Science Friday

By Science Friday and WNYC Studios

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Brain fun for curious people.

Episode Date
History Of Conservation, Right Whales Decline. April 16, 2021, Part 1
47:24

Conserving More Than Just the Planet’s ‘Beloved Beasts’

Historically, “conservation” simply meant not overhunting a game animal, preserving sufficient populations to continue to hunt the following year. Over time, however, conservationists have learned to broaden their focus from individual animals to entire ecosystems, protecting not just species, but the food webs and habitat they need to thrive.

But the evolution of conservationist thought hasn’t been straightforward. In her new book Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, science journalist Michelle Nijhuis profiles some key figures in the history of the conservation movement–from well-known names such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson, to lesser known figures such as 1930s-era bird lover Rosalie Edge. Nijhuis explains how some of these conservationists did the wrong thing for the right reasons, while others managed to do the right thing despite misguided or short-sighted thinking.

SciFri’s Charles Bergquist talks with Nijhuis about how conservationist thought has progressed, and her hopes for the future of the movement.

 


 

The Plight Of The North Atlantic Right Whale

Every year, Earth Day is a reminder that we share this planet with many other species, large and small. And every year, humans have to reckon with the impact we have on those species—like the recent case of the disappearing North Atlantic Right Whale.

Experts estimate there are fewer than 400 right whales living off the coast of the North Atlantic. Less than 90 are reproductive age females. Their declining population and poor birth rate can be largely explained by one thing: humans. Boat strikes and entanglements in lobster fishing gear accounted for nearly two thirds of right whale deaths in the last decade—and new research suggests those deaths are being undercounted.

A new documentary called “Entangled,” by Boston Globe reporter and filmmaker David Abel, gives us a glimpse of what these encounters are doing to right whales, introducing a slew of researchers, conservationists, lobstermen, lawmakers and politicians who are tangled up in the effort to save the species from extinction. Charles “Stormy” Mayo, a Senior Scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies, and Melanie White, a project manager for the North Atlantic Right Whale Conservation at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute—both featured in the film—join Ira to discuss the tragic story of the right whales, and the simple, high-tech solution that is getting little attention and even less research funding.

Plus, Massachusetts implemented a nearly state-wide ban on lobster fishing in all state waters from February through early May, giving right whales an opportunity to feed unencumbered in Cape Cod Bay as they migrate. The ban also gives local scientists an opportunity to monitor the pods, tracking which whales have returned, and how they’re fairing. WCAI environment reporter Eve Zuckoff shares thoughts on her recent journey out into the bay with right whale scientists.

 


 

It’s Okay To Be Confused About J&J’s Vaccine

This week, the FDA and CDC both recommended a temporary pause in distribution of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot COVID-19 vaccine, after the emergence of a very rare, very unusual blood clotting side effect. The clots, which block blood leaving the brain, have been found in only six of the nearly seven million people who have already received the vaccine in the U.S. One has died, and another is in critical condition.

Vox staff writer Umair Irfan has been reporting on the Johnson & Johnson pause, and joins Ira to explain the challenging balance between side effect risks—the rarest of which cannot be detected in clinical trials and therefore naturally emerge when vaccination moves to the general population—and the benefits of protecting people from COVID-19. Plus, what recommendations the FDA may end up making.

He also talks about why a small number of people are still getting COVID-19 after being fully vaccinated, the grim outlook for wildfire in the West this summer, and more science stories from the week.

Apr 16, 2021
Understanding Caribbean Volcano Eruption, Billions Of T-Rexes, Pterosaur Necks, Lost Feasts. April 16, 2021, Part 2
47:09

Understanding St. Vincent’s Volcanic Eruption

Since April 9th, the Caribbean island of St. Vincent has been rocked by eruptions at the La Soufrière volcano. Over the last week, plumes of ash and gas have rained down on the island, and dense masses of debris, called pyroclastic flows, are destroying everything in their path. Tens of thousands of residents have been evacuated.

 

La Soufrière has only erupted a handful of times in recorded history, most recently in 1979. But the volcano has a deadly legacy, both for St. Vincent and beyond. Joining Ira to discuss La Soufrière’s impact is Jazmin Scarlett, a social and historical volcanologist based in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.

 


 

How Many T-Rexes Once Roamed the Earth? Maybe Billions

Tyrannosaurus rex is probably one of the most popular dinosaurs, but there’s still a surprising amount of mystery surrounding these animals, including basic facts like how many there once were.

One team of researchers recently decided to figure out how many T-rexes existed during their long reign. The group of scientists did some back of the envelope calculations and came up with a rough population size estimate of 2.5 billion T-rexes over 2.5 million years, with an error rate of plus or minus a factor of 10. Their results were published in the journal Science.

Paleontologist Charles Marshall, who was one of the authors on the study, joins Science Friday to explain how they combined fossil records and data from present day animals to calculate the population density of these charismatic carnivores.

 


 

Pterosaurs Had A 40-Foot Wingspan And A Giraffe-Like Neck

During the age of dinosaurs, there were all sorts of creatures flying through the air with different body shapes and sizes. One of those was a flying reptile called the azhdarchid pterosaur. This stork-like creature had the neck of a giraffe, and a 40-foot wingspan.

A group of scientists wanted to know more about the internal structure of the pterosaur’s long neck. Their results were published in the journal iScience. Paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim talks about what this pterosaur can tell us about the evolution of flight, and how it might inform our understanding of other prehistoric animals and dinosaurs found in Africa.

 


 

SciFri Book Club Digs Into The Foods We’ve Loved To Death

Did humans kill off the mammoths? What happened to the mysterious Roman herb, known as silphium, that was once worth its weight in gold? Can lab-grown meats help save what’s left of our planet’s biodiversity from climate change and habitat loss?

Food geographer Lenore Newman sets out to answer these questions, and more, in her 2019 book, Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food, this spring’s Science Friday Book Club pick. In the book, she eats her way around the world and through history, examining the stories of the dodo bird, Icelandic dairy cows, the passenger pigeon, the Bartlett pear—and all its cousins—and the food species threatened by the sixth great mass extinction.

SciFri producer and Book Club captain Christie Taylor talks to Newman about some of the surprises from her research, and what might be next for the foods we love.

 

Apr 16, 2021
Piano AI, Giraffes, Alzheimer’s, Mime Psychology. April 9, 2021, Part 2
47:23

New AI Composes Songs From Silent Performance Videos

There have been many awkward attempts in the quest to train algorithms to do what humans can. Music is a prime example. It turns out that the process of turning the individual notes of a composed piece into a fully expressive performance—complete with changes in loudness and mood—is not easy to automate. 

But a team at the University of Washington has been closing in on a way to get close, in research they presented at a machine learning conference late last year. Their AI tool called “Audeo,” combining the words “audio” and “video,” watches a silent video of a piano performance. Then, using only the visual information, Audeo produces music with the expressiveness and interpretative idiosyncrasies of the musician it just watched. 

Producer Christie Taylor talks to lead author Eli Shlizerman about how one trains an algorithm to make art, and how such tools could help make music both more accessible, and easier to engage with.


A Daring Rescue Highlights Giraffes’ Silent Extinction

For the past several months, a daring and unprecedented rescue mission has been underway in western Kenya. Local conservationists have been slowly puzzling out how to ferry nine stranded giraffes trapped on a flooded peninsula back to the mainland. The team rescued the most vulnerable first by sedating them for the duration of the journey. But for others they tried a less dramatic approach—coaxing the giraffe with food onto a wooden barge. “We called it the girRAFT,” said David O’Connor, president of the non-profit group Save Giraffes Now. “Some were better sailors than others.”

This week, the final four Rothschild giraffes will be moved to safety. It was a valiant, months-long effort, for the sake of nine giraffes. But this small tower—the technical word for a group of giraffes—represents one percent of the total population of its species. There are only about 800 northern giraffes left in Africa.

O’Connor calls this charismatic animal’s decline a “silent extinction.” He joins Science Friday to talk about why giraffe populations are plummeting, and why we should be paying attention.


Untangling Alzheimer’s Connection To Insulin Resistance

Over the past two decades, research into the degenerative dementia of Alzheimer’s disease has been building an interesting case: This crippling brain disease involves some of the same mechanisms and pathologies as Type 2 diabetes—and could in fact represent an insulin resistance of the brain. Even having Type 2 diabetes has been found in some research to increase your risk of Alzheimer’s. 

Last month, new research in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia looked at the gene expression of cells in the brains of deceased Alzheimer’s patients, and found an additional piece of evidence for this theory. Every type of brain cell the team looked at demonstrated changes consistent with a diminished ability to obtain energy from glucose. The lead author Benjamin Bikman is a physiologist and developmental biologist at Brigham Young University, who also works as a diet coach with a supplement business designed around reducing insulin resistance. He says “the brain is becoming increasingly insulin-resistant. It’s becoming increasingly less able to obtain adequate glucose, and then it becomes more reliant on ketones [for energy].” Ketones, a product of burning fat, are also harder for the body to make when it is insulin resistant, which Bikman says can lead the brain into a chronic energy deficit.

Ira talks to Alzheimer’s researcher Shannon Macauley, who was not involved in the new research, about how energy systems shape brain health, why they could be driving Alzheimer’s, and this might lead to new treatments.


The Mime And The Mind

When you watch a mime pull an invisible rope or run into an invisible wall you as the viewer are tricked into visualizing something that isn’t there. But is it all in the mime? Or does the mind play a role? 

Chaz Firestone, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University joins Ira to discuss his latest research on how the mind “helps” us see these invisible objects 

Apr 09, 2021
Future For Long COVID Patients, Getting COVID Info To Sihk Truckers. April 9, 2021, Part 1
47:20

What Does The Future Look Like For COVID-19 Long-Haulers?

There’s something strange happening with some people who’ve gotten sick with COVID-19: Somewhere between 10 and 30% of people who are infected are stuck with long-lasting effects and complications.

 

People dealing with long-term symptoms after a coronavirus infection are known as COVID long-haulers, and as the pandemic gets longer, their numbers grow. Long-haul COVID is still a mystery in a lot of ways, but work is being done to understand it better.

Joining Ira to talk about the various effects of Long COVID and its possible treatments are Walter Koroshetz, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and David Putrino, director of Rehabilitation Innovation for the Mount Sinai Health System in New York, New York.

 


 

Punjabi Sikh Truckers Lack Access To COVID-19 Information

The cab of Sunny Grewal’s 18-wheeler is neat and tidy. He’s got bunk beds with red checkered sheets and gray interior cabinets that hide a fridge, microwave, paper plates and spices for long days on the road. One plastic container holds bite-sized sweets from his native India. “We call it gur, G-U-R,” Grewal says. “You can put it in tea, or you can have a small piece after food.”

Grewal is a trucking company owner-operator based in Fresno. He’s on the road upwards of 150,000 miles a year, delivering produce and cleaning supplies like hand sanitizer to and from the East Coast, the Midwest, and the South. In other words, his work is essential to keeping this country running. “If nurses want to take care of you, they need the stuff that we bring,” he says. “You want to buy food to stay home, you’re going to stock the food in your house, we bring that food.”

Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of California designated truckers as essential workers, but that status hasn’t materialized into any tangible advantages or privileges:No requirements that rest stops remain open, no hazard pay, and no priority access to the vaccine. “It is strange that our day didn’t come sooner,” says Lovepreet Singh, a truck driver from Bakersfield who was hoping momentum in support of his industry would build after the White House honored truck drivers with a rally in April 2020.

Singh and Grewal are also among an estimated hundreds of thousands of truckers in the U.S. who are Sikh, from the northern Indian state of Punjab. The North American Punjabi Trucking Association estimates Punjabi Sikhs make up 20 percent of the country’s truckers and control as much as 40 percent of the industry in California, and yet few public health departments in the state offer critical COVID-related information in the Punjabi language. “It makes me feel left over, you know?” says Grewal.

That lack of information has had consequences for the whole Punjabi-speaking community, says Manpreet Kaur of the non-profit Jakara Movement, especially in the early days of the pandemic. “The information was just always missing or it was too late or it was shared in a way that wasn’t easily understood,” she says. Read more at sciencefriday.com.

 


 

Particle Behavior Disobeys Laws Of Physics As We Know Them

Physicists have confirmed the unexplainable behavior of an elementary particle first noticed 20 years ago. Experiments at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, showed that a certain subatomic particle, called a muon, disobeys the laws of physics as scientists have written them. This is a big deal for scientists in a field where much is still unknown.

Plus, our hotter Earth will officially become the new normal next month. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will release its once-a-decade update to “climate normals”, baseline temperatures meteorologists rely on for their forecasts. While some places won’t see much of a change, this new update will substantially change what’s “normal” across the coasts and in the southern U.S.

Joining Ira to talk about these science stories and other big news of the week is Roxanne Khamsi, science journalist based in Montreal, Quebec.

 

Apr 09, 2021
Pollination, Beekeeping How-To, Sunflower Project. April 2, 2021, Part 2
46:31

The Buzz Over Non-Bee Pollinators

When you think of pollinators, bees are probably the first insect that comes to mind. But there are actually all sorts of insects and animals that contribute to pollination, like moths, beetles and many kinds of flies—from hoverflies to gnats.

Pollination biologist Robert Raguso joins SciFri to explain how different pollinators have different ‘personalities,’ with different strategies and roles—and how they are being affected by climate change.

So You Wanna Be A Beekeeper?

Pollinators are one of our favorite things at Science Friday, and caring for our local bees means caring for the environment. While we can plant native wildflowers for our native wild bees, some pollinator enthusiasts may want to go the next step and care for their own honey bee hive. So how do you get started?

Joining Ira to talk about tips for amateur beekeepers are Timothy Paule Jackson and Nicole Lindsey, beekeepers and co-founders of Detroit Hives, an organization that turns vacant lots into honey bee farms in Detroit, Michigan. They’re also joined by SciFri contributing editor John Dankosky, a first-time beekeeper. They discuss how to dive into this buzzy world, setting up your hive, and troubleshooting problems with pests.

Who’s Pollinating Your Backyard?

April is Citizen Science month, and Science Friday is celebrating with events and activities all throughout the month. SciFri’s Education Director Ariel Zych talks about our partnership with the Great Sunflower Project, which asks participants to observe a plant for five minutes, and record all of the pollinators that visit it. The data will be collected in a national database, helping scientists examine how pesticides are affecting pollinators—and how to improve pollinator habitats.

 

 

Apr 02, 2021
Unexpected Physics, Controlling Cow Methane, Spring Break. April 2, 2021, Part 1
46:19

Signs The Standard Model Of Physics May Be Incomplete

The pandemic has slowed many projects around the world, but scientists and engineers are nearing completion of a long-planned upgrade and maintenance period at CERN’s massive Large Hadron Collider project in Switzerland. The collider is currently cooling down and testing components, and aiming to start up for its third major run late this year. In the meantime, researchers have had time to sift through the data from previous experiments—and last week, they announced a finding that might indicate new physics at work.

The Standard Model of physics describes three of the universe’s fundamental forces, and how subatomic particles interact. One of the things it predicts is how particles decay into other components. Researchers at CERN analyzing particles called b-mesons found signs that their decay may not produce equal quantities of electrons and muons—as would be predicted by the Standard Model. While that discrepancy might not seem like a big deal, it could mean that there’s a previously undetected particle or force at play. However, the researchers don’t yet have enough data to say with confidence that their finding is real. They’ll need to collect several more years of data once the LHC restarts, as well as hope for confirmation from another major experiment in Japan.

Sheldon Stone, a distinguished professor of physics at Syracuse University and a member of the management committee of the LHCb Collaboration at CERN, joins Ira to talk about the anomaly in the data—and what it might mean if it’s proven to be real.

Seaweed Might Help Cows Go Green

When it comes to the bodies of humans and animals, there are a few functions that we’re usually discouraged from talking about. Specifically, the ones that involve releasing gas. (Yep, burps and farts.) But if you’re a cow, there’s a lot of scientific work that goes into analyzing what’s coming out in the gas you release. That’s because the cattle industry is one of the largest producers of methane gas, a huge contributor to global warming.

Some scientists are experimenting with feeding cows new things, to try to limit their methane output from the inside. New research shows a very promising result: By feeding beef cattle just a few ounces of dried seaweed per day, methane emissions from the cows went down as much as 82%.

Ira talks to the lead author of that paper, Ermias Kebreab, associate dean and professor of animal science at the University of California, Davis about how seaweed inhibits methane production in cows. They’re also joined by Albert Straus, founder and CEO of Straus Family Creamery in Marshall, California, who will be testing the seaweed diet on his cows this summer.

Even During A Pandemic, Florida’s Spring Break Party Continues

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, even after a long and painful year. Spring break always attracts attention but this year, there’s another reason spring breakers are coming to Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis basically invited them: “Let me just tell ya’. There’s no lockdowns in Florida, OK? It’s not gonna happen,” he told a cheering crowd earlier this month. One South Beach visitor, Christina Thomas, summed up spring breakers’ options this way: “California is closed.”

Even with that open-door policy, Miami Beach is more closed than it used to be, too. There’s an 8 p.m. curfew from Thursdays through the weekend in a particular stretch of Miami Beach and also a limit on eastbound traffic on the Julia Tuttle, Venetian and MacArthur Causeways starting at 10 p.m. City officials made that decision after days of people gathering along Ocean Drive, listening to music and dancing harmlessly ended, and tragic incidents began: A 27-year-old was shot and killed in South Beach. A woman was found dead in a hotel room, after she was allegedly drugged and raped. Last Friday night, the Miami Beach police chief said gunshots were fired and crowds ran through the streets.

Over this past weekend, the city declared a state of emergency. By then, the bar at the Clevelander on Ocean Drive had already closed, a notable decision, because the iconic establishment is built on the party scene. Management said things just got too hectic and they were worried about their staff. “We really should stop calling it spring break as this is not about college kids on their vacation,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said on Monday. He partially blames that “open for business” message from the governor. “Over the last weeks and longer, our city has been one of the only true destination cities open for business anywhere,” Gelber said. Read more at sciencefriday.com.

Biden Administration Opens Up OffShore Wind Energy

The Biden administration announced a wind power plan that aims to support more offshore deployment—expanding jobs and infrastructure investment. The plan includes development of a new Wind Energy Area in shallow waters between Long Island and the New Jersey coast. The goal: deploy 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2033. Amy Nordrum from MIT Technology, joins Science Friday to discuss that story along with Biden’s proposed $250 billion budget for scientific research and a mysterious interstellar visitor.

 

 

Apr 02, 2021
Spring Climate Effects, Octopus Sleep, Housing and Health. March 26, 2021, Part 2
46:54

In New York, Essential Workers Face Eviction

If you walk through many towns during this pandemic, you can tell that something is different just by looking at the storefronts. Some businesses have limited hours, others have capacity restrictions. Still other businesses are temporarily closed. Some are gone altogether. The pandemic has also had other financial effects that are harder to see—and often, that financial stress is hitting the same people who are already most likely to have gotten sick.

According to a recent analysis of court data, New York City landlords seek evictions nearly four times more often in the neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID-19 deaths—neighborhoods that also tend to be largely Black and Latino. Areas with high numbers of evictions also tend to be where many of the city’s “essential workers” live—people with public-facing jobs, with limited options for avoiding the risk of infection. 

A recent New York Times article dove into the dataset created by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. Stefanos Chen, the article’s author, joins Ira to talk about how the housing market in New York has been affected by the pandemic, and the ways that certain neighborhoods have been disproportionately threatened by eviction


Allergy Season Is Blooming With Climate Change

Spring is in the air, and for many people that means allergy season is rearing its ugly head. If it feels like your allergies have recently gotten worse, there’s now data to back that up.

New research shows that since 1990, pollen season in North America has grown by 20 days and gotten 20% more intense, with the greatest increases in Texas and the Midwest. This is because climate change is triggering plants’ internal timing to produce pollen earlier and earlier. It’s a problem that’s expected to get worse.

SciFri producer Kathleen Davis speaks with William Anderegg, assistant professor at the University of Utah’s School of Biological Sciences about pollen counts, and pollen as a respiratory irritant.


Flowers Are Finding New Hues In A Climate Crisis

It’s that time of the year where flowers bloom and the world starts to feel more colorful after a dormant winter. But what if the colors of the flowers we see now aren’t the same as they were a century ago?

New research from Clemson University scientists finds that climate change has impacted the hues of flowers. Temperature and aridity changes since 1895 have caused some flowers to go from purple to white, and others from white to purple.

Ira is joined by the lead researcher and Clemson Department of Biological Sciences graduate student Cierra Sullivan to talk about these strange changes, and the possible impact on the pollinators we know and love.


I Dream Of Octopuses, But Do They Dream About Me?

Sleep is nearly universal in the animal kingdom, but how animals sleep is not the same. Studies have found that in mammals, giraffes get the least amount of shut eye, while koalas can sleep up to 22 hours a day. 

There are also different types of sleep cycles—including a stage called rapid-eye movement or REM, which is often compared to non-REM sleep. A team of researchers wanted to study these different sleep cycles to understand how they might be connected to learning and memory. The scientists turned to the octopus as their study subject, selected for their complex behaviors and large brains. Their results were recently published in the journal iScience

Neuroscientist Sidarta Ribeiro, one of the authors on the study, joins Science Friday to explain how you measure the sleep cycles of an octopus, and what this can tell us about if an octopus might dream.

Mar 26, 2021
Racism And Mental Health, How To Milk Ticks. March 26, 2021, Part 1
47:08

The Mental Health Costs Of ‘Everyday’ Racism

On March 16, a 21-year-old white man killed six Asian women and two other people in multiple shootings in Atlanta. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asians and Asian-Americans in the U.S. have experienced a rise in racist attacks, which psychologists say are tied to anti-Chinese rhetoric from the former White House administration, as well as others who have scapegoated Asian Americans.

The Stop AAPI Hate reporting center was created in March of 2020 to track these events. The project is a collaboration between the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council, Chinese for Affirmative Action, and San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies Department. The center reports that more than 3,700 acts of hate were brought to their attention between their founding and February 28 of this year, including verbal harassment or shunning, physical assault, and civil rights violations.

At the same time, people who identify as Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) have increasingly reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, or requested screenings for mental health diagnoses. Charissa Cheah, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County has found that even witnessing acts of hate or discrimination can affect someone’s mental health—and spill over to their children. And Kevin Nadal, a psychology researcher at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, has documented how microaggressions, considered a more covert form of racism than physical violence, can cause trauma.

Cheah and Nadal discuss the connection between chronic exposure to racist behavior and mental health, along with resources for people who may be experiencing the effects of trauma, as well as the long history of anti-Asian racism in the United States.

 


To Milk A Tick

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

 


A Year Of Staying Home Has Led To A Global Chip Crisis

The global pandemic has led to a different kind of worldwide crisis: a global chip shortage. Demand for semiconductor chips—the brains behind “smart” devices like TV’s, refrigerators, cars, dishwashers and gaming systems—has spiked after a year of staying and working from home. And the pressure on global supply chains has never been greater. Sarah Zhang, staff writer at The Atlantic, joins Science Friday to explain what happened.

Plus, why AstraZeneca came under fire from U.S. regulators this week and how one scientist has finally solved a 20-years-long mystery about the bald eagle.

Mar 26, 2021
SciFri Extra: The Origin Of The Word 'Introvert'
28:18

Science Diction from Science Friday is back! Their latest episode is all about a recent buzzword: "Introvert." 

In 2013, introverts staged their comeback. For decades, they’d been told to get out of their shells and *smile*, while those  showy, gregarious extroverts were held up as the American ideal. But when one author published a kind of introvert’s manifesto, she sparked an introvert pride movement. Since then, the war of the ‘verts has only escalated, with self-identified introverts accusing extroverts of being shallow and incessantly chatty party monsters, and extroverts declaring introverts self-absorbed shut-ins who are just jealous because extroverts are actually happy. (A contention that studies support.)

It all feels like a very 21st Century, internet-era drama. But the history of the dubious and divisive introvert-extrovert binary began 100 years ago, when Carl Jung fell out with Sigmund Freud, and tried to make sense of where they’d gone wrong. In the process, Jung coined a couple of new terms, and unleashed an enduring cultural obsession with cramming ourselves into personality boxes.

For more stories like these, subscribe to Science Diction wherever you get your podcasts.

GUESTS:

Dan McAdams is a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. 

Wiebke Bleidorn is a professor of psychology at the University of California Davis.

Kelly Egusa is producer Chris Egusa’s sister, and a proud introvert.

FOOTNOTES & FURTHER READING: 

For an introvert’s manifesto, check out Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

Looking for a personality test backed by science? This one comes closest.

Curious about the 18,000 words in “Trait Names: A Psycho-lexical Study”? Read them here.

Read the 2019 study that suggests that introverted people feel happier when they force themselves to act extroverted. (And you can also check out a different study from the same year that adds a wrinkle to this finding.)

Take a look at a study that analyzes the Big Five personality dimensions as they relate to career success.

CREDITS: 

This episode was produced by Chris Egusa, Johanna Mayer, and Elah Feder. Elah is our Editor and Senior Producer. Daniel Peterschmidt is our Composer and did sound design for this episode. They wrote all the music, except for the Timbo March by Tim Garland from the Audio Network. Robin Palmer fact checked this episode. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.

Mar 20, 2021
Greenland Plants, Privacy and Big Data, Rainbows. March 19, 2021, Part 2
48:01

Under A Mile Of Ice, A Climate Clue

Scientists studying sediment taken from a core sample of the Greenland ice sheet just 800 miles from the North Pole have found remnants of ancient plants, freeze-dried under more than a mile of ice. Using several different dating techniques, they say the soil, twigs, and leaves date to sometime within the last million years—probably on the order of several hundred thousand years ago—a time when Greenland’s massive ice cap did not exist.

The finding that the ice sheet may have been missing so recently in geologic time provides clues to the stability of the ice, and just how sensitive it might be to modern global warming.

The samples themselves have an unusual history. In the 1960s, the US Army set out to build a base under the surface of the ice in Greenland. Ostensibly, the outpost, named Camp Century, was to be used for research into polar conditions, and how best to work in them. In reality, the US also hoped to secretly bury nuclear missiles under the ice cap within close reach of the Soviet Union. As part of that effort, codenamed Project Iceworm, core samples were taken of the ice and sediment. Year later, those samples would become the basis for this climate study, reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Drew Christ, one of the authors of that report and a geologist at the University of Vermont, joins Ira to talk about the study, and explain what ancient dirt can teach us about the future climate.


Decrypting Big Tech’s Data Hoard

The era of Big Data promised large-scale analytics of complex sets of information, harnessing the predictive power of finding patterns in the real world behaviors of millions of people. 

But as new documentaries like The Social Dilemma, Coded Bias, and other recent critiques point out, the technologies we’ve built to collect data have created their own new problems. Even as powerhouses like Google says it’s done tracking and targeting individual users in the name of better advertising, educational institutions, housing providers, and countless others haven’t stopped.

Ira talks to two researchers, mathematician Cathy O’Neil and law scholar Rashida Richardson, about the places our data is collected without our knowing, the algorithms that may be changing our lives, and how bias can creep into every digital corner.


The Rainbow Connection—To Physics

You may have seen a double rainbow, but did you know there are moonbows at night, and even white rainbows? And did you know, if we stood next together to watch a rainbow, the colors we see are coming from two different sets of droplets in a rain shower. That means each of us have our own unique rainbow. This all has to do with the optics, physics, and atmospheric science, which Steven Businger studies at the University of Hawaii Mānoa.

Rainbows have captured many people’s attention (including Ira’s! Check out the cover of his book featuring rainbow science below). There is equally fascinating physics responsible for those multicolor beams, which Businger describes in a recent study published in Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. Businger talks about the science behind rainbows, and discusses why Hawaii might be the rainbow capital of the world

Mar 19, 2021
COVID Questions, Introvert Origin. March 19, 2021, Part 1
48:07

Rise In Anti-Asian Violence Is At The Intersection Of Racism And Disease

Earlier this week, eight people were killed at three Atlanta-area massage parlors. Six of the victims were Asian-American women. In 2020, reported attacks on Asian-Americans increased by 150% over those reported the previous year in some of the country’s most populous cities, according to data compiled by California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism that was provided to the Voice of America. The attacks came in the midst of a pandemic that has been falsely blamed on China by some politicians, including former President Trump.

This isn’t the first time that the Asian-American community has been the victim of racist scapegoating connected to a disease, however. Maggie Koerth, senior science reporter for FiveThirtyEight, joins Ira to discuss some of the other instances, from SARS in 2003 back to the bubonic plague in 1899.

They also discuss other coronavirus news, including an update on a debate over the safety of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine that is now taking place in the European Union, and talk about non-COVID news of the week, including the development of an artificial mouse uterus and research into water on Mars.


This Infectious Disease Specialist Is Answering Your COVID-19 Questions On Instagram

Last week marked one year since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. As the people all over the world struggled to wrap their head around terms like “flatten the curve,” many took their questions to scientists via their social media accounts.

Laurel Bristow is one of those scientists. Although you may know her better by her Instagram handle @kinggutterbaby, Bristow is an infectious disease specialist who started making informal videos  last March, explaining the science around the pandemic. One year later, she’s unwittingly fostered a fandom of over 360,000 followers hungry for simple, straightforward scientific information about COVID-19. 

Bristow joins Ira to answer listener questions about vaccine schedules, social distancing, and the slow return to normal life, sharing what it’s been like to be a “science influencer” on social media.


The False Personality Binary

Do you prefer one-on-one conversations, like to read books, and quake at the idea of a party? You probably call yourself an introvert. On the other hand, if you thrive in crowds and thrive in social settings, you may check the ‘extrovert’ box on personality tests.

But the idea of introversion, coined by self-described introvert and Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, started with a different definition—one centered on where you get your energy. Does it come from your own thoughts and inwardness? The term introvert comes from the Latin intro, or “inward,” and vertere, meaning “to turn.” Conversely, the word extrovert (“outward turning”) describes being energized by things happening outside of yourself.

Jung’s idea took off, and many of us eagerly categorize ourselves into personality “types.” But in recent decades, psychologists have developed an even more nuanced understanding of introversion—one that may make the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” irrelevant.

Introvert is the last word in this mind-focused season of the podcast Science Diction. Radio producer Christie Taylor talks to Science Diction producer and host Johanna Mayer about the origin of the term, and how our understanding of personality has matured in the 100 years since Jung’s inward-turning revelation.

Mar 19, 2021
Virtual Disease, Daydreaming, Geoengineering. March 12 2021, Part 2
47:10

Learning From World Of Warcraft’s Virtual Pandemic

The widespread infection of roughly four million virtual characters all started with a giant snake demon. In 2005, the massively multiplayer online video game World Of Warcraft introduced a special event raid, where groups of players could team up to fight a giant snake demon named Hakkar the Soulflayer. Hakkar would cast a spell called “Corrupted Blood” on players, which would slowly whittle down their health.

The effect of the spell was only supposed to last inside the raid arena—when players returned to the main world of the game, the spell would dissipate. But thanks to a software glitch, that wasn’t the case if the player had a pet companion. When the pets returned to the main world, they started infecting players and non-playable characters with the Corrupted Blood spell. If the player wasn’t powerful enough to heal themselves, they would die and erupt in a fountain of blood before turning into a skeleton.

What followed was a virtual pandemic that startlingly resembled today’s COVID-19 pandemic, from the spread, human behavior, and cultural response. Blizzard, the developer of the game, wanted players to social distance. Some players listened, others flouted the rules, traveling freely and spreading the disease with them. Conspiracy theories formed about how the virus was engineered by Blizzard on purpose, and others placed blame on players with pets as the cause of the outbreak, mirroring the racist anti-Asian attacks and rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 today. 

Coincidentally, two epidemiologists, Nina Fefferman and Eric Lofgren, were there to witness the World Of Warcraft outbreak unfold. They studied and used the incident to model human behavior in response to a pandemic. Their findings were published in The Lancet in 2007. Many of their observations came to pass in 2020 when COVID-19 appeared. 

SciFri producer Daniel Peterschmidt sat down with Eric Molinsky, host of the podcast Imaginary Worlds, who reported this story for his show. He talks about the epidemiologists who studied the outbreak and how it prepared them for public responses to COVID-19.


Why Is Daydreaming Difficult For Grownups?

Children have a natural talent for imagination. Even in moments of boredom, their imagination can take them away into daydreams that help pass the time in a flash. But for many adults, falling into a daydream is hard, especially when our minds are filled with worries about tomorrow’s obligations, finances, and a global pandemic. 

Turns out those who feel this way are not alone. New research shows that adults report getting to a daydreaming state is harder than experiencing their unguided thoughts. Adults often require a prompt to think about something pleasant, and tend to ruminate on unpleasant things. 

Daydreaming can be an antidote to boredom, and researcher Erin Westgate of the University of Florida says that’s important. Her previous research shows that boredom can cause sadistic behavior in people. Westgate joins guest host John Dankosky and Manoush Zomorodi, host of the TED Radio Hour and author of the book “Bored and Brilliant,” who argues leaning into boredom can unlock our most creative selves.


Can We Geoengineer Our Way Out Of A Natural Disaster?

Humans have always altered their landscapes—from simple agriculture used to cultivate specific crops to huge projects like damming rivers to change the flow of entire ecosystems. And many of these human interventions have unintended consequences and have led to major environmental disasters.

In her book Under A White Sky: The Nature Of The Future, author Elizabeth Kolbert talks to scientists and people working on geoengineering projects and technology to mitigate and avert damage caused by humans in the natural world like climate change. The projects range from electrifying rivers to turning CO2 emissions into rocks. Kolbert discusses if we can solve these natural problems with the tools that created the problems in the first place, and at what cost?

Mar 12, 2021
Jackson Water Woes, Giant Telescope Mirror, Shark Sex. March 12 2021, Part 1
46:56

What Went Wrong With Jackson, Mississippi’s Water?

Residents of Jackson, Mississippi have been dealing with a water crisis since a storm rolled through town on February 15th. The city’s water system was damaged, leaving thousands of residents without running water at home. People have relied on water distribution sites to get by, and even those who can still use their taps are on boil water notice. Impacted residents are largely low-income, and the limited access to water has raised worries about staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even before this fiasco, Jackson’s water system was in need of a change. Boil water advisories were common, and many of the city’s pipes date back to the 1950s. Water service is expected to be restored this week, but getting the taps running again will just be a Band-Aid: A true overhaul would require millions, if not billions of dollars. Mississippi Public Broadcasting reporter Kobee Vance joins guest host John Dankosky to discuss what’s happening in Jackson, and why its infrastructure was particularly vulnerable to this crisis.

 


Spinning Glass To See The Stars

Last weekend, a giant furnace built under the east stands of the University of Arizona football stadium began to spin. That furnace contained some 20 tons of high-purity borosilicate glass, heated to 1,165 degrees C. As the glass melted, it flowed into gaps in a mold. The centrifugal force of the spinning furnace spread the material up the edges of the mold, forming the curved surface of a huge mirror, with a diameter of 8.4 meters.

The piece is just one of seven sections that will eventually form the 25-meter primary mirror of the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile. It’s not a fast process—it will take several months to cool, and then another two years to measure, grind, and polish. When that’s complete, the surface of the mirror segment will be accurate to within twenty-five nanometers. Steward Observatory mirror polishing program project scientist Buddy Martin says that when it’s complete, the Giant Magellan Telescope should be ten times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope—if it was positioned in Washington, DC, it would be able to make out a softball in the hand of a pitcher in San Francisco.

Martin talks with SciFri’s Charles Bergquist about the mirror production process, and the challenges of working with glass on massive scales. Watch a video and see photos of the process at scienefriday.com.

 


It’s Time To Rethink Shark Sex—With Females In Mind

Sharks, rays, and skates—all fish in the subclass Elasmobranchii—are a beautifully diverse collection of animals. One big way they differ is in how they reproduce. They lay eggs, like traditional fish, and let them mature in a select corner of the ocean. Or, they might let the eggs hatch inside their bodies. But they can also give live birth to pups gestated like mammals: with an umbilical cord and a placenta in a uterus.

It doesn’t end there. These fish, like many other members of the animal kingdom, have two uteruses. Females are capable of reproducing asexually, without help from a male. As genetic sequencing has advanced, researchers have been finding another curious pattern: Many litters of pups will have more than one father, a phenomenon known as multiple paternity.

Evolutionary ecologists seeking to explain why sharks would use this strategy of multiple paternity have hypothesized it’s one of convenience for females. In species with aggressive and competitive mating practices, like many sharks and rays, it’s possible females find it saves them precious resources to acquiesce to multiple males.

But what if there’s something in it for the female, and her likelihood of having successful, biologically fit offspring? That’s the question a team of researchers sought to answer in new research published in Molecular Ecology this month, where they asked what kinds of physiological mechanisms a female shark or ray might use to wield agency in her own reproduction. The researchers also write that a male-dominated field may be more likely to miss a female-driven reproductive strategy, and push for more study of female reproductive biology.

John Dankosky talks to the lead author on the research, Georgia Aquarium shark biologist Kady Lyons, about the vast wonderland of reproductive strategies in this fish subclass—and what a history of male-centered research may have missed.

 


What Next For The Fully Vaccinated?

In the U.S., vaccines have been rolling out since December. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 95 million doses have been administered which equates to over 18% of the population. This week, the agency also put out guidelines for those who have been fully vaccinated.

Sophie Bushwick of Scientific American fills us in on those guidelines and also talks about research on the effectiveness of mask mandates and a headless sea slug.

 

 

Mar 12, 2021
Conversations, Baby Teeth, Tasmanian Tiger. March 5, 2021, Part 2
47:13

When Is It Time To Say Goodbye?

Imagine you’re having a conversation with someone. You may get the sense that they have somewhere else to be. Or you might start feeling restless, and use an excuse to cut the conversation short. Sometimes, you feel like you could talk for HOURS. Chances are you’re wrong every time. 

In a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Adam Mastroianni and colleagues tried to figure out how good humans are at judging the ideal length of a conversation. They found that both participants agreed a conversation ended at the right time in only 2% of their trials. And the difference between one partner’s desired conversation length and the actual length of a conversation could be as much as 50%—so in a 10 minute conversation, your partner might have wanted to talk to you for as little as 5 minutes, or as much as 15 minutes. SciFri’s Charles Bergquist talks with Mastroianni about these results, and why the “exit ramps” to a conversation are rarely where you want them to be.


Talking Through The History Of Our Teeth

Most of us have never thought much about why we have teeth. But if you’re the parent of a teething infant, the question becomes a whole lot more relevant: While you impatiently wait for baby’s teeth to poke through, or soothe your teething toddler in the middle of the night, you might find yourself wondering why humans go through all this trouble for a set of teeth that are only temporary. In a decade, your child will have shed their baby teeth to make room for their adult counterparts, and all this fuss will be but a distant—albeit painful—memory for both you and your former infant.

But one such question can lead to another. Are baby and adult teeth made of the same stuff? Why can’t we just grow a new tooth if we lose one? And how did ancient people take care of their teeth? Biological anthropologist and ancient tooth expert Shara Bailey joins Ira to discuss why our teeth are the way they are


A Look Back At The Time Of The Tasmanian Tiger

Last week, conservation biologists on Twitter were all aflutter as rumors circulated that a creature called a “thylacine,” better known as a “Tasmanian tiger,” had been caught on camera in the Tasmanian bush. Thylacines have been considered extinct since the mid 80’s, but there are still those who believe—or hope—they still exist. 

In a video posted to YouTube, Neil Waters, President of the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia, shared the news of what he thought looked like images of two adult thylacines and a baby.

Unfortunately, this time the animal caught on camera was identified as a pademelon. But at Science Friday, we’ll never pass up an opportunity to celebrate a charismatic creature. Last January, SciFri’s Elah Feder spoke with Neil Waters and Gregory Berns, a psychology professor at Emory University, about the fascinating history of the Tasmanian tiger

Mar 05, 2021
Implementing Oregon’s Drug Policy, Wisconsin Wolf Hunt, Johnson & Johnson Vaccine. March 5, 2021, Part 1
47:10

Oregon Just Decriminalized Small Amounts of All Drugs. Now What?

On February 1, a big experiment began in Oregon: The state has decriminalized small amounts of all drugs, including heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine. In the November election, voters passed ballot Measure 110 by a 16-point margin.

Now, if you’re caught with one or two grams of what some refer to as “hard drugs”, you won’t be charged. Instead, you’ll either pay a maximum $100 dollar fine, or complete a health assessment within 45 days at an addiction recovery center. This new system for services will be funded through the state’s marijuana tax.

But the measure is still controversial, and members of Oregon’s addiction and recovery community are split on if it’s a good idea. So how did we get here? Read and listen to the full story here.


 

 

Wisconsin Oversteps in Wolf Hunt

One of the final acts of the Trump Administration in late 2020 was to remove the gray wolf from the federal endangered species list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially removed the species, which was once nearly extinct in the lower 48 states, in January. The wolves now number more than 6,000 in the northern Rockies and the western Great Lakes states.

In Wisconsin, a 2012 state law requires an annual wolf hunt when the animals are not under federal protection. State wildlife officials had begun planning for a hunt next November, but were forced by a lawsuit from an out-of-state hunting group to hold one before the end of February. That hunt lasted only three days before state officials shut it down: Licensed hunters killed 216 wolves in that time, more than 80 percent over the allowed quota of 119, and nearly 20 percent of the state’s estimated 1,000-plus wolves.

SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Danielle Kaeding and environmental science professor Adrian Treves about how hunters were able to kill so many wolves so fast—and what effect this year’s hunt might have on the health of wolf populations in the state.


 

What Does Johnson & Johnson’s Shot Mean for Our Vaccine Timeline?

The U.S. now has a third COVID-19 vaccine in our arsenal, as Johnson & Johnson’s shot got emergency approval last weekend. This one is different from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines already in use: It’s only one dose, it’s inexpensive, and it doesn’t require very cold temperatures for storage. This means rural communities might get vaccinated faster, and our timeline to possible COVID-19 herd immunity could improve.

Scaling up vaccinations will be critical as the homegrown U.S. COVID-19 variants are taking hold. Variants from California and New York are becoming more widespread, though it doesn’t seem like we’ll need to change our strategy for fighting COVID-19 yet.

Ira is joined by Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox, to talk about these stories and other big science news of the week.

 

 

Mar 05, 2021
Texas Storm, NASA Climate Advisor, Mars Sounds. Feb 26, 2021, Part 1
46:33

Does A Vaccine Help You If You’ve Already Had COVID-19?

Vaccines doses have started to rollout and are getting into the arms of people. We know that if you already had COVID-19, you build up antibodies against the virus. So do the vaccines affect you if you’ve already had COVID-19? 

Science writer Roxanne Khamsi talks about recent studies showing that a single dose of vaccine could boost immunity for former COVID-19 patients. She also discusses a study that found over 140,000 viral species in the human gut and Elizabeth Ann, the first cloned black-footed ferret.


The Aftermath Of Texas’ Winter Storm

While power has been mostly restored, journalists report Texans are now facing water shortages, housing damage, and crop losses. 

Texas grocery store shelves have begun filling out again. But for the state’s agriculture industry, recovering from the winter storm will take time, and consumers are likely to feel it in their pockets.

The historic freeze and power outages brought agriculture across the state to a halt. Dairy farmers were forced to dump gallons of unpasteurized milk for days as processing plants were left without power. Packing houses also shut down with machinery cut off from electricity and employees unable to make their shifts, said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller.

Meanwhile, the products on the market were quickly bought up by panicked Texans just before and after the storm. By Monday, Miller said he had seen the price of hamburgers go up to $8.50 a pound, and he expects prices to remain elevated as the food supply chain stabilizes.

“It’s not going to be back to normal for at least six to eight weeks,” Miller said. “You’ll still see shortages of some stuff, and even though the shelves may be full, the prices will be high.” Read and listen to the full story in the State of Science series


Keeping An Eye On The Climate, From Space

The climate is changing, and so is the U.S. government’s approach to it. The Biden White House has made the climate crisis a high priority, and has created several new positions focused on climate science.

One of those new climate posts can be found at the space agency NASA. While rockets and Mars rovers may seem far removed from climate issues, NASA is actually the lead federal agency in climate observations, with a fleet of satellites tracking everything from sea temperature to CO2 levels to chlorophyll.

Ira talks with Gavin Schmidt, who has recently been named in an acting role to be the senior climate advisor for NASA. He’s also director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. They discuss upcoming climate-focused NASA programs, last week’s cold weather in Texas, and the challenge of making better decisions in an uncertain climate future.

Feb 26, 2021
Lucid Dreaming, Sex As A Biological Variable, Parachute Science, Global Vaccine Access. Feb 26, 2021, Part 2
46:09

Memory And The Dreaming Mind

If you’ve ever stayed up too late studying for a test, you know that sleep impacts memory—you need that precious shut-eye in order to encode and recall all that information. But what is it about sleep that aids memory? 

Researchers have pinpointed a specific stage of sleep, REM sleep, as an area of interest for studying memory consolidation. REM, or rapid eye movement sleep, is the same stage in which dreams occur. So researchers at Northwestern University devised a way to communicate with lucid dreamers—people who are aware of their dreams and can control what they do in them—as a way to study how memories get made.

Science Friday producer Katie Feather talks with Ken Paller, professor of psychology at Northwestern University to discuss what lucid dream research has taught us about memory.


Progress In Considering Sex As A Biological Variable

Back in 2013, Charles Hoeffer from the University of Colorado Boulder was studying memory and learning in mice. He was looking at a specific protein in the brain called AKT1, which helps mice forget an old task and learn a new one. In humans, a mutation in that protein has been linked to disorders like schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s and depression. 

But in a follow-up study, Hoeffer did something different. He included both male mice and female mice, and then tested them separately. As expected, he discovered that male mice had a much tougher time learning the task when AKT1 wasn’t working. But in female mice, he found the unexpected: It didn’t make any difference whether the protein was removed or not. In other words, the sex of the mouse became an important variable that affected the outcome of the research.

Hoeffer’s study is one example of considering sex as a biological variable (SABV) in pre-clinical research. And in 2016, the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Research on Women’s Health made it an official policy for researchers applying for funding. 

But that didn’t change things overnight. Five years later, the approach is still catching on in many areas of research. Chyren Hunter, from the Office of Research on Women’s Health, joins Ira to discuss the progress that’s been made, and what lies ahead for the effort to make pre-clinical research more inclusive.

Further information on the NIH’s policy on sex as a biological variable is on its website.


The Problem With ‘Parachute Science’

“Parachute science” is a term describing how researchers sometimes drop down from an ivory tower in the wealthy Western world into a foreign community for field work. They gather their data, and then zip off home without engaging with or acknowledging the contributions of the local researchers in that community. This week in the journal Current Biology, researchers tried to quantify just how widespread that tendency is in one area of study—coral reefs.

Searching through fifty years of publications published on the topic of warm water coral reef biodiversity research, they found that in 22% of the studies on coral reef ecosystems in Australia, there were no Australian researchers included as authors on the publication. The effect was even more noticeable in lower-income countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines—where 40% of the published studies on coral reefs included no local scientists. 

Ira talks with two of the study’s authors, Paris Stefanoudis and Sheena Talma, about what they found, and how researchers can work to make science more inclusive.


The Global COVID-19 Supply Problem 

Of the more than 200 million COVID-19 vaccines that have made it to patients’ arms this winter, more than a quarter have gone to people in the United States—a country with 4 percent of the total world population. Just last week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that 75% of the world’s vaccinations so far had been in just 10 countries—while 130 countries had not received a single dose. 

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the nation of Ghana was the first to receive vaccines—600,000 doses—shipped as part of COVAX, a multi-national program which aims to provide as many as two billion free vaccines to poor and middle-income countries by the end of the year.

Ira talks to Yale global health expert Saad Omer about the international effort to move vaccines equitably around the world, and the remaining hurdles for poorer countries.

Feb 26, 2021
Tech Unions, Color Perception, Fish Vs Birds. Feb 19, 2021, Part 2
47:15

Reprogramming Labor In Tech

More than 6,000 warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama are midway through voting on whether they should unionize. If the ‘yes’ votes win, it would be unprecedented for the company: The last time a unionization vote was held by Amazon’s United States employees, back in 2014, a group of 30 technicians ultimately voted not to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace workers.

Meanwhile, at Google, a group of more than 800 have recently joined the Alphabet Workers Union, which was formed in early January. The AWU is a minority union, a kind of union that cannot negotiate contracts. But, the union has said, they will still be able to advocate for workers who would be excluded from a traditional union, like the temporary workers, contractors, and vendors who make up more than half of Google’s global workforce.

And in the world of app-based gig workers, a debate has been raging for years about whether Uber and Instacart workers are full employees with rights to overtime and collective bargaining—or contractors, which have neither. In California, state law has changed twice in the last year to try to answer this question.

SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to legal scholar Veena Dubal, and historian Margaret O’Mara, about this rise in union activity, and the way tech companies have impacted our lives—not just for their customers, but also for their workers.


Fish Versus Feather: Georgia’s Salt Marsh Smackdown

At Science Friday, we love a smackdown, whether it’s a debate over which mammal has better sonar—dolphins versus bats—or which planet is the best to host signs of life—Mars or Venus? But when it comes to fish versus birds, we don’t need to manufacture drama. Nature gave us its own.

Corina Newsome, a graduate student at Georgia Southern University, was studying how seaside sparrows adapt to nest flooding, an environment where the most likely predators are animals like minks and raccoons. That’s when she caught on film a very unusual interaction: A fish entered a sparrow’s nest, and killed one of the new hatchlings.

Newsome joins Ira to explain what she saw, and how climate change is helping to turn the tables on this predator-prey relationship.


The Neuroscience Behind Seeing Color

The basic mechanics of how we see color sounds simple enough—light hits an object and bounces into our eye. Then, our brain processes that information. But how we perceive color is much more complicated.

Neuroscientist and artist Bevil Conway is mapping out how the neurons in our brain respond to color to make a neurological color model. He explains how color might encode meaning, and the plasticity of our visual system.

Feb 19, 2021
Fauci On Vaccines and Variants, Mummy Mystery, Texas Power Grid Failure. Feb 19, 2021, Part 1
47:43

Fauci Says Majority Of U.S. Adults Likely To Be Vaccinated By Late Summer

We’re about a month shy of a big anniversary: one year since the World Health Organization officially labeled COVID-19 a pandemic. Since then, a lot has changed—and a lot has not.

We have more information than ever about COVID-19, but there are still a lot of unknowns about the illness. While about 40 million people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of a vaccine, it’s unclear when we can expect to return to a sense of normalcy.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, joins Ira to shed some light on the latest news about variants and vaccines—and the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel.

He predicts vaccines are likely to be open to all adults starting in May or June. “By the time you get everyone vaccinated who could be vaccinated, that’s going to take several months,” Fauci says. “So it won’t be until the end of the summer.”

Fauci and Ira also discuss when it’s ok for families to get together without a laundry list of precautions, as well as his legacy from decades at the NIH.


 

Uncovering An Ancient Mummy Mystery

Ever since the discovery of King Seqenenre-Taa-II’s mummy in Egypt in the mid-1800s, it was clear that the king had met an untimely demise. His hands were clenched in a claw-like gesture, and the pharaoh’s head bore several fatal wounds. But the exact nature of his death was lost to time: Had he died in some sort of palace intrigue? Or was he executed?

Writing in the journal Frontiers in Medicine, radiologist Sahar Saleem and her collaborators argue that a CT scan of the mummy supports the theory that the king died during conflict with the Hyksos, an Asian group that invaded and controlled northern Egypt. The researchers say that the wounds and other signs on the body suggest the king was captured, bound, and executed by multiple assailants.

SciFri’s Charles Bergquist spoke with Saleem about her research, and how it fills in clues about the ancient mystery.


Why Did The Texas Power Grid Fail?

More than 500,000 Texans were still without power Thursday as another round of snow and ice moved through the state, three days after a historic wave of cold and snow that prompted the state power regulator to initiate rolling blackouts in an effort to prevent a larger, months-long outage.

But as Texans remain without power in freezing temperatures, the side-effects of infrastructure failure are their own disaster: people freezing in their homes, risking carbon monoxide poisoning, or struggling to get food and water.

Why was the electric grid so damaged by winter weather? The MIT Technology Review’s Amy Nordrum explains the fragility of Texas’ power grid, and how a lack of winterized infrastructure has ripple effects for the whole state.

Plus, she talks about the successful landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars, new smells in the toolbox against invasive bark beetles, and more recent science stories.

 

 

Feb 19, 2021
Fish Eye Secrets, Human Genome Project, Science Diction 'Mesmerize.' Feb 12, 2021, Part 2
47:28

Seeing The World Through Salmon Eyes

The saying goes, “The eyes are the window to the soul.” But for fish, the eyes are the window to the stomach. 

As one California biologist recently learned, the eyes of Chinook salmon are like a tiny diet journal of everything it ate. But to read that journal, you have to peel back the layers of the eye, like it’s the world’s tiniest onion. 

Miranda Tilcock, assistant research specialist at the Center for Watershed Science at the University of California, Davis talks to Ira about why she goes to such gooey lengths to understand what these salmon eat


Two Decades Beyond The First Full Map Of Human DNA

In February 2001, the international group of scientists striving to sequence the human genome in its entirety hit a milestone: a draft of the complete sequence was published in the journals Nature and Science.

The project took 13 years to complete: In that time, genome sequencing became faster and cheaper, and computational biology ascended as a discipline. It laid the groundwork for the greater cooperation and open data practices that have made rapid vaccine development possible during the pandemic. In the decades since, researchers have been trying to better understand how genetics impact health. We’re still working toward the dream of personalized treatments based on a person’s specific genetic risks.

Ira looks back at the successes and challenges of the Human Genome Project with Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist who helped plan the project, and served on its advisory committee.

Then, with bioinformatician Dana Zielinski and Indigenous geneticist-bioethicist Krystal Tsosie, he looks to the contemporary hurdles for genetic research, including privacy, commercialization, and the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples over their own genetic data.


Meet The Man Behind The Word ‘Mesmerize’

In the 18th century, a man named Franz Anton Mesmer came to Paris with a plan: to practice a controversial form of medicine involving magnets and gravity. Mesmer claimed his treatments cured everything from toothaches to deafness. His critics, however, weren’t so sure about that. Mesmer made enemies in high places, labeling him a con, and calling his type of practice “mesmerism.” 

The story behind the word “mesmerize,” and other words about mind control are the focus of season three of Science Diction, a podcast about words and the science behind them from Science Friday. 

Joining Ira to talk about the story behind “mesmerize,” and what else is coming this season is Science Diction host, Johanna Mayer.

Feb 12, 2021
The Effectiveness Of Double-Masking, Mars Landing Preview. Feb 12, 2021, Part 1
46:48

Two Masks Are Better Than One

Masks have been a big issue throughout the pandemic, from supply shortages to debates about when they should be required to be used.

This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out research and guidance on the effectiveness of double masking—wearing one mask over another. Engineer and aerosol scientist Linsey Marr talks about how a face mask traps a virus, the effectiveness of double masking, and other other questions about face masks.


 

Next Week, A Return To Martian Soil

It’s a busy time on Mars. This week, spacecraft from both China and the United Arab Emirates successfully maneuvered into position in Martian orbit.

And next week, if all goes according to plan, the Mars 2020 mission will deliver the Perseverance rover to its new home in Jezero Crater on the planet’s surface. Scientists hope to use it there for at least two Mars years, exploring the geology and chemistry of what once was a catch-basin for a river delta on the Red Planet.

Lori Glaze, head of the Planetary Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, joins Ira to give a preview of the landing process, and an overview of some of the experiments on board Perseverance—from a ground-penetrating radar system to an experimental helicopter that may make the first controlled, powered flight on another planet.


 

Some People Had COVID-19 For So Long That It Mutated Inside Them

COVID-19 variants have been front and center in the news over the past few months. Mutations are a natural part of the course of life for viruses. But to us humans, they’re adding more unknowns to an already stressful time.

Groups of researchers around the world have found something interesting in a select few COVID-19 patients: individuals who seem to be reservoirs for coronavirus mutations. Essentially, these patients were infected with COVID-19 for so long that the virus was able to mutate inside them. Experts are scratching their heads at these strange cases, and now are looking into what this means for our efforts to fight the virus.

Meanwhile, South Africa has suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine because it doesn’t clearly stop the coronavirus variant that originated in the country. This is a problem for AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, which planned on deploying this vaccine en masse in developing countries.

Joining Ira to break down these stories and other science news of the week is Maggie Koerth, senior science reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

 

Feb 12, 2021
Four Lost Cities, Sourdough Microbiome, Queen Bees, Bison. Feb 5, 2021, Part 2
47:17

National Bison Range Returns To Indigenous Management

Hundreds of years ago, tens of millions of bison roamed North America. They were an essential resource and cultural foundation for many Native American tribes. And by 1890, European colonists had hunted them nearly to extinction. 

When President Theodore Roosevelt moved to conserve the remaining bison in 1908, he established the National Bison Range, an 18,800-acre reserve that the government took directly from the tribes of the Flathead Reservation—the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille. The tribes were not invited to help manage the recovery of a bison herd that they had helped save. At times, they were even excluded from the land entirely. For the past several decades, the tribes have been lobbying for the land—and management of its several hundred bison—to be returned.

Then, in December 2020, Congress included in its COVID-19 relief package an unrelated bill with bipartisan approval: returning that land to the tribes. 

Ira talks to Montana journalist Amy Martin, who has been covering the National Bison Range for Threshold, a podcast about environmental change, about why the return of the land is meaningful in the context of U.S. colonization, and the relationship between the environment and justice. Listen to the full report on the National Bison Range on Threshold


A Reproductive Mystery In Honey Bee Decline

As global honey bee decline continues through yet another decade, researchers have learned a lot about how complicated the problem actually is. Rather than one smoking gun, parasites like the varroa mite, combined with viruses, pesticides, and other factors are collectively undermining bee health to an alarming degree.

 

One part of the mystery is the increasing rate of ‘queen failure,’ when a reproducing queen is no longer able to produce enough fertilized eggs to maintain the hive. When this happens, beekeepers must replace the queen years before they ordinarily might.  

Producer Christie Taylor talks to North Carolina State University researcher Alison McAfee about one possible reason this may occur—a failure to maintain the viability of the sperm they store in their bodies after a single mating event early in life. The condition may be caused by temperature stress, immune stress, or a combination of factors. McAfee explains this problem, plus the bigger mystery of how queens manage to keep sperm alive as long as they do.


Mapping Sourdough Microbes From Around The World

With more time at home over the last year, many people have experimented with baking sourdough bread. In new work published in the journal ELife, researchers are taking sourdough science to a new level. The team collected and genetically-sequenced 500 sourdough starters sent in by bakers on four different continents to try to draw a map of their microbial diversity.

A sourdough starter culture contains a microbial community made up of both yeasts and bacteria. As the starter is fed and grows, those microbes ferment the carbohydrates in flour, producing the carbon dioxide gas that makes the bread dough rise. Over the years, a mythology has grown up around sourdough—that certain places have special types of wild yeasts that are particularly suited for breadmaking. However, the researchers found that on a global level, it was hard to tell the microbes in Parisian bread apart from those found in San Francisco or elsewhere. The differences in the starter culture seemed largely to be based on specific conditions within each bakery kitchen, and how the starter is grown and maintained.  

Erin McKenney, one of the authors on the report and an assistant professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University, joins SciFri director Charles Bergquist to slice into the bread study, and explain the team’s findings.


Ancient Cities Provide A New Perspective On Urban Life

There are certain skylines that come to mind when you think of big, urban cities. Maybe it’s New York City, dotted with skyscrapers and lit up by Times Square. Or it could be the central plaza of Mexico City, and its surrounding galleries and museums. But in Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age, author Annalee Newitz considers long-lost urbanity like Cahokia or Angkor. 

These were huge, sprawling ancient metropolitan areas, constructed thousands of years ago. They had complicated infrastructure, and equally complex political systems that governed the tens of thousands of residents that lived there. But these cities were also eventually abandoned. 

Newitz explains who built these places, and how their residents lived, providing a new perspective on how the ecosystem of a city works.

Feb 05, 2021
COVID Variants And Vaccines, U.S. Energy Justice. Feb 5, 2021, Part 1
47:19

Will Vaccines Work Against New Variants Of The Coronavirus?

The rollout of COVID-19 vaccination programs around the world has been anything but smooth. Complicating the effort is the virus itself. The original coronavirus genome that the current vaccines were based on has mutated. Now, there are three virus variants, and experts are somewhat concerned. How will the vaccines scientists have worked so hard to make fare against these three variants, and future ones?

Stephen Goldstein, post-doctoral researcher in evolutionary virology at the University of Utah, joins Ira to talk about what the new numbers on vaccine effectiveness against these variants really mean.


This Biden Appointee Is Bringing Justice To Green Energy

President Joe Biden has the most ambitious climate change agenda of any U.S. president in history. A large part of the plan is a shift away from fossil fuels to clean energy, like wind and solar power. A new member of Biden’s energy team wants to prioritize something we don’t normally hear from the federal government: energy justice, or making sure communities aren’t left behind, or stepped on, in pursuit of a greener world. 

Shalanda Baker, deputy director for energy justice at the U.S. Department of Energy and law professor on leave at Northeastern University in Boston, joins Ira to talk about equitable energy, “The Big Greens,” and her new book, Revolutionary Power: An Activist’s Guide to the Energy Transition.


The Thinking Behind New Double-Masking Recommendations

If you’re at the grocery store or taking a walk in the brisk winter air, you might see someone sporting the new pandemic trend—double masks. Sometimes it’s a cloth mask over an N95; sometimes it’s two fabric masks layered together. And it’s not because it’s cold out (although the extra warmth is nice).

This week the CDC says it’s considering updating its masking guidelines to include wearing two masks, to protect against new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus.

Sarah Zhang, staff writer for The Atlantic, joins Ira to discuss whether two masks are really better than one. Plus, how the U.K. is studying whether mixing Astrazeneca’s new vaccine with a dose of Pfizer or Moderna’s formula might actually be more effective at obtaining immunity.

Feb 05, 2021
Medieval Bones, Vaccine Rollout, Florida Panthers. Jan 29, 2021, Part 2
46:41

A Skeletal Record Of Medieval England Society

If you’ve ever fractured a bone, that skeletal trauma stays with you forever, even after it heals. So researchers across the pond are using bones from medieval times to put together a picture of what life was like.

The bones in the study came from ordinary people in medieval Cambridge in the United Kingdom, from between the 10th and 14th century. The researchers found that you can often guess who was working class, and who had more money based on what their bones looked like.

SciFri producer Kathleen Davis talks to Jenna Dittmar, a research fellow in osteoarchaeology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, about this new research.


Deploying President Biden’s ‘Wartime’ COVID-19 Plan

On his first day in office, President Biden released the national COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness plan. Announced on January 21, the strategy introduces a newly created advisor, the COVID-19 Response Coordinator, and the Defense Production Act, which aims to ramp up vaccine production. The goal is to administer 100 million vaccine doses in 100 days—a vaccination plan that the Biden Administration declares a “wartime effort.” Public health experts Thomas Bollyky of the Council on Foreign Relations and Amesh Adalja of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security discuss what steps will be needed to deploy the federal plan. They also look to the future and evaluate how we can better plan for pandemics, reframe our approach, and budget for public health campaigns. 


Lack Of Enforcement Threatens The Endangered Species Act

It’s been nearly 50 years since the Endangered Species Act passed. The 1973 legislation, designed to give government agencies tools to protect species threatened by development or other economic activity, still enjoys high amounts of public support.

But, as investigative reporter Jimmy Tobias writes for The Intercept and Type Investigations this week, one of the main government agencies tasked with enforcing the Act seems to be increasingly hesitant to use its power to block development, a trend that’s stretched back at least since the Clinton administration.

Tobias writes about how this lack of enforcement threatens the survival of one particular animal, the Florida panther—whose Southwest Florida habitat, and roughly 150 remaining members, are at risk from a major proposed development. 

Ira talks to Tobias about the panther, the ESA, and what conservationists think needs to change

Jan 29, 2021
Your Questions About COVID-19 Vaccines Answered, Placenta Science. Jan 29, 2021, Part 1
46:52

Everything You Want To Know About COVID-19 Vaccines

The U.S. has been vaccinating people against COVID-19 for a little over a month. While there have been plenty of hiccups, over 20 million people in the country have received at least one dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna shots.

For the past few weeks, Science Friday has been collecting your questions about the COVID-19 vaccines on the SciFri VoxPop App—and we heard from a lot of listeners. The questions and concerns ranged from if people with antibodies should get vaccinated to if the vaccines are safe for pregnant women.

Joining Ira to tackle these listener questions is Benhur Lee, professor of microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.


 

How Scientists Unravel The Mysteries Of The Placenta

Here’s a fun fact for your next virtual trivia night: What’s the only organ that we can grow temporarily, and discard after it’s been used? The answer: the placenta.

It may be a disposable organ, but scientists have a tricky time studying it: You can’t poke at it, sample it, or pull it out to see how it works while it’s doing its job of growing a human baby.

In an effort to understand how this squishy, purplish, pancake-shaped organ performs some of its most important functions, researchers have had to turn to creative techniques. Ann-Charlotte Iverson, professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and Nicholas Heaton, assistant professor at Duke University, join Science Friday to discuss how the placenta protects a fetus from viral infection and inflammation, and what happens when something goes wrong.


 

A New President, A New Climate Policy

When President Biden was running for office, he campaigned on re-entering the Paris climate accords his first day in the White House. He followed through shortly after being sworn in. But in the week that followed, the new President has also taken additional steps focused on reducing carbon emissions and adapting to the changing climate—like a push to move the government vehicle fleet to electric vehicles, establishing a White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, and pausing oil and gas exploration leases on federal lands.

Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins Ira to talk about Biden’s climate moves, as well as other stories from the week in science, including a study of global ice loss, a halt to Merck’s COVID-19 vaccine trials, and a question about the aquatic habits of an ancient dinosaur.

Jan 29, 2021
Orange Bat, Greenland Bacteria, COVID Anniversary, Alien Argument. Jan 22, 2021, Part 2
46:50

Orange Is The New Black—For Bats

For a newly-described bat from West Africa, dubbed Myotis nimbaensis (mouse-eared bat from the Nimba Mountains), scientists are reaching for a different part of the color wheel. While Myotis does have some black on its body, the overwhelming majority of the bat’s fur is bright orange.  

A team of scientists from the American Museum of Natural History and Bat Conservation International stumbled on the new species while surveying populations of another endangered bat in the Nimba Mountains. It lives in abandoned mine tunnels in the northern part of the mountain range. As those aging tunnels are beginning to collapse, the researchers are working to build new bat-tunnels to help preserve the threatened species.  

Winifred Frick, chief scientist of Bat Conservation International, joins SciFri director Charles Bergquist to discuss the new species, and what’s being done to help protect it.

Greenland’s Microbial Melt-Down

The Greenland ice sheet covers nearly 700,000 square miles—three times the size of Texas. The ice sheet is estimated to have lost nearly 4 trillion tons of ice in the past three decades. A team of researchers recently investigated how the bacteria in the sediments on the ice sheet could be contributing to the melting of the ice. Their results were published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters

Producer Alexa Lim talks to glaciology Asa Rennermalm about how the mix of bacteria and sediments can darken the ice, impacting how the ice sheet melts.

Life Of A Coronavirus Scientist During A Pandemic

Unfortunately, we’ve arrived at a grim pandemic milestone: One full year of a global health crisis. The first COVID-19 cases were reported in December 2019 by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission. 

Last spring, we talked with three coronavirus researchers—Matthew Frieman, Andrea Pruijssers, and Lisa Gralinski—who discussed what the pandemic was like for them, including working in a BSL3 biosafety lab, and how their lives, and research, had been impacted.

Ira checks back in with one of them, Matthew Frieman, to reflect on his experience in the last year, and what he expects for the coming year

Searching For Extraterrestrial Life Like ‘Sherlock Holmes’

Back in October 2017, our solar system received a strange visitor, unlike any seen before. Scientists couldn’t decide if it was an asteroid, a comet, or an ice chunk. To this day, it’s simply classified as an “interstellar object,” dubbed ‘Oumuamua.’

For his part, Harvard astrophysicist Ari Loeb is pretty sure what it is. It’s so hard to classify, he reasons, because it’s a byproduct of intelligent life outside our solar system. But how it found its way here is anyone’s guess.

In his new book Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, Loeb wants you to take the possibility of aliens seriously. He joins Ira to talk about his theory, how an early love of philosophy shaped his views as an astrophysicist, and why searching for extraterrestrial life is a little like being Sherlock Holmes

Jan 22, 2021
Finding Lead Pipes Through Algorithm, How Soil Could Save The Planet. Jan 22, 2021, Part 1
47:42

After Flint’s Crisis, An Algorithm Helps Citizens Find Lead Pipes

It’s been nearly seven years since the beginning of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis, when high levels of lead from corroded lead pipes led to water shortages and health issues for city residents. Since then, many other cities around the country have had their own problems with lead. Researchers estimate that millions of Americans are living with pipes that need to be replaced.

As Wired reported earlier this month, Toledo, Ohio is one of the latest cities trying to get ahead of its legacy of lead plumbing, with the help of an algorithm created by University of Michigan researchers. The model was originally created to help the city of Flint more quickly—and less expensively—target which homes were most likely to need their pipes replaced.

The same researchers are now working as a private company, called BlueConduit, to help other cities do the same work. And in Toledo, they’re working in close partnership with the city and community organizations.

Ira talks with University of Michigan professor and BlueConduit co-founder Eric Schwartz, and Alexis Smith of the nonprofit Freshwater Future, about the work ahead for Toledo, and why deploying an algorithm effectively depends on community trust and input.

Curious if your own water pipes contain lead? EPA-funded project Crowd The Tap has a free tutorial for finding your water service line—and determining the materials of your pipes. The organization’s mission is to ensure safe drinking water in the United States. By sharing what you observe, you can help identify areas for tap water testing and infrastructure replacement. Learn about your pipes, and how you can help at CrowdTheTap.org.


Former Michigan Governor, Other Officials Charged for Flint Water Crisis

In Flint, criminal and civil cases stemming from the city’s lead tainted drinking water crisis are converging this week. New criminal charges may be coming while many in Flint still question whether they will ever get justice. Nearly seven years ago, government leaders here pushed the button that switched the city of Flint’s drinking water source from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River. The intent was to save money. The result was a complete disaster.

Improperly treated river water damaged pipes, which then released lead and other contaminates into the city’s drinking water. Eighteen months later the water was switched back, but the damage was done. Blood lead levels soared in young children. People were forced to use bottled water for drinking and washing clothes. The city was forced to rip out thousands of old pipes.

While testifying about the Flint water crisis before Congress in 2016, former Governor Rick Snyder acknowledged the mistakes. “Local, state and federal officials, we all failed the families of Flint,” Snyder told a congressional committee. Snyder was not among the 15 state and local government officials who faced criminal charges for their handling of the crisis. Half of them pled guilty to lesser charges in exchange for no jail time. And in 2019, Michigan’s new Attorney General dropped charges against the remaining defendants citing problems with the original investigation. The investigation seemed over.

Until Tuesday, when the Associated Press reported that several former government officials, including former Governor Snyder, would be facing new charges. If that happens, legal experts say it would be a difficult case for prosecutors.

Read more at sciencefriday.com.

How Soil Could Save The Planet

There’s a scene in the 2014 film Interstellar that imagines the hypothetical impact of climate change on Earth’s food system. The film takes place in a dystopian future where a global crop blight is slowly rendering the planet uninhabitable. Corn is the last viable crop and dust storms threaten humanity’s survival.

But it’s not just science fiction. Scientists are warning that if we don’t adopt more sustainable farming practices we’ll deplete the soil of vital nutrients and actually accelerate climate change.

The Earth’s soils contain about 2,500 gigatons of carbon—that’s more than three times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and four times the amount stored in all living plants and animals. And the soil—in union with the plants that grow on and in it—may have an unlimited capacity to suck CO2 out of the air and store it underground.

Tom Newmark, founder of The Carbon Underground, joins Ira to discuss the potential of carbon sequestration through a farming technique called “regenerative agriculture.” And Diana Wall, professor of biology at Colorado State University, discusses the role microbes play in the carbon cycle.


President Biden Makes Immediate Changes To U.S. Science Policy

This week’s peaceful transition of power from one administration to another was a win for democracy, but it was also a win for science. Among his first acts in the Oval Office, President Biden signed executive orders allowing the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization, and put the brakes on plans for the Keystone XL pipeline and drilling in the arctic national wildlife refuge.

And there will be more policy changes to come, as the president considers signing a new set of orders designed to ramp up U.S. COVID vaccination efforts in the coming days and weeks.

Umair Irfan, staff reporter for Vox, discusses the major science policy news of the week. Plus, an update on new variants of SARS-CoV-2 and what scientists have discovered about coronavirus immunity.

Jan 22, 2021
Valley Fever And COVID-19, Structure of Conspiracy Theories, New Climate Wars. Jan 15, 2021, Part 2
46:48

How The West Is Battling COVID-19 And Valley Fever

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

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

How To Spot A Conspiracy Theory

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

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

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

A New President, An Ongoing Climate Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


West Virginia Leads In Race To Distribute Vaccines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Can Cells Rewind The Wrinkles Of Time?

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

 

 

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

Finding New Particles On The Frontier of Physics

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

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

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

Giant, Toothed Birds Once Ruled The Skies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Name That Call: Test Your Animal Sound Trivia

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

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

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

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

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

Where Did The Word ‘Vaccine’ Come From?

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

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

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

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

New Year, New Birds

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

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

Birds Of A Feather: Making Science More Inclusive

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

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

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

Nature’s Own Holiday Light Show

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

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


 

Relearning The Star Stories Of Indigenous People

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

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

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

2020: The Year In Science, With Wendy Zukerman

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

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

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


These Worms Are Superheroes Of The Sea

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

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

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

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


How Did Dogs Evolve To Be Domesticated?

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

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

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

What Would Happen If You Fell Into A Black Hole?

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

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

The Case Of The Vanishing Scallops

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

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

Composing A Sound Map Of An Ever-Changing River

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

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

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

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

How The Past Hints About Our Climate’s Future

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

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

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

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

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

Mapping Out The ‘Microbial Skyscrapers’ On Your Tongue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Science Books Of 2020

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

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

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

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

What’s In A (Hurricane) Name?

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

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

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

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

COVID-19 Vaccinations Begin In The U.K.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charting A Path To Deliver The COVID-19 Vaccine

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

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

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

Science Friday’s Second Life: The Voyage Home

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

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

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

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

How Do Wildfires Affect Our Bodies?

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

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

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

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

David Attenborough Observes A Natural World In Crisis

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

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

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


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

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

 

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


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

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

 

 

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

Laugh Along At Home With The Ig Nobel Awards

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

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

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

Koji: The Mold You Want In Your Kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can You Get COVID-19 More Than Once?

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

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


What Is The Future of Meat?

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

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

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

 

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

Exploring The Invisible Architecture Of Cities With Roman Mars

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

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

Big Tech Can’t Stop The Lies

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

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

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

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

Ancient Big Game Hunters May Have Included Women

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

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

Puerto Rico's Famous Arecibo Observatory Decommissioned

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

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

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

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


What Our Climate Can Look Like Under Biden

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

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

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


What The Latest Promising Pfizer And Moderna Vaccine Trials Mean

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

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

 

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

Our Average Body Temperature Is Getting Cooler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Decode Your Dog’s DNA

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

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

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

The New Biden Administration Plans For COVID-19

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

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

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

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


The Election Shows Americans Are Rethinking The War On Drugs

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

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

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

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


Everywhere In America, COVID-19 Is Surging

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

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

 

 

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

What Will The Pandemic Look Like During The Winter?

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

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

Key Congressional Races That Could Affect Future Climate Change Legislation

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

Not So Fast, Murder Hornets

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

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

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

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

How Algae Survived A Mass Extinction

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

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

Gathering Together (Carefully) For A Pandemic Holiday

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

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

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

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

This Accessible Pregnancy Test Has Results You Can Touch

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

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

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

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

Pushing Boundaries In Fantastical Fiction

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

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

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

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

Shipping Nuclear Power Out To Sea

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

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

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

Oct 30, 2020