. Smith, the current U.S. poet laureate, wrote the 2011 book Life On Mars, which touches on dark matter, the nature of the universe, and the Hubble Telescope—all as an elegy for her deceased engineer father, Floyd. Rafael Campo, a physician, poet, and editor for the Journal of the American Medical Association’s poetry section, writes poems about illness, the body, and the narratives each patient brings to medical settings. The two talk to Ira about where science fits into their work—and how poetry can inform science and scientists. Read some of the poems, and a syllabus of science-related works suggested by SciFri listeners, here.

Calculus underpins many of the greatest ideas about how the universe works: Newton's Laws, Maxwell's Equations, quantum theory. It's been used to develop ubiquitous technologies, like GPS. It was even used to model the battle between HIV and the human immune system, which helped researchers fine tune triple-drug therapies to combat the virus. In his book Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe, mathematician Steven Strogatz takes readers on a journey around the world, detailing the bright ideas that contributed to modern calculus and citing the many ways those mathematical ideas have changed the world. Learn more here.

Mar 29, 2019
Growing Glaciers, Expanding Universe, Flu Near You. March 29, 2019, Part 1
48:43

Once upon a time, everything in the universe was crammed into a very small space. Then came the Big Bang, and the universe has been expanding ever since. But just how fast is it expanding? Calculating that number is a challenge that dates back almost a hundred years, when Edwin Hubble used data from Harvard astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt to try to answer that question. His value came to be called the Hubble constant, H0. But the exact value of that constant has been hard to pin down. And now two different approaches to measuring the Hubble constant have come up with close, but different answers—and each team says they're pretty confident in the accuracy of their measurements. Ira speaks to science writer and author Anil Ananthaswamy and Nobel laureate Adam Riess to discuss the discrepancy.

This flu season, Science Friday teamed up with Flu Near You to ask listeners to track their symptoms to create a map of influenza-like illness across the country. Nearly three thousand SciFri users participated. Science Friday education director Ariel Zych and biostatician Kristin Baltrusaitis, who was a research assistant for Flu Near You, tells us how the SciFri community results stacked up to the rest of participants. Plus, epidemiologist Karen Martin gives an update on how this season compares to years past and how the Minnesota Department of Health uses Flu Near You data for surveillance on a local level. See the results here.

It’s become the familiar refrain in this era of climate change: Warmer temperatures, retreating glaciers, and rising sea levels. But when it comes to Greenland’s Jakobshavn Glacier, it seems the drumbeat of disaster may have halted—for now. Scientists report in the journal Nature Geoscience this week that the once fast-retreating ice sheet has been thickening over the last few years instead. It’s a reversal of a twenty-year trend of thinning and retreating, but perhaps not for long. Ala Khazendar, researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, joins Ira to explain why this glacial about-face may not be the cause for celebration that we think it is in this week’s Good Thing, Bad Thing.

And Gizmodo writer Ryan Mandelbaum talks about the canceled all-female space walk, NASA's lunar ambitions, and more in this week's News Roundup.

 

Mar 29, 2019
A.I. And Doctors, Alzheimer’s. March 22, 2019, Part 2
46:58

When you go to the doctor’s office, it can sometimes seem like wait times are getting longer while face time with your doctor is getting shorter. In his book, Deep Medicine: How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Healthcare Human Again, cardiologist Eric Topol argues that artificial intelligence can make medicine more personal and empathetic. He says that algorithms can free up doctors to focus more time on their patients. Topol also talks about how A.I. is being used for drug discovery, reading scans, and how data from wearables can be integrated into human healthcare. Learn more and read an excerpt from Deep Medicine here.

Plus: Alzheimer’s disease is known for inflicting devastating declines in memory and cognitive function. Researchers are on the hunt for treatments are taking a number of approaches to slowing or preventing the neurodegenerative disease, including immune therapy, lifestyle changes, and targeting sticky buildups of proteins called amyloid beta. But at MIT, scientists have been trying something else: a combination of flashing strobe lights and a clicking sound played at 40 times per second, for just an hour a day. Mice given this treatment for a week showed significant reductions in Alzheimer’s signature brain changes and had marked improvements in cognition, memory, and learning. But could an improvements in brains of mice translate to human subjects? Dr. Li-Huei Tsai, an author on the research, talks with Ira, and Wake Forest Medical School neuroscientist Dr. Shannon Macauley, who was not involved in the research, discusses how to take promising research of all kinds to the next level.

Mar 22, 2019
House Science Committee, Superbloom, Snowpack. March 22, 2019, Part 1
47:18

There’s been a changing of the guard in the U.S. House of Representatives. In January, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, a democrat from Texas, took over as chair of the House Committee for Science, Space, and Technology from her predecessor Lamar Smith. Smith was in charge of the House Science Committee for six years—an era that was defined by partisan attacks on climate science, and the issuing of congressional subpoenas to scientists. Chairwoman Johnson is looking to restore credibility to the House Science Committee, listening to the scientific consensus on climate change and aiming for bipartisan oversight of scientific programs. She joins Ira to talk about bringing science back to the committee, changes she plans to make from previous leadership, and how much progress will the new committee make when it’s up against an administration that’s been hostile to many of the agencies that conduct scientific research.

Plus: This El Niño year has been dumping rain and snow on California's Sierra Nevada mountains. But water managers don’t just eyeball how much snow they think is up there, tucked away in those high mountain basins. Snow inventories these days are high tech, involving airplanes and lasers. Tom Painter of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab and Caltech joins Ira to explain.

The hills and deserts of the southwest have been putting on quite a show this spring—a superbloom that's better than some areas have seen in generations. Science Friday producer Christopher Intagliata headed down to Walker Canyon in Lake Elsinore, California, to check it out. See his photos and learn why superblooms aren't a regular occurrence in California.

The New Mexico state legislature has passed a bill calling for the state to transition entirely to renewable energy by 2050. Laura Paskus, environmental reporter for the New Mexico Political Project, joins Ira to explain the details.

And science journalist Annalee Newitz explains the surprising first results from Japan's Hayabusa2 mission to asteroid Ryugu in this week's News Roundup.

Mar 22, 2019
Frans de Waal, Inactive Ingredients, Street View, and Gentrification. March 15, 2019, Part 2
46:22

Primatologist Frans de Waal has spent his lifetime studying the lives of animals, especially our closest cousins, the chimpanzees. de Waal has observed their shifting alliances and the structure of their political ranks. He has seen bitter conflicts break out, only to be mended by peaceful, respected mediators. And he has witnessed chimpanzees grieve for, and attempt to comfort, their dead and dying. But one of the most touching reflections in his new book, Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, is the story he tells of a female chimp who didn’t produce enough milk to feed her young. When de Waal taught her to feed her baby with a bottle instead, she repaid him with what most of us would recognize as gratitude: holding both of de Waal’s hands and whimpering sadly if he tried to leave. The book explores many stories of animal emotions from across the animal kingdom, and it might leave you wondering how unique humans really are.

Gentrification happens when a previously low-income or working class neighborhood sees an influx of well-off new residents. Rents go up, new development sets in, and the neighborhood’s original residents may be displaced by those with more money. Cities who can recognize gentrification in progress can take steps to prevent displacement and funnel resources, or even slow the neighborhood’s changes directly. But while a new yoga studio or fancy coffee shop may be one obvious sign of rising rents, there are earlier indications that might help cities fend off some of the side effects sooner—building improvements like new siding, landscaping, and more go markedly up as new money arrives. Writing in the journal PLOS One this week, a research team at the University of Ottawa describes one new tool in the toolkit: they turned to Google’s Street View, and taught an AI system to recognize when an individual house had been upgraded. Putting those upgrades on a map revealed not just areas the researchers already knew were gentrifying, but also other pockets where the process had begun unnoticed. Michael Sawada, a professor of geography, environment, and geomatics at the University of Ottawa, explains the big data approach to catching gentrification in action.

Anyone who has glanced at the back of a bottle of aspirin or a box of allergy tablets has seen it: the “Inactive Ingredients” list. All medications include compounds that help stabilize the drug or aid in its absorption. They aren’t given a second thought because they’re “inactive,” which suggests that these ingredients don’t do any harm. But in fact, according to a new study out this week, over 90 percent of medications have inactive ingredients that can cause allergic reactions in certain patients, including peanut oil, lactose, and gluten.

Mar 15, 2019
Youth Climate Protest, Science Talent Search Winners, Snowflake Changes. March 15, 2019, Part 1
46:40

It all started with 16-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg. Last August, Thunberg started skipping school on Fridays to protest outside Sweden’s parliament, insisting her country get behind the Paris Climate Agreement. Her protests have inspired thousands of young people around the world to join the #FridaysForFuture movement, skipping school to demand that their governments take action against climate change. And on Friday March 15th, these young people will take things a step further—joining together across more than 90 countries and 1,200 cities in the Youth Climate Strike. Sarah Kaplan, science reporter for the Washington Post, reports live from the scene of one of those stikes in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. Plus, Ira speaks with Isabella Fallahi, Youth Climate Strike organizer and Varshini Prakash, executive director and co-founder of the Sunrise Movement about what’s inspiring this current moment of youth-led activism.

Each year, approximately 1,800 high school science students take part in the Regeneron Science Talent Search (Regeneron STS), a program of Society for Science & the Public. This year’s projects ranged from studying the viscosity of molten lava to investigating more fuel efficient airplane designs to creating a computer model to predict refugee migrations. Senior Samuel Weissman analyzed the genetic makeup of two HIV patients, and senior Ana Humphrey created a math model to look for exoplanets. Ira talks with them about their winning projects.

As we can all attest, climate change is creating more fluctuating temperatures. Normally, snowflakes form high up in the atmosphere, and crystallize into their pretty structures as they pass through cold layers of air. But with warmer temperatures, snowflakes can partially melt on their way down. There’s more water in the air these days, and it acts like a glue that can glom onto the snowflakes, covering them with little ice pellets. Add in the wind and the snowflakes can smash together, turning into mega snowflakes. To add insult to injury, after these snowflakes land they melt faster because they’re less able to reflect light. This has serious implications for flooding and hydrology as well as spring vegetation. When melting occurs normally, the nutrients in the snowpack are absorbed into the soil. Not so when it melts away really fast.

 

 

Mar 15, 2019
SciFri Extra: Celebrating The Elements
26:11

Do you have a favorite chemical element? Neurologist Oliver Sacks did—he was partial to dense, high melting-point metals, especially those metals between hafnium and platinum on the periodic table.

This month marks the 150th anniversary of chemist Dmitri Mendeleev’s design for the periodic table—and we didn’t want to miss out on the party. In this special podcast, we revisit Sacks’ fascination with the elements, and Ira opens up the Science Friday vaults to share two tales of chemical discovery and creation. First, we take a trip back to 2004 for a chat with nuclear chemist Joshua Patin of a scientific team responsible for the creation of two new chemical elements (elements 113 and 115). Then, a voyage to 2010, for a conversation with the late Nobel laureate and buckyball co-discoverer Sir Harry Kroto.

Mar 12, 2019
HIV Remission, Bones, Jumping Spiders. March 8, 2019, Part 2
46:44

Nearly twelve years ago, a cancer patient infected with HIV received two bone marrow transplants to wipe out his leukemia. Now, researchers in the United Kingdom reported in Nature earlier this week that their patient, a man known only as “the London patient,” had been in remission and off anti-retroviral therapy for 18 months after undergoing a similar bone marrow transplant, with the same gene mutation involved, to treat leukemia. While the team is hesitant to call their patient cured, he is the first adult in twelve years to remain in remission for more than a year after stopping medication. But what do these two patients’ recoveries, requiring risky and painful transplants, mean for the millions of others with HIV around the world? Two HIV researchers not involved in this research, Katharine Bar of the University of Pennsylvania and Paula Cannon of the University of Southern California, tell us about the latest treatments that could someday be more broadly accessible, including gene therapies and immunotherapy, and what hurdles clinical studies still face.

Plus: Over 500 million years of evolution has resulted in the same bony framework underlying all mammal species today. But why is the leg bone connected to the ankle bone, as the song goes? And what can the skeletons of our ancestors tell us about how humans became the walking, talking bag o’ bones we are today? Science writer Brian Switek, author of the new book Skeleton Keys, joins Ira to explain why our skeletons evolved to look the way they do.

And jumping spiders are crafty hunters, but sometimes they need their own disguise to avoid their own predators. The Crematogaster jumping spider, for example, avoids detection by mimicking ants, and go as far as losing their ability to jump to look more ant-like. Sometimes, predators can be your own mates—male jumping spiders becoming a female’s meal if their courtship displays don’t impress. Biologist Alexis Dodson and  Entomologist Lisa Taylor talk about what jumping spiders can tell us about tell us about the evolution of coloration and communication in the natural world.

Mar 08, 2019
NASA Administrator, California Wildfires, Lichens. March 8, 2019, Part 1
46:36

On December 14, 1972, as Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan prepared to board the lunar module, he gave one last dispatch from the lunar surface. And yet, 47 years later, humankind has not set another foot on the lunar surface. But now, NASA’s ready to return, with the Moon to Mars program. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine joins Ira in this segment to talk about the agency's ambitions beyond Earth, the role of commercial space companies in getting us there, and why he thinks plant science is "critical" to NASA.

Plus: There aren’t very many old-growth forest left in North America. And while it would be wonderful to be able to preserve all of them, resources to protect those forest patches are also in limited supply. So if you’re forced to choose between two areas of old-growth forest, how do you prioritize which of these islands of biodiversity to focus on? A new study suggests to look at the lichens. Troy McMullin, a research scientist in lichenology at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Ontario, joins Ira to talk about the stories lichens can tell about the forest ecosystem.

California has been experiencing its wettest winter in decades. That’s good news in a state that has chronic water management issues and what feels like only recently recovered from a devastating multi year drought. The bad news? Researchers say that thanks to climate change and forest management practices, a wet winter like this one will no longer make a difference come next year’s wildfire season.Valerie Trouet, Associate Professor of Dendrochronology at the University of Arizona, tells us more.

And Amy Nordrum of IEEE Spectrum tells Ira about a SpaceX "crew" visiting the International Space Station and other top science headlines in this week's News Roundup.

Mar 08, 2019
Icefish, Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, Wireless Baby Monitoring. March 1, 2019, Part 2
46:37

During an electrical system test early in in the morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. The disaster at the plant was not caused solely by the test, however—a perfect storm of engineering and design missteps, operational errors, and cultural problems all aligned to bring about the catastrophe. In his new book, Midnight In Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, journalist Adam Higginbotham describes the events that led up to the meltdown, the dramatic, heroic, and perhaps futile attempts to lessen the extent of the accident, and the attempts by Soviet officials to contain the political ramifications of the explosion. He joins Ira to tell us more.

Plus: Every vertebrate has red blood cells—that is, except for a small family of fish from the notothenoid family known collectively as “icefish.” These Antarctic-dwelling fish have translucent blood, white hearts, and have somehow adapted to live without red blood cells or hemoglobin. H. William Detrich, a professor of marine and environmental sciences at Northeastern University, explains how scientists are trying to decipher the secrets of the mysterious icefish.

What’s more terrifying than becoming a new parent? Starting out as new parents in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit, where babies spend their first days entangled in wires attached to sensors that monitor their vital signs. But in the digital age, why must wires and sensors take up so much real estate on a tiny baby? That’s the question driving the development of a new monitoring device—a small wireless sensor that takes the scary “science experiment” effect out of the NICU, and gives parents more time to cuddle with their newborn. John Rogers, professor of material science and engineering and director of the Center for Biointegrated Electronics at Northwestern University, joins Ira to discuss how the new device could transform neonatal care in the U.S. and in developing nations around the world.

 

Mar 01, 2019
Synthetic Genomes, Climate Panel, Local Recycling. March 1, 2019, Part 1
47:06

DNA is the universal programming language for life, and the specific code to that program are the combination of the base pairs adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine. But are those the only base pairs that could be used to create DNA? Scientists looking into this question were able to create 4 different base pairs that don’t exist in nature. Chemist Floyd Romesberg, biologist Jef Boeke, and bioethicist Debra Mathews tell Ira how altered genomes could be used for creating novel medicines and fuels—and whether this is considered a new form of life.

Plus: The climate is changing. Globally, of course. But also in Washington, where growing numbers of Republicans are jumping behind policies that would result in meaningful action on climate change. And yet, even as Congress appears ready to at least discuss the issue, and the government’s own scientists and military leaders sound louder alarms about the impending dangers of global climate change, the White House is assembling a group of climate change adversaries to counter those mainstream views. David Titley, a retired rear admiral who founded the Navy's task force on climate change, explains.

Last year, China tightened standards for recycled materials it would accept, and now local recyclers nationwide find themselves struggling to find new homes for plastics, cardboard, and other materials that fell below par. Dana Bate, health and science reporter for WHYY, tells Ira how Philadelphia and its suburbs are handling the issue in the State of Science.

And Sophie Bushwick, technology editor for Scientific American, explains how extreme climate change might cause stratocumulus clouds to disappear for good, and other top science news headlines, in this week's News Roundup.

Mar 01, 2019
SciFri Extra: A Night Of Volcanoes And Earthquakes With N.K. Jemisin
28:44

The Science Friday Book Club discussion of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season may have stopped erupting for the season, but we have one more piece of volcanic goodness for you. SciFri producer and chief bookworm Christie Taylor got the chance to speak with Jemisin at our book club meet-up, “Voyage To The Volcanoes,” at Caveat in New York City. Listen for Jemisin’s adventures in volcano research, how real-world events inspired her to build an entire society around disaster preparedness, and how knowing your neighbors can be lifesaving.

At the event, we also spoke to volcanologist Dr. Janine Krippner, who helped debunk volcano myths. And SciFri staffers Lauren J. Young and Johanna Mayer explained how history’s volcanic winters have influenced art (and religion) over the centuries.

So, sit back and listen while you ponder what’s percolating deep in our planet—from quakes to shifting plates.

Feb 27, 2019
Black Holes, California Megaflood. Feb 22, 2019, Part 2
46:24

When it floods in California, the culprit is usually what’s known as an atmospheric river—a narrow ribbon of ultra-moist air moving in from over the Pacific Ocean. Atmospheric rivers are also essential sources of moisture for western reservoirs and mountain snowpack, but in 1861, a series of particularly intense and prolonged ones led to the worst disaster in state history: a flood that swamped the state. The megaflood turned the Central Valley into an inland sea and washed away an estimated one in eight homes. What would happen if the same weather pattern hit the state again? Los Angeles Times reporter Louis Sahagun and University of California, Los Angeles climate scientist Daniel Swain join Ira to discuss the storms, its potential impact on local infrastructure, and why disastrous flooding events like the one in 1861 are not only becoming more likely as the planet warms, but may have already been a more frequent occurrence than previously thought.

Plus: As a grad student in astrophysics at Cambridge University, Priya Natarajan devised a theory that might explain a mysterious relationship between black holes and nearby stars, proposing that as black holes gobble up nearby material, they “burp,” and the resulting winds affect the formation of nearby stars. Now, 20 years later, the experimental evidence has finally come in: Her theory seems correct. This hour, Ira talks with Priya about her theory. And Nergis Mavalvala of MIT joins to talk about why “squeezing light” may be the key to detecting more distant black hole collisions with the gravitational wave detector LIGO. Learn more here.

Feb 22, 2019
Telescope Decisions, Grape Plasma, Israeli Moon Lander. Feb 22, 2019, Part 1
46:04

The American Astronomical Society meeting is the largest annual gathering of astronomers and astrophysicists. It’s not known for drama. But this year, the buzz in the room wasn’t too different from the nervous energy during an awards night. That’s because there is a competition underway for what will be NASA’s next big space telescope—the next Hubble or James Webb. There are four nominees, and eventually there will be a winner. Science Friday assistant producer Katie Feather reported on the event from the not-quite red carpet. Learn more about the nominees here.

The painter Georgia O'Keeffe is known for her bold paintings of landscapes and flowers. Recently, scientists took a closer look at those paintings and noticed smaller details that O’Keeffe did not intend to include. They found “art acne”—small pock marks—on many of her paintings caused by age and reactions of the pigments. Marc Walton, co-director of the Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts at Northwestern University and Art Institute of Chicago, talks about the chemistry behind the “art acne,” and how these paintings might be conserved in the future.

From tenured physicists to home experimenters, many researchers have been plagued by a question—why do grapes spark when you microwave them? More than a few microwaves have been destroyed to answer this top physics question. A team of researchers decided to rigorously test this question so you don’t have to. Physicist Aaron Slepkov, an author on that study, tells us how grapes are able to harness the energy of these home kitchen waves and what this can tell us about the field of photonics.

During the last sixty years, only three countries have sent landers to the moon: the U.S., China and the Soviet Union. Israel may become the fourth. On Thursday, SpaceIL—an Israeli company—launched the Beresheet spacecraft. If the spacecraft does reach the moon, it will be the first mission completed by a private company without the financial backing of one of the big space agencies. Jason Davis, digital editor for the Planetary Society, talks about what this mission means for lunar science and its implications for nonprofit and commercial companies sending missions to the moon.

This week, talks between California state and federal government officials concerning rules for car fuel efficiency standards broke down. Under the Clean Air Act of 1970, California had previously been given special permission to set higher standards for mileage and fuel economy—but now the Trump administration says that only the federal government can set those standards. Lauren Sommer, science and environment reporter at KQED, joins Ira to discuss what that decision means, and what might come next in the confrontation.

And finally Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo, tells Ira about the Japanese mission to shoot a bullet into an asteroid and other top science headlines in this week's News Roundup.

Feb 22, 2019
Declining Insects, Sunny Day Flooding, Liquid Rules. Feb 15, 2019, Part 2
47:06

 That once vibrant forest has gotten quieter and emptier, as many of the insects and the animals that depend on themhave disappeared. In a worldwide report card on the state of insects in the journal Biological Conservation, the conclusion is dire: “This review highlights the dreadful state of insect biodiversity in the world, as almost half of the species are rapidly declining and a third are being threatened with extinction.” We discuss the consequences of the "insect apocalypse."

By 2035, scientist have predicted that over a hundred U.S. coastal communities could experience more than 26 days of low level floods. Researchers at Stanford University determined the economic impacts of this type of flooding in the tourist area of Annapolis, Maryland. Climate risk scientist Miyuki Hino, an author on the study, talks about the impacts of these small-scale effects of climate change.

Fluids are all around you, of course—but how often do we take a moment to think about how liquids work? What makes one slippery and another sticky? Why does one make a good salad dressing, but another a good rocket fuel? Materials scientist Mark Miodownik tackles those questions in his book Liquid Rules. 

Feb 15, 2019
SciFri Book Club: ‘The Fifth Season.’ Feb 15, 2019, Part 1
47:12

In this final installment of the winter Book Club, we wrap up a winter of exploring The Stillness, learning how volcanologists research lava flows and crater tremors, and even diving into the center of the earth. Ira joins Science Friday SciArts producer Christie Taylor, Caltech seismologist Lucy Jones, and University of Colorado disaster sociologist Lori Peek to talk about the power of earthquakes, volcanoes, and other hazards that shape societies. We also talk about how a natural hazard becomes a human-scale disaster—and who suffers most when a community is insufficiently prepared.

Plus, a roundup of the week's biggest science news, and a story from Arizona about dealing with drought. 

Feb 15, 2019
Buttons, Grand Canyon Maps, Mosquitoes. Feb 8, 2019, Part 2
47:01

The button is everywhere. It allows us to interact with our computers and technology, alerts us when someone is at the front door, and with a tap, can have dinner delivered to your home. But buttons also are often associated with feelings of control, panic, and fear. Rachel Plotnick, author of Power Button: A History of Pleasure, Panic, and the Politics of Pushing, discusses the development of buttons and what they reveal about our interactions with technology.

New research finds that the same pathways in the brain that control human hunger can shut down a mosquito’s interest in biting you. Rockefeller University professor Leslie Vosshall tells us about how this technique can potentially inhibit female mosquitoes from seeking out human blood—and stop the spread of disease. 

 

Later this month, the Grand Canyon celebrates the 100th anniversary of becoming a national park. But the natural wonder has way more than 100 years of stories to tell. The millions of years of geologic history, coupled with the massive scale of the canyon, make it challenging to create a comprehensive view of the Grand Canyon. Matthew Toro, director of maps, imagery, and geospatial data for the Arizona State University Libraries, tells us about maps of the iconic park to share its geologic and cultural stories

 

Feb 08, 2019
Earth’s Core, Govt Data In The Cloud, Book Club. Feb 8, 2019, Part 1
46:59

At the very center of the Earth is a solid lump of iron and nickel that might be as hot as the surface of the Sun. This solid core is thought to be why our magnetic field is as strong as it is. As the core grows, energy is transferred to the outer core to power the “geodynamo,” the magnetic field that protects our atmosphere and deflects most solar wind. But geophysicists think that the core was originally completely liquid, and at one point between 2 billion and 500 million years ago, transitioned from molten metal to a solid. At that time, our magnetic field was much weaker than it is today, according to new research in Nature Geoscience. The scientists looked at new samples of crystals that first cooled from lava 565 million years ago and found evidence in their magnetic signatures that the core must have solidified at the younger end of the previously predicted range—much more recently than expected.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, “the cloud” has changed our lives forever. It’s where we watch movies, share documents, and store passwords. It’s quick, efficient, and we wouldn’t be able to live our fast-paced, internet-connected lives without it. Now, federal agencies are storing much of their data in the cloud. For example, NASA is trying to make 20 petabytes of data available to the public for free. But to do that, they need some help from a commercial cloud provider—a company like Amazon or Microsoft or Google. But will the government’s policy of open data clash with the business model of Silicon Valley? Mariel Borowitz, Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech and Katya Abazajian, Open Cities Director with the Sunlight Foundation join guest host John Dankosky to discuss the trade offs to faster, smarter government data in the cloud.

The Science Friday Book Club has had three weeks of lively discussion of N.K. Jemisin’s geology-flavored apocalypse, The Fifth Season. Producers Christie Taylor and Johanna Mayer share some of the best listener comments about the story’s science, sociology, and real-world connections—and invite you to add your voice for one final week of literary nerding out.

One morning after the next, semi-trailer trucks get off Interstate 70 near Colby in west-central Kansas. They haul parts of giant wind turbines in 150-foot-long sections, the pieces to the Solomon Forks wind farm and the next monumental phase of the Kansas bet on wind energy. The farm will plant 105 turbines in the prairie, each towering 250 feet high. The project is one of a wave of wind farms under construction in Kansas that will add 20 percent more electrical generation to the state’s output. Earlier building surges sprung from tax breaks and from pressure by regulators on utilities to wean themselves off fossil fuels. This time, Fortune 500 companies that are new to the electricity business risk their own money on the straight-up profit potential of prairie breezes. The Solomon Forks project developed by ENGIE North America will crank enough electricity to power more than 50,000 homes. Target and T-Mobile already cut deals to buy hundreds of megawatts from the wind farm. The retailer and cell company will become electricity wholesalers, playing a direct role in generating less-polluting energy and banking that the marketplace can make them money even without the subsidies that drove the industry for decades.

Feb 08, 2019
Sleep and the Immune System, Measuring Carbon, Specimens of Hair. Feb 1, 2019, Part 2
46:38

Some citizen scientists collect minerals or plants. But 19th-century lawyer Peter A. Browne collected hair—lots and lots of hair. His collection started innocently enough. Browne decided to make a scientific study of wool with the hope of jumpstarting American agriculture, but his collector’s impulse took over. By the time of his death, Browne’s hair collection had grown to include elephant chin hair, raccoon whiskers, hair from mummies, hair from humans from all around the world, hair from 13 of the first 14 U.S. presidents, and more. Bob Peck of Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences explains what Browne hoped to learn from all these tufts. See more images from Browne's collection.

Whether you’re a night owl or an early riser, we all sleep. But for something so universal, we don’t understand much about what makes us sleep. Researchers looking into this question recently found a gene called neumri that triggered sleep in Drosophila flies. That gene produced a protein that is linked to antimicrobial activity, and the results were published in the journal Science. Neuroscientist Amita Seghal, who is an author on the study, talks about the role sleep might play in sickness and keeping us healthy. 

It’s one of the first things you learn in elementary school science class: Trees take in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. That may have satisfied our childhood questions about how trees work, but as adults, we understand the picture to be a lot more complex. Christopher Woodall, project leader with the USDA Forest Service joins guest host John Dankosky to crunch the numbers on carbon sequestration. And Christa Anderson, research fellow at the World Wildlife Fund, talks about how forests may be our best weapon for fighting carbon emissions.

Feb 01, 2019
Digital Art, Lava Lab, Desalination. Feb 1, 2019, Part 1
46:58

A series of lines on a wall, drawn by museum staff, from instructions written by an artist. A textile print made from scanning the screen of an Apple IIe computer, printing onto heat transfer material, and ironing the result onto fabric. A Java program that displays its source code—plus the roving attention of the programmer writing that code, and the even speedier attention of the computer as it processes it. All three are works of art currently on display at the Whitney Museum of Art’s ‘Programmed’ exhibition, a retrospective of more than 50 years of art inspired or shaped by coding. Host John Dankosky is joined by Whitney adjunct curator Christiane Paul, plus artists Joan Truckenbrod and W. Bradford Paley, to discuss the past and future of digital art.

If you want to make a lava flow from scratch, the ingredients are fairly simple: one big crucible, and 200 to 700 pounds of 1.2 billion-year-old basalt dug from a quarry in Wisconsin. Combine these two, at 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, and you have The Lava  Project—a scientific study of the flow of molten lava in an upstate New York parking lot. Syracuse University geology professor Jeffrey Karson tells SciFri more.

Plus: Desalination is the process that converts saltwater into water that can used for drinking, agriculture, or industrial uses—but desalination produces brine, a salty byproduct that can contain other chemicals. Journalist Tik Root talks about the trade-offs when it comes to desalination in this week's Good Thing, Bad Thing.

Finally, Vox staff writer Umair Irfan joins SciFri for a look at the Midwest's Arctic temperatures, and other top science headlines, in this week's News Round-up.

Feb 01, 2019
Medical Conflict Of Interest, Saturn’s Rings, Bear Brook Podcast. Jan 25, 2019, Part 2
46:30

Most scientific journals go by the honor system when it comes to conflicts of interest: They ask, and the researchers tell. But that system might be due for an overhaul. A recent ProPublica and New York Times investigation found that a top cancer researcher at Sloan Kettering had received millions of dollars in payments from health and drug companies, but failed to disclose his industry ties in more than 100 articles. Within days, the researcher resigned, more conflicts came to light, leading to a moment of reckoning for the institution. But a more recent investigation shows the problem goes far beyond Sloan Kettering. New York Times reporter Katie Thomas, a co-author of the recent investigations, and Eric Campbell, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, discuss how these conflicts of interests could affect patients, why they aren’t being consistently disclosed, and what’s being done about the problem.

Saturn stands out in our solar system because of the rings that circle the planet. But the rings may not have always been there and may disappear in the far future. Researchers using data collected by Cassini’s final plunge into the planet were able to estimate the mass of the rings. From this information they were able to estimate that the rings were between 10 to 100 million years old, much younger than the planet itself. The finding were published in the journal Science. Planetary scientist Burkhard Militzer, who was an author on the study, tells us what the rings of Saturn can reveal about the formation of the solar system and universe.

Last year’s arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, better known as the Golden State Killer, drew lots of attention for the clever use of consumer genetic testing websites to identify a suspect—and for all the murky ethical questions that came with it. But this wasn’t the first time law enforcement had used the technique to solve a cold case. Detectives looking for DeAngelo took their inspiration from an earlier case in New Hampshire, known as the “Bear Brook murders.” In that case, police were up against both an unknown killer and unidentified victims, until they relied on the genealogy database GEDmatch to help them with a crack in the case. It was a strategy that would change the game for forensic investigations in cold case murders. And the story of how it all got started is now told in a new true crime podcast from New Hampshire Public Radio called Bear Brook. Jason Moon, reporter for New Hampshire Public Radio and host of the podcast joins guest host John Dankosky to discuss. 

Jan 25, 2019
Weather Advances, Listening to Volcanoes, Phragmites. Jan 25, 2019, Part 1
45:08

Your smartphone gives you up-to-the-minute weather forecast updates at the tap of a button. Every newscast has a weather segment. And outlets like the Weather Channel talk weather all day, every day. But how much has the process of predicting the weather changed over the past 100 years? Though many of the basic principles are the same, improvements in data collection, satellite imagery, and computer modeling have greatly improved your local forecast—making a five-day look ahead as accurate as a one-day prediction was 40 years ago. Richard Alley, a professor of geoscience at Penn State, describes the evolution of meteorology, and what roadblocks still lie ahead, from data sharing to shifting weather patterns. And Angela Fritz, lead meteorologist for the Capital Weather Gang blog at the Washington Post, describes the day-to-day work of a meteorologist and the challenges involved in accurately predicting your local weekend weather.

When the Chilean volcano Villarrica exploded in 2015, researchers trying to piece together the eruption had a fortuitous piece of extra data to work with: the inaudible infrasound signature of the volcano’s subsurface lava lake rising toward the surface. Volcano forecasters already use seismic data from volcanic vibrations in the ground. But these “infrasound” signals are different. They’re low-frequency sound waves generated by vibrations in the air columns within a volcanic crater, can travel many miles from the original source, and can reveal information about the shape and resonance of the crater… and whether it’s changing. And two days before Villarrica erupted, its once-resonant infrasound signals turned thuddy—as if the lava lake had gotten higher, and left only a loudspeaker-shaped crater to vibrate the air.

Robert Buchsbaum walks into a salt marsh on Boston’s North Shore. Around him towers a stand of bushy-topped Phragmites australis, an invasive plant commonly known as the common reed. Phragmites is an enemy that this regional scientist with the Massachusetts Audubon Society knows all too well. The plant, which typically grows about 13 feet high, looms over native marsh plants, blocking out their sunlight. When Phragmites sheds its lower leaves, or dies, it creates a thick layer of wrack that keeps native plants from germinating. Its stalks clog waterways, thwarting fish travel. The roots secrete a chemical that prevents other plants from growing, and they grow so deep they are nearly impossible to pull out. But this stubborn bully of a plant might have a shot at redemption. A recent study from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center found that the very traits that make Phragmites a tough invader—larger plants, deeper roots, higher density—enable it to store more carbon in marshy peat. And as climate change races forward, carbon storage becomes a bigger part of the ecosystem equation.

Jan 25, 2019
SciFri Extra: ‘Behind The Sheet’ Of Gynecology’s Darker History
29:24

The 19th-century physician J. Marion Sims may have gone down in history as the “father of modern gynecology,” but Sims’ fistula cure was the result of experimental surgeries, pre-Emancipation, on at least 11 enslaved black women. Only three of whose names have been remembered— Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. A new play, Behind The Sheet, imagines their life—not just the pain, but the friendships they might have formed to support each other through surgery after surgery.

In this extended conversation, Science Friday producer Christie Taylor talks to playwright Charly Evon Simpson about the process of inventing a story for these women despite the limited documentation of their lives, the controversy around a J. Marion Sims statue in New York City, and Sims’ legacy in black women’s maternal health outcomes today.

Behind The Sheet was funded in part by The Sloan Foundation, which is also a funder of Science Friday.

Further Reading

  • Read an essay by Rich Kelley about the scientific an historical context of Behind The Sheet.
  • Listen to Undiscovered's episode covering Sims' research and how people of color are still underrepresented in medical research.
  • Read an article reported by Vox on the removal of a statue of Sims in New York in April 2018.
Jan 22, 2019
Book Club, Green New Deal, Louisiana Shrimpers. Jan 18, 2019, Part 1
46:41

In a world roiled continuously by earthquakes, volcanoes, and other tectonic disasters large and small, a cataclysmic earthquake is about to change the course of human history… again. On the same day, a woman comes home to find her son dead, killed by his father for being an “orogene,” one of the few people in the world with strange powers to manipulate geophysics to start—and stop—these disasters. Thus begins The Fifth Season, the first book of N.K. Jemisin’s triple Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy, and this winter’s SciFri Book Club pick. Join Ira and the team as we ponder seismology, volcanology, and how societies respond to disaster. We’ll read the book and discuss until mid-February.

A Green New Deal is the idea of an economy based on renewable energy, green jobs, and other policies that combat climate change. The idea was recently proposed by newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; former President Obama put out a stimulus plan (in year) that included elements of a Green New Deal. But the term was first coined over a decade ago by the journalist Thomas Friedman. Friedman talks about what possible green proposals could entail and what obstacles it might face.

Louisiana shrimpers are facing low prices. They say the business is tougher than it’s ever been, and recently considered striking. Many are looking for creative ways to make more money. Charles Robin IV, a shrimper, says the shrimp are great—the problem is selling them. Like most shrimpers, after a fishing trip he’ll pull up to the local dock, refuel his boat, stock up on ice, and sell his catch to the dock. The dock owner then turns around and sells it to bigger buyers. But that’s not paying much these days. Shrimp prices have been low. “It’s been really bad,” Robin says. “And you need to catch a lotta lotta shrimp to make up for the difference.” That’s why he goes to the seafood market—to cut out the middleman, make a little more money by selling directly to customers. Julie Falgout, Seafood Industry Liaison for Louisiana Sea Grant, says more and more shrimpers are doing this. She says selling direct makes a lot of sense for some people, but it’s not easy. Cutting out the middleman means becoming the middleman. “And so it becomes a business where you have more things that you have to do and it’s less time fishing.”

 

Jan 18, 2019
Gynecology’s Dark History, Antarctic Ice, Moon Craters. Jan 18, 2019, Part 2
46:40

Nineteenth-century physician J. Marion Sims has gone down in history as the “father of modern gynecology.” He invented the speculum, devised body positions to make gynecological exams easier, and discovered a method for closing vaginal fistulas, a painful, embarrassing and often isolating complication that can result from childbirth. But Sims’ fistula cure was the result of experimental surgeries, pre-Emancipation, on at least 11 enslaved black women, only three of whose names have been remembered—Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. Over a period of about five years, the women underwent dozens of surgeries as Sims attempted, and failed, to fix their fistulas. He rarely used anesthesia. What were the lives of those women like? A new play, Behind The Sheet, tackles this story from their perspective, imagining not just their pain, but the friendships they might have formed to support each other through surgery after surgery. In this story, the women tend each other’s ailments, make perfume to hide the smell from their fistula condition, and pledge to remember each other even if history forgets them. 

Researchers monitoring the condition of the Antarctic ice sheet report that not only is the ice melting, but that the rate of ice loss is increasing rapidly. According to their estimates, around 40 gigatons of ice were lost per year in the 1980s. By the 2010s, that rate of loss had increased to more than 250 gigatons of ice per year. That melting ice has caused sea levels around the world to rise by more than half an inch, the researchers say. Eric Rignot, climate scientist at the University of California-Irvine and one of the authors of the report, joins Ira to discuss the trends in the ice sheet and what they portend for sea level rise.

Our moon formed about 4.51 billion years ago and it’s been pummeled by meteorites ever since, leaving behind the lunar craters you can see on the surface today. Recently, scientists curious to know how often those impacts occurred came up with a clever way of determining the age of the craters. They discovered that many of them are relatively young—that is, the moon got hit by space rocks a lot more recently and a lot more frequently than scientists once thought. Sara Mazrouei, planetary scientist at the University of Toronto joins Ira to discuss the new research, out in the journal Science this week, and what it could tell us about Earth’s crater history.

Jan 18, 2019
Shutdown and Science, Smartphone and Overdoses. Jan 11, 2019, Part 1
46:07

The partial shutdown of the U.S. government is approaching its third week, and it has caused a backlog for scientists employed or funded by the government. Scientists have had to leaving data collection and experiments in limbo. The Food and Drug Administration has had to suspend domestic food inspections of vegetables, seafood, and other foods that are at high risk for contamination. Journalist Lauren Morello, Americas bureau chief for Nature, puts the current shutdown in context to previous government stoppages. Morello also tells us how agencies and scientists are coping during this time and what we might see if the shutdown continues. And Science Friday producer Katie Feather reports back from the American Astronomical Society conference about how the shutdown has affected the meeting and the work of scientists.

Last year, about 47,000 people in the United States died from an opioid overdose, including prescription and synthetic drugs like fentanyl, according to the CDC. And as the epidemic of opioid abuse continues, those looking to reduce death rates are searching for ways to keep drug users safer. But what if your smartphone could monitor your breathing, detect early signs of an overdose, and call for help in time to save your life? Researchers writing in Science Translational Medicine this week think they have just that: smartphone software that can ‘hear’ the depressed breathing rates, apnea, and changes in body movement that might indicate a potential overdose. University of Washington PhD candidate Rajalakshmi Nandakumar explains how the software, which uses smartphone speakers and microphones to mimic a bat’s sonar, can ‘hear’ the rise and fall of someone’s chest—and could someday even coordinate with emergency services to send help.

Starting January 1, 2019, hospitals have been required to post online a machine-readable list of detailed prices for materials and procedures—from the cost of an overnight stay in a hospital bed, to a single tablet of Tylenol, to the short set of stitches you get in the emergency room. The new requirement is a Trump administration expansion of Obama-era rules growing out of the Affordable Care Act, which required that this list of prices be made available upon request. But while the increased availability of this pricing information might seem like a win for consumers, it’s not actually all that useful in many cases. First, the price lists don’t give a simple number for common procedures, but break down each part of every procedure item by item, in no particular order, and labeled with acronyms and abbreviations. Second, the price lists, called ‘Chargemasters,’ are the hospital equivalent of the car sticker price—they represent what the hospital would like to be paid for a service, not the price that most consumers actually do pay, or the prices that may have been negotiated by your insurance company. Julie Appleby, senior correspondent at Kaiser Health News, joins Ira to explain what the price lists actually show, why they matter, and what consumers might be able to do to get a better estimate of potential health care costs.

Jan 11, 2019
Heart and Exercise, Consumer Electronics Show, Black Holes. Jan 11, 2019, Part 2
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You’ve heard the news that smoking is bad for your health. But it turns out not exercising could be even worse for your chances of survival, according to a recent study in the journal JAMA Network Open. But is it possible to overdo it? While you’re trying to boost your overall health, could you instead be doing damage to your heart? In this segment, Wael Jaber of the Cleveland Clinic and Maia P. Smith of St. George’s University talk about how sports like weightlifting stack up to running and cycling in terms of health effects, and how the sport you choose could actually reshape your heart.

Discovered only decades ago, black holes remain one of the universe’s most mysterious objects, with such a strong gravitational pull that  that light—and even data—can’t escape. Oftentimes researchers can only observe black holes indirectly, like from blasts of energy that come from when the massive bodies “feed” on nearby objects. But where is that energy generated, and how does that eating process actually progress through the geometry of the black hole? Erin Kara, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, describes new research published in Nature into how echoes of X-rays in small, stellar-mass black holes can point the way. At the other end of the spectrum, supermassive black holes billions of times the mass of our Sun are believed to dwell at the hearts of galaxies. Many are active, drawing in nearby gas and dust and emitting energy in response, but others are dormant, with nothing close to feed on. MIT postdoctoral fellow Dheeraj Pasham talks about what happens when these dormant black holes suddenly encounter and tear apart a star—and how the fallout can shed light on how these black holes spin. His research appeared in Science this week. The researchers also discuss how black holes could lead the way to understanding how galaxies evolve, and other black hole mysteries.

Every year, the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, meets in Las Vegas to showcase the latest in consumer tech trends. This year was no different—but what should we expect in tech in 2019? WIRED news editor Brian Barrett was on the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center all week and joins Ira to talk about what he saw, including a flying taxi and other concept cars, delivery drones, robot companions, and ‘5G’ products mean without a 5G network.

 

 

Jan 11, 2019
Diets, Crowd Physics, Snowflake Citizen Science. January 4, 2019, Part 1
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Earlier this week, hundreds of thousands of revelers huddled together under the pouring rain in Times Square for an annual tradition: to watch the New Year’s ball drop. But once the clock struck midnight, the song was sung, and the loved ones were kissed, all anyone wanted to do was get out of there. The problem? How does a mass of 100,000 people move out of a few square blocks in midtown Manhattan? Luckily, scientists are studying this type of problem. Stanford University professor Nicholas Ouellette joins Ira to discuss the weird world of crowd movement.

From low-carb, high protein, calorie counting, there are all sorts of diets that claim to help you lose weight. But how do all of these guidelines affect our metabolism and bodies? A study out in the British Medical Journal found that a reduction in carbohydrates increased energy expenditures. Endocrinologist David Ludwig, an author on that study, talks about the role carbohydrates, fats, and proteins play in regulating our metabolism and how we might rethink our calorie counting.

Plus: Lake Tahoe scientists are enlisting local citizens to better understand winter storms. Capital Public Radio's Ezra David Romero joins Ira in the latest edition of The State Of Science.

And FiveThirtyEight's Maggie Koerth-Baker tells Ira about China's Chang'e-4 mission and other top science stories in this week's News Round-up.

 

Jan 04, 2019
Winter Birding. January 4, 2019, Part 2
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Every year in the dead of winter, bird lovers flock in large numbers to count as many birds as they possibly can on a single day. This is the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, a citizen science effort to track the trends of bird numbers over time. As the 2018 count comes to a close, Ira checks in with birders Jason Ward, Martha Harbison, and Laura Erickso