Science Friday

By Science Friday and WNYC Studios

Listen to a podcast, please open Podcast Republic app. Available on Google Play Store.


Category: Science & Medicine

Open in Apple Podcasts


Open RSS feed


Open Website


Rate for this podcast

Subscribers: 10203
Reviews: 15


 Jul 25, 2021

Wanted to like
 Mar 31, 2021
I've heard a couple interesting things on here but the host gets a little grating after all

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

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


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

Description

Brain fun for curious people.

Episode Date
Gut Fungi, Olympic Challenges, Planetary Seismology. July 30, 2021, Part 2
47:19

Getting To Know The Fungus Among Us (In Our Guts)

Your gut microbiome is composed of more than bacteria—a less populous, but still important, resident is fungi. Many people’s lower digestive tract is home to the yeast Candida albicans, the species implicated in vaginal yeast infections and oral thrush. But new research published in the scientific journal Nature this month suggests that Candida in the gut may also be related to severe cases of inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD.

Candida comes in multiple forms: a single-celled, rounded yeast, and a multicellular, branched version, known as the hyphal form. The latter is capable of invading other cells, and is associated with tissue damage, like that of IBD. The research team writes that our immune system reacts to candida by targeting a protein found on that second, invasive state. Conversely, our bodies seem to leave the rounded, yeast form alone. 

Better understanding what drives these distinct responses may provide clues to developing a vaccine that could help people with candida-linked health problems. And postdoctoral researcher Kyla Ost tells guest host Roxanne Khamsi that the relationship appears to be mutualistic—that is, the fungi themselves benefit from being managed in this way. 

She explains the nuanced relationship she and her colleagues uncovered, and how uncovering more about gut fungi may bring new insights into the relationship between our microbial communities and our health.

 


  

COVID And Climate Change Collide At The Olympics

The Tokyo Olympics have been underway for a week, with talented athletes competing at their peak. But this year, it’s hard to watch the Olympics without thinking about two of the biggest science stories of the summer: COVID-19, and the record heat and humidity athletes are facing as part of this year’s games.

Holding the Olympics during a global pandemic is uncharted territory, and keeping the virus out of the games has been a huge logistical challenge. There are more than 11,000 athletes participating in this summer’s games, coming from 206 nations. Factor in the coaches, staff, press, and service workers, and that’s a lot of people to keep healthy.

As if that wasn’t enough, Tokyo is experiencing extreme heat and humidity, consistently reaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit with humidity at about 80%. While the city has always had hot summers, they have gotten worse with climate change. Tokyo’s average annual temperature has risen by more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, according to NASA. Athletes have had to take additional measures to keep themselves cool.

To tackle these stories, guest host Roxanne Khamsi talks to sports writer Hannah Keyser, from Yahoo Sports, about the Olympics’ COVID-19 protocols, as well as her experience as a reporter covering the games in Tokyo. Then, Roxanne speaks with Scott Delp, professor of bioengineering at Stanford University and director of the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance, about athletic performance and safety.


 

What’s Shaking Below Mars’ Surface?

You’ve seen the effects of earthquakes on our planet. The ground shakes, the earth trembles, and if a quake is strong enough, it can bring widespread damage and devastation. But it turns out that ours is not the only quaking planet around—there are quakes caused by geologic activity on Mars too. While Mars doesn’t have plate tectonics like Earth, other processes, from volcanic activity to planetary cooling, can cause tremors in the ground. Seismologists have been using these marsquakes almost like sonar signals through the planet’s interior to provide clues as to what’s going on below the Martian surface.  

Several new papers based on the data from the Mars InSight lander were recently published in the academic journal Science. Bruce Banerdt, principal investigator, and Sue Smrekar, deputy principal investigator for the InSight lander, join guest host Roxanne Khamsi to talk about the results and how they compare to Earth geology. Smrekar also gives a preview of the planned VERITAS mission to Venus, which will attempt to deduce some of Venus’ geologic processes from orbit. Smrekar is principal investigator for VERITAS, which might launch in 2027.

Jul 30, 2021
New CDC Mask Rules, Viral Persistence, Disaster Preparedness. July 30, 2021, Part 1
46:36

With Delta Rising, New Rules On Masks And Vaccines

This week, the CDC released new guidelines for mask use in the U.S., just months after many cities and towns relaxed mask mandates. The guidance says that “to reduce their risk of becoming infected with the Delta variant and potentially spreading it to others: CDC recommends that fully vaccinated people wear a mask in public indoor settings if they are in an area of substantial or high transmission.”

Right now, many parts of the country fall under that category. In response to the guidance, several municipalities re-instituted mask mandates for their communities.

This week, New York chose to require either COVID-19 vaccination or weekly testing for public employees. Other municipalities have also announced vaccine requirements—and some private companies, including Facebook, have also indicated that vaccination will be required for employment.

Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins guest host Roxanne Khamsi to talk about the new rules and other stories from the week in science, including studies of clouds and climate change, Olympic psychology, and caffeinated bees.


How Long Do Viruses Hang Out In Your Body?

Throughout the pandemic, scientists have been learning more about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID. But there are still big questions, like how long the virus can survive in your body.

This week, infectious disease specialist Diane Griffin talks about how viruses—from SARS-CoV-2 to HIV to measles—persist in the body, and how this can provide new insights into how long people might stay contagious.


A Disasterologist On Coming Together To Weather The Climate Crisis

As climate change amplifies the risks of natural hazards like wildfires, hurricanes, drought, and more, there’s a group of scientists hoping to change the way the United States responds to the disasters that often result.

They are disaster researchers: the people who study the engineering, sociology, and even psychology of what makes the difference between an easily handled hurricane, and a catastrophe like Hurricane Maria, which wiped out infrastructure, destroyed 800,000 homes, and killed an estimated 5,000 people in Puerto Rico in 2017.

Emergency management researcher Samantha Montano is the author of the forthcoming book Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis. She talks to producer Christie Taylor about the nuts and bolts of preparing for a disaster, how climate change is changing the equation, and how justice in disaster response will be more important than ever.

Jul 30, 2021
Shellfish Deaths, Chemical Safety, Humpback Songs. July 23, 2021, Part 2
46:50

Billions Of Sea Creatures, Lost To Heat Waves

A couple weeks ago, the Pacific Northwest saw record-breaking temperatures. News coverage captured countless people suffering, and dying, during triple-digit heat the region had never seen before. Portland and Seattle reached their highest temperatures ever recorded. Canada set a new record for the highest temperature ever seen in the country with a measurement of 118 degrees Fahrenheit in British Columbia.

However, there are still more victims of the climate crisis tragedy in the Pacific Northwest: coastal wildlife. Experts estimate that over the course of that one scorching weekend, over a billion sea creatures died.

Starfish, mussels, oysters, clams, barnacles, sea snails—all of these animals and more virtually baked to death on the beach as they sat, helpless, in the intense heat during low tide. 

Chris Harley, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia, witnessed this die-off firsthand. He joins Ira to talk about what this loss means for the future of life along the coast.

 


  

EPA Whistleblowers Allege ‘Atmosphere Of Fear’

Earlier this month, four whistleblowers from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) chemical safety office went public with allegations of intimidation and downplayed chemical risks, stating:

“The Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention is broken… The entire New Chemicals program operates under an atmosphere of fear—scientists are afraid of retaliation for trying to implement TSCA the way Congress intended, and they fear that their actions (or inactions) at the direction of management are resulting in harm to human health and the environment.”

John Dankosky spoke with two of the whistleblowers, along with Sharon Lerner, an investigative reporter who originally broke this story for The Intercept. As EPA staff, they were not authorized to speak with the press, but chose to participate in this interview as private citizens regarding a matter of public concern.

We contacted the EPA and received the following statement:

“This Administration is committed to investigating alleged violations of scientific integrity. It is critical that all EPA decisions are informed by rigorous scientific information and standards. As one of his first acts as Administrator, Administrator Regan issued a memorandum outlining concrete steps to reinforce the agency’s commitment to science. EPA takes seriously all allegations of violations of scientific integrity. EPA’s scientific integrity official and scientific integrity team members will thoroughly investigate any allegation of violation of EPA’s scientific integrity policy that they receive and work to safeguard EPA science. Additionally, EPA is currently reviewing agency policies, processes, and practices to ensure that the best available science and data inform Agency decisions. EPA is committed to fostering a culture of evaluation and continuous learning that promotes an open exchange of differing scientific and policy positions. Additionally, retaliation against EPA employees for reporting violations alleged to have occurred will not be tolerated in this administration.   

EPA leadership are reviewing these complaints, and any appropriate action will be taken.”



 

How The Humpback Says Hello

A humpback whale makes two kinds of noises. The first are songs, long, elaborate, patterned and rhythmic vocalizations made by mature males, with some connection to the mating ritual. Within any given pod, every male sings the same song, but the songs themselves are different in pods around the world.

The second kind are calls, short sounds made by every whale, that seem much more consistent across populations and over time. Of around 50 documented kinds of calls, scientists have settled on the meaning of one for sure: the sound the whales make when feeding on one specific kind of fish.

In the decades since scientists first began to investigate the calls and songs of humpback whales, the exact function of these noises has been a tough mystery to crack. Humpbacks’ watery habitat makes researching them difficult and expensive, and the whales themselves live on slow time scales that make leaps in understanding a process that can take decades. 

Now, the new documentary Fathom tells the story of two researchers working to further understand what humpback whales are saying, and why they say it. Cornell University researcher Michelle Fournet investigated a call—the ‘whup’ call—that seems to be a greeting, and found when she played the sound underwater, the whales responded back to her. And University of St. Andrews scientist Ellen Garland scoured recordings of South Pacific humpbacks to find out how pods will suddenly adopt new songs despite little contact with other populations.

Ira talks to Garland and Fournet about their work, the complexity of whale communication, and how understanding it better could help save them from human threats.

Jul 23, 2021
Surgeon General, Blockchain. July 23, 2021, Part 1
47:04

Flooding Worldwide Fits Climate Change Models

While the western United States is burning again this summer, other parts of the world are drowning. Germany, Belgium, and China saw floods this week after intense rainstorms that dropped many inches of rain in matters of hours, killing hundreds and displacing thousands. In Turkey and Nigeria, less deadly rain events throughout July have still flooded streets and destroyed homes.

And as climate change continues around the globe, scientists say these intense rain events will only worsen, putting flood-prone areas at risk of longer-lasting, and faster-raining storms.

FiveThirtyEight science writer Maggie Koerth talks to Ira about the rising cost of rain events under climate change. Plus, why climate change may be hurting monarch butterflies more than a lack of milkweed, a first step toward experiments in geoengineering, and how Australia’s cockatoos are spreading a culture of dumpster-diving.

 


 

Biden’s Surgeon General On How To Tackle Vaccine Hesitancy

It’s a tale of two pandemics. In some parts of the country, communities are opening up, saying it’s time to get back to normal. In other pockets of the country, infection numbers and hospital admissions are creeping up again—and some places, such as Los Angeles County, have moved to reinstate mask mandates, even for the vaccinated.  

The key factor in the pandemic response in many communities is the local vaccination level, with outlooks very different for vaccinated and unvaccinated people. But even as public health workers advocate for widespread vaccination, misinformation and disinformation is discouraging some vulnerable people from taking the vaccine.

Dr. Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States, joins Ira to talk about vaccine hesitancy, the U.S. response to the pandemic, preparing for public health on a global scale, and post-pandemic public health priorities.

 


  

Will Blockchain Really Change The Way The Internet Runs?

The internet has changed quite a bit over the last few decades. People of a certain age may remember having to use dial-up to get connected, or Netscape as the first web browser. Now, social networking is king, and it’s easier than ever to find information at the click of a mouse.

But the modern internet has massive privacy concerns, with many sites collecting, retaining, and sometimes sharing user’s personal information. This has led many technology-minded people to think about what the future of the web might look like.

Enter blockchain, a decentralized database technology that some say will change the way the internet runs, while giving users more control over their data. Some say that blockchain will be the basis for the next version of the internet, a so-called “Web 3.0.” 

But where are we now with blockchain technology, and can it be everything we want it to be? Joining Ira to wade through the jargon of blockchain and the future of the internet is Morgen Peck, freelance technology journalist based in New York.

 

Jul 23, 2021
Songbird Mystery, Sweat, Betelgeuse. July 16, 2021, Part 2
47:07

Songbirds Suffer Mystery Illness From The East Coast To The Midwest

The reports started in late May: Songbirds in Washington, D.C. and neighboring regions were being found dead, often with swollen and crusty eyes. In the days that followed, similar sightings came from many states, including Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Now, the symptoms have been seen as far west as Indiana—but wildlife experts still aren’t sure what’s causing the deaths. 

The illness has affected many species, including American robins, blue jays, common grackles, and European starlings. So far, investigators have found no signs of   salmonella and chlamydia; avian influenza virus; West Nile virus and other flaviviruses; Newcastle disease virus and other paramyxoviruses; herpesviruses and poxviruses; or Trichomonas parasites. But unfortunately, their tests have been inconclusive as to the actual cause. Experts are asking people in the affected areas to be on the lookout for birds with crusty eyes or behaving strangely—and in an effort at avian social distancing, they’re suggesting removing bird feeders until the cause of the ‘mortality event’ is known. 

Ira talks with Allisyn Gillet, state ornithologist for Indiana, and Lisa Murphy, a toxicologist and co-director of the Wildlife Futures Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, about what’s known so far about the illness, and about what steps investigators are taking to try to solve the medical mystery

If you find a bird exhibiting these symptoms, researchers encourage you to report it to the Wildlife Futures Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

 


 

Sweating Is Our Biological Superpower

Sweat may feel like a constant summer companion, whether or not you exercise frequently. Being damp can feel uncomfortable, but the smells that follow—thanks to the lives and deaths of sweat-munching bacteria—are often socially stigmatized as well. (Deodorant itself is actually a very recent invention!)

But sweat isn’t just a cosmetic embarrassment: It’s crucial to keeping us cool, as the evaporating liquid pulls heat energy from our bodies. If you look at animals that don’t sweat, many have evolved alternate adaptations like peeing or even pooping on body parts to achieve that vital evaporative effect. People who are born unable to sweat run a constant risk of heatstroke.

Ira talks to Sarah Everts, author of the new book, The Joy Of Sweat, about what makes sweat useful, the cool chemistry of this bodily fluid, and why it’s our evolutionary superpower.

 


  

Betelgeuse’s False Supernova Alarm

The famous red giant star, Betelgeuse, sits on the left shoulder of the constellation Orion. It’s one of the brightest stars in the night sky, distinguishable by its faint red hue. 

In December 2019, the star suddenly dimmed to about a third of its usual brightness. Scientists called this the ‘Great Dimming.’ And there was some speculation in the news that the dimming meant Betelgeuse was about to explode in a giant supernova.

But within months, Betelgeuse quietly returned to its original brightness, leaving astronomers perplexed. Now, nearly two years after the initial dimming, a study recently published in Nature proposed a theory for Betelgeuse’s Great Dimming.

Supernova expert Sarafina Nance joins Ira to talk about Betelgeuse, give an outside perspective on the new Nature study, and discuss her science communication work

 

Jul 16, 2021
New Battery Technology, COVID Rise From Unvaccinated Populations. July 16, 2021, Part 1
47:12

Research For New Battery Technology Is Gaining Steam

As countries around the world set their goals for decarbonizing their economies, it’s becoming clear that batteries may play a pivotal role in smoothing out the peaks and valleys of solar and wind power productions, as well as driving a shift to electric vehicles, and providing power for other parts of our lives.

Lithium-ion batteries are now the standard. They run electric cars and power your laptop and cell phone. But they have major drawbacks, like overheating and their high costs. The supply chain and environmental impact of lithium-ion power cells also raise concerns: mining the materials—like lithium, cobalt, and other metals—requires polluting, water-intensive processes. While many deposits are only found in foreign locations, some U.S. companies are now looking to mine domestically, concerning environmental advocates.

The search for a better battery is on, and promising developments include new chemistries for efficiently storing energy, and smarter ways to plug them into the grid. This week, Ira talks to IEEE Spectrum senior editor Jean Kumagai, and Argonne National Laboratory’s Venkat Srinivasan about the promises, the roadblocks, and what to watch for in future battery technology.

 


 

A Tale Of Two Pandemics

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen many different aspects of the illness—the early surges and community shutdowns, the debates over schools and masks, and, now, signs of hope as more people are vaccinated and communities reopen.

But the story is different among unvaccinated populations. In many snapshots of new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, those affected are overwhelmingly unvaccinated people. Even as the value of vaccination becomes more apparent, some people are still resistant to the vaccines.

And in Tennessee, government officials told public health workers to stop vaccination outreach to young people—not just for COVID-19, but for all childhood vaccinations.

Amy Nordrum of MIT Technology Review talks with Ira about the latest in the pandemic, and the importance of vaccination in the face of the rising COVID variant known as Delta.

They also talk about the role of cities in climate change, a new list of drinking water contaminants for possible regulation that includes the socalled “forever” PFAS chemicals, a disappearing group of ransomware hackers, and more.

Jul 16, 2021
African Wild Dogs, Spotted Lanternfly, Seashells. July 9, 2021, Part 1
47:11

Sniffing Out How To Save African Wild Dogs

One of the most endangered mammals on Earth, African wild dogs are known for their oversized ears, social bonds, and highly efficient hunting style. That predatory nature is now contributing to their threatened status, as their territory in sub-Saharan Africa increasingly overlaps with human farmers, who often use poison or other lethal deterrents to protect their livestock from wild dogs and other predators.

Producer Christie Taylor talks to carnivore biologist Gabi Fleury about their research on African wild dogs and other threatened wildlife, and how thoughtful applications of technology could help solve conflicts between farmers and hungry predators—hopefully saving dogs’ lives. Plus, she talks about what it’s like to make it into conservation biology, after a lifetime of dreaming about it.


See A Spotted Lanternfly? Squash It!

If you live in Pennsylvania or any of its surrounding environs, you’ve probably seen a really interesting looking bug in the past few years: the spotted lanternfly. Around this time of year, it’s in its nymph stage. But when fully grown, these lanternflies sound a little like the joke—they’re black and white and red all over. They’ve also got spots, as their name suggests.

The charming news about how interesting they look is offset by the bad news: They are an invasive species. And they frighten crop farmers because they have a taste for just about anything, and a fondness for grapes, which could have dramatic economic consequences. 

Many states have a unified stance on what to do if you spy a spotted lanternfly—stomp them out. But is that an effective way to stop their spread? Joining Ira to chat about stomping techniques and lanternfly biology is Julie Urban, associate research professor in entomology at Penn State University, in State College, Pennsylvania.


Listening To Shells, An Oracle Of Ocean Health

If you’re a beach person, few things are more relaxing than slowly wandering along the shore, looking for seashells. Your goal might be a perfect glossy black mussel shell, or a daintily-fluted scallop, or a more exotic shell full of twists and spirals, like a queen conch.

The human fascination with seashells dates back to prehistory. Shell trumpets have been found in Mayan temples. Shell beads abound in the remains of the midwestern metropolis of Cahokia. And the Calusa Kingdom, in what is now Florida, literally built their civilization on shells

But seashells are more than just a beachgoer’s collector’s item. They’re homes to living creatures known as mollusks, built through a complex process called biomineralization. They’re also a harbinger of environmental change—and warming seas and acidifying oceans could change the outlook for shells around the world. 

Environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett joins Ira to talk about the biology, history, and environmental significance of the seashell. She’s the author of the new book, The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Ocean.

Jul 09, 2021
John McPhee’s Annals Of The Former World. July 9, 2021, Part 2
46:39

Writing, Like Geology, Requires A Little Digging

When author John McPhee first considered the piece of writing that would become his 1998 book, Annals of the Former World, he envisioned a short, un-bylined article in The New Yorker, in which he would visit a road cut on Route 80—a piece that could probably be completed in a few days. Instead, that idea became a 700-page coast to coast exploration of the geology of North America, a project that took over 20 years to complete.

In this archival interview, recorded in June 1999, McPhee talks with Ira Flatow about the process of reporting Annals of the Former World, which had just won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. They talk about rocks, maps, and geology, of course—but also about characters, nuclear physics, migrating fish, and the craft of writing. McPhee, who also teaches nonfiction writing at Princeton University, likened his teaching role to that of a previous job as a swimming coach.

“The people I was teaching swimming [to] all knew how to swim,” he said. “What I was trying to do was to help them swim better, to streamline them. And that's very analogous to talking to people about writing. I'm not teaching anyone to write. I'm just helping people with little ideas that they may or may not pick up."

Jul 09, 2021
Garden Hotline, Benjamin Franklin. July 2, 2021, Part 2
47:06

The Science Of Your Summer Vegetable Garden

Planting and tending to a vegetable garden is both an art and a science. If all goes well, you’ll be enjoying delicious homemade salads all summer long. But if your tomatoes get too little water, or if the soil is too acidic, or if pests get to the lettuce before you do, then all that hard work may have been for nothing.

Whether you’re a seasoned grower or first-time gardener, it’s never a bad idea to hear what the experts have to say. Years ago there was a radio program in New York called “The Garden Hotline,” hosted by horticultural expert the late Ralph Snodsmith. Every Sunday morning on WOR, Snodsmith fielded listeners’ questions, such as: “Can coffee and tea grounds help acidify my soil? Not to any marked degree. Can seedlings thinned from a row of lettuce be used as transplants? If you’re careful with their tiny roots, yes. Is it better to plant my tomato transplants into the garden on a sunny or cloudy day? Cloudy, since reduced light exposure reduces transpiration.” 

This week, Science Friday pays homage to Snodsmith’s original radio program and others like it, answering questions about the science of your summer vegetable garden. Ira is joined by Elizabeth Buck, fresh market vegetable production specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension, and Gary Pilarchik, hobbyist gardener and host of the YouTube channel The Rusted Garden, to answer SciFri listener questions in front of a live Zoom audience.


Recalling The Life Of Benjamin Franklin, Scientist

Benjamin Franklin was a printer, politician, diplomat, and journalist. But despite only two years of schooling, he was also an ingenious scientist. In this conversation from 2010, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dudley Herschbach and Ben Franklin biographer Philip Dray discuss the achievements of the statesman-scientist.

 

Jul 02, 2021
Extreme Heat, COVID Delta Variant, Poe’s Science. July 2, 2021, Part 1
46:59

The Alarming Impacts Of Extreme Heat

This week, the Pacific Northwest was hit by a record breaking heat wave, with temperatures rising as high as 116 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland, Oregon. Experts say of all the extreme weather events brought on by climate change and heat waves stand to do the most damage to the environment, infrastructure, and human health.

Umair Irfan, staff writer for Vox, joins Ira to share more about the alarming impacts of such extreme heat. Plus, as record-breaking heat becomes more common, air travel may get more difficult. And physicist Rhett Allain explains why airplanes have trouble getting off the ground as the temperature rises.

 


How Alarmed Should You Be About The Delta Variant?

It’s been six months since the first variant of COVID-19 raised alarm bells around the world. Now, a particular variant seems to be spreading rapidly: the Delta variant, first identified in India, and now the dominant strain in many countries, including the United Kingdom. In the United States, the variant makes up more than 20% of cases.

South Africa, Australia, Germany, and other countries are re-imposing limits on travel and daily life. And Israel, where more than 60% of people are vaccinated, has reinstated mask requirements. In fact, the World Health Organization is recommending that all fully vaccinated people continue to wear masks as this variant spreads.

What does that mean for you? Virologist Angela Rasmussen helps take the temperature of the Delta variant and other COVID-19 news—including promising results on the Novavax vaccine, clues about long-lasting immunity from Pfizer’s mRNA shot, and more.

 


 

How Edgar Allan Poe Exposed Scientific Hoaxes—And Perpetrated Them

“Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

When you think of Edgar Allen Poe, poems like “The Raven” and “The Telltale Heart” may pop to mind. But throughout the poet’s life, he was absolutely fascinated by science. His love of subjects like astronomy and physics—along with the tragedy that followed him throughout his life—informed his poems and essays. Through this work, Poe may have also had an impact on science itself.

Poe’s scientific life is investigated in the new book, The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science. In many ways, it explains, Poe’s scientific fascination was a product of its time. He grew up in the early 1800s, which was a time when a widespread thirst for knowledge was beginning to flourish. Poe loved to expose scientific hoaxes, while simultaneously perpetrating them himself. And his self-proclaimed magnum opus, a largely unsuccessful venture, was a nonfiction essay about the nature of the universe, called “Eureka.”

Author John Tresch joins Ira to discuss Poe’s life, legacy, and works. Tresch is professor of history of science at the Warburg Institute in the University of London, based in London, England.

Jul 02, 2021
Cephalopod Week Wrap Up, California Carbon Credits Error. June 25, 2021, Part 1
46:54

California’s Climate Program Is Actually Adding Carbon To The Atmosphere

California has a reputation as the state that’s doing the most about climate change. And the lynchpin of those efforts is California’s Cap-and-Trade program, where the state’s biggest polluters—like ExxonMobil, BP, and others—are required to offset their carbon dioxide emissions by investing in carbon reduction strategies.

But according to a recent investigation by ProPublica and others, this climate solution is actually adding millions of tons of carbon to the atmosphere. They discovered a loophole in the state’s forest offset program, which seeks to reduce carbon emissions by preserving trees.

Uncovered by additional reporting, they found that the Massachusetts Audubon Society, a forest conservation organization, enrolled 9,700 acres it owned into California’s program and received the credits, even though it was unlikely that Mass Audubon ever intended to cut down its preserved forests. The intended use of these offsets was to change the behavior of landowners who were likely to cut down trees, releasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The result, in this instance, seemed to go against the spirit of the Cap-And-Trade program, that the state’s biggest polluters’ emissions weren’t truly being offset.

Guest host Sophie Bushwick is joined by Lisa Song, a ProPublica reporter who broke this story with MIT Technology Review, with help from Carbon Plan, a nonprofit that analyzes the scientific integrity of carbon removal efforts.

Read Lisa’s investigative story here.

 


 

A Monterey Bay Aquarium Scientist Gives Fun Facts About Cephalopods

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! No, not the holidays—it’s Cephalopod Week, and SciFri uses any excuse to celebrate the mysterious squid, the charismatic octopus and the cute cuttlefish.

If anyone matches SciFri’s enthusiasm for marine invertebrates, it’s the folks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Guest host Sophie Bushwick talks to Christina Biggs, senior aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California. Biggs spills behind-the-scenes details about everything from raising cephalopods from eggs to how their dietary preferences can resemble those of picky toddlers.

“She’ll come right over to grab food,” Biggs says of one of the aquarium’s Giant Pacific Octopuses. “And on Sardine Sundays, she just tosses it right over her head and just waits for something better.”

Can’t get enough of Cephalopod Week? Listen to the latest episode of SciFri’s Science Diction podcast, or check out some fun cephalopod-themed videos on TikTok.

 


 

The Long Tail Of Long COVID

As the highly transmissible delta variant of COVID-19 continues to spread, it now makes up more than 20% of cases in the United States—including in Missouri, where cases are the highest since mid-February.

Meanwhile, a new report finds the number of people experiencing long-term COVID symptoms is as high as 23% of those who have ever had the disease, including people who never had symptoms in their initial infection. The report from FAIR Health, which surveyed the insurance records of more than two million people, is the largest yet to investigate long COVID.

Guest host Sophie Bushwick talks to the MIT Technology Review’s Amy Nordrum about the long reach of COVID-19. Plus a bet about improbable physics, the arrival of baby bobtail squid at the International Space Station, and what happens when a spider eats a snake.

Jun 25, 2021
UFO Report, Animal Play, Alzheimers and Music. June 25, 2021, Part 2
47:01

Is The Truth About UFOs Out There?

Over the past several years, U.S. Navy pilots have reported several instances of ”unexplained aerial phenomena” while in flight. They’ve recorded videos that show shapes that appear to move in unusual ways, zooming and turning in ways  beyond the capabilities of our own aircraft. After several members of Congress requested an explanation for the videos, the government put together a report on the phenomena.  

The report, however, doesn’t definitively answer the question of what the observations show. While it does say that the observations aren’t of secret U.S. technology, it has no conclusions on whether the reports show foreign technology, camera artifacts, or something else—like alien technology.

Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, spends his time searching for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. He says that while he does believe intelligent alien life exists—and may even be discovered within the next 20 years or so—he does not think the sightings included in the government report indicate alien visitors. He shares his reasons for skepticism with host Sophie Bushwick, as well as talks about people’s desire to believe in extraterrestrials


Rats Learn To Hide And Seek 

One of the most wonderful things about the internet is how you could spend years watching videos of animals at play. There’s the classic cat-playing-with-a-box genre. You can also watch a dog playing jenga. And you can type in pretty much any combination of animals, along with the word “playing,” and find adorable videos—like a baby deer, rough-housing with a lemur. Incredible stuff. 

Neuroscientist Juan Ignacio Sanguinetti of the Humboldt University of Berlin gets inspiration for his work by watching home videos like that. And in his latest work, in the journal Science, he describes playing hide-and-seek—with rats.


Making Music To Sharpen Aging Brains

While research continues on drugs that can slow or reverse the- damage of Alzheimer’s disease, there is already evidence for a lower-tech intervention: music. Research on the benefits of listening to music has found some evidence that it can activate regions of the brain not damaged by disease progression, soothe emotional disturbances, and promote some cognitive improvement in later stages of Alzheimer’s.

A new analysis in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society earlier this year looked at a different question. Can making music, whether by playing a musical instrument or singing, have an effect on the brains of people in the early stages of cognitive decline? The team focused specifically on people experiencing ‘mild cognitive decline,’ which can be the first step in a progression toward Alzheimer’s disease or more serious dementia. The researchers found evidence from 21 studies, involving more than 1,400 participants around the world, that yes, playing musical instruments, singing, or otherwise participating in making music can have a small but consistent benefit in recall, and other measures of brain health.

Lead author Jennie Dorris, a professional percussionist turned PhD student studying rehabilitation sciences, talks to guest host Sophie Bushwick about the evidence for cognitive improvement, and what questions still remain about the effects of active music participation on the brain.

Jun 25, 2021
Immunocompromised and Covid, Summer SciFi Reading. June 18, 2021, Part 2
47:18

COVID-19 Vaccines May Not Protect Immunocompromised People

This week, California and New York, two of the states hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, announced that they were relaxing almost all coronavirus-related business restrictions. Across the country, vaccination numbers are slowly ticking up—although a troubling COVID-19 variant known as Delta is picking up as well. As things reopen, experts warn that people with compromised immune systems may not be well protected, even if they do get the vaccine. 

There are many reasons someone might have a weakened immune system, including an illness, cancer treatment, or the use of immune-suppressing drugs needed for an organ transplant. But regardless of the reason, immunocompromised people may not be able to mount a strong antibody response to the vaccines. 

Dr. John Mellors, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and Dr. Lindsay Ryan, an internist at UCSF in San Francisco who is herself immunocompromised, talk with Ira about what we know about the performance of COVID-19 vaccines in immunocompromised people, and what people with weakened immune systems can do to help protect themselves against the illness.

 


The Best Sci-Fi Books To Read This Summer

Whether you’ve had a hard time reading during the pandemic, or you zoomed through your book pile and are craving more, Science Friday’s annual list of the best summer science books is here for you. 

As the world begins to open up, many of us are not quite comfortable traveling like we once did. But what a better way to escape without going too far than by immersing ourselves in some science fiction? Hit the beach—and another dimension, travel to space from the safety of your backyard, or take a hike back in time to an alternate era. 

And this summer we tapped two sci-fi aficionados to help build our list. Annale Newitz, science journalist and author of Four Lost Cities, and Gretchen Treu, co-owner of A Room of One’s Own Bookstore, in Madison Wisconsin, share their superb summer selections with Ira in front of a live Zoom audience. 

Get the list of the books recommended by our guests

Jun 18, 2021
Marijuana And Medicine, Cephalopod Week, Environmental Antidepressants. June 18, 2021, Part 1
47:14

How To Talk About Medical Marijuana With Your Doctor

Over the last decade, cannabis has had a moment. Thirty-six states and Washington D.C. have legalized it for medical use. (Fifteen states, plus D.C., have also legalized weed recreationally.) Altogether, about 5.5 million people in the U.S. now have medical marijuana cards.

One of the primary arguments for expanding marijuana laws is the drug’s potential usefulness for medical treatments. While each state has its own rules for which conditions are eligible, issues like chronic pain are nearly universally accepted as a reason for using medical marijuana.

But there’s still a large divide between the traditional medical establishment and the cannabis industry. Cannabis is still illegal federally, and a recent study showed that many clinicians feel they don’t know enough about medical marijuana to make a recommendation to patients. This in turn impacts how patients feel about talking to their doctor about using cannabis to treat medical conditions.

Joining Ira to talk about the ins and outs of connecting cannabis to the larger medical establishment are Dr. Ziva Cooper, research director for UCLA’s Cannabis Research Initiative in San Francisco, California, and Dr. Donald Abrams, integrative oncologist and professor emeritus at University of California San Francisco’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.

 


 

What Can Crayfish Tell Us About Drugs In Our Waterways?

Wastewater is a grab bag of chemicals. There’s industrial run-off, bits of animal and viral DNA, and then there are compounds that trickle out from our households. The medicines we’re flushing down the toilet or releasing through urine are making their way into countless bodies of water.

Antidepressants are one of the drugs that frequently end up in the environment. A team of scientists wanted to study the effects of these antidepressants on streams wending their way through ecosystems. So they looked to none other than the crayfish. They found that crayfish exposed to these drugs were a bit bolder. Their results were published this week in the journal Ecosphere. Freshwater ecologist Lindsey Reisinger and freshwater biogeochemist A.J. Reisinger, who are both authors on that study, talk about how these drugs affect crayfish and potential downstream effects on waterways and the ecosystem.

 


 

We Aren’t Squidding Around—It’s Cephalopod Week 2021!

The wait is over—Cephalopod Week 2021 is finally here. It’s Science Friday’s annual ceph-lo-bration of all things mostly-tentacled, and this year’s lineup of events is going to be ceph-tacular.

Visit behind-the-scenes at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, play deep sea trivia, watch mini documentaries, chat with real scientists working with cephalopods every day, and a whole lot more.

Diana Montano, SciFri’s outreach manager and emcee of the deep sea, joins Ira and Science Diction host Johanna Mayer to kick things off, with some trivia about the origins of squiddy words.

 


 

Kids Are Benefiting From Adult Vaccinations, Too

Something interesting is happening in some communities where most adults are vaccinated against COVID-19: infection rates in kids are going way down, too. Right now, Americans 12 and older are eligible for the vaccine, leaving the country’s youngest still exposed. So this is a promising sign, considering about two-thirds of U.S. adults have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine.

But some experts are saying we still need to be cautious about throwing kids together again before they’re vaccinated. Joining Ira to chat about this story is Maggie Koerth, senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They also talk about other top science stories of the week, including news that cicada broods might emerge more often with climate change.

 

 

 

 

Jun 18, 2021
Health Equity And Trans Health, Human-Robot Relationship. June 11, 2020, Part 1
47:45

Biden’s New Assistant Secretary Of Health On Protecting Trans Youth

The American healthcare system is facing some incredible challenges: Black and Latino communities were hit harder by COVID-19, and have lower vaccination rates than white, Asian, and Native American communities. The opioid crisis is still raging, climate change is disproportionately impacting the health of communities of color, and a wave of anti-trans healthcare bills are being pushed by Republican lawmakers through multiple states.

Dr. Rachel Levine, President Biden’s appointee for assistant secretary of health for the department of Health and Human Services, is aiming to take on all of that, and more. She previously served as Pennsylvania’s secretary of health and physician general, combating both the opioid and COVID-19 crises there. Now, she wants to scale those efforts to a federal level, in addition to helping meet President Biden’s goal of getting 70% of adults with at least one vaccine dose by July 4. She also made history as the highest-ranking, openly transgender person to have served in the federal government.

Levine talks to Ira about the steps needed to achieve health equity, advocating for the healthcare rights of trans youth and adults, and her ambitions for her time in office.

 


Why Oxen Were The Original Robots

In media and pop culture narratives about robotic futures, two main themes dominate: there are depictions of violent robot uprisings, like the Terminator. And then there are those that circle around the less deadly, more commonplace, fear that machines will simply replace humans in every role we excel at.

There is already precedent for robots moving into heavy lifting jobs like manufacturing, dangerous ones like exploring outer space, and the most boring of administrative tasks, like computing. But roboticist Kate Darling would like to suggest a new narrative for imagining a better future—instead of fighting or competing, why can’t we be partners?

The precedent for that, too, is already here—in our relationships with animals. As Darling writes in The New Breed: What Our History With Animals Reveals About Our Future With Robots, robotic intelligence is so different from ours, and their skills so specialized, that we should envision them as complements to our own abilities. In the same way, she says, a horse helps us travel faster, pigeons once delivered mail, and dogs have become our emotional companions.

Darling speaks with Ira about the historical lessons of our relationships with animals, and how they could inform our legal, ethical, and even emotional choices about robots and AI.

 

Jun 11, 2021
Alzheimer’s Treatment Controversy, Science Mistakes, Chonky Fish. June 11, 2020, Part 2
60:19

FDA’s Approval Of Debated Alzheimer’s Treatment Raises Controversy

This week, the FDA gave the green light to a drug for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. The drug, a monoclonal antibody called aducanumab, is the first Alzheimer’s treatment to receive approval in almost 20 years. It targets the amyloid protein that forms the tangled plaques found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. But while researchers agree that aducanumab leads to less amyloid plaque, no one really knows what that means in terms of real benefits for people with the disease.

Researchers still don’t understand the role of amyloid in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease—and in two studies conducted by the company Biogen, only one showed taking aducanumab provided a slight cognitive benefit to people with early Alzheimer’s. The other study showed no effect compared to a placebo. However, the FDA elected to ignore the recommendations of an outside advisory panel, and approved the medication under an accelerated approval process. The drugmaker will be required to conduct additional testing on the treatment while it is on the market, and the FDA has the option to rescind approval if a Phase 4 trial fails to show efficacy.

Biogen will sell the treatment under the trade name Aduhelm, at a list price of around $56,000 per year—not including the extensive office visits, tests, brain scans, and monitoring that will go along with the course of treatment. Pam Belluck, a writer covering science and medicine for the New York Times, joins host John Dankosky to explain the decision, and how the drug might fit into the larger picture of Alzheimer’s research.


When Scientists Get It Wrong

A couple of years ago, Julia Strand was trying and failing to replicate a study she’d published. At the time, she was an assistant professor without tenure, and the original study had presented her most exciting finding to date. But when she and her co-authors tried to replicate it, they got the opposite results. Then one night, Julia discovered why. In her original code, she’d made a tiny but critical error, and now, with her reputation and job on the line, she was going to have to tell the world about it.

Science is often said to be “self-correcting”—through peer review, replication, and community dialogue, scientists collectively find mistakes in their work, and continually revise their understanding of the world. But what does self-correction look like in practice? And how likely are scientists to admit they’re wrong?

Julia eventually submitted her story to the Loss of Confidence Project, which invited psychologists to publicly admit mistakes in their published research. Our guest, Julia Roher, a lecturer in psychology, organized the project, along with two others. In an anonymous survey of 316 researchers, almost half said they had lost confidence in one of their findings, but ultimately, only 13 researchers submitted public testimonials to the project.

Brian Resnick, who co-created Vox’s Unexplainable podcast and has written about intellectual humility, explains why we often think we’re right when we’re wrong, how others perceive us when we fess up to mistakes, and what all this means for our trust in science.

 


 

Charismatic Creature Corner: Chonky Fish Edition

In South Africa in 1938, a young museum curator named Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer was performing one of her regular duties when she saw something incredible. Courtenay-Latimer was tasked with inspecting fish brought in by local fishermen that were considered out of place in the region. That’s how she found what she later called the most beautiful fish she had ever seen: a coelacanth, thought to be long extinct.

Courtenay-Latimer’s discovery did not immediately register as a coelacanth, because the creature was thought to have gone extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period, 66 millions years ago. The fish was seen as a modern Lazarus—a mysterious creature brought back from the dead, stumping scientists.

At six feet long and 200 pounds, some consider the coelacanth to be a big, beautiful fish. According to Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty, professor and curator of fishes at Louisiana State University, the coelacanth is the meathead of the sea.

“They are chunky,” Chakrabarty said. “You can hold their fin and it feels like you’re shaking somebody’s hand.”

Because they’re so old, coelacanths are closer to the human genealogical lineage than they are to any modern fish. But because this is the Charismatic Creature Corner, only one thing really matters: Is it charismatic enough to enter the Charismatic Creature Corner Hall of Fame?

Joining guest-host John Dankosky to argue for the coelacanth entering the Charismatic Creature Corner Hall of Fame is SciFri producer Kathleen Davis and Dr. Chakrabarty.

Jun 11, 2021
Genetics of Depression, Engineering Humans for Space, Tech Ethics. June 4, 2021, Part 2
47:01

Research Reveals 178 Genes Are Associated With Depression

If you have a family member that suffers from depression, chances are you may have more than one. Doctors often say “depression runs in families,” but scientists really had no good idea how—until a major analysis of the genomes of 200,000 military veterans uncovered the 178 genes that influence your risk of major depression. 

Science Friday producer Katie Feather talked to Dr. Daniel Levey, assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. He explains why there are so many associated genes, and more about the massive database that helped scientists find them.


Can Genetic Engineering Help Humans Live In Space?

The next ambitious goal for space flight is to send a human to Mars. After decades of sending space probes and rovers, there are now actual plans for human voyages. Elon Musk says the deadline for Space X’s Mars Mission may be as early as 2024.   

This raises big questions, both about how to survive the trip, and then inhabit a world hostile to humans. In his new book, The Next 500 Years: Engineering Life to Reach New Worlds, geneticist Christopher Mason says the biggest technical challenges could be met by genetically engineering humans to survive long-term space living. 

He is joined by astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent one year in space, to talk about how we might genetically engineer ourselves, and the effects that space flight has on the body. 


How Might Technology Shift Our Morality?

What is right, and what is wrong? Today’s debates range from the ethics of eating meat, to abortion rights. Conversely, some questions are much less contentious than they once were: we no longer debate whether abducting and enslaving human beings is wrong—it is. And we no longer question technologies like in vitro fertilization. 

Author Juan Enriquez says we can thank technological changes for modern shifts in ethical rights and wrongs, from energy technologies that reduce the value of manual labor to social media that boosts the visibility of LGBTQ people. Enriquez writes that technology changes over history have—and will continue to—change the nature of what we consider right and wrong.

As he writes in Right/Wrong: How Technology Transforms Ethics, published in 2020, scientific advances in genetic engineering and neuroscience are bound to shift our ethical conversations even further. Think about CRISPR-edited genomes, or the potential privacy violations posed by being able to interpret brain activity. Climate change, and how to combat it, also raises important ethical questions.

Enriquez talks to Ira about his work, and what he predicts our future ethical quandaries might look like. 

Jun 04, 2021
Fauci On 40 Years Of HIV/AIDS, Watermelon Origins, Venus Missions. June 4, 2021, Part 1
47:14

Anthony Fauci Reflects On 40 Years Of HIV/AIDS Research

Every week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) releases its regular report of the latest developments on emerging diseases—a living record documenting decades of medical history, known as the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). In May 1981, former MMWR editor Michael B. Gregg got a call about an unusual deadly pneumonia, seen in young gay men in Los Angeles. The tip was from epidemiologist Wayne Shandera, Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Health. He described the cases of five men, ages 29 to 36, who had developed Pneumocystis carinii, a kind of pneumonia typically seen in cancer and immunosuppressed patients. These men were previously healthy, yet they struggled to fight off the illness with treatment. Two of the patients died. All five were gay.

Gregg didn’t know what to make of the cases, but he and CDC experts were compelled to publish the observations in the June 5, 1981 issue of MMWR. Soon after, clinicians around the country began to flag similar cases. The number of infected people rose, as did awareness of the strange collection of symptoms. That summer, the media ran stories about the mysterious disease; the New York Times ran the headline, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” At that time, Ira was a science correspondent for NPR, and was in the thick of covering the nuances of the illness.

Today marks 40 years since the first official report on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States, and the beginning of a long-puzzling medical mystery. “I was totally baffled, and did not know what was going on. I thought it was a fluke,” recalls Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during an interview this week with Science Friday. Read more at sciencefriday.com.

 


 

Where Did Watermelon Come From?

You may think of watermelon as a red, sweet taste of summer. The watermelon itself is ancient—paintings have been found in Egyptian tombs depicting a large green-striped object resembling a watermelon next to grapes and other sweet, refreshing foods. But if you look at many of the melon’s biological cousins, its red, sweet pulp is nowhere to be found—most close relatives of the watermelon have white, often bitter flesh. So how did the modern watermelon become a favorite summer snack?

Back in the 1960s, Russian researchers suggested that one sweeter melon species found in south Sudan might have been a close relative of the modern watermelon. Now, a detailed genetic analysis of a handful of wild melon species, and 400 modern varieties of watermelon from around the world, has concluded that the Kordofan melon from Sudan is, in fact, the closest living relative of the watermelon.

Susanne Renner, an emeritus professor at the University of Munich and an honorary professor of biology at Washington University in St Louis, explains the work on the origins of the modern melon—and how knowing the history of the watermelon could lead to new varieties.


NASA Plans Two New Trips To Venus

This week, President Biden announced the U.S. will donate 75% of its unused COVID-19 vaccine doses to foreign countries via the COVAX global vaccine program. The U.S. has promised to promptly send it’s surplus to South and Central America, Asia, and Africa, where countries are experiencing major shortages.

Plus on Wednesday, NASA announced plans to launch not one, but two new missions to explore Venus by the end of 2030. It’s the first time the agency has devoted any mission to Venus in 30 years.

MIT Technology Review editor Amy Nordrum joins Ira to discuss the biggest science stories of the week.

 

Jun 04, 2021
Sand Sustainability, Jane Goodall, Morphing Pasta, Cicada Snacks. May 28, 2021, Part 2
47:15

Shifting The Sand Business To Greener Practices

Sand is one of the most in-demand natural materials on the planet—some 50 billion tons of sand and gravel are mined every year. It’s because the humble sand is a key ingredient in many materials, from concrete and asphalt to microchips and glass. But sand is also heavy, needed in large quantities, and costly to ship—meaning that in some regions, local demand for sand outstrips supply. A ‘sand mafia’ exists in parts of the globe, and in others, international conflicts have arisen over accusations of illicit cross-border beach theft.

Dr. Aurora Torres, a postdoctoral researcher in Michigan State University’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability and at the Catholic University of Louvain, joins host John Dankosky to talk about ways to make the business of sand extraction more ecologically-friendly—from manufacturing sand via high-tech rock crushing machines to reducing demand by recycling construction materials. 


A Trip Back In Time With Jane Goodall

On September 27, 2002, Ira sat down for his first interview with the pioneering conservationist and primatologist Jane Goodall, to hear about her life, work, and vision for our relationship with our environment. Goodall is the 2021 recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize for her work with animals and her contributions to humanity.

When this interview originally aired, Goodall was already 40 years distant from her initial breakthrough discovery of tool use in chimpanzees, was the subject of a newly released IMAX movie, and had just been named a UN Ambassador for Peace.

Learn more about her in the latest Science Friday Rewind, a series exploring historic interviews and scientific discoveries captured in our audio archives.


A Bowl Full Of Pasta Engineering

When you walk down the pasta aisle at the supermarket, there are so many tasty choices: There’s the humble spaghetti, the tubes of ziti, the tiny shells, and the butterfly-like farfalle. But every pound of pasta is not created equal—some of the boxes pack mostly air.

In recent work published in the journal Science Advances, Dr. Lining Yao of Carnegie Mellon’s Morphing Matter Lab and her colleagues discuss an innovative way to solve the problem of puffed-up pasta boxes: What if different pasta shapes could be flat-packed into containers like DIY IKEA furniture?   

The researchers developed a way to map out tiny grooves and ridges on the surface of a flat noodle sheet. When the pasta is cooked in hot water, it swells at different rates around the ridges and grooves, causing it to fold on its own into shapes such as boxes, rose-like flowers, and helix curls. Yao joins SciFri’s Charles Bergquist to talk about the research, and the challenges of making your dinnertime pasta plate into an origami craft project


How To Take A Bite Of The Brood X Cicada Swarm

After 17 years underground, billions, maybe even trillions, of cicadas are finally emerging in a group that scientists are calling Brood X. The cicadas will mate and die all within about six weeks—filling the air with a collective hum, and leaving behind their exoskeletons. 

For some this might sound like a horror movie, but for Bun Lai, chef at Miya’s Sushi in Connecticut, he sees this as an opportunity for a sustainable snack. He talks about how to hunt and cook a cicada, and how they fit in as a sustainable food source.

 

 

 

 

May 28, 2021
Vaccine Hesitancy, Colorado River Drought, Alternative Syrups. May 28, 2021, Part 1
47:16

How Do We Overcome Vaccine Hesitancy?

This Memorial Day weekend, many people will be traveling to the beach, hitting the road or socializing with friends—maskless—for the first time in over a year. As of this week, 50% of people over 18 are now fully vaccinated. Another 15 to 20% of people are taking a “wait and see” approach. Of those still on the fence, some are concerned about the vaccine’s side effects; others have a long standing mistrust of the institutions responsible for the vaccine rollout.

In order to fully end the pandemic, public health officials will have to find a way to get the vaccine-hesitant on board. Dr. Gary Bennett, professor of psychology and global health at Duke University sheds light on the hurdles that must be overcome.

And a new segment of the population can now receive the Pfizer vaccine: children 12 years and older, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave approval in mid-May.

But many American parents don’t want their children vaccinated at all—including for measles or the flu. One recent report from this past April showed that over 30% of parents would wait to get their child vaccinated—nearly double the percentage of adults who were hesitant. Matthew Simonson, a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University and lead author on the report, joins us to break down the numbers.

 


 

What Happens When The Colorado River Runs Dry?

Dry conditions are the worst they’ve been in almost 20 years across the Colorado River watershed, which acts as the drinking and irrigation water supply for 40 million people in the American Southwest.

As the latest round of federal forecasts for the river’s flow shows, it’s plausible, maybe even likely, that the situation could get much worse this year.

Understanding and explaining the depth of the dryness is up to climate scientists throughout the basin. 

Read the full article at sciencefriday.com.

 


 

Making Syrup From More Than Maple Trees

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire are studying new ways to make syrup out of the northern forest—not from maple trees, but from beeches, birches, sycamores and more. They want to create new markets for an industry that, right now, depends on just one kind of tree—making it vulnerable to disease and climate change.

At the tail end of maple sugaring season, other kinds of sap were still flowing freely in the woods of Lee. UNH researcher David Moore had sensors plugged into a stand of beech trees to measure that sap and the conditions helping produce it.

“You can see I have three trees with sensors here that are all tied back to one data logger,” Moore said, pointing to the tubes and wires running from the beech trunks. Nearby, a bucket collected the resulting sap, while other equipment gathered weather data.

Researchers say monocultures, like the all-maple syrup industry, are more at risk from climate change, pests and other unpredictable threats. So Moore sees untapped potential in other common species, like the American beech. It’s found throughout New Hampshire’s forests, farms and sugar bushes—almost like a tree weed. “If you can think of some economical use—if you can make syrup from them, that would be a nice way to actually generate a little profit from them,” Moore said.

Read the full article at sciencefriday.com.

 


 

Big Oil Reckons With Climate Change

Depending on your perspective, Wednesday was a bad day to be an oil company, or a good day to be a climate activist. Three major oil companies had climate change pushed higher on their agendas: Shell was ordered by a Dutch court to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030; Chevron was told by its shareholders to reduce not just its emissions from oil production, but also those of its customers; and at Exxon’s annual shareholder meeting, a small advocacy firm managed to score two, and possibly three, spots on its board of directors.

So where did these climate coups come from, and what could come next? Vox staff writer Umair Irfan talks to John Dankosky about this week’s wins for the planet, as well as the limits of such reforms.

Plus other stories from the week, including Moderna’s promising COVID-19 vaccine results in adolescents aged 12-17, and President Biden’s call for more investigation into COVID-19’s origins.

 

May 28, 2021
Cybersecurity, Baseball Physics, Opioid Trial. May 21, 2021, Part 2
47:24

Americans’ Online Security Needs An Update

Last week, all eyes were on the shutdown of a gas pipeline that delivered fuel to large portions of the Southeastern US. The shutdown was not due to a leak or planned pipeline maintenance, but to a ransomware attack that took billing computers at the pipeline operator offline. The attack had encrypted data on those computers, rendering the data unusable to the pipeline operator until they paid a ransom.

In recent years, similar ransomware attacks have affected other significant industries, from computers in a hospital cancer clinic to the Irish health system. Cybersecurity specialist Katie Moussouris, founder and CEO of Luta Security, joins Ira to talk about what’s behind the rise of ransomware attacks, and what businesses need to do to lessen their risks. Among the causes, she says, are increasing availability of anonymous money transfers via cryptocurrency, nation-states that sometimes turn a blind eye to hacking activities, and businesses who grow quickly without expanding their security to match.


In West Virginia, Opioid Distributors Are Finally On Trial

A trial is underway in West Virginia against the nation’s three largest opioid distributors: Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, and McKesson. The companies are accused of funneling massive amounts of painkillers to West Virginia communities, fueling the opioid crisis that has devastated parts of the region.

By some measures, Cabell County has the worst drug overdose rate in the country, and its rate of overdose deaths is six times the national average. While the companies say the doctors who prescribed the pills are to blame, this trial is a community’s attempt to hold the massive companies accountable. The city of Huntington, West Virginia and the Cabell County Commission brought the case against the companies. 

Joining Ira to talk about this trial and what led up to it is Eric Eyre, investigative reporter at Mountain State Spotlight in Charleston, West Virginia. Eric won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the opioid epidemic in West Virginia, and is the author of the book Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic.


Video Game Skills May Make Better Surgeons

The classic board game Operation—in which players try to use conductive tweezers to remove a patient’s funny bone and other ailing imaginary organs—may not be the best tool for training real life surgeons for the operating room. But according to a recent paper published in the journal Surgery, playing video games may have a benefit for training surgeons in specific medical fields. 

Arnav Gupta, a third-year medical student at the University of Ottawa and co-author of the study, told Ira that the largest benefits of gaming seemed to come in two specific areas. Gains seen in robotic surgery skills might be due to the similarity of the robotic controls to a game controller joystick. Improvements in laparoscopic surgery, where surgeons operate using instruments inserted through tubes in a thin slit in a patient, may increase doctors’ ability to translate images on a screen to three-dimensional movements. (The researchers didn’t see major improvements in other types of surgery.) Gupta discusses the research with Ira, as well as possible next steps for ways gaming could improve medical training.


What A Rare Baseball Collision Tells Us About The Physics Of The Game

Recently during a pre-game warmup, Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper was doing some batting practice when he hit a line drive to right field, and it collided with another ball in midair.

It was an extremely rare event we’ll probably never see again. But if someone were to try and duplicate the collision, would physics work in their favor? 

Ira is joined by Rhatt Allain, assistant professor of physics at Southeastern Louisiana University and writer for Wired’s Dot Physics blog, for a quick back of the envelope discussion. Plus, baseball players and fans are learning more about the physics of the game—exit velocity and launch angle are now statistics that people can calculate and tally. Dr. Alan Nathan, professor emeritus of physics at University of Illinois and professional baseball consultant, talks about how physics is changing how America’s pastime is played


The Resonating Room Tones Of Composer Alvin Lucier

Alvin Lucier is one of the giant figures in experimental, electronic and electro-acoustic music, known for “making the inaudible…audible.” 

Last week, he turned 90, and the celebration included a 27 hour marathon of his most famous piece, “I Am Sitting In A Room.” The piece, first recorded in 1969, is very simple in concept but deceptively complex. It consists of a short passage of text, read aloud in a room. That sound is recorded and then played back into that same room, picked up by the same microphone, over and over, until the room resonance renders the speech otherworldly and unintelligible.

"I Am Sitting In A Room" has been performed around the world, and has even prompted a series of adaptations by YouTubers, including one who uploaded his video 1,000 times, resulting in bizarre video degradation over time. Lucier’s work has been academically studied for years, and presented and championed at MIT’s Media Lab in seminars devoted to the “quality of sound as experience.” 

Listen to his work and a SciFri Soundscape of the music.

 

May 21, 2021
Global Vaccination, Malaria Vaccine, Zombie Wildfires. May 21, 2021, Part 1
46:43

How Do You Solve a Problem Like World Vaccination?

Here in the U.S., it feels as if we’ve turned a corner in the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the population can be vaccinated, and restrictions for masks and distancing are loosening. But we won’t be able to get a handle on the pandemic until the rest of the world has access to a vaccine. If you thought distributing shots to rural areas here in the U.S. was hard, imagine distributing them to every corner of the globe.

President Joe Biden this week pledged to send an additional 20 million vaccine doses abroad, bringing the total promised to 80 million. But the U.S. is hardly the only country that plans to share doses. So where does the world vaccination effort stand?

One international effort, led by organizations including the World Health Organization and UNICEF, is called COVAX, or COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access. Joining Ira to discuss this effort is implementation team member Dr. Bruce Aylward, senior advisor to the Director-General at the World Health Organization. Ira also speaks to medical supply chain expert Prashant Yadav, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and professor at the INSEAD Business School, based in Washington, D.C.


Can A New Vaccine Put An End To Malaria?

The World Health Organization estimates that every two minutes, a child somewhere in the world dies of malaria. As of 2018, the parasite-induced disease kills a total of more than 400,000 people every year—most of them children under the age of five in sub-Saharan Africa.

While the quest for a malaria vaccine is more than 50 years old, there is still no licensed, fully approved option. The closest to approval, called RTS,S, is being piloted in several countries, with efficacy estimates hovering around 56 percent.

But after a new vaccine, called R21, demonstrated more than 75% efficacy in a small trial in Burkina Faso, is there hope for a more efficient push to reduce the global burden of malaria?

Ira talks to malaria vaccine researcher Prakash Srinivasan and Biden administration malaria coordinator Raj Panjabi about the implications of a vaccine milestone—and the work remaining ahead. Plus, how the COVID-19 pandemic might inform future progress in global health.


Zombie Wildfires Can Rage On For Months

Wildfires are becoming more intense. California saw a record breaking wildfire season—burning 4 million acres across the state last year. Scientists say there is an increase in another type of wildfires called “zombie wildfires.” Forest fires that ignite in the summer and pop back up during the spring.

Roxanne Khamsi talks about a new study that tracks the occurrence and causes of these wildfires. Plus, a look at a “black fungus” infection COVID-19 patients in India.

 

May 21, 2021
NFTs and Art, Neuralink, Preserving Endangered Foods. May 14, 2021, Part 2
47:29

What’s Behind The Blockchain-Based Art Boom?

From multi-million dollar art sales to short NBA video clips, non-fungible tokens have taken off as a way to license media in the digital realm. The blockchain-based tokens, which function as a certificate of ownership for purchasers, produce a dramatic amount of carbon emissions and aren’t actually new—but in the first quarter of 2021, buyers spent $2 billion dollars purchasing NFTs on online marketplaces. Writers, musicians, and artists are all now experimenting with them, and big brands are also jumping on the bandwagon.

Ira talks to Decrypt Media editor-in-chief Dan Roberts, and LA-based artist Vakseen about the appeal, and how NFTs are bringing new audiences both to the blockchain economy, and artists themselves.


How Novel Is Neuralink?

Last month, the company Neuralink, co-founded by Elon Musk, released a video update of their technology. The company makes brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs—implants in the brain that detect signals and send them to a computer. In the video, a macaque named Pager sits in front of a screen, while a narrator explains Pager had two Neuralinks implanted in both sides of his brain six weeks before.

Pager is playing Pong. Not with a joystick or controller, but with his brain, according to the narrator. As with any Elon Musk venture, this Neuralink video got a lot of buzz. But brain-computer interfaces themselves are not a new concept. Where does this fit into the realm of neurotechnology research?

Joining Ira to talk about this Neuralink update is Dr. Paul Nuyujukian, director of Stanford University’s Brain Interfacing Laboratory in Palo Alto, California. Ira also turns to Nathan Copeland, a neurotechnology consultant and brain-computer interface participant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Six years ago, Copeland had four BCI devices implanted, and is one of just a handful of people to have BCI implants in his brain.


Decolonizing And Diversifying The Future Of Food

The Science Friday Book Club has been talking about food all spring while reading Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food. We discussed the impacts of meat consumption, the extinction of beloved birds and plants, and the declining variety of fruit and vegetable varieties available in stores—and even about the flow of pollinator-produced crops in global food systems. 

Producer Christie Taylor shares highlights from our off-radio Zoom event series, which asked, “What is the future of food, and who can help influence it for the better?”

At this April 20th panel, Lost Feast author and food geographer Lenore Newman joined farmer and former chef Mimi Edelman to talk about the future of food and flavor—from preserving heirloom seeds to the stories behind beloved flavors, and how policy changes and individual actions might contribute to a sustainable future.

At this May 4th panel, food researchers Katie Kamelamela, Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, and Melissa K. Nelson talked about their work researching and restoring Indigenous foods to Hawaii and the mainland United States. They explained how these foods were disrupted by colonization, and how food relationships fit into a future vision of sustainable food worldwide.

May 14, 2021
New Mask Rules, Pain Algorithm, Assorted Nuts, Muldrow Glacier. May 14, 2021, Part 1
46:42

Fully Vaccinated Can Unmask Often, CDC Says

As the number of vaccinated Americans continues to rise and evidence mounts that the vaccines may reduce viral transmission in addition to lessening disease severity, the CDC announced Thursday that fully-vaccinated people may be able to go mask-free except in specific crowded indoor situations. The announcement caused celebration in some circles and anxiety in others, with people wondering how the new guidelines fit into their personal risk assessments.

Sarah Zhang, staff writer at The Atlantic, joins Ira to talk about the latest news in the pandemic and beyond, including a WHO committee report discussing the early days of the outbreak, the latest on the Colonial gas pipeline shutdown, research into cats’ love of sitting in boxes, and more.

 


Can An Algorithm Explain Your Knee Pain?

In an ideal world, every visit to the doctor would go something like this: You’d explain what brought you in that day, like some unexplained knee pain. Your physician would listen carefully, run some tests, and voila—the cause of the issue would be revealed, and appropriate treatment prescribed.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the result. Maybe a doctor doesn’t listen closely to your concerns, or you don’t quite know how to describe your pain. Or, despite feeling certain that something is wrong with your knee, tests turn up nothing.

A new algorithm shows promise in reducing these types of frustrating interactions. In a new paper published in Nature, researchers trained an algorithm to identify factors often missed by x-ray technicians and doctors. They suggest it could lead to more satisfying diagnoses for patients of color.

Dr. Ziad Obermeyer, associate professor of Health Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkley joins Ira to describe how the algorithm works, and to explain the research being done at the intersection of machine learning and healthcare.

 


Ever Wonder Why Big Cereal Chunks Are Always On Top?

You may not have heard of it, but you’ve probably seen the “brazil nut effect” in action—it’s the name for the phenomenon that brings larger nuts or cereal chunks to the top of a container, leaving tinier portions at the bottom of the mix. But the process by which granular materials mix is weirdly hard to study, because it’s difficult to see what’s going on away from the visible surfaces of a container.

In recent work published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers turn the power of three-dimensional time-lapse x-ray computer tomography onto the problem. By using a series of CT scans on a mixed box of nuts as it sorted itself by size, the researchers were able to capture a movie of the process—finally showing how the large Brazil nuts turn as they are forced up to the top of the mix by smaller peanuts percolating downwards.

Parmesh Gajjar, a research associate in the Henry Moseley X-ray Imaging Facility at the University of Manchester, talks with SciFri’s Charles Bergquist about the imaging study, and the importance of size segregation in mixing of materials—with applications from the formation of avalanches to designing drug delivery systems.

 


This Alaskan Glacier Is Moving 100 Times Faster Than Usual

One of the glaciers on Alaska’s Denali mountain has started to “surge.” The Muldrow Glacier is moving 10-100 times faster than usual, which is about three feet per hour. About 1% of glaciers “surge,” which are short periods where glaciers advance quickly.

Geologist Chad Hults has been on the glacier to study it during this surge period. He talks about how the glacier’s geometry and hydrology contribute to this surge period.

 

 

 

 

 

May 14, 2021
Beetles, Wildfires, Woodchip Bioreactor. May 7, 2021, Part 2
47:24

A Beetle’s Chemical (And Plastic) Romance

For many species of beetle, the key to finding a mate is scent: Both females and males give off pheromones that signal their species, their sex, and even their maturity level. How do researchers know? In experiments with dead beetles that have been sprayed with female pheromones, live males reliably attempt to mate with the dead insects.

But when one team of researchers based at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and Syracuse University in New York tried to investigate whether this was true for the flea beetle Altica flagariae, they got a strange result. Males seemed confused when presented with scented dead beetles, leaving the team wondering if the dead beetles were still exuding their original chemicals. What is a research team to do? They attempted the same experiment, but with 3D-printed replicas. This time, the male beetles seemed clearly attracted to the female scent, the researchers wrote in the journal Chemoecology last month.

Producer Christie Taylor talks to Syracuse University biologist Kari Segraves about the intricacies of studying beetle intimacy, and the implications for evolutionary biology.


Nature’s Early Warning Signs For A Bad Wildfire Season

Last year, California saw a record breaking wildfire season. Nearly 10,000 fires burned over four million acres in the state. 

Now, wildfire researcher Craig Clements is investigating natural indicators, like the chamise plant, for clues to predict what this wildfire season might look like. Normally, the wildfire season peaks during the late summer. This year, he’s observed a lower moisture content in these plants, possibly indicating the fire season may begin earlier. 

Clements joins SciFri to explain how landscape, temperatures, drought, and atmospheric conditions all play a role in wildfire risk


Arctic Wildfires Are Burning An Important Carbon Sink

California wildfires have made national headlines for the last several years, but important—and large—wildfires have also been burning in the forests above the U.S. Canadian border and near the Arctic circle. 

A group of researchers wanted to know how these fires affected the northern forests and how this impacted their ability to store carbon. Their results were recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Jonathan Wang, an author on that study, discusses what this might mean for future climate change predictions. 


Can Woodchips Help The Gulf Of Mexico’s Dead Zone?

In the Gulf of Mexico is an ecological dead zone, caused by algal blooms at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Warmer ocean temperatures provide the perfect conditions for algae to grow out of control, suffocating seagrass beds and killing fish, dolphins, and manatees. Fueling this toxic algae’s growth is nitrogen. The Mississippi river empties into the gulf, and drainage water from farms along it carries fertilizer ingredients—straight into the marine ecosystem. 

While farmers have tried using practices to reduce fertilizer runoff, like cover crops, no-till farming and conservation buffers, for decades, the problem has only gotten worse. According to a new paper published in the journal Transactions of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, a creative new approach involves denitrifying bioreactors—a system that allows bacteria to help convert nitrate in the water to harmless dinitrogen gas.

“It’s a complicated name, but it’s really a very simple idea,” says Laura Christianson, assistant professor of crop sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and lead author on the study. She talks with SciFri producer Katie Feather about how a simple system involving woodchips in a trench can help keep nitrogen out of drainage water from farms across the midwest. Katie also speaks to Shirley Johnson, a farm-owner from Peoria, Illinois, about why she adopted the bioreactor technology, and what farmers can do to help their downstream neighbors

May 07, 2021
Herd Immunity, Crossword Program. May 7, 2021, Part 1
47:16

Weighing COVID-19 Vaccinations For Teens

Federal officials are reporting that the Food and Drug Administration is poised to authorize Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 by early next week—just as Canada became the first country to do so on Wednesday of this week. Pfizer has said they will seek out emergency authorization for even younger kids by the fall. But as most countries still lag far behind the United States in vaccine access for adults, public health officials are questioning the ethics of prioritizing American teens over adults from other countries.

Science writer Maggie Koerth joins Ira with more on the accessibility of COVID-19 vaccines for children, new projections of rapid sea level rise under climate change, and other stories from the week.


Is COVID-19 Herd Immunity Even Possible Anymore?

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve equated getting out of this mess with the concept of herd immunity—when a certain percentage of the population is immune to a disease, mostly through vaccination.

With COVID-19, experts have said we need somewhere around 70 to 90% of the population to be immunized to meet this goal. Now that all adults in the U.S. are eligible for the vaccine, how far are we from that goal? And what is our trajectory?

Some experts now say with variants and vaccine hesitancy, herd immunity may not be possible here in the U.S. Joining Ira to break down this and other coronavirus quandaries is Angela Rasmussen, research scientist at VIDO-InterVac, the University of Saskatchewan’s vaccine research institute in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.


This Computer Won The 2021 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

In 2012, a computer program named Dr. Fill placed 141st out of some 660 entries in that year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, a competition for elite crossword puzzle solvers. This year, the algorithm beat the human competition, completing the final playoff puzzle in just 49 seconds. 

The A.I. relies on a collection of different techniques to make sense of a puzzle. Sometimes, a simple fact is needed—who was the First Lady before Eleanor Roosevelt? (Lou Henry Hoover.) More often, however, crossword puzzle solutions rely not just on factual knowledge, but an ability to recognize themes that puzzle constructors have embedded in the crosswords, along with an understanding of puns, homonyms, and word play. (Think: Five letters, “dining table leaves”—SALAD!) The program makes a series of statistical calculations about likely answers, then tries to fit those possibilities into the puzzle squares. 

This year, researchers from the Berkeley Natural Language Processing group added their expertise to Dr. Fill’s algorithms—a contribution that may have helped push Dr. Fill to its crowning victory. 

But the program isn’t infallible. This year, it made three mistakes solving puzzles during the tournament, while some human solvers completed the puzzles perfectly. It can make these errors with any unique puzzle form it’s never seen before. 

Matt Ginsberg, the computer programmer behind Dr. Fill, joins Ira to talk about the competition and the advances his program has made over the years

May 07, 2021
Viking Metal, Possible Futures, Global Pollination. April 30, 2021, Part 2
46:49

Uncovering Metal Crafts Of The Viking Age

Vikings are often associated with scenes of boats and fiercely-pitched battles. But new research, published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, shows they also had other, calmer skills. The paper details advances in the cast metalwork of objects, such as keys and ornamental brooches, that occurred in the trading city of Ribe, Denmark in the 8th and 9th century. 

Researchers analyzed samples of metal taken from a variety of metal objects found in Ribe, along with metalworking tools, crucibles, molds, and samples of metal slag. They found that while the Vikings began working in brass with a very experimental approach, they quickly standardized their production to use specific blends and alloys of metals. They also adopted more heat-resistant clays for crucibles, and made extensive use of recycling throughout their work processes. 

Vana Orfanou, an European Research Commission (ERC) postdoctoral research scientist In the School of Archaeology at University College, Dublin, and lead author on the paper, joins SciFri’s Charles Bergquist to discuss the state of the art in early Scandinavian brass making


 

An Illustrated Exploration Of Hypothetical Futures

Futurist and Flash Forward host Rose Eveleth spends her time asking a lot of ‘what if’ questions, and then exploring the answers with experts. For example, what if human light sources forever drowned out our dark night sky? What if we relocated endangered species to save them from climate change? What if, as she asked in 2018, we saw a deadly pandemic consume the globe?

With a new book that illustrates even more hypothetical futures, she poses even more far-reaching questions: What if we could change our gender like our hair color? What if we could live on as robots after our death? What if we had to pirate the basic pharmaceuticals, like insulin, that keep so many alive? 

Eveleth sits down with SciFri’s John Dankosky to explore the nuances of imagining possible futures, whose choices influence what may actually happen, and why this work matters, even when she gets it wrong. Plus, what was predictable—and what was not—about the COVID-19 pandemic. 


 

The Global Pollinating Forces Behind Your Food

Importing food from one country to another also means importing the resources that went into growing that food: Nutrients. Water. Sunlight. Human labor. And the labor of the bees, butterflies, or other insects and animals that provide pollination in that country’s ecosystems. Take Brazil, for example—Europe and the United States consume a large proportion of the country’s pollinator-dependent crops, from soybeans to mangoes, avocados, and other fruits.

Writing in the scientific journal Science Advances in March, an interdisciplinary team of Brazilian researchers describe a way to quantify and visualize this flow of pollinator effort, from one country to another. They created an interactive web tool that lets anyone see this pollinator flow, for a specific country or a group of countries. 

Importantly, the researchers say, the model makes it clear that this flow occurs mostly from poor countries to rich ones—with economic and ecological consequences for the poorer countries. Farmers, for example, may clear more land to grow crops for export, removing valuable pollinator habitat in the process. Those same farmers might then see their yields drop as pollinators die off, thanks to loss of habitat.

Producer Christie Taylor talks to two members of the research team, economist Felipe Deodato da Silva e Silva, and ecologist Luisa Carvalheiro, about the importance of considering pollinators in global food trade, and how better informed policy and consumer choices might help preserve threatened biodiversity. 

This segment is part of our spring SciFri Book Club. For another culinary exploration, join us in reading Lenore Newman’s Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food.

Apr 30, 2021
The Past And Future Of Plastics Tech. April 30, 2021, Part 1
47:23

The Future Of Plastics

Plastics do a lot of good. They’re sturdy, they’re clean, and the COVID-19 pandemic has really highlighted their benefits, with personal protective equipment like disposable gloves and masks.

But its durability is also its biggest problem. We’ve all seen photos of piles of plastic trash washed up on beaches, and animals surrounded by plastic bags and straws. Those materials will take decades, if not centuries, to break down. Even as it breaks apart, it can become millions of microplastic particles that cause their own problems.

So how do we tackle one of the biggest environmental crises of our time? Scientists are working on both ends of the plastic life cycle to come up with solutions. Breaking down the plastic that’s already out there, and coming up with alternative materials that could be better for the planet.

Guest host John Dankosky interviews two scientists doing great work on this topic: Dr. Francesca Kerton, professor of chemistry at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, Canada, works on alternative polymers that could replace some plastics. Her latest research is focused on a polymer made from fishery waste. She’s joined by  Dr. Gregg Beckham, senior research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, who works on enzymes that can break down plastics to its smaller building blocks for easier recycling.

Ask An Expert: What The Heck Are Microplastics?

Despite their small-sounding name, microplastics are a big deal. That’s because these tiny pieces of plastic debris can wind up just about anywhere. In fact, we know microplastics are in our oceans and our soil, and they can also get into what we eat and what we drink.

Since this is a relatively new problem, we don’t have a lot of long-term research on their effects. But investigations studying microplastics have already influenced legislation, and prompted innovations for combating plastic pollution.

Dr. Imogen Napper, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, studied microbeads in facial scrubs. Her work led to a microbead ban in the United States and other countries. She says we need to rethink how we use plastic in our everyday lives for the health of the planet.

“It’s a fantastic material that’s so durable,” Napper tells Science Friday. “But we don’t need to make so many single-use applications that could last a lifetime,” especially when these products are only used briefly.

Napper and host John Dankosky talk about all the strange places microplastics have been found, and what role individual consumers play in combating an issue that can seem insurmountable. This conversation was held in front of a live Zoom audience.

Apr 30, 2021
Gender-Affirming Health Care, Defining ‘Life’. April 23, 2021, Part 2
47:17

Proposed Legislation Threatens Trans Rights Nationwide

Since the start of the 2021 legislative session, members of more than 30 state legislatures have proposed over 100 bills that would limit transgender children’s ability to play sports, or access gender-affirming medical care such as puberty blocking medications. One such proposal, restricting access to gender-affirming medical treatments for anyone under 18, passed the Arkansas State Legislature earlier this month, over the veto of Republican governor Asa Hutchinson.

Ira talks to Kate Sosin, LGBTQ+ reporter for The 19th News, about the scope of bills limiting access to medical care. Sosin explains why lawmakers say they’re pushing them—and what misconceptions about both trans kids and trans adults may be fueling these proposals. 

We had editing and consultation help for this segment from Jaye McAuliffe.


Why Gender-Affirming Healthcare Is ‘Lifesaving Care’

State legislatures around the country are proposing bills to remove access to gender-affirming healthcare for transgender youth. Meanwhile, doctors, parents, and trans adults warn that restricting access to commonplace interventions, like puberty blocking medications, will endanger the mental health and social well-being of trans children across the country. 

Learn more about the bills passing through statehouses this year.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the Pediatric Endocrine Society have all condemned bills like Arkansas’ AB1570, which passed the state legislature in early April. It prohibits healthcare providers from giving puberty blockers or gender-affirming hormones to anyone under the age of 18. The World Professional Organization For Transgender Healthcare (WPATH), which produces standards of care for transgender youth and adults, has stated that the ability to pause puberty supports the mental health of trans youth while they navigate their gender identities.

Ira talks to pediatric endocrinologist Kara Connelly and family therapist Alex Iantaffi about their work with trans youth, and what gender-affirming health care provides, to young people and throughout a person’s lifespan

We had editing and consultation help for this segment from Jaye McAuliffe.


What Does It Mean To Be Alive?

What is life? This question has caused headaches for humanity for centuries. But if it’s taken out of philosophy classes or past Frankenstein’s monster, this question becomes an important legal and biological discussion. If we’re searching for life on other planets, how will we know when we’ve found it?

Scientists throughout history have come up with what they think the constraints of life are, whether it needs to meet certain physiological criteria, or reproduce. But despite hundreds, if not thousands of theories that have been proposed, the scientific community can’t come to a consensus about what makes something alive.

The complexities of defining life are the subject of the new book, Life’s Edge: The Search For What It Means To Be Alive, by New York Times science columnist and author Carl Zimmer. He joins Ira to talk about the creatures that complicate our understanding of life, and if synthetic biology and artificial intelligence might ever be classified as alive.

Apr 23, 2021
Climate Summit, Offshore Wind, Hummingbirds. April 23, 2021, Part 1
47:32

World Leaders Gather Virtually For Climate Summit

Forty world leaders attended an international summit on climate change to discuss how each country would commit to decreasing emissions. Sophie Bushwick from Scientific American fills us in on the commitments stated during the meeting. Plus, she talks about China launching its space station and how researchers were able to read a 17th-century letter without opening it.


Offshore Wind Power Moves Forward In Massachusetts

Back in 2016, the state of Massachusetts pledged to begin buying wind energy from local sources within the decade. The next year, a company called Vineyard Wind filed paperwork proposing an offshore wind farm that would involve 62 turbines situated about 12 miles off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. The project has been stalled in regulatory review and limbo ever since. Now, there are signs that the project may finally be moving forward.  

Environmental journalist Miriam Wassser of WBUR updates Ira on the project, including how it may contribute to Biden administration plans to go all-in on wind power


Setting New Goals At An Earth Week Climate Summit

This week, world leaders met online to discuss global climate policy and targets for carbon emissions reductions. The climate summit, organized by the Biden White House, comes just after the United States formally rejoined the Paris climate accords that were abandoned by the Trump administration.

In connection with the summit, the Biden administration announced a national goal of a 50% reduction (based on 2005 levels) in carbon emissions by 2030—a significant boost to the targets proposed in the original Paris accords. And European Union nations announced the outlines of a climate deal that would put the EU on target for “climate neutrality” by 2050. The EU also committed to a 55% reduction in emissions over 1990 levels by 2030.

Other climate policy actions are in the works at home as well—including major support for renewable energy projects in the Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure plan. Emily Atkin, who writes the climate-focused newsletter HEATED, joins Ira to discuss the latest goings-on in climate policy, and whether the federal government is finally getting serious about the threat of climate change.


The Dazzling Rufous Hummingbird, Threatened By Climate Change

The Rufous hummingbird has a reputation as one of the continent’s most tenacious birds of its size. Weighing less than a nickel and topping out at three inches long, it’s migratory journey is one of the world’s longest. Each spring, just as flowers start to bloom, it will travel nearly 4,000 miles—from Mexico to Alaska.

Yet climate change is taking its toll on even these tenacious birds. The population of rufous hummingbirds, one of the most common hummingbird species in the U.S., is decreasing dramatically. And the Rufous may soon join the list of 37 hummingbird species currently threatened with extinction, according to an analysis by BirdLife International.

Jon Dunn, natural history writer and photographer set out to document as many of these remarkable bejeweled birds as he could before they are gone. He joins Ira to talk about their shared fascination with hummingbirds and his new book, The Glitter In the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds.

Apr 23, 2021
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