Science Friday

By Science Friday and WNYC Studios

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Subscribers: 10561
Reviews: 16

Herrera
 Aug 15, 2021
never mind my PREVIOUS review.


 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".

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Brain fun for curious people.

Episode Date
Omicron Variant, Quantum Computing, Xenobots, SciFri Trivia. Dec 3, 2021, Part 2
47:36

Decoding Quantum Computing

The computer chips that are delivering these words to you work on a simple, binary, on/off principle. There’s either a voltage, or there’s not. The ‘bits’ encoded by the presence or absence of electrons form the basis for much of our online world. 

Now, physicists and engineers are working to create systems based on the strange rules of quantum physics—in which quantum bits can exist simultaneously in a range of possible states, and two separated bits can be linked together via a phenomenon known as entanglement. 

If practical quantum computers can be constructed, they have the potential to solve difficult types of problems—like finding the optimal route connecting a list of a few hundred cities, for instance. However, vast engineering challenges remain. A. Douglas Stone, deputy director of the Yale Quantum Institute and Carl A. Morse professor of applied physics at Yale University, joins Ira to give a primer on the disruptive technology of quantum computing, and where this research might lead

 


  

Diving Into The Strange World Of Xenobots

Just under two years ago, Science Friday reported on the strange world of ‘xenobots’—structures designed by an algorithm and crafted out of living cells taken from frog embryos. Those tiny constructs could slowly wriggle their way across a petri dish, powered by the contractions of frog heart cells. Now, the researchers behind the bots have created a new generation of structures that can swim—and, if provided with additional loose frog skin cells in their dish, organize those cells into clumps that eventually begin to move on their own. 

Josh Bongard, a professor of computer science at the University of Vermont and a member of the xenobots research team, joins Ira to talk about the advance in what he likens to living wind-up toys. The work was reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Bongard and colleagues say that they were interested in learning more about self-replicating systems, and the various factors that go into either speeding up or slowing down a system’s ability to self-replicate. They’re also interested in exploring whether such cellular systems might be able to do useful work. However, fear not—Bongard explains that without a ready supply of loose frog skin cells, these bots peter out.

 


 

What We Do—And Don’t—Know About Omicron

This week, the Omicron variant was detected in the United States, with the first case identified in California.

The announcement joins a rush of news about the latest coronavirus variant: Last week, South African researchers first identified and then sequenced the variant. Since then, scientists all over the world have been working overtime, trying to understand this heavily mutated new strain. 

Omicron has 32 mutations in the spike protein alone. But more mutations don’t necessarily mean it’s more contagious than the Delta variant, or more likely to evade the vaccine. Scientists still need a little more time to figure out what these genetic changes might mean for the pandemic. 

Katelyn Jetelina, assistant professor in the University of Texas School of Public Health talks with Ira about how scientists are compiling data on omicron, both inside and outside of the lab. Jetilina is also the author of the newsletter, “Your Local Epidemiologist.”

To hear more of Jetilina’s thoughts on the latest updates, read her explainer on what we know and don’t know about Omicron.

 


 

A 30th Anniversary Edition Of SciFri Trivia

We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary this week—and with 30 years of radio comes more than enough material for a round of trivia. SciFri Trivia extraordinaire and host Diana Montano quizzes Ira on how well he remembers some of the stories he’s covered on SciFri during its last three decades.

Want to join the fun? Diana hosts virtual SciFri Trivia every Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET / 5:30 p.m. PT on Youtube and you are invited! Play by yourself or with a group and, if you win, enjoy the honor of naming one of the many plants in the SciFri office—and more!

Dec 03, 2021
Ralph Nader On 55 Years Of Car Safety, Spinal Cord Research, Omicron And Travel Bans. Dec 3, 2021, Part 1
47:48

Travel Bans Do Little To Slow Spread Of Omicron

After South African researchers first detected the new COVID variant Omicron last week, it’s already been found in dozens of countries around the world, including in the United States. Travel restrictions imposed by the Biden administration and others have done little to slow its spread. Instead, experts say that increasing global vaccination rates is critical to stopping future troubling mutations from occurring and spreading.

In other news, scientists are re-testing a foundational piece of science, the Miller-Urey experiment, first conducted in 1952, which simulated how life on earth could have originated. Scientists are questioning their old assumptions that the glass container in the original experiment was inert.

Joining Ira to talk through these and other big science stories of the week is Sophie Bushwick, Technology editor at Scientific American.


 

Ralph Nader Reflects On His Auto Safety Campaign, 55 Years Later

It’s hard to imagine a world without seatbelts or airbags. But five decades ago, it was the norm for car manufacturers to put glamour over safety.

“It was stylistic pornography over engineering integrity,” Ralph Nader, prolific consumer advocate and several-time presidential candidate, tells Science Friday.

This winter marks the 55th anniversary of Nader’s groundbreaking investigation, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” a damning look at how little auto safety technology was in vehicles back in the 1960s. The book had a massive effect on auto safety in the U.S., setting the groundwork for laws about seatbelts, and the creation of the United States Department of Transportation.

Nader joins Ira to discuss what’s happened over 55 years of auto safety advances, and what kind of work is needed to make sure new technology, like self-driving cars, have the safety checks they need before going out on the roads.


 

New Drug Reverses Paralysis In Mice With Spinal Cord Injuries

Nearly 300,000 people are living with spinal cord injuries in the United States. Currently, recovery or effective treatment remains elusive. Researchers haven’t yet figured out a reliable way to knit back together severed spinal cords or nerves.

Now, a new study in mice shows promising potential to prevent paralysis after injury. Researchers gave paralyzed mice a specially formulated injection that uses a novel technique called “dancing molecules.” And after a month, the mice were walking again.

Joining Ira to better understand this new development in spinal cord treatment is Samuel Stupp, professor of materials science, chemistry, biomedical engineering and medicine, and director of the Simpson Querrey Institute for BioNanotechnology at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois.

Dec 03, 2021
Candy COVID Test, Ig Nobel Prizes 2021. November 26, 2021, Part 2
47:18

A More Delicious COVID Screener

One of the most bizarre symptoms of COVID-19—a nearly surefire way to know if you have been infected—is a loss of taste or smell. Estimates of how many people are impacted range wildly, with the highest estimates reaching 75 to 80% of COVID-19 survivors. There’s still a lot scientists don’t understand about why this happens and what part of the olfactory system or brain is actually responsible for this change.

Researchers at Ohio State University are trying to figure out more about how COVID-19 impacts taste and smell using a familiar and tasty item: hard candy. Study participants eat an uncolored piece of candy each day and describe the flavor. If a participant is suddenly unable to identify which fruit the candy is emulating … well, it’s time to take a COVID test.

Joining Ira to talk about this delicious research and learning more about how COVID-19 impacts our senses is Chris Simons, sensory scientist at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.

 


 

Laugh And Learn With The Ig Nobel Prizes

This year, even though many people may be still hesitant to gather together for the holidays, a Science Friday holiday tradition lives on—our annual post-Thanksgiving broadcast of highlights from the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, now in its 31st first annual year. 

Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research and master of ceremonies for the prizes, joins Ira to present some of the highlights from this year’s awards—from research into the microbiology trapped in the gum on the sidewalk to a transportation prize for scientists who discovered the best way to safely transport a rhinoceros long distances. (Dangle it upside down under a helicopter.) Tune in to hear about research involving the kinetics of crowds, the communications of cats, thoughts about the evolutionary history of human beards, and more.

 

Nov 26, 2021
Futuristic Freezing, Koji, Cheese Microbiome, Wine-Bottle Resonators. November 26, 2021, Part 1
46:59

New Cold Storage Method Solves Freezer Burn—And Saves Energy

Have you ever pulled a long-anticipated pint of ice cream out of the freezer, only to find the strawberries crunchy and the normally creamy substance chalky and caked with ice? Freezer burn, a phenomenon caused by water in food crystallizing into ice inside the ice cream or fruit or meat during freezing, is a menace to taste buds, a driver of food waste, and even damages some of the nutritional benefits of food. And it’s always a risk as long as food preservation relies on very cold temperatures. Even flash-freezing, which works much faster, can still create small ice crystals.

But United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) food scientists, working with a team at the University of California-Berkeley, have a method that could help solve this problem. Normal food freezing, called isobaric, keeps food at whatever pressure the surrounding air is. But what if you change that? Isochoric freezing, the new method, adds pressure to the food while lowering temperature, so the food becomes cold enough to preserve without its moisture turning into ice. No ice means no freezer burn. And, potentially, a much lower energy footprint for the commercial food industry: up to billions fewer kilowatt-hours, according to recent research.

Ira talks to USDA food technologist Cristina Bilbao-Sainz and mechanical engineer Matthew Powell-Palm about how pressure and temperature can be manipulated to make food last longer, and hopefully taste better. Plus, the challenges of turning a good idea into a widespread technology.


Koji: The Mold You Want In Your Kitchen

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

Koji-inoculated starches are crucial in centuries-old Asian foods like soy sauce and miso—and, now, inspiring new and creative twists from modern culinary minds. And Shih and Umansky, the two food fanatics, have written a new book describing the near-magical workings of the fungus, which, like other molds, uses enzymes to break starches, fats, and proteins down into food for itself. It just so happens that, in the process, it’s making our food tastier. 

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


 

The Bacteria Behind Your Favorite Blues, Bries, and More

Cheese lovers, you can thank microbes for the flavorful funk of Camembert cheese and the perforated pattern of Swiss. According to microbiologist Rachel Dutton, one gram of cheese rind is home to 10 billion bacterial and fungal cells. Dutton describes our favorite cheese-microbe pairings and explains why the cheese rind is ripe for teaching us about the basic interactions of bacteria.


 

The World According To Sound: When Your Wine Bottle Sings

A few years ago, Chris Hoff was making himself some plum wine. He had a nice big plum tree in the apartment he was renting in San Francisco, and it had been a plentiful year. During the process he came across a beautiful, simple sound that made him get out his recording gear. It came from his little metal funnel.

Each time Hoff poured liquid through his funnel to fill a bottle, it made this pleasant rising arpeggio of bubbles. When the pitch reached its height, the bottle was filled, and Hoff moved on to the next one. He liked it so much that he grabbed his small handheld recorder and captured the sound.

This simple, everyday sound is the result of a complex interaction of the liquid, bottle, air, and funnel. While water pours down through the funnel, air is being forced out of the bottle and up through the liquid, where it makes a bubble on the surface and then pops. As the level of liquid decreases in the funnel, the pitch of the popping bubbles rises.

Read more at sciencefriday.com.

 

 

Nov 26, 2021
Thanksgiving Food Science, Force of Infection, Food Inequality. Nov 19, 2021, Part 2
47:49

Blunting The Force Of Disease Is Complicated 

COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at preventing severe disease. But their efficacy in lab-controlled trials may not exactly correlate to how well they work in the real world.

David Kaslow, chief scientific officer at the global public health nonprofit PATH, explains that a factor known as the “force of infection” plays a role in determining how well vaccines work. The force of infection describes the attack rate of a pathogen—the amount of time it takes a susceptible individual to get infected in a given population. 

In a study recently published in the academic journal NPJ Vaccines, Kaslow and his colleagues found that in vaccine trials for rotavirus and malaria in Africa, efficacy could vary widely between two trial sites. When there were many infections in the community, the overall efficacy of the vaccines appeared lower than in communities where disease incidence was low. 

While the same sort of studies haven’t yet been done on the coronavirus outbreak, Kaslow argues that similar factors may be at play now—pointing to a continued need for non-pharmaceutical measures to control transmission, from masking to social distancing

 


  

The Chemistry Of The Perfect Cookie

With several major food-related holidays on the horizon, we’ve got a challenge for you—checking your cookie chemistry. Each batch of cookies you make has the potential to be a mini-science experiment, with the specific ingredients you use, the ratios between them, and cooking times and temperatures all variables in the mix. 

Jennifer Powers, a science educator at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, discusses the role of types of sugar in transforming your cookie’s texture from chewy to crispy. She encourages listeners to take on her educational resource—the Cookie Chemistry Challengeto engineer the best batch of cookies possible

 


  

Food Failures: Add A Dash Of Science To Your Thanksgiving Recipes

This Thanksgiving, put your cooking skills to the test. Looking for tips to avoid singed sweet potatoes, acrid apple pies, and a burned bird? In this archival segment from November 18, 2016, Molly Birnbaum and Dan Souza from Cook’s Science help us understand the science behind favorite Thanksgiving recipes so you can avoid food failures, and get the most out of your roast and side dishes.

  


 

America Has A Food Disparity Problem

As of 2016, more than half of American children had a diet that standard nutritional recommendations would consider “poor quality.” And there are stark differences between children in wealthier and poorer households. Poor nutrition can have lifelong impacts on health, including Type 2 diabetes, heart problems, and dental cavities. But it isn’t always clear what families need to provide healthier foods for their children. One popular explanation, now debunked, was the theory of food deserts: Poorer neighborhoods just don’t have grocery stores, and families must buy their food from convenience stores and gas stations. But if more grocery stores aren’t the solution, what is? 

Sociologist Priya Fielding-Singh explores these questions in a new book, How The Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America. Her research, the product of months of immersive time spent with families in their kitchens and as they navigated grocery stores with kids in tow, describes an alternative explanation for the socioeconomic disparity between kids’ diets. Fielding-Singh explains healthy food takes emotional and energy resources that lower-income parents must often spend in other ways. 

Guest host Roxanne Khamsi talks to Fielding-Singh about her research on family food choices, and the kinds of changes that might allow children from all backgrounds to enjoy healthier foods.

Nov 19, 2021
Picking Right COVID Test For Holidays, “Big Bang Theory” Of Cancer. Nov 19, 2021, Part 1
47:31

Here’s How Biden’s Infrastructure Bill Addresses Science

President Joe Biden signed a massive bipartisan infrastructure bill into law this Monday. The measure focuses on a range of sectors. It would funnel billions into cleaning up pollution in the air and water with efforts that include eliminating lead service lines and cleaning up old, polluted manufacturing sites. The bill will also invest $7.5 billion to create a large-scale network of electric vehicle chargers across the country.

In other big news this week, a new study confirms that masks are highly effective in combating COVID-19, reducing incidence of the disease by as much as 53% on its own. Researchers say this finding is significant and add that when masks are used in addition to other protective measures, like vaccines and hand washing, people can feel confident in their safety.

Joining guest host Roxanne Khamsi to talk through these and other big science stories of the week is Nsikan Akpan, health and science editor for WNYC Public Radio in New York City.

Happy (Holiday) Testing Season!

The holiday season has snuck up once again, leaving many people to figure out familiar logistics: If travel will be involved, who to see, and what will be for dinner. But of course, we’re still in a pandemic, so questions of safety remain. At the end of the day, we want to keep our families, friends, and loved ones healthy.

COVID-19 tests are becoming a popular tool, helping many people make social situations safer. Quickly swabbing your nose or spitting in a tube can indicate if someone has been infected with the coronavirus. But with so many options available, and a big season of holiday get-togethers up ahead, many are wondering what kind of test is best—and when is the best time to get tested?

Joining guest host Roxanne Khamsi to talk through COVID-19 testing questions are Dr. Céline Gounder, epidemiologist and professor at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine in New York, and Dr. Alex Greninger, assistant director at the clinical virology laboratories at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.

The Big Bang Theory Of Cancer

Despite tremendous scientific advances, there’s still so much scientists don’t understand about cancer. One of the biggest remaining questions is how do tumors form in the first place?

Researchers are getting closer to an answer. For years, the prevailing theory of tumor growth was that cancer cells gradually acquire a series of mutations that enable them to outcompete healthy cells and run amok.

But improved genetic sequencing of cancers is revealing a more complicated picture. New technology has enabled a new theory of tumor development, called the big bang theory. It turns out that some types of cancer contain a whole hodge-podge of mutations right from the very beginning, even before the tumors are detectable on a scan. Researchers initially observed this pattern in colon cancer, and then replicated the findings in pancreatic, liver, and stomach cancers, too.

Guest host Roxanne Khamsi talks to Christina Curtis, associate professor of medicine and genetics at Stanford University’s School of Medicine about her research into tumor development, and how to improve cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Nov 19, 2021
Mammoth Pool Fire, Fun Squirrel Facts, Soil Importance. Nov 12 2021, Part 2
52:39

As Wildfire Intensity Rises, So Does The Human Toll Of Blazes

It was Labor Day 2020, and Mammoth Pool Reservoir, in California’s Sierra Nevada, was buzzing with campers. Karla Carcamo and her parents, siblings, cousins, and countless others, mostly from the Los Angeles area, have been coming here every Labor Day for 17 years. “Most of it is my family, and family that’s invited family, and those family friends have invited friends of theirs,” she says. “I’m telling you, we have over 200 people.”

Alex Tettamanti and her husband Raul Reyes are also Labor Day regulars. Every year, they drive in from Las Vegas to meet up with an off-roading club made up of a few dozen families from across the West. They fill their weekend with jet-skiing, ATVing and hiking. “It’s beautiful,” says Tettamanti. “The smell of all the pine trees and stuff, and the trees are so big, it’s really cool.

The campground and reservoir are nestled at an elevation of about 3,000 feet in the Central California foothills a few hours northeast of Fresno. The attraction is unfiltered Sierra Nevada: Sparkling blue water surrounded by a thick forest of stately ponderosa pines and black oaks. Plus, it’s isolated. There’s only one road in and out, which dead ends at the lake. “Being there, let me tell you, it’s like a little piece of paradise,” says Carcamo.

That Friday passed like any other. Groups split up to go hiking, swimming and grilling, and Carcamo’s family prepared for their annual pupusa night later in the weekend.

By Saturday morning, however, the atmosphere had changed. “When I woke up, I did notice it was kind of cloudy,” says Reyes. “The sky was orange and there was ash, like big pieces of ash falling,” says Reyes’ friend Vicky Castro.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


 

Squirrel-Nut Economics And Other Agility Tricks

In many parts of the country, the lead-up to winter is a busy time for squirrels, furiously collecting and hiding acorns and nuts for the cold months ahead. But how can squirrels recall where it has stashed all its stores? And what can studying squirrels tell researchers about memory, learning, and economic decision-making in other species?

Ira talks with Lucia Jacobs, a professor in the department of psychology and the Institute of Neuroscience at UC Berkeley, about her studies of the campus squirrels—from learning about their cognition, learning, and memory to recording the acrobatic movements of a squirrel on the ground and in the treetops. Jacobs co-leads a "squirrel school," observing rescued and orphaned juvenile squirrels as they learn normal squirrel behavior, and is contributing to a project seeking to develop robots using agility tricks learned from the rodents.


 

What Will We Reap Without Topsoil?

You may have missed the research when it came out this February: a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science reporting on satellite studies of farmland topsoil in the nation’s corn belt, states like Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois. And the news was not good. The team estimated that more than one-third of the topsoil in this region is gone, eroded mostly from hilltops and ridgelines, thanks to the plowing and tilling processes used to perform industrial agriculture. That topsoil, some of the richest in the world, is carbon-rich and crucial to our food supply. And yet it’s continuing to wash away, a hundred years after scientists like Aldo Leopold first called out the threat of erosion.

This erosion, as well as other degradation of soil’s complex structure and microbiome, continues at a fast clip around the globe, hurting food production and ecosystems health. In addition, soil could be helping us contain more than 100 billion additional tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—if we let it. But the good news, according to University of Wisconsin soil scientist Jo Handelsman, is that the solutions like cover crops and no-till farming are simple, well-understood, and easy to implement—as long as we give farmers incentives to make the leap. She talks to Ira about her forthcoming book, A World Without Soil: The Past, Present, and Precarious Future of the Earth Beneath Our Feet.

Nov 12, 2021
Psychedelics Can Treat Depression, Climate Meeting, Dopesick Show. Nov 12 2021, Part 1
47:21

Psilocybin Effective In Treating Serious Depression

Depression is often treatable with medication, therapy, or a combination of the two. But some 30% of patients don’t respond well to existing medications—and may try multiple antidepressant drugs with little or no improvement.

This week, researchers reported that a new trial suggests psychedelics may be an effective therapy for treatment-resistant depression. A randomized, controlled, double-blind trial found that people with treatment-resistant depression who were given 25 milligrams of psilocybin, the psychedelic component of magic mushrooms, had a significant decrease in depressive symptoms. The treatment didn’t work for everyone, however, and more research needs to be done before the finding can move to clinical use.

Sabrina Imber, a science fellow at the New York Times, joins Ira to talk about the trial and other stories from the week in science—including a new timeline for the planned Artemis missions to the moon, screaming bees, and a very wayward eagle.


Activists And Vulnerable Nations At COP26 Seek More Than Promises

There’s a big international climate summit wrapping up in Glasgow, Scotland this week. COP26 is the followup to 25 previous United Nations meetings about how the world must respond to the climate crisis—and its shortcomings in doing so. This year leaders had a big conversation to tackle: Countries needed to pledge to reduce emissions even further to prevent a global temperature rise of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. To do so, they needed to finish hashing out the details of how they will enforce the 2015 Paris Agreement’s provisions.

Meanwhile, island nations and other vulnerable countries, who themselves don’t emit much carbon, have continued to lobby for payment for what’s called loss and damages. That’s the harm they’ve already encountered as seas rise, threatening to obliterate their existence.

The first week kicked off with bold pledges about methane emissions, coal phaseouts, and ending deforestation. This week, former President Obama spoke about the need for urgent action, and called out large greenhouse gas polluters like Russia and China for not attending. And a grim United Nations report was released, forecasting that despite all the bold pledges, the world was on track to warm a dangerous 2.4 degrees Celsius. The team of Threshold, a podcast that tells stories about our changing environment, has been reporting on these updates from Glasgow, talking to attendees and occasionally witnessing negotiations.

In today’s show, Ira talks to journalist Amy Martin, Threshold’s executive producer and host, about her opinion on the outcome of COP26—and if transformative change can still come out of this year’s meeting.


 

”Dopesick” Takes On The Opioid Crisis

The opioid epidemic has affected millions of people across the country—and more than 800,000 people are estimated to have died from an opioid overdose. At the root of this crisis is the painkiller Oxycontin, manufactured by Purdue Pharma.

The company has made billions of dollars from the drug; but has also spent the better part of the last two decades fighting legal battles over its impacts, falsely arguing the drug is non-addictive and completely safe. Meanwhile, people from all walks of life, particularly in small towns across America, have been crippled by addiction to Oxycontin.

The limited series “Dopesick” traces the story of the opioid epidemic, from the creation of the Oxycontin pill to a landmark legal battle where Purdue Pharma admitted it misbranded the drug as being less addictive than other prescription opioids.

“Dopesick” follows a wide range of characters, from Purdue Pharma executives and federal prosecutors, to an Appalachian doctor and his pain-addled patients. Joining Ira to talk about bringing the show and its people to life is Danny Strong, creator and writer of “Dopesick,” joining from New York, New York.

Nov 12, 2021
Kids Under 12 Vaccine, Reduced Cow Methane From Seaweed Diet, Lost SciFri Theme Song. November 5, 2021, Part 2
47:41

Fact Check My Feed: More Kids Can Get COVID-19 Vaccines. Now What?

Many parents around the U.S. breathed a sigh of relief—or an even more intense emotional reaction—at the long-awaited news that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had signed off on advising the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 5 to 11 this week. The recommendation came after a unanimous vote from the agency’s committee of outside vaccine experts. And last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the shot after a review of clinical trial data found both low risk and high efficacy in a smaller, kid-calibrated dose of the vaccine.

University of Saskatchewan virologist Angela Rasmussen joins Ira to look at the data behind the FDA’s long-anticipated decision. They also discuss the rationale behind booster shots for high-risk adults, what it means that deer in Iowa have been caught transmitting the virus, COVID-pragmatic holiday planning, and other pandemic news.


 

In First Real-World Experiment, Red Seaweed Cuts Methane In Cows By More Than Half

Methane emissions are a hot topic—largely because it’s a big contributor to climate change. Methane makes up about 10% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. 27% of that comes from the burps of ruminant animals, such as cows.

In April, Science Friday did a story about research that showed promising results when steers were fed small amounts of the red algae Asparagopsis in their diets. At the time, these experiments were only done in a closely controlled university setting. Now, the first real-world study on a working dairy farm has been completed. The results? Methane released by the seaweed-eating cows was 52% less on average than their non-seaweed-munching counterparts.

Coming on the heels of the Biden administration’s methane emissions reduction plan, SciFri producer Kathleen Davis sits down with three key players in this milestone: Joan Salwen, CEO of Blue Ocean Barns in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, the company that produces the Asparagopsis seaweed powder; Dr. Breanna Roque, animal science consultant at Blue Ocean Barns in Townsville, Queensland, Australia; and Albert Straus, founder and CEO of Straus Family Creamery in Marshall, California.


 

The Science Friday Theme Song That Got Lost In The Mail

Back in 1998, comedian and author Steve Allen, first host of The Tonight Show, joined Ira on Science Friday to talk about the importance of critical thinking. Allen had written a book called Dumbth, calling for improvements in the public’s logical reasoning abilities. Ira was a longtime fan of Allen’s, and eagerly invited him to discuss the book.

During the interview, Allen also took to the studio piano to play his signature song, “This Could Be The Start of Something Big.” As the comedian was leaving, Ira jokingly remarked that Science Friday could use a theme song of its own.

Several years later, while cleaning the cluttered SciFri office, staff uncovered an unopened box of mail—including an envelope from Hollywood containing a single cassette tape, marked “Theme Song For Science Friday—Steve Allen.”

As part of Science Friday’s 30th anniversary celebrations, Ira and SciFri director Charles Bergquist recount the story of the tape, and finally premiere the song, written and performed by the late Steve Allen.

 

 

 

Nov 06, 2021
30 Years Of Science Friday, Kansas’ Wind Energy Plan, Vaccinating Kids Under 12. November 5, 2021, Part 1
48:18

Behind The FDA’s Decision To Vaccinate Kids Under 12

This week, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for kids under 12 was officially recommended by the CDC, after a unanimous vote from its independent advisory committee and the FDA’s authorization based on safety and efficacy data.

In their analysis, the FDA said the benefits of the vaccine “clearly outweigh” the risks. The risks, which were referenced in a cost-benefit examination of the data, included circumstances that popped up in the study that were unrelated to getting the vaccine (like a broken arm and an accidentally swallowed penny that occurred during the observational period).

As parents around the U.S. race to find appointments, Ira talks to science journalist Maggie Koerth about the safety data and what’s next for parents of young kids, including those under 5.

They also discuss a NASA test of a system to defend the planet from killer asteroids, a new prediction that climate change will change the availability of food crops within the next ten years, and other science news headlines.


 

What’s Next For Kansas After 20 Years Of Wind Power?

The wind farm business in Kansas has hit its awkward adolescence. It’s still growing 20 years in, but unsure what the near future might hold.

If it wants to get through those tough years and continue to grow, it needs to find more workers, to figure out what to do with the dated-but-not-obsolete turbines erected two decades ago and to sort out a way to carry all that wind-harvesting muscle beyond the state’s borders.

Consider the burly, newest version of wind farming at the Cimarron Bend wind farm south of Dodge City. “We just watch and listen to the towers,” said project supervisor Dewain Pfaff, who’s responsible for keeping about 300 turbines up and running. “If you can hear a noise we want to mitigate those issues as soon as possible.”

Standing at the base of one of the newest turbines on the site, he’s dwarfed by the tower that rises 300 feet into the air. That’s almost as tall as the Kansas State Capitol. Add in the blade when pointing straight up and it’s taller than the tallest building in the state. That mammoth size is one way wind turbines have changed over the past 20 years. While the turbine is nearly 300 feet tall, the turbines at the very first large-scale wind farm in the state stretched only 200 feet above the ground. Transporting larger towers and blades is trickier, but inevitable.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


 

SciFri Reflects On Three Decades Of Covering Science News

Thirty years ago this week, on Nov 8, 1991, the first episode of Science Friday aired as part of NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” series. After 30 years, over 9,000 interviews, and several changes of distributors, offices, and studios, the program is still going strong.

In this segment, host and executive producer Ira Flatow and SciFri director Charles Bergquist reminisce about some of the great guests and listener questions they’ve heard over the course of the program—from the very first episode, featuring the late Nobel Laureate Sherwood Rowland talking about the ozone hole, to a young fan helping to celebrate SciFri’s Cephalopod Week with her own ode to an octopus. Plus, moments with Jane Goodall, Sylvia Earle, astronaut Leland Melvin, the late Carl Sagan, and more.

Nov 06, 2021
Kids Next For Pfizer Vaccine, Side-Channel Surveillance, Medical Maggots. Oct 29, 2021, Part 1
46:55

Younger Kids Next In Line For COVID-19 Vaccines

This week, an FDA advisory panel voted unanimously to recommend that the COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer vaccine be approved for children as young as 5. If the FDA concurs and the CDC agrees, lower-dose Pfizer vaccinations could soon be available for children ages 5 to 11, via local pediatricians. Just who will be immediately eligible for the doses, and how vaccinating young children might affect school mask policies and other restrictions, remains to be seen.

Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox, joins Sophie Bushwick to talk about the news and other stories from the week in science, including potential COVID-related criminal charges against Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, an experimental bionic vision implant, and the possible discovery of an exoplanet in the galaxy Messier 51.


 

Could Ordinary Household Objects Be Used To Spy On You?

In the movies, if a room is bugged, the microphone might be hidden in a potted plant. But in recent years, researchers have come up with ways to use the trembling leaves of a potted plant, light glancing off a potato chip bag, and even tiny jiggles in the head of a spinning hard drive caused by a nearby conversation to be able to listen to what’s happening in a room, or to gain information about what’s going on nearby.

On a larger scale, other researchers have been able to use the vibrations of an entire building to paint a picture of movements within it—and even the health status of the people inside.

The approach is known as a side-channel attack: Rather than observing something directly, you’re extracting information from something else that has a relationship with the target. Many of the approaches are not straightforward—they require an understanding of the physics involved, and sometimes heavy data-processing or machine learning to interpret the hazy information yielded by these techniques.

Jon Callas of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Hae Young Noh of Stanford, and Kevin Fu of the University of Michigan join host Sophie Bushwick to talk about the risks and opportunities afforded by these sneaky methods of surveillance, and how concerned you should be.


 

A Maggot Revolution In Modern Medicine

In a bloody battle during World War I, two wounded soldiers were stranded on the battlefield in France, hidden and overlooked under some brush. Suffering femur fractures and flesh wounds around their scrotum and abdomen, they lay abandoned without water, food, or shelter for a whole week. At the time, outcomes for these kinds of wounds were poor: Patients with compound femur fractures had a 75 to 80% mortality rate. By the time the soldiers were rescued and brought to a hospital base, orthopedic surgeon William Baer expected their wounds to be festering, and their conditions fatal. But much to his surprise, neither showed any signs of fever, septicaemia, or blood poisoning.

When his team removed the soldiers’ clothing, they discovered that their flesh wounds were filled with thousands of maggots, or baby flies—little larvae with a massive appetite for decaying matter. Baer was repulsed by the sight, and the team quickly washed off the wriggling maggots. Underneath, instead of the expected pus and bacteria-infected flesh, Baer marveled over “the most remarkable picture.”

“These wounds were filled with the most beautiful pink granulation tissue that one could imagine,” Baer later wrote in a 1931 report in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. Maggots have long been associated with death, but in this case, they were helping the soldiers stay alive. As these insects were simply tucking in for their typical meal of dead, decaying flesh, they were inadvertently aiding the soldiers by cleaning their wounds, keeping infection at bay. The soldiers recovered—saved by their tiny, wriggling “friends which had been doing such noble work,” Baer wrote.

Baer’s paper is one of the first reports of maggots used in medicine, but these insects have been found healing wounds for thousands of years, with references in the Old Testament and in ancient cultures of New South Wales and Northern Myanmar.

Read the rest on sciencefriday.com.

Oct 29, 2021
Rising Seas Stories, Pseudo-Biology of Monsters, Howling Wolf Soundscape. Oct 29, 2021, Part 2
47:18

The Science Behind Cryptid Sightings

People around the world have long been fascinated by the idea that there are strange creatures out there, ones that may or may not exist. Tales circulate about cryptids–animals whose existence can’t be proved—like Bigfoot hiding out in American forests, or sea serpents lurking just below the water in coastal towns.

Despite the best efforts of monster hunting T.V. shows and amateur sleuths, there may never be concrete proof that these creatures exist. But that doesn’t stop people from analyzing strange photographs or odd carcasses and saying maybe, just maybe, cryptids do exist.

Darren Naish, a paleontologist and author based in Southampton, U.K., has a particular interest in looking at cryptozoology—from a skeptical perspective. His breakdowns of cryptid sightings from a scientific perspective have been published in Scientific American, his website, and in his book, Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths.

Darren speaks to guest host Sophie Bushwick about faked evidence, his relationship with cryptozoology, and how cryptids may lead to other pseudoscience beliefs.


 

Stories From Those On The Frontlines Of Sea Level Rise

Next week marks the start of the UN’s annual conference on climate change in Glasgow, Scotland. It’s a big moment for global consensus on climate change: Nations are supposed to make new, aggressive pledges to lower their emissions in the attempt to prevent the planet from hitting 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.

Meanwhile, in the world we see and touch, seas are already rising. In some coastal areas, seas have risen between 0.5 to 1.5 feet in the last century. We’re also already seeing hurricanes with higher storm surge, and heavier rainfall. More change, of course, is projected.

The SciFri Book Club has been talking about these risks, and reading about how these numbers have endangered wetlands, flooded homes, lost livelihoods, and sometimes scattered communities in Elizabeth Rush’s 2018 book Rising: Dispatches From The New American Shore. But while we’ve talked to wetland scientists and Elizabeth herself, the voices of community members most affected by climate change—a key part of Rising’s mission—were still missing.

In a final conversation with guest host Sophie Bushwick, producer Christie Taylor shares some of the stories of people on the frontlines, including a real-estate agent who helped his neighbors relocate after Hurricane Sandy, and the leader of the Gullah Geechee people on the sea islands of the southeast coast. Plus, social scientist A.R. Siders’ insights into communities’ need to adapt to sea level rise, and how they can be most successful.


 

Listen To The Haunting Howls That Once Permeated Europe

Last year, Melissa Pons, a field recordist and sound designer, set out to capture a sound that at one time would have been familiar to almost any European: the howl of an Iberian wolf.

There was a time when the sounds of wolves filled the forests and mountains of Europe. But after centuries of persecution by humans, only some 12,000 wolves remain in all of Europe. Isolated pockets of wolves can be found in Italy, Spain, Greece, and Finland. A sixth of the entire remaining population lives in the mountains of Portugal.

Pons headed to the remote, mountainous region of Picão—a settlement on the small island Príncipe off the west coast of Africa—where there is a rehabilitation center for the Iberian wolf. There are some 350 packs of wolves spread out over about 45 acres of the reserve.

Pons first explored the region and observed the wolves. Then she set up her recording gear and gathered over 100 hours of tape. From those recordings, she composed an album where each track captures a distinct soundscape made by these wolves.

The album is available online and half the proceeds go toward supporting the rehabilitation center in Portugal.

 

Oct 29, 2021
Genome Traces, Beavers and Wildfire, Halloween DIY, Volcanoes. Oct 22, 2021, Part 2
47:10

The Ancient Neanderthal Traces Hidden In Your Genome

Just how much of your genome is uniquely human? It turns out the number of genetic components in the human genome that trace back only to modern humans, and not to other human lineages or ancient ancestors, are surprisingly small. In a paper published recently in the journal Science Advances, researchers estimate the uniquely human portion of the genome as being under two percent. 

Many of the genes thought to be strictly connected to modern humans appear to relate to neural processes. However, traces of genes from Denisovans and Neanderthals can be found scattered throughout the genome—including strong Neanderthal genetic signals in parts of the genome dealing with the immune system.

Ed Green, a professor of biomolecular engineering at the University of California Santa Cruz and one of the authors of that paper, joins SciFri’s Charles Bergquist to talk about the study, and what can be learned by this approach to studying our genetic code.

 


 

Beavers Build Ecosystems Of Resilience

Deep in the Cameron Peak burn scar, nestled among charred hills, there’s an oasis of green—an idyllic patch of trickling streams that wind through a lush grass field. Apart from a few scorched branches on the periphery, it’s hard to tell that this particular spot was in the middle of Colorado’s largest-ever wildfire just a year ago.

This wetland was spared thanks to the work of beavers.

The mammals, quite famously, dam up streams to make ponds and a sprawling network of channels. Beavers are clumsy on land, but talented swimmers; so the web of pools and canals lets them find safety anywhere within the meadow.

On a recent visit to that patch of preserved land in Poudre Canyon, ecohydrologist Emily Fairfax emphasized the size of the beavers’ canal network.

“Oh my gosh, I can’t even count them,” she said. “It’s a lot. There’s at least 10 ponds up here that are large enough to see in satellite images. And then between all those ponds is just an absolute spiderweb of canals, many of which are too small for me to see until I’m here on the ground.”

The very infrastructure that gives beavers safety from predators also helps shield them from wildfire. Their work saturates the ground, creating an abnormally wet patch in the middle of an otherwise dry area. Dams allow the water to pool, and the channels spread it out over a wide swath of valley floor.

Fairfax researches how beavers re-shape the landscapes where they live. Across the West, she’s seen beaver-created wetlands survive wildfires. Ira chats with Fairfax and KUNC's Water in the West reporter Alex Hager about how beavers are creating wetland oases that are surviving the West's new megafires

 


  

DIY Halloween Hacks

Trying to liven up your ghosts and goblins this Halloween? In this archival segment from 2013, Windell Oskay, cofounder of Evil Mad Scientist, shares homemade hack ideas for a festive fright fest, from LED jack-o’-lanterns, to 3D printed candy, to spine-chilling specimen jars.

 


  

The Burn Of Volcanic Beauty

This week, Mount Aso, a volcano in Japan, erupted—spewing clouds of ash and smoke, but fortunately bringing no reported injuries. Meanwhile, on the island of La Palma, the Cumbre Vieja volcano has been erupting for over a month now, causing destruction and evacuations on the island, and dramatically changing the island’s coastline. 

Robin George Andrews, author of the upcoming book Super Volcanoes, joins Ira to talk about the terror—and wonder—of volcanoes, and why their behavior can be so enigmatic to humans.

 

Oct 22, 2021
Filipino Nurses, Francis Collins Exit Interview. Oct 22, 2021, Part 1
47:00

Biden’s Administration Preps For A Crucial Climate Conference

This week, CDC advisers gave their support to approve COVID-19 vaccine boosters for those who received Moderna and J&J vaccines. The recommendations would follow the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s authorization of “mixing and matching” booster shots from different vaccine developers. Ira provides new updates on the latest vaccine booster approvals, and a story about a successful transplant of a pig kidney… to a human. Plus, climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis gives us a closer look at how the United States is living up to its Paris Agreement pledges as a crucial international gathering looms, and Biden’s clean energy legislation appears to be faltering.

 


  

Seeing The History Of Filipinos In Nursing

You may have seen a grim statistic earlier this year: 32% of U.S. registered nurses who died of COVID-19 by September 2020 were of Filipino descent, even though they only make up 4% of nurses in the United States. Yet an event like the pandemic is disproportionately likely to affect Filipino-American families: Approximately a quarter of working Filipino-Americans are frontline healthcare workers.

There’s a deep history of Filipino immigrants and their descendants in frontline healthcare work. This Filipino-American History Month, Ira talks to nurse and photojournalist Rosem Morton and freelance journalist Fruhlein Econar about their recent collaboration for CNN Digital, using photographs from Morton’s “Diaspora on the Frontlines project. 

They talk about the long reliance of the U.S. healthcare system on the Philippines, and the importance of documenting the lives, not just the disproportionate hardship, of these frontline healthcare workers and their families

 


  

Francis Collins, Longest-Running NIH Director, To Step Down

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will be stepping down from his post at the end of the year. Collins is the longest serving NIH director, serving three presidents over 12 years: Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden.

Before his role at the NIH, Collins was an acclaimed geneticist, helping discover the gene that causes cystic fibrosis. He then became director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, where he led the project that mapped the human genome

A lot can happen in 12 years, especially in the fields of health and science. Collins joins Ira to talk about his long tenure at the NIH, as well as how his Christian faith has informed his career in science. 

Oct 22, 2021
Shinnecock Nation, Marsh Science, Weekend Stargazing. Oct 15, 2021, Part 2
47:29

On Long Island, A Tribal Nation Faces Growing Pressures

The Hamptons on Long Island are known as a mansion-lined escape for wealthy New Yorkers. But the area is also home to the Native residents of the Shinnecock Tribal Nation. An estimated 1,500 Shinnecock members are left in the U.S., and about half live on the Nation’s territory on Long Island.

As with the rest of the island, Shinnecock Nation is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Receding shorelines threaten to eat up three-quarters of its territory by 2050, adding to the existing threat of development from the Hamptons. This issue of climate change and its impacts around Long Island is the subject of the new podcast, “Higher Ground,” from WSHU Public Radio in Fairfield, Connecticut. One of the stories told in the podcast is that of Tela Troge, Shinnecock tribal sovereignty attorney and kelp farmer, who lives on Shinnecock territory in Long Island. 

Tela talks to Ira about seeing climate change and development affect Shinnecock land with her own eyes, and her venture into kelp farming as a tool for nitrogen sequestration.

 


  

The World According To Sound: Listening To Lightning

There is more than one way to listen to a bolt of lightning. While you can pick up the boom and rumble of thunder with your ears, if you tune in with a radio receiver, you can hear an entirely different sound: an earth whistler.

When lightning strikes, it releases electromagnetic radiation in the VLF or Very Low Frequency band, which runs from 3 Hz to 30 kHz. This falls within the human range of hearing, which spans from 20 Hz to 20 kHz. However, we can not hear whistlers with our own ears because the radiation is electromagnetic, not physical vibrations in the air.

We can, though, capture the electromagnetic radiation with a radio receiver. Radio operators have been picking up the strange twanging of lightning ever since they started trying to tune into man-made signals. They dubbed the eerie electro-magnetic disturbances in their headphones “earth whistlers.”

People first heard earth whistlers back in the 19th century. The electromagnetic radiation from lightning interfered with telephone lines and crept into phone conversations. You’d be talking with someone and hear these bursts of energy, like little phone ghosts. 

Today, we know earth whistlers are made by the interaction of lightning with the planet’s magnetic field. There are over a million lightning strikes in the atmosphere, which means there is a nearly constant chorus around earth. 

The whistlers in this piece were provided courtesy of NASA and The University of Iowa

The World According to Sound is a live audio show, online listening series, and miniature podcast that focuses on sound, not story. Producers Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett create intentional, communal listening experiences as a way to “reclaim autonomy in a visually dominated world that is increasingly fracturing our attention.” 

This recording is part of their next listening series, an immersive listening party where audiences from all over the globe will be invited to experience a world of sound together, beginning in January 2022. You can get a ticket to the series here.

  


 

Save The Wetlands, Save The World

In Rising, the Science Friday Book Club pick for this fall, author Elizabeth Rush writes frequently of marshes. Rush explores the disappearing wetlands of Louisiana’s hurricane-battered coast, the San Francisco Bay Estuary, Staten Island’s newly abandoned flood zones, and other marshes around the country. But why, scientifically speaking, are wetlands such a feature of the conversation around coastal resilience to climate change and rising seas. 

In a recording with a ‘live’ Zoom audience, SciFri producer Christie Taylor speaks with wetland ecologists Marcelo Ardón and Letitia Grenier about the resilience and adaptability of marshland, how climate change and sea level rise threatens them, and why protecting and restoring tidelands is good for everyone.

 


  

Widening The Lens On A More Inclusive Science

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

 

In this re-broadcast of the 2019 conversation, Ira speaks with astrophysicist Annette Lee and anthropologist Kim TallBear about the historical role of science and observation in Indigenous communities, and how Western scientific culture can leave out other voices. They also discuss the solutions: What does an inclusive scientific enterprise look like, and how could we get there?

 


  

This Weekend, Take Time For The Moon

This Saturday marks International Observe the Moon Night, a worldwide astronomy education event encouraging people to take time to look at the moon—through a telescope, if possible. Around the world, astronomers will be setting up public telescopes and encouraging passers-by to take a look. 

Dean Regas, astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory, joins Ira to explain how to get in on the lunar-observation action. They also talk about other astronomical events, including the ongoing Orionid meteor shower and an upcoming partial lunar eclipse on November 19.

 

Oct 15, 2021
Native Biodata, Indigenous Carbon Resistance, COVID Boosters Next Steps. Oct 15, 2021, Part 1
47:18

More Boosters, For More People

This week, an FDA advisory committee met to pore over data and debate the role of COVID vaccine boosters. And on Thursday, they voted to recommend Moderna boosters for older Americans, as well as people in certain at-risk groups. This recommendation came just a few weeks after the FDA authorized a Pfizer booster for similar individuals.

The recommendations of the panel regarding boosters for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, as well as the idea of mixing and matching different vaccine and booster types, will now go to FDA officials. The CDC will also weigh in.

Amy Nordrum, commissioning editor at MIT Technology Review, joins Ira to talk about the vaccine meeting and other topics from the week in science—including the FDA authorization of an e-cigarette, efforts to map the brain, mysterious radio signals from space, and a mission to explore asteroids near Jupiter.


 

Indigenous-Led Biology, Designed For Native Communities

Monday was Indigenous Peoples’ Day here in the United States: a holiday to honor Native Americans and their resilience over many centuries of colonialism. Due to a long history of discrimination, Native Americans face stark health disparities, compared to other American populations. Illnesses like chronic liver disease, diabetes, and respiratory diseases are much more common in Native communities.

This is where the Native BioData Consortium (NBDC) comes in. It’s a biobank, a large collection of biological samples for research purposes. What sets this facility apart from others is its purpose—the biological samples are from indigenous people, and the research is led by indigenous scientists.

This is important, say the founders, because for too long, biological samples from Native people have been used for purposes that don’t benefit them.

Joining Ira to talk about the importance of having a biobank run by indigenous scientists are three foundational members of the project: Krystal Tsosie, co-founder and ethics and policy director of the NBDC and PhD candidate in genetics at Vanderbilt University, Joseph Yracheta, executive director and laboratory manager of the NCDC, and Matt Anderson, assistant professor of microbiology at Ohio State University and NCDC board member.


 

Indigenous Activists Helped Save Almost A Billion Tons Of Carbon Per Year

This summer, Science Friday and other media outlets covered the protests against an oil pipeline project in northern Minnesota, where Canadian company Enbridge Energy was replacing and expanding their existing Line 3 infrastructure. Native American tribes in Minnesota—whose lands the pipeline would pass through and alongside—organized protests, direct action, and other resistance against the project. The pipeline was completed, and began moving tar sands oil at the beginning of October.

But the protests and their non-Native allies drew arrests, news coverage, and social media attention to the debate over continued drilling of fossil fuels.

Before Line 3, there were protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was completed against the wishes of the nearby Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and the Keystone XL pipeline, which President Biden ultimately cancelled after objections and lawsuits from two Native American communities in Montana and South Dakota. So far, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has remained un-drilled, despite multiple attempts, with help from vocal opposition by Alaska’s Gwich’in people.

A new report from two advocacy groups does the math on how much carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gas emissions these cancelled or delayed projects would have emitted in the last 10 years. According to their calculations, Indigenous resistance to pipelines and other fossil fuel projects has saved the U.S. and Canada 12% of their annual emissions, or 0.8 billion tons of CO2 per year.

Ira talks to the co-authors, Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network, and Kyle Gracey from Oil Change International, about the value of tallying these emissions in the fight to prevent future oil projects. Plus, why Native American protesters and their allies deserve credit for keeping fossil fuels in the ground—and the bigger environmental justice issue of pipeline projects alongside Native land.

Oct 15, 2021
Air Conditioning, Face Recognition Neurons. Oct 8, 2021, Part 2
56:24

The Hot And Cold Past Of The Air Conditioner

In the Northeast, the leaves have started changing colors, heralding the season of pumpkins, sweaters, and the smell of woodsmoke. But in some parts of the country, the heat hasn’t let up. In cities like Dallas, Phoenix, and Miami, temperatures were up in the high 80s and low 90s this week—and with climate change, the U.S. is only getting hotter. 

But humans have come up with an ingenious way to keep the heat at bay: air conditioning. Widely considered one of the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century, the technology has transformed how and where people live—and it’s prevented countless deaths. But it comes at a cost, and if we’re going to keep up with a warming climate, we’re going to need some other tricks to stay cool. 

Like what you hear? Dive deeper with some of the sources we turned to while reporting.

 


  

See A Familiar Face? Thank These Brain Cells

What happens when you see a familiar face? Light reflected from the face enters your eye, is focused onto the retina, and a signal travels up your optic nerve. But what exactly goes on in your brain after that is still somewhat mysterious.  

Recently, researchers reported in the journal Science that they had identified a group of brain cells that seem tuned to respond only to familiar faces. The theory is that the specificity of those neurons helps to speed up processing of potentially important visual information. The work was done in monkeys, but the researchers are currently trying to identify similar brain structures in people.  

Sofia Landi and Winrich Freiwald, two of the authors of the report, join Ira to talk about the research, and what it may tell us about how the brain and memory are organized

Oct 08, 2021
State Of COVID And Antiviral Pill, Future Pandemics. Oct 8, 2021, Part 1
47:14

First Malaria Vaccine Is Approved by WHO

The malaria parasite is one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases, killing on average about 500,000 people per year—half of them children under the age of 5, nearly all of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

Now, the World Health Organization has finally approved RTS,S or Mosquirix, the first vaccine against Plasmodium falciparum, which is the most deadly strain of the parasite. The vaccine has already been administered via a pilot program to 800,000 children in Kenya, Ghana, and Malawi, and in clinical trials showed an efficacy rate of about 50% against severe disease.

WNYC’s Nsikan Akpan explains this and other stories, including a climate change-linked Nobel Prize in physics, controversy over the naming of the James Webb Space Telescope, and a new surveillance method that uses only the shadows you cast on a blank wall.

Will Improved Testing And New Antivirals Change The Pandemic’s Path?

Late last week, the pharmaceutical company Merck released data on a new antiviral medication called molnupiravir—a drug taken as a course of pills over five days that the company said was dramatically effective at keeping people with COVID-19 out of the hospital. In a press release, the company said that trial participants on the medication had a 50% lower risk of hospitalization or death compared to people getting the placebo. And while eight people in the placebo group died during the trial, none of the people getting the new drug did.

However, the full data from the trial has yet to be released—and the medication must still go through the FDA approval process before it can be used. Matthew Herper, senior writer at STAT covering medicine, joins Ira to talk about the drug and what questions remain.

Then, infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist Céline Gounder discusses other recent coronavirus news—from a government plan to spend a billion dollars on at-home testing to recent data on the Delta variant, including projections of what might happen next.

Preparing For The Next Pandemic Needs To Start Now

The United States has a long history of public health crises. For many, our first pandemic has been COVID-19. But long before the SARS-CoV-2 virus arrived, HIV, measles, and the flu all left a lasting impact. As a wealthy country, you may think the United States would be prepared to deal with public health crises, since they happen here with a degree of regularity. However, that’s not the case.

The longstanding issues that left the country vulnerable to COVID-19 are explored in a recent article from The Atlantic, called “We’re Already Barreling Toward the Next Pandemic.” The piece was written by science writer Ed Yong, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his coverage of COVID-19.

Ira speaks to Ed and Gregg Gonsalves, global health activist and epidemiologist at Yale, about the country’s history of public health unpreparedness, and what needs to happen to be ready for the next pandemic.

 

Oct 08, 2021
A Century Of Science, Book Club: Rising, Charismatic Creature Update. Oct 1, 2021, Part 2
46:50

Looking Back On A Century of Science

In 1921, the discovery of radium was just over 20 years in the past. And the double helix of DNA was still over thirty years in the future. That year, a publication that came to be the magazine Science News started publication, and is still in operation today.

Editors Nancy Shute and Elizabeth Quill join Ira to page through the magazine’s archives, with over 80,000 articles covering a century of science—from the possibilities of atomic energy to discussions of black holes, to projections of the rise of the avocado as a popular fruit. There are mysteries—are spiral nebulae other universes? And there are missteps, like the suggestion that the insecticide DDT should be incorporated into wall paint.


 

 

When The Water Comes

The Science Friday Book Club is kicking off for fall. Producer Christie Taylor joins in a conversation with Elizabeth Rush, author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. They talk about the surprisingly fascinating science of coastal wetlands, and their role in protecting communities from sea level rise—plus how communities themselves, from Staten Island to southern Louisiana, are responding to rising seas and flooding.

For the full rundown, excerpts, and more, check out our main Book Club page.


 

Who Will Sweep The Charismatic Creature Carnival?

Our Charismatic Creature Carnival is coming to a close. Over the last month, SciFri has celebrated six overlooked or unfairly maligned species that deserve a chance under the spotlight. And now, out of our three semifinalist creature candidates, there can only be one winner. Will it be the colorful, tiny, but mighty mantis shrimp? Or perhaps the adaptable, dramatic opossum? Or will the endangered shoebill stork, with its prehistoric look, come out on top? The choice is up to our listeners: vote here.

 

Oct 01, 2021
Primate Parasites, Spider Mating Songs, Spotted Lanternfly. Oct 1, 2021, Part 1
46:57

Healthcare Is Hard Enough to Get. If You’re A Trans Youth, It’s Even Harder

Healthcare can be difficult to access for anyone—that’s been made clear during the COVID-19 pandemic. But for transgender youth, the barriers are exponentially higher. A new study from the journal JAMA Pediatrics shows that trans youth don’t get the care they need because of a variety of obstacles. Those range from laws that prevent them from advocating for themselves, to stigma from doctors.

Joining Ira to talk about this story and other big science news of the week is Sabrina Imbler, science reporting fellow for the New York Times based in New York City. Ira and Sabrina also discuss the massive undertaking of COVID-19 testing in school districts, and the impacts ivermectin misinformation is having on the livestock and veterinary industries.


 

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.


 

As Primates Go Extinct, So Do Their Parasites, Upsetting Ecosystems

As of 2017, more than half of primate species—that’s apes, monkeys, lemurs, and our other relatives—were considered at risk of extinction. While the loss of these animals would be its own ecological crisis, this is causing another wave of die offs: the parasites that live on those primates, many of whom are specially adapted to live on just one species for their entire lives. That includes fungi and viruses, as well as the more grimace-inducing parasites like lice and intestinal worms.

Producer Christie Taylor talks to Duke Lemur Center researcher James Herrera, the first author on new research that found if endangered primates do disappear, nearly 200 species of primate parasites might also. They talk about why that loss could have consequences—not just for dwindling primates, but also for us.


 

The World According To Sound: How Spiders Shake Things Up For Love

Amorous arachnids sing to their lovers without making a sound. Instead, they like to shake things up.

Spiders aren’t powerful enough to vibrate the air, the way actual singing does. Instead, they use the ground. Male spiders send vibrations down their legs, and into whatever they’re standing on. Nearby females “hear” the song vibrating up their legs.

Humans can’t hear these spider songs with our ears, but we can listen to them with the help of a laser doppler vibrometer. This instrument can make non-contact vibration measurements of a surface. It shoots a laser beam at a particular surface, and depending on how much that surface moves, it can then measure the frequency and amplitude of the vibration, based on the Doppler shift of the reflected laser beam.

Hear an example of these lovelorn spiders on The World According to Sound, a live audio show, online listening series, and miniature podcast that focuses on sound, not story. Producers Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett create intentional, communal listening experiences as a way to “reclaim autonomy in a visually dominated world that is increasingly fracturing our attention.” The spiders in this piece were recorded by researchers in Damian Elias’s lab at UC Berkeley.

This recording is part of their next listening series, an immersive listening party where audiences from all over the globe will be invited to experience a world of sound together, beginning in January 2022. You can get a ticket to the series here.

 

Oct 01, 2021
Nuclear Plant Decommissioning, Fauci Kid’s Book, Pigeon Vs Shoebill. Sept 24, 2021, Part 2
47:36

Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant To Say Goodbye To Its Radioactive Waste

Just before Thanksgiving, the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth is expected to reach a historic milestone. All the radioactive fuel that generated electricity—and controversy—for nearly half a century will finally be removed from the reactor building. It will be stored outside in special steel and cement casks.

The rare occasion will be celebrated by both supporters and opponents of the plant. But as the decommissioning of Pilgrim proceeds, concern over the long-term safety of the highly radioactive waste continues.

Even though Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant stopped producing electricity two years ago, there are still armed guards in watchtowers, surveillance cameras spread over the site, mazes of barbed wire fences and concrete vehicle barriers. 

Bruce Gellerman, a senior reporter at WBUR in Boston, Massachusetts, explains what the decommissioning process has been like and the future of nuclear power in the Northeast.

 


 

Dr. Fauci’s Life Illustrated In A New Book For Kids

Dr. Anthony Fauci became a household name at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, he’s the subject of a children’s book too: Dr: Fauci: How a Boy From Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor. The book takes us back to Fauci’s childhood filled with games of baseball in the streets of Brooklyn, bike rides to deliver medications for his family’s pharmacy, and his long history of asking questions about how the world works.

Author Kate Messner talks to Ira about the surprises she found in Fauci’s life story, the value of showing kids that scientists were once children too, and why curiosity is such an important value to teach children.

 


 

A Charismatic Match-up Between Two Feathered Friends

It’s the third and final matchup of this fall’s Charismatic Creature Carnival, our celebration of six overlooked, and often unfairly maligned, species that deserve a chance under the spotlight. Our audience submitted the carnival candidates, but only one will be crowned the very first inductee into the Charismatic Creature Corner Hall of Fame.

This week, our match-up is between two fabulous, feathered creatures: the pigeon and the shoebill stork. Defending the pigeon is Elizabeth Carlen, postdoctoral research fellow at Washington University in St. Louis. Representing the shoebill stork is Judith Mirembe, shoebill researcher and chair of Uganda Women Birders based in Kampala, Uganda. 

Sep 24, 2021
Two Climate Change Bills, COVID Vaccine Boosters. Sept 24, 2021, Part 1
47:14

Ice-Hunting Lunar Rover Robot Gets A Landing Site

This week, NASA announced that it had selected a destination for a planned robotic lunar rover called VIPER, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover. The mission is planned for launch in 2023, and will rove about the Moon’s south pole, mapping the location and concentration of water ice deposits. The plan is for a commercial spaceflight mission to deliver the rover to a spot near the western edge of the Nobile Crater at the Moon’s south pole.

Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins Ira to talk about the mission and other stories from the week in technology and science—including tiny airborne micro-machines, an upcoming voyage for the James Webb Space Telescope, and the discovery of ancient kids’ handprints that could be the world’s oldest-known art.


 

Congress Is Considering Two Climate Change Bills. What’s In Them?

President Biden has made many promises about slowing climate change. During his campaign, he pledged to bring the United States’ energy sector to zero carbon emissions by 2035. On Earth Day this year, he pledged to reduce total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, and by 100% by 2050.

But the key policy changes that will help the country get there remain pending as the relevant bills continue to make their way through Congress. The first is an infrastructure bill that would pledge billions toward cleaner transit and resiliency projects in disaster-stricken communities. But that measure is tied intricately with the fate of a second, $3.5 trillion budget bill that would direct billions of dollars to incentivize coal and natural gas-burning utilities to switch over to renewable energy.

If both are to pass without substantial changes, they rely on consensus among the narrow majorities of Democrats in the Senate and the House—neither of which is guaranteed.

New York Times reporter Coral Davenport walks through what’s in the bills, and why so much is still up in the air even after a summer of climate-driven disasters.


 

Behind The Booster Battle

Update 9/24/2021: This week, CDC director Rochelle Walensky overruled the recommendations of an advisory panel and authorized a third dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for the elderly and certain “high risk” individuals, mirroring an earlier FDA decision. In late August, President Biden had said that COVID-19 vaccine booster shots might soon be on the horizon for many Americans.

In late August, President Biden said that COVID-19 vaccine booster shots might soon be on the horizon for many Americans. But last Friday, an FDA advisory committee voted to recommend booster doses only for people over age 65—and this Wednesday, the FDA authorized Pfizer boosters for use in the elderly and “high risk” individuals.

In the republished article (which you can read on sciencefriday.com) from September 16, written before the FDA review, Kaiser Health News’ Arthur Allen and Sarah Jane Tribble examine the backstory behind the debate over boosters, and how leaders from the NIH got out in front of FDA and CDC recommendations.

Sep 24, 2021
Endemic Diseases, Insects and Light, Opossum vs Aye-Aye. Sept 17, 2021
47:33

Nighttime Streetlights Are Stressing Out Urban Insects

As insect populations—including bees, moths, and other pollinators—decline worldwide, researchers have established a variety of potential causes, including climate change, pesticides, and habitat loss. But now, new findings suggest yet another culprit may be part of the equation: night-time lighting, like street lights in populated areas.

A team of entomologists in the United Kingdom looked at populations of moth caterpillars under street lights, compared to populations that lived in darkness all night. In conditions with night-time lighting, they found nearly half as many caterpillars, in some cases. In addition, caterpillars that grew up under street lights were bigger, suggesting that they might be stressed and attempting to rush into metamorphosis earlier than they should. Furthermore, the greatest threat seems to be coming from energy-efficient LED lights, whose bluer wavelengths may be more stressful than the warmer, redder light of older sodium bulbs.

The team published their work in the journal Science Advanceslate last month. Guest host Umair Irfan talks to co-author Douglas Boyes about why nighttime lighting might be so bad for insects, and why ditching LED lights isn’t actually the best solution.

 


 

The Endemic End To The Pandemic

Over the past year and a half, we’ve been talking about the COVID-19 pandemic. But there’s another stage of global virus spread to consider as well—the endemic stage. Instead of a sudden cacophony of viral noise, you can think of it as a constant low-level hum, with occasional bleeps.  

Viruses such as the coronaviruses responsible for many colds, or the influenza virus, are already endemic worldwide. They’re pretty much everywhere, all the time—and sometimes make you ill. But they don’t usually threaten to overwhelm health systems the way COVID-19 is currently.

Maureen Miller, an infectious disease epidemiologist and medical anthropologist at  Columbia University, joins guest host Umair Irfan to talk about pivoting from pandemic to endemic conditions, and what past outbreaks can teach us for future health decisions

 


  

Charismatic Creature Carnival: Who Rules The Night?

We’re in week two of our Charismatic Creature Carnival, our celebration of six overlooked or unfairly maligned species that deserve a closer look. Our audience submitted our candidates, but only one will be crowned the very first carnival inductee into the Charismatic Creature Corner Hall of Fame.

This week’s friendly head-to-head battle is between the opossum and the aye-aye, submitted by listeners who remarked these creatures are cute, though unconventionally so. Defending the opossum is Lisa Walsh, postdoctoral researcher at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, based in Washington, D.C. Squaring up against them to support the aye-aye is Megan McGrath, education programs manager at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina. Find out how to participate in the final creature face-off and check out what you said about the last round between the mantis shrimp and the hellbender salamander! 

 

Sep 17, 2021
Living With Wildfire, 7,000 Steps A Day Okay, Kids’ Mars Questions. Sept 17, 2021, Part 1
46:54

Scientists Potty Train Cows To Lower Greenhouse Gasses

Scientists have known it for a long time: Cattle are a major source of nitrogen emissions, contributing to the global warming crisis. Alternatives have been tossed around for years: from eating less meat to feeding cows seaweed. Now, a new study out of Germany and New Zealand has a more outside-the-box solution: potty-training calves.

Scientists trained cows to pee in just one spot—dubbed the “MooLoo”—so their urine can be cleaned before it seeps into the environment. Most calves got the hang of it within 20-25 pees.

Joining guest host Umair Irfan to talk about this and other science stories of the week is Roxanne Khamsi, science journalist based in Montreal, Quebec.

With Worsening Wildfire Seasons, How Can We Learn To Live With Them?

It’s another record year for fire in the American West, with more than two million acres already burning in the state of California, and the Dixie Fire alone well on its way to a million acres—if it gets that big, it would be the second “gigafire” on record, after 2020’s August Complex fire.

As climate change and human habitation collide in worsening fire seasons, what is the long-term outlook? Guest host Umair Irfan talks to fire scientist Crystal Kolden about the way fires are changing as we change the landscape, and what coexisting with fire can look like—including learning from the time-proven burning and forestry practices of Indigenous peoples of the West.

Do I Really Need 10,000 Steps A Day? Scientists Say 7,000 Is Fine

You’ve probably heard someone say that they have to “get their steps in.” But does the number of steps you take in a day actually matter? For years, there was a mythology around the health benefits of walking 10,000 steps a day.

But it turned out that number wasn’t based on actual data—it grew out of a marketing effort in Japan from a pedometer company in the 1960s. Now, Amanda Paluch, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has published a paper—based on actual data—to help answer this question in the academic journal JAMA Network Open.

Mining data collected by the CARDIA cohort study, they compared the overall health outcomes of people who walked less than 7,000 steps a day, those logging 7,000 to 10,000 steps, and those trekking over 10,000. They found that people who walked over 7,000 steps a day had a significant decrease in mortality, compared to people who took fewer steps. They’re still trying to tease out exactly what health benefits the steps may bring.

Paluch joins guest host Umair Irfan to talk about the research, and what you should know about how walking might improve health.

NASA Scientist Answers Kids’ Questions About The Mars Rover

It was big news last week when the Mars rover Perseverance collected its first rock samples.

And just in time, we invited young listeners in our audience to ask research scientist Katie Stack Morgan of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory some of their most pressing questions about the Mars 2020 mission. Questions like, “How do samples get back to Earth from Mars?” And, “How does Perseverance dust itself off … if it can?

 

 

Sep 17, 2021
Covid And Disabilities, Alzheimer’s And Inflammation, Ultrasonic Sound. Sept 10, 2021, Part 1
46:45

New Policies Emerge In The Wake Of Climate-Connected Disasters

This week, people across the United States continued to be reminded of the results of a shifting climate—with people in the Gulf states still recovering from Ida, northeastern states dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Ida-induced flooding, and western states battling wildfires and smoke.

With climate-related disasters as a backdrop, President Biden announced a goal of shifting some 45% of U.S. energy production to solar power by 2050.

Kendra Pierre-Louis, senior reporter for the Gimlet-Spotify podcast How to Save A Planet, joins Ira to talk about those stories and more, including new calculations of the importance of minimizing fossil fuel extraction, to a successful sample collection effort on Martian soil.


 

Is Inflammation In The Brain Causing Alzheimer’s Disease?

The brain of a person with Alzheimer’s disease has a few hallmark traits. First, a buildup of plaques made of proteins called amyloid beta. Second, are tangles of another protein, called tau, within individual neurons. A third major indicator is inflammation.

While researchers have long thought brain inflammation was a byproduct of the disease itself, there’s a growing hypothesis that it might actually be a driver of the disease’s progression. That would help explain why researchers have found people whose brains are full of tau tangles and amyloid plaques, but with no outward symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

Research on animals has supported this theory. But finding the same evidence in human brains is harder. Now, a team of scientists, writing in the journal Nature Medicine, thinks they have it: time-lapsed images of patient brains showing tau tangles and inflammation spreading through the brain in the exact same pattern.

Ira talks to Dr. Tharick Pascoal, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the study’s first author, about this finding, and what it means for future research into Alzheimer’s therapies.


 

The World According To Sound: Ultrasonics

The mating calls of the katydid, a large insect, are ultrasonic, beyond the audible limit of human hearing. What if we could hear them?

That’s the focus behind a collaboration between the abstract audio podcast The World According To Sound and scientist Laurel Symes, the assistant director of the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at Cornell University. In this recording, you’ll hear the sounds of one of her study animals—a group of katydids in a forest in Panama.

Bill McQuay, sound engineer and an audio producer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, slowed down Symes’ recording so you can hear a whole world of ultrasonic activity open up, from ultrasonic mating calls of katydids to the ultrasonic pings of bats echolocating their next meal.

The World According to Sound is a live audio show, online listening series, and miniature podcast that focuses on sound, not story. Producers Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett create intentional, communal listening experiences as a way to “reclaim autonomy in a visually dominated world that is increasingly fracturing our attention.”

This katydid recording and more are a part of their next listening series, an immersive listening party where audiences from all over the globe will be invited to experience a world of sound together, beginning in January 2022.


 

How COVID-19 Reveals Existing Biases Against The Disability Community

In early July, I visit Ingrid Tischer at the Berkeley apartment she’s shared with her husband, Ken, for the past 10 years. When I arrive, she’s already sitting outside at the top of a gently sloping ramp that leads up to the door. We’re both vaccinated, but we’re still taking precautions: masks, outdoors, and social distancing. That’s because Ingrid has a severe disability.

“I have muscular dystrophy,” she tells me, “which is a neuromuscular disorder that I’ve had my entire life because it’s genetic.” Muscular dystrophy is a progressive muscle wasting disease. It impacts her mobility, including her ability to walk unassisted. Ingrid says she’s most impacted by having a weak respiratory system and uses an oxygen device called a biPap to help her breathe. Earlier in the pandemic, her doctor told her that if she got COVID, it would likely be a death sentence. “I’d never heard my situation put in such stark, certain terms,” she says.

Ingrid is in her mid 50s, with graying brown hair and bright blue eyes. She leads fundraising for DREDF, a disability rights and legal advocacy organization. She’s also a writer — she’s written a draft of a novel and has a blog called “Tales From the Crip.” In addition to a brilliant title, the blog is full of her personal reflections about navigating a world in which the needs and feelings of people with disabilities go mostly unseen and ignored.

When COVID hit in the spring of 2020, Ingrid was terrified. Because of the risk of infection and smoke from the wildfires that summer, she stopped leaving her house entirely, developed severe anxiety and depression, and began noticing a host of new health issues.

Her feet and legs began swelling and breathing became even more difficult than usual. Her doctor worried she might be developing congestive heart failure, but told her to stay home rather than come in for tests and risk infection. It’s a common story. A recent survey by the disability advocacy group #NoBodyIsDisposable found that many disabled people have delayed medical care for over a year due to concerns about COVID-19.

Read more at sciencefriday.com.

 

Sep 10, 2021
Oyster Breeding, Climate Communication, Hellbender Vs Mantis Shrimp. Sept 10, 2021, Part 2
47:22

To Breed An Oyster

In the ocean, climate change involves more than just warming temperatures. Water levels are shifting, and ocean chemistry is changing.  Changes to ocean salinity caused by shifting amounts of freshwater could have big effects on the health of oysters, who need a certain range of saltiness in the water to be happy.  

As part of her doctoral work at Louisiana State University, researcher Joanna Griffiths bred hundreds of families of oysters, looking for clues to what makes an oyster more able to endure salinity changes. She found that there is a genetic component to an oyster’s salinity resilience. 

Griffiths joins Scifri’s Charles Bergquist to talk about the work, and the challenges of conducting a laboratory oyster breeding program—in which it’s difficult convince an oyster that it’s time for romance, and often even hard to discern the sex of the oysters involved.

 


 

Talking Through The Tangled Terms Of Climate Change

When scientists talk about climate change, there are certain words and phrases that get brought up often. Terms like “mitigation,” “carbon neutral” and “tipping point” are used frequently to explain how the climate crisis is unfolding. They’re often found in reports meant to educate the public on climate change, such as the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

It turns out a lot of words and phrases that scientists use to talk about climate change are not understood by the general public. That’s according to a recent study from the University of Southern California and the United Nations Foundation. This begs the question: if the public scientists are trying to reach don’t understand what’s being discussed, what’s the point?

Joining Ira to talk about better communicating climate change is Wändi Bruine de Bruin, lead author of the study and provost professor of public policy, psychology and behavioral science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California. Also joining Ira is Anthony Leiserowitz, founder and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication in New Haven, Connecticut.

 


  

An Aquatic Charismatic Creature Showdown: Mantis Shrimp vs. Hellbender

It’s time to kick off SciFri’s Charismatic Creature Carnival! Welcome to our celebration of creatures that are overlooked or unfairly maligned by the general public, which, if you look a little closer, have an undeniable charm. Six audience-suggested creatures were chosen, but only one will be crowned the very first carnival inductee into the Charismatic Creature Corner Hall of Fame.

The first friendly head-to-head battle in this fall’s Charismatic Creature Carnival is between the mantis shrimp and the hellbender, a giant aquatic salamander. Defending the mantis shrimp is Jason Dinh, PhD candidate in biology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. And representing the hellbender is Lauren Diaz, PhD student in fisheries science at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. Find a list of upcoming carnival celebrations below! 

Sep 10, 2021
COVID Fact Check, Ocean Circulation and Climate, Bread Culture. Sept 3, 2021, Part 2
47:30

Fact Check My Feed: Why Are People Taking Discredited Horse Medicine For COVID-19?

If you’ve been online at all in the past few weeks, you’ve probably seen discussion about the drug ivermectin. It was originally developed as an antiparasitic treatment for livestock, and in 2015, the Nobel Prize in Medicine went to scientists who found that it helped control parasitic diseases in humans as well. But recently, non-medical groups have been incorrectly promoting the drug as a treatment for COVID-19—even though the coronavirus is a virus, not a parasite.

Virologist Angela Rasmussen of the University of Saskatchewan joins Ira to look at the data behind sometimes hyperbolic COVID-19 claims, from the latest on booster shots to the emergence of a new coronavirus variant in South Africa.

 


 

What Happens If Atlantic Ocean Currents Cease To Churn?

Early last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report. It was a grim document, concluding that global warming had already set in motion irreversible levels of sea level rise, along with other changes that are threatening lives and health around the globe.

The report focused in part on climate tipping points, or phenomena that, if they occur, could lead to a long term re-setting of our global climate and cascades of dangerous changes. Included among tipping points like the loss of the Amazon rainforest and melting of the permafrost, was the potential shutdown of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation—the AMOC, for short.

That circulation, a set of currents that includes the Gulf Stream, ferries cold water from the poles toward the equator, and distributes heat from the equator to northern latitudes. And it’s powered by two things that are both changing as the climate warms: the temperature of ocean water, and the varying concentrations of salt in that water. 

Climate models that use data from thousands of years ago can help us predict what might happen if the AMOC shuts down. Because the currents are a huge source of heat redistribution globally, a shutdown could have a complex array of consequences, from rainfall disruptions in the southern hemisphere, to even greater sea level rise on North America’s east coast. And if it shuts down completely, it may not come back on again in any of our lifetimes.

Unfortunately, researchers have been finding evidence that the circulation is, in fact weakening, including a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change in early August. Ira talks to Levke Caesar, a researcher at Maynooth University’s ICARUS Climate Research Center. While not affiliated with the latest research, her work has helped map the ongoing pattern of weakening in the AMOC

 


  

A Sourdough Saga, From Starter To Slice

What makes sourdough taste sour? Was the first bread invented, or discovered? How did scientists eventually figure out that yeast and bacteria were the true master bakers? Will commercial bread ever be as good as that hand-baked loaf?

Ira releases his inner breadmaking nerd in this conversation with Eric Pallant, author of the forthcoming book Sourdough Culture: A History of Breadmaking From Ancient to Modern Bakers.

 

Sep 03, 2021
Schools And The Delta Variant, Doubts For High-Tech Air Purifiers. Sept 3, 2021, Part 1
47:02

Nation Grapples With Several Climate Disasters At Once

Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc on the eastern U.S. this week. It all started in Louisiana, leaving daunting damage and a long road to recovery for residents.

Even though Ida was downgraded to a tropical storm after leaving the state, it left a trail of destruction through the eastern U.S. and mid-Atlantic, flooding cities and damaging homes. In the New York area, at least a dozen people died after the region was pummeled by more than half a foot of rain in just a few hours.

This happened all while the western U.S. continues to battle wildfires, from Oregon to Colorado. In California, the extreme wildfire season led the state to close its National Forests through Labor Day weekend, a time where many people get outside and enjoy nature.

If it feels like these apocalyptic-level events are happening more and more frequently, you’re correct. Extreme weather is inextricably tied to climate change, and the science backs that up.

Joining Ira to talk about these climate stories and more is Maggie Koerth, science reporter for FiveThirtyEight based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Florida Schools With Mask Mandates Lose Funding

The state Department of Education said Tuesday it was investigating the school districts of Hillsborough, Sarasota and Orange counties over mask mandates that do not allow for a parental exemption. In a letter to district officials, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran wrote the districts were in violation of a state Department of Health emergency rule triggered by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order intended to block districts from enacting school mask mandates.

On Friday, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled the executive order was unconstitutional and cannot be enforced. However, DeSantis said an appeal is planned and his office has said it will continue to act in defense of parents’ rights until a signed judge’s order was issued.

Corcoran’s letters were sent Friday, and the three districts were given until 5 p.m. Wednesday to respond. If they remain noncompliant, they could face financial penalties. All three counties have mandates that allow exemptions only for medical reasons with a medical professional’s note.

Read more at sciencefriday.com.

Back to School During The Delta Variant

Back-to-school is usually an exciting time, with some nerves mixed in. But this year is a little different. All across the country, arguments about mask mandates are exploding in school board meetings and courtrooms. In places with no mask mandates, parents are weighing difficult decisions over how much risk is too much.

But masks are just part of the equation for school safety. Air ventilation and distance are both important parts of the COVID-19 transmission equation, and many parents have questions about how their schools are preparing.

With pediatric COVID-19 cases rising, and Delta’s high transmission rates, many are wondering how we’re going to keep our kids safe in schools. Joining Ira to mull over this question is Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas, Texas.

Many Schools Are Buying High-Tech Air Purifiers. Do They Actually Work?

As students head back to school, parents are getting a lot of mail about what schools are doing to better protect kids in the classroom—from mask policies to spacing to lunch plans. One item on many administrators’ lists of protective measures is improving classrooms’ ventilation.

Many studies have shown that better ventilation and air circulation can greatly reduce COVID-19 transmission. But rather than stocking up on HEPA filters, some districts are turning to high-tech air purification schemes, including untested electronic approaches and airborne chemicals.

Christina Jewett, a senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News, has written extensively about school air filtration and purification. She joins Ira to explain why some air quality experts are less than convinced by the marketing claims made by many electronic air purifier companies.

Sep 03, 2021
Medieval Bones, Bird Ancestors And Dinosaurs. August 27, 2021, Part 2
46:55

A Skeletal Record Of Medieval England Society

Whether you like it or not, a record of your life is constantly being chronicled. No, not through the internet or on social media—through your bones.

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

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

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

 


  

Birds Are The Last Dinosaurs. Why Did They Survive?

Sixty-six million years ago, thanks to the Chicxulub meteor—and possibly additional stressors like volcanic eruptions—85% of the species on Earth went extinct, and the Cretaceous period drew to a close. The loss of species included most dinosaurs, but not all. Today’s birds are the last of the dinosaurs, descendents of ancestors that didn’t just survive this mass extinction, but evolutionarily exploded into thousands of species distributed around the world. 

Paleontologists are still searching for why birds didn’t die, and what traits their ancestors possessed that allowed them to inherit the planet, along with mammals and other survivors.

Writing in the journal Science Advances last month, a team of researchers looked at a newly discovered fossil skull from a cousin of modern birds, a bird called Ichthyornis, which went extinct with the rest of the non-avian dinosaurs. Their logic was that if the brain of Ichthyornis was different from modern birds, that difference might explain why Ichthyornis died with the dinosaurs, while the ancestors of modern birds survived.

Paleontologists Julia Clarke and Chris Torres, co-authors on the new research, join producer Christie Taylor for a conversation about the clues, the unknowns, and what fossils still can’t reveal. Plus, why studying the end-Cretaceous mass extinction could provide data for understanding what animals will survive modern global warming.

Aug 27, 2021
Pfizer Vaccine Approval, Making Solar Power For Everyone. August 27, 2021, Part 1
47:27

Pfizer’s Vaccine Is Now Fully Approved. What’s Next For The Pandemic?

This week, the COVID-19 vaccine marketed by Pfizer finally received full FDA approval, moving out of the realm of “emergency use” to the status of a regular drug.

In the wake of that change, many organizations—from the Pentagon to Ohio State University to the city of Chicago—are moving to require vaccinations against the coronavirus. It remains to be seen just how much the status change will move the needle on vaccination numbers—and more importantly, new cases and hospitalizations—in the U.S.

Sarah Zhang, staff writer at The Atlantic, joins Ira to talk about what might be next for the pandemic, discussing the virus becoming endemic and how the Delta variant is changing people’s risk calculations. They also explore how different countries, from the U.K. to Vietnam to New Zealand, are coping. Plus, ways that the virus continues to upend business as normal—from SpaceX launches to water treatment.


 

How To Make Solar Power Work For Everyone

If you follow Ira on social media, you may have noticed a trend in his posts over the last few months: They’ve become very joyful about the cost of his energy bill. Why? This year, he installed solar panels on his roof—and he’s not alone. The cost of solar panels has dropped nearly 70 percent since 2014, so more and more individuals and companies are jumping in. Even during COVID-19, solar installations in the U.S. reached a record high in 2020.

For Ira and many others, solar panels turn homes into their own power generators. During some times of the day, the panels produce enough excess power that it’s fed back to the grid.

As more and more people jump into solar power, big questions remain about how an energy grid designed for fossil fuels will be impacted. If everyone’s home is a utility, how do you best distribute power to a region? Accessibility is also a big concern. If there’s a need to retool how the country thinks about energy creation and use, how do we make sure it’s accessible to everyone?

Joining Ira to talk through these big-picture solar energy quandaries are Joseph Berry, senior research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, and Sam Evans-Brown, executive director of Clean Energy New Hampshire based in Concord, New Hampshire.

Aug 27, 2021
Third Thumb, Nostalgia, Orcas. Aug 20, 2021, Part 2
47:18

You, Too, Can Be All Thumbs. Or At Least Three.

Take a look at your hand and fingers—and imagine that instead of five digits, you had an additional thumb, approximately opposite your natural thumb. Researchers at University College London built what they call the “Third Thumb”—a flexible, 3D-printed prosthetic device, controlled by pressure on sensors under the wearer’s big toes.

The researchers studied how people wearing the thumb adapted their mental models of the world to incorporate their new, augmented body part, which they were able to use to perform tasks that usually take two hands, from picking up multiple wine glasses to plugging a USB cable into an adapter held in the air. 

The scientists were interested in learning how the brain adapts to such a change, and whether there’s any mental cost associated with controlling a body part that may not always be there. 

SciFri’s Charles Bergquist talks with Dani Clode, the designer of the thumb, and Paulina Kieliba, an engineer working on the project, about what they’ve learned from their interactions with extra body parts.

 


  

The Healing Power Of Nostalgia

One of the trends we saw over the course of the pandemic was returning to memories from one’s childhood. The 1977 Fleetwood Mac song Dreams reappeared on music charts worldwide, entertainment industry surveys found that over half of TV consumers rewatched their old favorite shows, and even sales of old Pokémon cards reached record highs.

Believe it or not, there’s a scientific basis to us getting nostalgic during lockdown. Nostalgia may be an emotionally protective force for people in times of crisis. In hindsight, this finding is no stretch of the imagination—just hearing the way people talk about nostalgic memories indicates a deep emotional effect.

Though nostalgia hits us in the gut, evolutionarily, what do humans stand to benefit from indulging in our forever-lost pasts? And perhaps the biggest question of all—is such reminiscing good for us? Should we be actively trying to reflect, or thinking ahead? (Or just living in the moment?)

Joining us to talk about the science of nostalgia, and the important role it has to play in our daily lives, are Clay Routledge, a professor in the Department of Management and Marketing at North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota and Andrew Abeyta, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University-Camden, in Camden, New Jersey.

 


 

The Future Of Orcas Threatened In Changing Waters

When Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes heard of a mother killer whale in the Salish Sea whose baby died shortly after it was born, she was captivated.

The grieving mother carried her baby for 1,000 miles, and Mapes chronicled her story for millions of readers who followed along. She said the story resonated because it “wasn’t an animal story, but a story about a mother who happened to be a whale.”

Now, she’s chronicled the plight of the Southern Resident orcas in a new book, Orca: Shared Waters, Shared Home. 

Orcas are known as fast and ferocious predators, sometimes called the “Tyrannosaurus Rex of the sea.” They’ve been swimming the oceans for millions of years. But it’s not these facts that drew Mapes to chronicle their story. It’s that these animals live in ancient societies, with long lineages and strong cultural ties. Their communities are well-known to the native people of the Pacific Northwest, where these orcas swim in the inland waters known as the Salish Sea. 

But in recent years, human pressures have forced orcas away from their long-time fishing habitat. They face multiple threats, including climate change, boat traffic, development, noise, and the dwindling numbers of Chinook salmon they rely on for food. Guest host John Dankosky talks with Mapes about her new book, and ongoing efforts to help save these majestic mammals. 

Aug 20, 2021
Delta Variant in Kids, Myers-Briggs Personality Test, Suicide in Communities of Color. Aug 20, 2021, Part 1
46:41

Why The Delta Variant Will Make More Kids Sick

As cases of the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 continue to spike around the U.S., children are one of the hardest-hit groups. As children under 12 remain ineligible for vaccination, they and other unvaccinated groups are facing the highest rates of infection and hospitalization of the entire pandemic

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control announced Wednesday that adults in the general population would be eligible for a third booster shot of their mRNA vaccine beginning eight months after their first dose. While the CDC cited concern about rising breakthrough cases in vaccinated adults, some epidemiologists have objected that the data does not support more vaccines for most already-vaccinated adults.

MIT Technology Review’s Amy Nordrum walks through these stories, plus a new human trial for mRNA vaccines against HIV, how historic drought in the West will mean the first-ever limits on farmers’ use of water next year, a promising experiment in fusion energy generation, and why the core of Saturn may be more liquid than solid.

 


  

Pandemic Unveils Growing Suicide Crisis For Communities Of Color

Rafiah Maxie has been a licensed clinical social worker in the Chicago area for a decade. Throughout that time, she’d viewed suicide as a problem most prevalent among middle-aged white men.

Until May 27, 2020.

That day, Maxie’s 19-year-old son, Jamal Clay—who loved playing the trumpet and participating in theater, who would help her unload groceries from the car and raise funds for the March of the Dimes—killed himself in their garage.

“Now I cannot blink without seeing my son hanging,” said Maxie, who is Black.

Clay’s death, along with the suicides of more than 100 other Black residents in Illinois last year, has led locals to call for new prevention efforts focused on Black communities. In 2020, during the pandemic’s first year, suicides among white residents decreased compared with previous years, while they increased among Black residents, according to state data.

But this is not a local problem. Nor is it limited to the pandemic.

Interviews with a dozen suicide researchers, data collected from states across the country and a review of decades of research revealed that suicide is a growing crisis for communities of color—one that plagued them well before the pandemic and has only been exacerbated since.

Overall suicide rates in the U.S. decreased in 2019 and 2020. National and local studies attribute the trend to a drop among white Americans, who make up the majority of suicide deaths. Meanwhile, rates for Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans—though lower than their white peers—continued to climb in many states. (Suicide rates have been consistently high for Native Americans.)

“COVID created more transparency regarding what we already knew was happening,” said Sonyia Richardson, a licensed clinical social worker who focuses on serving people of color and an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, where she researches suicide. When you put the suicide rates of all communities in one bucket, “that bucket says it’s getting better and what we’re doing is working,” she said. “But that’s not the case for communities of color.”

Read the full story, produced in collaboration with Kaiser Health News.

 


 

The Minds Behind The Myers-Briggs Personality Test

If you’re one of the 2 million people who take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator every year, perhaps you thought Myers and Briggs are the two psychologists who designed the test. In reality, they were a mother-daughter team who were outsiders to the research world: Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers. 

They may have been outsiders, but Katharine and Isabel did their homework, and approached the test the way a trained psychologist likely would have. And the product they created—the Myers Briggs Type Indicator—would eventually become the world’s most popular personality test. But how did it all begin?

Science Diction is releasing a special three-part series on the rise of the Myers-Briggs. In the first episode: A look at the unlikely origins of the test, going all the way back to the late 1800s when Katharine Briggs turned her living room into a “cosmic laboratory of baby training” and set out to raise the perfect child.

Science Diction host Johanna Mayer and reporter Chris Egusa join John Dankosky to tell that story.

Aug 20, 2021
Elephantquakes and Margaret Atwood. August 13, 2021, Part 2
45:51

A Stomp, A Roar, An Elephantquake?

An adult African elephant, the largest land animal on Earth, can weigh as much as two tons. Their activities—walking, playing, even bellowing—might shake the ground beneath them. But research in the journal Current Biology finds that the signals from an elephant’s walk are capable of traveling as far as three kilometers, while a roaring bull, or male elephant, might be detectable a full six kilometers away with just seismological monitoring tools.

Biologist Beth Mortimer and seismologist Tarje Nissen-Meyer, both at the University of Oxford and co-authors of the new research, describe the signals they captured in the ground and explain how a network of seismological sensors might help us study elephants from a distance, and even protect endangered elephants from poaching

 


 

Margaret Atwood On The Science Behind ‘Oryx And Crake’

Author Margaret Atwood’s book, Oryx and Crake is set in a post-pandemic world and a genetically engineered dystopian future. In this archival interview, recorded in April 2004, Atwood says science is “a tool for expressing and perfecting human desires—and sometimes it’s a tool for counteracting human fears.” She talks about how she pulls inspiration for her ‘speculative fiction’ from news headlines, and discusses how her entomologist father influenced her writing. 

Aug 13, 2021
Electric Fish Communication, Science Crimes, Lighting Cave Art. August 13, 2021, Part 1
46:24

This Fish Is The Master Of The Poignant Pause

When listening to a well-practiced speaker, like during a lecture, a political event or during a favorite public radio show, you may notice they use pauses for dramatic effect.  This type of nuance in communication may seem distinctly human, but we’re not the only species that takes advantage of pauses in speech to make a point.

Enter the electric fish: It discharges electric pulses nearly constantly, which tells other fish basic identifying information. But when they want to alert other fish to something of high importance, they pause.

These fish and their unique mode of communication has inspired researcher Bruce Carlson to study them for decades. This latest breakthrough in communication pauses sheds more light on the world of non-human communication, he tells SciFri producer Kathleen Davis.


 

Science Crimes: From Grave Robbers To An Icepick Surgeon

Imagine a novel full of true crime thrillers, with just one twist: every crime in it was committed in the name of science. This is the premise of the new book The Icepick Surgeon, which covers the biggest scientific crimes in history, starting all the way back in Ancient Egypt.

From Cleopatra to Thomas Edison, scientists have been responsible for some dastardly crimes throughout history. We’re talking grave robbing, torture, murder, espionage, and more.

All of these crimes were committed in the name of research. So how do scientists lose sight of their humanity as they conduct their experiments? And what science crimes may be in our future? Author Sam Kean joins Ira to talk about the book.


 

 

Lighting Design For Your Paleolithic Cave

In the modern world, you have dozens of options for illuminating your home. There’s floor lamps, table lamps, chandeliers, not to mention an overwhelming number of choices in light-bulbs. But in paleolithic times, once the sun went down, there were about three options for cave lighting—a fireplace, torches, and stone lamps that burned animal grease.

In an article published in the academic journal PLOS One, a group of researchers described exploring a cave using reproductions of each type of flame. The goal was to collect data on the advantages, disadvantages, and optical properties of each type of light—both to better understand how cave artists may have worked, and to develop a 3D computer model that would let modern viewers experience cave paintings in a manner closer to that intended by ancient artists.

Iñaki Intxaurbe, a student in the department of geology at the University of the Basque Country in Spain, talks about the research with SciFri’s Charles Bergquist, explaining what researchers are learning about Paleolithic cave paintings.

 

Aug 13, 2021
Bad Data, CRISPR Therapies, Wildfire Impact, Oilbirds. August 6, 2021, Part 2
47:21

How Imperfect Data Leads Us Astray

Datasets are increasingly shaping important decisions, from where companies target their advertising, to how governments allocate resources. But what happens when the data they rely on is wrong or incomplete?

Ira talks to technologist Kasia Chmielinski, as they test drive an algorithm that predicts a person’s race or ethnicity based on just a few details, like their name and zip code, the Bayseian Improved Surname Geocoding algorithm (BISG). You can check out one of the models they used here. The BISG is frequently used by government agencies and corporations alike to fill in missing race and ethnicity data—except it often guesses wrong, with potentially far-reaching effects.

 


 

CRISPR Stops Rare Genetic Disease In New Human Trial

When the gene-editing technique CRISPR first came on the scene in 2012, researchers were excited by the potential the technology offered for editing out defects in genetic code, and curing genetic diseases. The researchers behind the technique, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, won a 2020 Nobel Prize

In one of the first clinical applications of the technique, last month researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that CRISPR had stopped a genetic disease called amyloidosis, which occurs when an abnormal protein accumulates in your organs. They’re not the only group moving toward using CRISPR on humans; recently, the FDA approved a human clinical trial that will use the technique to edit genes responsible for sickle cell disease. 

Fyodor Urnov, a professor in the department of molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley and the director of the Innovative Genomics Institute, joins Ira to discuss the clinical trials, as well as what other therapeutic targets for CRISPR-based gene editing lie on the horizon.

 


 

Latinos In The West Are Twice As Likely To Be Affected By Wildfires 

A housing crisis, mixed with the location of farmwork and frontline jobs that attract Latino residents, particularly migrant workers, have put the community at greater risk of being impacted by wildfires, California activists and experts say.

According to reporting by Politico, which analyzed data from risQ, “The Latino population makes up about 18 percent of the U.S. but represents 37 percent of the people who live in the areas that risQ identified as facing the most extreme wildfire risks.”

José Trinidad Castañeda, a climate activist in Orange County who serves as the Beautification and Environmental Commissioner for the city of Buena Park, says that in order to address the wildfire issue, California must address its housing crisis. 

“Climate does not discriminate, but our housing crisis has,” said Trinidad Castañeda. Read the full story and listen to a conversation with Abbie Veitch, editor in chief at Currently

 


 

Consider The Nocturnal, Whiskered Oilbird

At first glance, the oilbird doesn’t seem so strange. It’s a chestnut-colored, hawk-like bird that lives in South America. But with a closer look, its strange qualities start to stack up.

Oilbirds are nocturnal creatures that roost in caves in huge colonies. Sure, some other birds, like nightjays, do the same. But oilbirds also have a triple threat for navigating the darkness: They’re one of the few birds that use echolocation, they have incredible eyesight and sense of smell, and they have whiskers on their faces. Unlike bats, their ecolocating peers, oilbirds exclusively live off a fruit diet, confounding researchers looking into why they evolved so many specialized traits. 

They also have an incredible screech—when deployed in large numbers, it’s easy to understand why local populations have given them a name that translates to “little devils."

“It’s wrong in every way, as far as birds go,” says researcher Mike Rutherford, curator of zoology and anatomy at the Hunterian museum at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Rutherford studied oilbirds in Trinidadian caves to learn more about their population sizes. “A lot of people say every species is unique, but some are more than others, and the oilbird is one of those.”

Rutherford joins Ira and SciFri producer Kathleen Davis to make the argument that the oilbird deserves to be labeled a charismatic creature, and join the ranks of the Charismatic Creature Corner.

 

Aug 06, 2021
Infrastructure Package, Covid News, Line3 Pipeline. August 6, 2021, Part 1
46:58

President Biden’s Infrastructure Bill Sees The End Of The Road

President Biden’s huge infrastructure bill is finally seeing the end of the road. The nearly 2,000 page bill covers infrastructure improvements—everything from roads to broadband. The package also includes funding for projects that would build up the country’s climate change resilience. Some climate change experts say the budget doesn’t go far enough and other analysis says the bill would not pay for itself. Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox, walks us through the bill, new fuel economy rules for electric vehicles, a Tesla lithium-ion battery fire, and more science news from the week.    

 


  

Wait, Am I Going To Need A Booster Shot?

Just this week, health officials announced that New York City will require proof of COVID-19 vaccination for some indoor activities, like dining and exercise. It’s the first city to institute this type of policy, and it’s all in an effort to get more people vaccinated, as the Delta coronavirus variant has forestalled efforts to curb the pandemic.

Spikes in cases are happening all around the country, just as kids are getting ready to go back to the classroom. This is renewing debates about masks, and prompting lots of questions: Are we going to need booster shots? How much should we worry about breakthrough infections? And is full FDA approval of vaccines going to make a difference for those hesitant to get vaccinated?

Joining Ira to break down the latest pandemic quandaries is Céline Gounder, epidemiologist and professor at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine in New York City.

 


 

Local Communities Spar Over Minnesota Oil Pipeline

After months of lawsuits, protests, and arrests in northern Minnesota, a controversial oil pipeline is still under construction. Candian energy company Enbridge, Inc., says the Line 3 replacement pipeline, necessary to improve the safety of an aging pipeline. 

In 1991, Line 3 ruptured, causing the largest inland oil spill in the United States. The new pipeline will be both higher capacity, and follow a different route past lakes, rivers, and other state waters. But in the midst of a severe state-wide drought, the pipeline’s construction process requires the company to temporarily pump tens of millions of gallons of groundwater. Meanwhile, drilling fluids have been spilled at least once into a nearby river.

Science Friday news director John Dankosky talks to two reporters, Minnesota Public Radio’s Kirsti Marohn and Indian Country Today’s Mary Annette Pember, about the water impacts of the pipeline construction, and why communities along the route remain divided about its value.

Visit here to read a statement provided by Enbridge Energy.

 

Aug 06, 2021
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